04 June 2008

Rushing to Nottingham's Defence

By Alana Lentin

Two academics from the University Nottingham have condemned the campaign in support of Hicham Yezza, an employee of Nottingham University charged over terrorism offences and released only to be re-arrested over spurious immigration offences. The two, Dr Sean Matthews and Dr Macdonald Daly, while expressing concern for the situation currently facing Mr Yezza who is being indefinitely held in immigration detention, condemn what they call the "irresponsible, opportunistic and unethical conduct of many colleagues involved in the campaign to support Mr Yezza."

The authors of the statement start by making two substantive points. Firstly, that "we are confident that the University's declarations about upholding academic freedom have been reflected in its response to the arrests." Secondly, they claim that "we do not believe that the arrests constitute a challenge or threat to academic freedom."

The argument therefore turns around whether the arrest of Hicham Yezza and Rizwaan Sabir, originally for downloading and printing an Al Qaeda training manual, was in contravention of academic freedom. Matthews and Daly contend that academic freedom has not been violated and that the University, in immediately reporting the matter to the police, was merely fulfilling its legal duty.

They also place the blame at Yezza and Sabir's door by claiming that they acted irresponsibly by colluding to print out the document (Mr. Sabir, a student asked his friend, Yezza, a staff member to print the document out for him for free). Had they not done so, the matter would never have come to the notice of the authorities. In making this claim, the authors are noting that banal occurrences of this nature happen on a regular basis. What they fail to do is make the connection between Sabir and Yezza's actions and the heavy-handedness of the response. As was noted in the letter signed by staff and students at Sussex and Brighton Universities, it is clear that if the two "culprits" were not of Middle-Eastern/North African origin, their actions would have gone unnoticed, given that the document they printed out is widely available on various official websites, including that of the US government. Simply, a two-tiered rule is being applied: one for those safe in the knowledge that their white privilege will shield them from the law, even if - as happens on a regular basis - they contravene "the rules" by getting a friend to do their printing for them; another for those on the "most wanted" list that connects them by skin colour, religion and/or national origin to those purported to be "out to get us".

What is even more worrying about this case is the connection to immigration. Hicham Yezza is now being held in detention pending potential deportation from the UK for violation of his immigration status. This appears spurious given that he was working for the University, which must have been aware of his legal status, and about to apply for British citizenship based on his 13 years of residence in the UK. Despite this, the authors of the statement claim:

Had Mr Yezza been able to substantiate his claim to the University that he had the appropriate legal employment status, as all employees are required to do when they take up a post, or even had he been able later when the University asked him, as it is legally required to do, to provide documentation to substantiate such a claim, he would not have been arrested for immigration irregularities. Again, the responsibility for his arrest appears to relate to his own failure to provide appropriate documentation.
By putting the case in such procedural terms, Matthews and Daly are missing two points: Firstly, procedurally, no University in the UK employs anyone before their immigration status has been officially verified. Therefore, the immigration offences he is deemed to have committed appear mainly to be bogus. Secondly and more importantly, the authors fail to admit that current policy on "terrorism" works also to demonise "immigrants" as potential terrorists. Thus, by very virtue of one's status as a non-citizen from outside the EU, the US, Australia, etc. one is potentially guilty of plotting against the British state. Countless people, many long-term residents of the UK, have fallen victim of this politics that condemns people, especially those of "Arab" or "Muslim" origin, to de facto suspicion. As is documented in the film Taking Liberties, this has led to individuals being condemned to indefinite house arrest or imprisonment in criminal and/or immigration detention centres despite no hard evidence being brought against them relating to their purported links to terrorism.

This leads back to the issue of academic freedom. Part of what the current attack on universities from government and big business is doing is to silence individual academics who have chosen this career precisely because traditionally it enabled us to speak openly and freely about issues that concern us. It is ironic that, on the one hand, the talk is of liberalisation and flexibility, and on the other, we are being asked to police our students, suspected of involvement with "radical islamists". In the logic of the market, academics are styling their research funding applications to suit what they think will be funded rather than what they wish to research; what they believe will benefit society.

Ironicially, one of the biggest research areas identified by the research councils in tandem with government policy, is that of "security studies". This is exactly what Rizwaan Sabir was engaged in, downloading a document that is considered by security specialists crucial to the understanding of why "they hate us" and how terror networks such as Al Qaeda function. The question left begging, thefore, is just what kind of research is admissible and who should be allowed to carry it out? In absence of a clear response, we are all left asking the question, who will be next to be picked off, and how soon before it is not someone who can be attacked through the vehicle of immigration offences as was the case in Germany last year. And what, in the present climate, will no longer be deemed admissible research? If these are not questions of academic freedom, surely little else is...


Andrew Chitty said...

What looks to be the full statement by Matthews and Daly is in the comment thread of the THE story reporting the arrests.

One of the questions on the agenda for the round table discussion at Nottingham on 5 June (Terror Arrests At Nottingham University: What Next?) was "What is the meaning of academic and intellectual freedom?" In the light of Matthews and Daly's assertion that "we do not believe that the arrests [of Rizwaan Sabir and Hicham Yezza] constitute a challenge or threat to academic freedom", this question is surely a crucial one. It seems that we lack a shared understanding of what "academic freedom", and for that matter "intellectual freedom", is.

I would suggest that "academic freedom" means at a minimum a condition in which academic researchers are not made fearful by state actions of investigating any subject at all that they consider of intellectual value. The arrest and treatment of Rizwaan Sabir will obviously have made every academic researcher in the country (and in particular every one with an Arab or Muslim background) justifiably more fearful of investigating organisations such as Al-Qaeda than they were before, in case through some mishap they suddenly find themselves subjected to the same harrowing experience at the hands of the police as Mr. Sabir. Therefore the arrests have resulted in a de facto restriction of academic freedom. The higher education minister Bill Rammell tacitly admitted as much on 4 June when he said of the arrests: "I want as much academic freedom and debate as possible, but there are going to be circumstances in which there are legitimate concerns about individuals and universities are going to report those to the police" [my emphasis - AC].

As for intellectual freedom, it is surely essentially the same thing as academic freedom, except that it applies to everyone whether or not they are academic researchers. The arrest and treatment of Hicham Yezza has effectively restricted intellectual freedom in just the same way as that of Rizwaan Sabir has restricted academic freedom.

NB the following excellent article on the case has been pointed out to me: The war on terror comes to campus [pdf] by Kemo Sabe, 4 June 2008.

Macdonald said...

Academic Freedom is a statutory protection granted to academic staff by The Higher Education Act 2004. It does not extend to students or administrative staff. All claims that academic freedom were violated in this context are misconceived because they attribute academic freedom to two people who do not have it. This is a simple factual matter that the contributors to this thread, had they really cared to understand what Academic Freedom is, would have verified.

Macdonald Daly