Priyamvada Gopal: Extremely Cambridge – Prevent-ing Dissent at the University

Palestine acrostic
Photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler (ActiveStills)

A few days ago I tweeted an image that had already been doing the rounds on social media. It was taken from Cambridge University’s online Prevent Training course:

The University’s official twitter account swiftly issued a denial noting that that the ‘next slide’ ‘made clear’ that this was not the university’s view. Interestingly, it also took pains to note that the material was ‘externally-provided’:

Shortly thereafter I also received a command from a senior administrator which instructed me to “immediately to make clear in your Twitter feed that the slide you have sent is a) is taken out of context, b) is not representative of the views of the University.”

My prefatory comments to the image were, undoubtedly, less precise than they might have been, if more ‘clear’ than the extraordinarily fudged ‘answers’ provided by the ‘next slide.’ I had suggested that the answer to all five questions was ‘Yes, these are all extremist views’. The vaunted ‘next slide,’ however, offers no such clarity at any level; indeed, it is a masterpiece of deliberate obfuscation: these positions may all be legitimate or not legitimate, we couldn’t say; all presented a risk of people being drawn into terrorism (including the UK government’s official position!). At issue are also ‘statements’ which may result in ‘intimidation’, ‘harassment’, or ‘threats of violence’ whether or not those statements actually call for intimidation, harassment or violence. The scope for institutional interpretation of what constitutes ‘extremism’ or is ‘legitimate’ is generous.

Mea culpa then. Allow me to rephrase my first tweet for precision making lavish use of the Twitter’s new character allowance:

Please have a look at what Cambridge considers may or may not be ‘legitimate’ in a deliberately misleading list which neatly sandwiches two highly specific positions on a long-running historical conflict between at least two highly discreditable and actually extremist ideological positions. Please note that the next slide makes clear that the University considers homophobia and support for Palestinian rights to be on par as possibly extremist, possibly legitimate but also possibly not.

I won’t comment on the neat shift in the two slides from a question about ‘extremism’ to an answer using the rhetoric of ‘legitimacy’: it’s neatly done. We know it’s perfectly possible to hold extremist positions ‘legitimately’, so in fact the training video does nothing to answer its own question, still less making the answer ‘clear’ as it has protested. The job, however, is done: planting in the trainee’s mind the idea that criticism of the Israeli state’s actions on the West bank and support for the rights of Palestinian people is not very far from xenophobia or homophobia. The UK government, no doubt, will be startled to learn that its official position—along with that of the United Nations—on the clear illegality of West bank settlements may or may not be legitimate. The list carries on, setting alongside such opposition to immigration and to marriage equality, ‘Criticism of wars in the Middle East’, ‘Belief in the Rise of Terrorism as a Result of Foreign Policy’ and, astonishingly enough, ‘Opposition to Prevent’ itself. This means, yes, that any of us who hold the last view or who, like many students and academics, have questioned military interventions in Iraq or Yemen are potentially ‘at risk’ individuals whose view ‘may or may not’ be ‘legitimate.’

At Cambridge’s Faculty of English, we take particular care to teach our students the skills of ‘Practical Criticism’ or ‘Close Reading’; indeed, many would regard this as Cambridge English’s core principle. It’s not rocket science but it presumes that even the most untrained undergraduate understands that all texts functions in more subtle ways than immediately meets the eye. This means that when I present my first years with a passage where a writer offers a series of assertions, they don’t simply and mechanically gloss each assertion in turn in isolation from the others. ‘Listing’ is a rather basic literary technique where each item in the list casts light on the other in relation to itself; the list itself is weighted with meaning such that each single sentence or noun only makes sense in relation to the other. Additionally, our students read contextually: they must ask why a particular set of assertions or ideas are set beside each other in a text they read, what historical factors shape a text such that a particular set of claims—why these and not others?—emerges as it does. In this light, the reader of even average capability can ask and answer the question of how and why the very specific question of West bank settlements is set next to a very general set of attitudes towards immigrants (why not ask about ‘belief in white superiority’) or ‘gay marriage’ (the correct term is ‘marriage equality’). They would also, I hope, ask what a ‘trick question’ is as a genre—what is it meant to do? Does it allow for ideas to be implanted while not taking responsibility for a clear answer? Does it allow the author to have it both ways, effecting guilt by association without making explicit claims?

