The Daily Mail has condemned the National Union of Students over its links with the organisation Cage (formerly Cageprisoners), run by former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg.
The Daily Mail (7 January) targetted NUS Vice-President Shelly Asquith, criticising her for speaking out in opposition to the government’s Prevent strategy — the government’s scheme ostensibly aimed at stopping young people being “radicalised” by “extremists” but which is aimed exclusively at Islamic fundamentalism and Islamism and has is linked to increased state surveillance and repression on the grounds of “national security” and “counter-terrorism”.
The Daily Mail linked opposition to Prevent with support for Cage. Spokespeople for Cage have been invited to NUS events to speak against Prevent. The paper also linked opposition to Prevent with some student unions banning speakers such as Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel and David Starkey.
Criticism of NUS and Asquith by the right-wing press has brought understandable ire from the student movement and the left. The Prevent strategy is deeply flawed and many students are rightfully worried about its potential negative implications for freedom of speech on campus, and about using teachers and lecturers as spies and informants. The NUS and Asquith are absolutely right to organise speaker tours against something that would be damaging to the student movement.
The Daily Mail’s pro-freedom of speech language, is hypocritical given its support for repressive government measures that would dampen down freedom of speech on campus. The paper was also hugely patronising and sexist — at one point, the NUS Vice-President is referred to as a “Corbyn girl”. We should unequivocally defend NUS for its stance on Prevent. Despite the crass hypocrisy of The Daily Mail, that is not the only issue here. Banning speakers — not matter how offensive they may be — in an attempt to create so-called “safe spaces”on campuses makes it more difficult to argue against government censorship and repression. Moreover, working with Cage and Begg is a huge own goal for the NUS in terms of fighting Prevent.
Members of Cage and Begg have made statements supporting right wing Islamists such as the Taliban. The NUS does itself no favours by allying with them. Equally the left’s response to opt for unequivocal defence of Cage is dishonest. In its opposition to the Daily Mail, Socialist Worker interviewed Moazzam Begg and Azad Ali (who has also worked with Cage) without once criticising them, or even mentioning their history. This, not just the Daily Mail’s racist witch hunt or propaganda for the Prevent agenda, is a problem. We do not have to defend Begg or groups like Cage in order to defend Muslim students or overlook the views of Islamists in a battle against a greater enemy, on this occasion The Daily Mail.