Ban first, speak later
Campaigners at a London university want to stop a secret British National Party member from getting a politics degree. What are they afraid of?
On 19 February 2002 the UK Anti-Nazi League (ANL) held a campaign meeting calling for third-year politics student Lawrence Rustem to be expelled from Greenwich University in London (1).
Rustem, who has a Turkish Cypriot father, was reported in a Panorama documentary on 25 November 2001 to be chair of the far-right British National Party’s ‘Ethnic Liaison Committee’ (2).
The strange thing about the campaign is that, before the Panorama programme came out, nobody at the university really knew Rustem had far-right views.
There have been no complaints of racist abuse from students in the college. Some of the students who had shared lectures with Rustem said they thought he was a ‘weirdo’, but had little inkling of his political allegiances.
Some suspicions had been raised. One of Rustem’s classmates said she had ‘guessed’ that something was going on from some of his badges and t-shirts (‘Did you know? Did you?’, gasped her friend). A lecturer at the college said that some of Rustem’s tutors had ‘suspected’ him from the subtext of some of his essays, from particular phrases he used, and his tone.
But when Rustem was asked if he had racist views he denied it. One lecturer said that in his lectures Rustem was ‘completely silent’. ‘He wasn’t high profile’, said one classmate – ‘he didn’t have a profile’.
Rustem has now taken time out for a semester. He complained to the London Evening Standard about the fact that one of the handful of people he had discussed the Panorama programme with had taken his case to the Anti-Nazi League: ‘I feel I have been betrayed.’ (3) But his rather pathetic image hasn’t discouraged the campaign to get him out for good. At the ‘Kick this Nazi out!’ meeting on 19 February at Greenwich University, Julie Waterson from the Anti-Nazi League did her best militant fist-shaking job.
‘We need stalls every day’, she shouted at the collected audience of 24 students and a few lecturers. ‘Even if he has chosen to take this semester out, we have to act like he is here. We have to make sure he doesn’t get personal tuition. We’ve got to go for it. There is no third way, no compromise – it’s black and white.’
The consequences of not acting would be dire, said Waterson. ‘If we sit back, Lawrence Rustem will walk from this college with respectability. With a degree.’ This frightening prospect, she thought, should galvanise the college: ‘Everybody in Greenwich University should unite, we have one common aim.’
The evil image of Rustem that was whipped up at the meeting reeked of paranoia. One lecturer called him a ‘loathsome character’, and ‘a cagey, dishonest student’. Students said that he was ‘sly’ and ‘clever’. Another lecturer warned that Rustem could pass on names of ethnic minority students at Greenwich to the British National Party (BNP), putting them in danger of becoming targets for attack. The BNP, said Waterson, were trying to infiltrate and gain the badge of ‘respectability’, while all the time ‘cleverly moving towards National Socialism’.
One student even wondered if Rustem would be able to ‘use his politics degree against people who haven’t had any education’, and to try to win them over to the BNP (as if going around Tower Hamlets bragging about your politics degree was likely to win many converts).
Greenwich University’s vice chancellor has reportedly said that Rustem cannot be expelled until he commits a criminal act. But at the ANL meeting such niceties as legal rights were brushed aside. ‘We have to forget liberal ideas about freedom of speech’, said Waterson. The idea that racist views should be confronted and challenged in open debate was treated with contempt – ‘we refuse to debate the Nazis’, said Waterson. Students at the meeting rounded upon me when I argued that universities shouldn’t be able to expel students whom they deemed to hold objectionable views.
But this case is a step backwards from your run-of-the-mill free speech war. I can’t defend to the death Rustem’s right to say things that I find objectionable, because he hasn’t bloody said anything.
It is telling that, in the witchhunt that seems to be taking off, not one party has had the guts to defend their views in open debate. Rustem never talked about his opinions to people at his university. The ANL and some of the university tutors are campaigning to have him thrown out of college, rather than challenge his ideas. Lecturers I spoke to at the meeting, despite their allegedly strong views on the matter, refused to be quoted by name.
The final irony came when the university apparently tried to ban the ANL meeting to have Rustem banned, on the grounds that it was ‘harassing students’ (Waterson obviously failed to see the humour when she accused the college of trying to keep the issue ‘under the carpet’).
Just how far this aversion to debate goes was brought home to me after the meeting, when a lecturer came over to check that I was okay, and didn’t feel like an ‘oppressed minority’ after being argued against. One of the students I had clashed with shook hands, and said that the argument had been ‘nothing personal’. A simple disagreement, it seems, can have violent connotations.
In a climate where opinions are deemed so poisonous that they need not even be expressed to exert their power over people, paranoia will thrive. The pursuit of hidden evil in a loser like Rustem, by people too scared to have an argument with each other, is as flattering to him as it is degrading to the rest of us.
Why banning the BNP is bad for democracy, by Brendan O’Neill
(1) See the Anti-Nazi League website
(2) See the Panorama documentary, BNP: Under the skin, on the BBC website
(3) London Evening Standard, 14 February 2002
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