Isn’t it also somewhat odd –indeed pointed—that when the world offers a very wide range of ‘extremisms’, indeed even just generic Islamist extremism, to choose from to put in what presents itself as a rather random list merely for the purposes of general illustration, to zero in so specifically on the Middle East to the point where 4 out of 10 choices refer to that region? Why not at least one multiple choice option that points to the extremist English hyper-nationalism and the organised far-right campaiging that was a serious contributing factor to Brexit? Or the ferocious Hindu nationalism that supports the regime of the the Indian Prime Minister (still a member of a fascist formation, the RSS) whom university officials routinely seek to meet and have, in the past, invited to visit Cambridge? Or the white racial supremacism that reared its head in the United States to bring Donald Trump to the presidency? Surely all these are obvious forms of extremism and have led to violence as well since that is the basis for determining what does or does not come under the purview of Prevent? In fact Cambridge’s Prevent Training takes great care to insist misleadingly and belying the extraordinary levels of organisation and networking that are characteristic of the British, European and American far-right that white supremacists are ‘lone wolf’ actors unlike ISIS and al-Quaeda who are more ‘organised.’

It is truly embarrassing stuff coming from a world-leading research university whose own academics and publishing arm know that this is absolutely untrue. What is worse is that all these ideologies are seen as somehow separate; in reality, each feeds on the other and each is reliant on justifying its own existence by pointing to the other.

On this point, the Prevent Training (which I undertook this weekend) is direct in singling out Islamist ideologies; for all that it includes passing references to the English Defence League (EDL) and anti-choice (euphemistically called ‘pro-life’) Christian activists, its eyes are trained in one direction:

“At present the most significant threat comes from a particular source.”

So there you have it. ‘A particular source’ — you must gloss the coy reference yourself—is the main problem, those token references to the EDL and homophobia were just that, token. Wait, are you saying Islam is the source or Muslims are more likely to be radicalized? Ah, let us answer this in a coy way too, we aren’t stupid, you know! Depending or not depending on what it is saying and doing, it may or may not be legitimate. We don’t want to be too specific though we do want you to understand that some things are more specifically the problem than others (that is, if you’re white and straight).

It’s worth noting, given the stern disclaimers that followed my tweet, that none of this is abstract. Two weeks ago, at an event organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Dr Ruba Salih, a respected academic from SOAS, a Palestinian refugee, was removed from the Chair on the spurious basis that she could not possibly undertake her duties in an independent manner given her record of support for Palestinian rights; she was replaced by a ‘neutral’ university administrator who was also, as people deemed ‘neutral’ tend to be, white and male. This is something no academic community can afford to treat lightly. It is profiling based on national-origin and political views, a slippery slope down which any one of us can be made to take a tumble.

On one thing the University is right. The obligation to offer Prevent Training is indeed externally driven. Moreover, the specific injunction to target and demonize activities around Palestine and Palestinian rights also comes from outside. Yet, there are ways of meeting a statutory duty that are less rather than more exclusionary and demonising of particular groups, ways that take seriously the many overlaps and connections between actually violent and destructive ideologies, e.g white supremacism, Zionism and Hindu chauvinism. Ways that understand that opposition to colonialism, occupation or militarism is not only legitimate but perceived by many people across the world as a moral duty.

At the end of the day, what is most disappointing is that rather than take the lead on offering nuanced and educated (we are a university, for heaven’s sake!) led by scholarly understanding and historical research, Cambridge has chose to simply fall into line with the worst elements of political gamesmanship and dog-whistling. In doing so, it is making nothing ‘clear’. It is going down a road which, contrary to its high-minded claims, is ‘interfering with academic freedom and freedom of expression’ and ignoring ‘responsibilities relating to equality and diversity and promoting good campus relations. It is participating in a magnificent dereliction of moral and scholarly duty that will ultimately rebound on and undermine this university’s community and standards. And that is a tragedy.

Priyamvada Gopal is a University Reader in Anglophone and Related Literatures at the University of Cambridge.

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