Nadya Ali: A Tale of Two Appointments – Toby Young and Sara Khan

Sara Khan

The news Sara Khan is to head up the government’s new Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE) was described by Baroness Sayeeda Warsi as ‘alarming’. Given the Tories’ recent track record on making brutishly ideological appointments to politically controversial public offices, I argue, creating feelings of alarm was rather the point. In fact, the twin appointments of Toby Young and Sara Khan should not be seen as discrete events but related by the government’s ideological commitment to crushing political dissent on key issues such as the marketization of higher education and the Prevent Strategy.

Like the creation of the Office for Students (OfS) – the ‘regulator of the English HE marketplace’ – and the (failed) attempt to appoint the divisive figure of Toby Young, we should regard Khan’s leadership of the CCE, as an equally ideological move. Part of the OfS’s role would have been to ‘protect free speech’ by fining universities which no-platform speakers on the basis of their political views [1]. Based on Young’s energetic use and defence of free speech as the right to make racist, sexist and eugenicist arguments, his appointment was seen as an example of ‘culture wars’ which are unfolding on university campuses. In popular political parlance, let’s be clear: Young was selected because of his views and not in spite of them.

This move was intended to send a clear signal from government to universities and academics about who controls the future of higher education in England. It was to demonstrate how low the concerns of staff at these institutions matters to government because Young was calculated to horrify. However, it was not just his repulsive views that had an ideological functions, so did his defence of free schools. While the so-called culture wars between the left and right often manifest around issues of free speech, these vicious and noisy public debates tend to detract from the market-based reforms of which they are a part. It is not an accident that the defence of free speech is the work of the OfS, an organisation which seeks to regulate markets in universities. Part of the work of fully commodifying higher education has been to gut universities of their potential for political resistance against these trends.

Similarly, the creation of the CCE and the appointment of Inspire’s Sara Khan is an ideological move akin to that of Young. While the OfS refused to have any dealings with the biggest student union in the country (the NUS), the CCE is headed by a figure who has been described as a ‘mouthpiece’ for the Home Office and as someone ‘who does not share the concerns of the community’. This is the consequence of the government’s decision to impose Prevent through the law and co-opted groups like Inspire, rather than engaging with Muslim groups critical of the policy. This approach was critiqued by Warsi in her book and she accused Khan of endorsing the marginalisation of Muslim groups, making her unfit to lead the CCE. In sum, Khan has been recruited precisely due to the reasons Labour MP Naz Shah has outlined: because she is a staunch defender of the Prevent strategy and has worked with the Home Office rather than representing the concerns of Muslim populations.

The Prevent strategy, which intervenes in the lives of Muslims before they become ‘radicalised’, has proved very controversial. Since 2015 ‘preventing radicalisation’ became a statutory obligation [PDF] for public sector institutions like schools and hospitals. The Prevent Strategy stands accused of criminalising Muslims, of ‘failing’ to prevent radicalisation and being a ‘significant source of grievance’ according to David Anderson QC, the former independent reviewer of terrorism laws. While high-profile cases involving children have dominated public debates around Prevent, there has been a less visible, but concerted effort, by Prevent practitioners, to shut down debate on these issues, especially on social media.

Cue Sara Khan’s Inspire, a ‘women’s rights organisation’ which has cornered the market in representing ‘the’ voice of Muslim women on debates in counter-radicalisation and Prevent. Unsurprisingly, Khan’s appointment was met by chagrin from the less pliant and Prevent critical groups, the Muslim Women’s Collective and the Muslim Women’s Network. In being positioned to speak on behalf of Muslim women in the way Khan has been, the space for Muslim women critical of Prevent has narrowed significantly. This means questioning Prevent and its supporters like Inspire, leaves critics open to accusations of sexism, racism, and extremism. In criticising Inspire, you are criticising the fight for gender-equality waged by Muslim women. My experience with Inspire on Twitter confirmed these fears.

In October 2017, I sent a series of Tweets in which I critiqued the role of Khan in a gender segregation case involving an Islamic faith school. I argued Inspire and Southall Black Sisters were involved in this case because of their secular politics which cast Muslim difference – whether in schools or mosques – as uniquely problematic for British society. I tweeted that this approach serves only to marginalise Muslims further and feeds anti-Muslim racism. I asked Inspire whether they would also be lobbying to overturn gender segregation in white spaces, prompted by Fatima Manji’s query regarding gender segregation at Eton College.

In response, Inspire sent a reply in which they said, ‘Hi Nadya, we find your anti Muslim bigotry towards us breath taking’. They also tweeted that I was a ‘regressive academic’, that I was an example of ‘twisted academia’ and an ‘Islamophobe’.

When I blocked Inspire’s account, they wrote ‘Unable to respond to the anti Muslim bigotry she peddled about Muslim women when challenged she resorted to this’.

Inspire’s self-identifying allies, who they roused in their defence, flooded my timeline with (often abusive) comments regarding my intellect, grasp of ‘basic facts’ and accused me of being an ‘upholder of misogyny and patriarchy extremist ideologies’.

I deleted my account not long after. Inspire’s actions and those of its supporters amounted to bullying. This incident raises serious questions about Khan’s role in the CCE that includes promoting ‘pluralistic British values’ which presumably should include free and fair debate.

While this incident might be dismissed as a Twitter flash in the pan, the example demonstrates a wider point: academics and activists who are engaged in contesting and critiquing Prevent are vulnerable to public attacks. In the deeply marketised context of the university, such vulnerability becomes a double burden if you are precariously employed, on probation or unsure if your institution will protect and support you should your name be splattered across the tabloids as an example of a leftist academic gone mad. This trend of attacking Prevent dissenters is exemplified by the use of the term, the ‘regressive left’, which Inspire also levelled at me. It is used by counter radicalisation groups to discredit those on the left who challenge the work of Prevent practitioners on anti-racist and anti-sexist grounds.

These trends should be considered in tandem with the government’s failure to achieve a legally binding definition of ‘extremism’ through which it could prosecute people for holding views contrary to British values. What is in its place is a commission on extremism headed by a politically sympathetic figure whose organisation is not in the business of free or fair debate. While Young’s appointment was ultimately unsuccessful due to the widespread backlash he faced, Khan remains in post. This should worry us all.

Nadya Ali is Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex.

1. The Prevent strategy, which represents a substantial assault on free speech at universities given its risk assessment process to vet potentially ‘radical’ speakers, was, as usual, absent from this debate.

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