Cameron, Johnson and the ‘Naming and Shaming’ of Universities

Some months ago, I was organising the latest event in the Muslims, Trust and Cultural Dialogue series: part of a research project run by the University of East London in partnership with the Centre for Pakistan at SOAS. It was around the time of the controversy surrounding student Islamic societies at universities supposedly requesting audiences to be segregated by gender at some of their events. Politicians from the major parties queued up to denounce the supposed acquiescence in a creeping extremist agenda.

A few days before the event, as the publicity machine (such as it is) was cranking up, I received a call from someone in the university’s governance and compliance section worriedly asking whether the event was going to be segregated. Since it was a talk on the general philosophical issues around trust that didn’t even mention Muslims, and given that the speaker was the measured and urbane Baroness Onora O’Neill, I was rather nonplussed by the enquiry. Until, that is, it dawned on me that the question was asked because of the title of the project, and was clearly a frightened, kneejerk reaction to the current media and political outcry. My caller was clearly entirely ignorant of the content and nature of our work, and was merely obeying an order to make sure anything going on under the university name with ‘Muslim’ in the title could not come back to bite it. So much for the university space as one of free and fearless debate!

I was reminded of this again by the new tactic, inaugurated last week by David Cameron, of naming and shaming universities who give the floor to radical Islamist speakers. It came at the same time as the Higher Education Minister, Jo Johnson, penned a letter to the National Union of Students urging it to abandon its opposition to the controversial Prevent strategy. (The government is also said to be considering legislation to tighten the rules on extremist speakers on campuses.) In particular, Johnson expresses displeasure at a recent NUS conference motion to oppose the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, and criticism the government’s approach as racist and Islamophobic. While emphasising their belief in debate and academic freedom, Cameron and Johnson are the heralds of a new approach that would narrow the range of that debate. Freedom of speech it appears, like democracy in Middle Eastern countries, is to be propagated only until it throws up results that we do not like.

This latest turn indicates a desire to commandeer the grounds of debate in the name of common sense liberal values. But it also represents a potential shift in the terms of the relationship between government and universities. Of course, despite romantic mythology, universities have never been spaces of complete utopian freedom. In his book Human Rights and Empire, the law professor Costas Douzinas recalls Edward Gibbon’s account of how the foundation of the first European university at Bologna in the twelfth century was the reward for a political ruling by four eminent jurists endorsing the legitimacy of claims by the Emperor Frederick I that his sovereign authority should supersede local legal customs. However, over time a consensus has been established, at least in Britain, that scholarship and debate should be carried on in universities free of direct external political intervention. Douzinas argues that the university ‘is based on the absolute freedom to question publicly … [t]hought is the experience of the unconditional, of asking about everything, including the value of questioning itself as well as the value of truth’. That must logically also mean the space to debate the views of those who would, if the tables were turned, deprive us of the same right: those cartoonish extremists, favoured by the media, who fulminate against western freedoms.

Censorship is advocated in the guise of protecting the vulnerable from radicalisation, and many of us can remember how much growing up we had to do when we first attended university, how open we were to startling, outlandish and downright silly ideas. But the government’s attempts to police the parameters of debate within the university in fact bespeaks a lack of faith in its own vaunted liberalism. Surely the university is a space where extreme views can and should be contested and discredited, their advocates allowed to expose their own stupidity? Simplistic worldviews, which do not so much contest history and politics as reject them outright, ought to be forced into dialogue with them. The university provides the perfect space for this, beyond the bear-pit of parliament and policy made up on the hoof. There ought also to be more faith in the robustness of existing laws and their implementation if hate speech or incitement take place. Yet, Cameron and Johnson, in removing the opportunity for scrutiny of unpalatable views, and – perhaps more importantly – in attacking students for offering critique and resistance to a specific, flawed and controversial policy, do a disservice to the custodians of the very spaces where extremism can best be combated. They show little faith in education and less respect to those undergoing it. Censoring and instrumentalising education for political ends can only ever end badly, in less freedom.

Berakah-The Interfaith Choir -Speaking without Speaking-

An interfaith choir? Yes, exactly! You heard correctly, Berakah is an interfaith choir. It brings people from different faith groups together to sing. The Berakah choir started in 2013, as part of the Barakah band, founded in the summer of 2006. Berakah’s aim is to “create music to transcend barriers built by faith and culture, bringing people together in a spirit of understanding and shared values”.  But why? What is the benefit of bringing people from different faith groups together when they do not do anything but sing? Isn’t it a waste of time? Wouldn’t it make more sense to go to an interfaith dialogue group where people can talk to each other? Well, this would be a rather hasty judgment to make as it became clear when Alaya and I first decided to visit Berakah towards the end of 2014.  Since then we have attended several of their private rehearsals and a couple of public events and have closely observed what happens when people from different faith groups sing together. We tried to find out what the arts can offer interfaith dialogue, intercultural relations and trust. What exactly happens when everyday language and dialogue is exchanged for music and song? When single voices and tonalities create harmonies and melodies?

