The Scientific Activist

Oh, the things we do in the name of “the global war on terror.” And, not just in the US. Here’s an example from the UK. From The Guardian:

A masters student researching terrorist tactics who was arrested and detained for six days after his university informed police about al-Qaida-related material he downloaded has spoken of the “psychological torture” he endured in custody.

Despite his Nottingham University supervisors insisting the materials were directly relevant to his research, Rizwaan Sabir, 22, was held for nearly a week under the Terrorism Act, accused of downloading the materials for illegal use. The student had obtained a copy of the al-Qaida training manual from a US government website for his research into terrorist tactics.

The case highlights what lecturers are claiming is a direct assault on academic freedom led by the government which, in its attempt to establish a “prevent agenda” against terrorist activity, is putting pressure on academics to become police informers.

Sabir was arrested on May 14 after the document was found by a university staff member on an administrator’s computer. The administrator, Hisham Yezza, an acquaintance of Sabir, had been asked by the student to print the 1,500-page document because Sabir could not afford the printing fees. The pair were arrested under the Terrorism Act, Sabir’s family home was searched and their computer and mobile phones seized. They were released uncharged six days later but Yezza, who is Algerian, was immediately rearrested on unrelated immigration charges and now faces deportation.

A particularly disturbing aspect of this case is that the administrator who helped with the printing has apparently been placed on the fast track for deportation:

Dr Alf Nilsen, a research fellow at the university’s school of politics and international relations, said that Yezza is being held at Colnbrook immigration removal centre, due to be deported on Tuesday.

“If he is taken to Algeria, he may be subjected to severe human rights violations after his involvement in this case. He has been in the UK for 13 years. His work is here, his friends are here, his life is here.”

However, the issue of more broad concern is what a flagrant violation of academic freedom this is. And, an incredibly absurd one, at that–considering that the manual Sabir had in his possession was freely and openly available from a US government website! Worst of all, Sabir was turned in by his own university. Anyone at least somewhat concerned with academic freedom (and even just basic personal liberties) should be up in arms over this.

Beyond this, such overzealous and reactionary responses are incredibly counterproductive. In contrast to the government officials who so often exacerbate terrorist threats through their misguided and heavy-handed actions, there are a large number of academics out there who are actually working diligently and productively to better understand terrorist organizations–and in the long run make us all safer. It is in the best interest of all of us to not see this work stifled in such sloppy fashion.

In order to find out more about how such government actions influence the work of those studying terrorism, I talked to fellow Oxford student Anna Oldmeadow, who studies government responses to terrorism. Although she thinks about scenarios such as the one described above “not infrequently”, even she “was quite shocked to read that the student concerned was detained for six days.” Due to the nature of her work, which she undersells as “far more boring and domestic politics focused,” Oldmeadow doesn’t perceive herself as directly threatened–although she does admit that she often exerts self-censorship by avoiding mention of what she studies when traveling in certain parts of the world.

(Of course, she “can’t help but wonder whether a white, female Australian would attract the same attention from the authorities that this guy did.”)

Still, Oldmeadow is seriously concerned by the events at Nottingham:

I understand the need for policing and investigation of possible threats, but I still think that academic freedom is under attack. Many of the anti-terrorism provisions involve freedom of speech issues, but I also see it as part of a wider culture of fear that governments around the world are perpetuating in response to terrorist attacks – similar to the Bush ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’ mentality, that these issues can’t even be aired and discussed in an informed way without raising suspicion.

Freedom of speech is one of our most sacred rights in a democratic society. This isn’t just because it makes us feel all warm and fuzzy. Freedom of speech allows us to discuss, debate, and develop new ideas–even those that are incredibly unpopular at the time–and the intellectual advancement that results often has tangible benefits. In this case, it could make us safer… as long as it’s not stifled in the meantime.

Comments

  1. #1 Martin Robbins
    May 28, 2008

    I was quite shocked when I read this, especially as someone with an interest in the application of complexity theory to terrorist networks. Again, I have to wonder if a white guy was in the same position.

    Incidentally, I’ve just blogged on something that may interest you, as a fellow Brit blogger. I was digging into the comments by this Bishop that are all over the news today, about Britain’s Moral vacuum, and it turns out that the magazine he’s writing in is funded by a “think tank” that used to accept funding from the Tobacco Lobbyists, and indeed was praised in British-American-Tobacco Documents. It’s a small world… http://layscience.net/?q=node/137

  2. #2 K H
    May 29, 2008

    Native speakers of Arabic also have essential language and cultural skills for studying groups like al-Qaeda that (I think) mainly operate in Arabic. So it’s doubly stupid for governments to single out scholars from the Muslim world for harassment.

    Another important part of the background to this is that neoconservative groups like campuswatch.org have been extremely critical of Area Studies programs in academia and tried especially hard to intimidate academics in the years before the US invaded Iraq. Universities are often sites of student organizing and protest, and scholars of the Middle East have the expertise to expose propaganda such as the obviously bogus Saddam Hussein – al-Qadea connection.