Berakah’s work is an example of the mystery that is ‘speaking without speaking’, ‘connecting without talking’, ‘bonding without dialoging’ and ‘cooperation beyond logical thought processes’. There is an unexplicable element when singing collectively. Some things just happen, even if at an unconscious level. By the very act of singing in a group one already connects to the others, the single individual feels part of a larger social body. As Mohammed, the founder of the choir says, “the joy of music is that it brings people together”. Each choir member can be seen as a body part, with the choir leader acting as its heart, giving life to the rest of  the body. The musician, whose task is to signal every shift in mood, key and tempo, is the soul, carrying the body to a different realm, a realm where one becomes oneself. Collective singing functions as a connection tool. Each member sings, but is still exposed to other voices around him/her, creating overall sounds that are more beautiful. There are different tones, different accents and different pitches - high and low, female and male, strong and gentle. They all add to something very pleasing to the ears. This would not be possible if only one voice were to sing. Each voice contributes, in an essential way, to the joyful experience. It is a form of cooperation where single voices strengthen and support each other to reach a particular sound level.

There is more to it than that though. Singing is something very personal and emotional. There must be passion to bring oneself to do it publically, in front of others. In raising that voice, creating sounds and harmonies with one’s own instrument, a very private piece of oneself is shared with the public. Given that the setting is an interfaith choir, with people from different faith groups, this facilitates better knowledge and understanding. A feeling of trust and nearness is also nurtured. One does not only hear the other’s voice, one can also be exposed to how the other ‘feels’ when singing, which is already in and of itself a very emotional and deep experience. Being part of this process means that participants get to know eachother. In this sense, the getting to know part happens without really talking to each other or having to ask about one’s name, hobby or job. It takes place when singing in a group and travelling together through emotional peaks. Music and songs also have the power to bring joy to people, especially if the content is positive. The faces of individual choir members, always smiling and peaceful, revealed this inner state of being. Members would also smile at each other while singing or during intervals between songs. Even though these might be perceived as small gestures, they still carry weight. It is the creation of a peaceful atmosphere, where individuals enjoy each other’s company and feel comfortable. An atmosphere where they connect with each other on a very personal and human level, with less talking and more feeling. The heart is more important than the mind and it is the heart that connects human beings, bringing their humanity to the fore. As Mohammed, the founder of Berakah, explains:

We want people to open their hearts, because once the heart opens, then the mind absolutely follows. The mind doesnt open first, the heart opens first and then the mind follows. It is the moving, the emotion in a person With that opening of the heart comes the recognition, often unconscious, subliminal and non-verbal, that everyone is in the same position. It is actually the humanity. It is really that we are all human beings. The sole aim of any art is the experience of recognising our humanity, recognising our own humanity and the humanity of everybody around us.


Latent and Manifest Islamophobia

Latent and Manifest Islamophobia: Multimodal Engagements with the Production of Knowledge

5th Annual International Conference on the Study of IslamophobiaCenter for Race and Gender, UC BerkeleyApril 17-19, 2014, Boalt School of Law, UC Berkeley

Written by Asmaa Soliman

Latent and Manifest Islamophobia: Multimodal Engagements with the Production of Knowledge was the title of the 5th Annual International Conference on the Study of Islamophobia held April 17-19 at the Boalt Hall School of Law at UC Berkeley ( The annual conference is part of the Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project ( at the Center for Race and Gender at UC Berkeley, organised by Dr. Hatem Bazian, Director of the IRD Project and who established the Islamophobia Studies Journal. The conference brought together academics from across the globe speaking about Islamophobia from various perspectives. Diverse themes were discussed throughout the conference days, with international case studies shedding light on the many approaches and contexts to the study of Islamophobia, including at the socio-political and economic levels.


Should Muslim Children Be Taken Into Care?


Last night, May 14, the Journey into Europe project which had brought us to London, our first stop, was launched successfully at the House of Lords in a standing room only event with Lord Bhikhu Parekh chairing and hosting the discussion. In attendance were prominent figures including two additional lords, senior representatives from the Pakistani High Commission, Dr. Richard Stone, one of the most important Jewish leaders and pioneers of interfaith dialogue in
Britain and a philanthropist, Malise Ruthven, the well known author of books on Islam, the noted scholar John Hutchinson of the LSE, Mohsin Akhtar, owner of the Heydon Grange Golf course who had come down from Cambridge, Dr. Muhammad Abdul Bari of the Muslim Council of Britain, and Dr Jafer Qureshi of Muslim Aid, UK. Additionally, a large contingent from the Bradford Muslim community had especially come down for the event in anticipation of our visit to Bradford next week. It was also an interfaith gathering, with prominent members of the Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Hindu faiths represented.


You are here: Home Blogs