I wrote an article on a controversial speaker for my student newspaper. They didn’t publish it. Here is that piece.
I think it is necessary to outline why my article is here and not, so to speak, there.
On the 12th of March 2016 I attended an event at my university which hosted external speakers. I left the talk wanting to write a piece on it for Exeposé (the student newspaper) but due to the fact that I didn’t know the Comment editors who supposedly cover such university events I asked other editors at the paper whether my article would be published. I was given the go-ahead.
I submitted my article the next day, and, as of today, that was a month ago. At first I noticed that while mine had remained untouched, a national paper had managed to run the university story within the week. ‘Comment’ is meant to be a responsive section of the student paper – one that is quick to react to events – so it was annoying to realise that they had been beaten to it by a nationwide paper. I asked an editor friend if he could put some of his editorial weight on the comment editors but despite his help it remained unpublished. Two weeks later, I checked my article on the online submission page and found underneath it a note saying that they had picked up on a copyright issue with the video which I had linked in the article (Youtube video footage of the event). As editors, you would think it was part of their job to either find a way around such problems, or else take out the video. Enough time eventually passed that I realised they were going to do neither and so I deleted my original submission from the page and reposted it minus the video.
They didn’t touch it again. Now, there are plenty of reasons why this might be. These particular Comment editors were notoriously unresponsive and so this might be just another bad day in the office. My piece also arrived at the changing of the guard, as they handed over editorialship to new editors, giving them further reason to laze. Admittedly I didn’t ask them directly… they might have been too busy… they might just not have been bothered… they have every right not to publish my stuff… it’s their section after all… and it might the case that my article is unreadable… errors aplenty and style awry. As a consistent writer for the paper (and an editor myself from next year) I think that there might be another reason why the piece wasn’t published. My hypothesis? They didn’t agree with my opinion.
Published in the wrong forum, and also a month and a day after the event, this article is too late to be of any newsworthy interest. Yet the Comment editors definite lack of interest and potential lack of journalistic integrity has gifted me this unexpected mini-exposé of Exeposé’s ex-editors.
Here is the unedited piece. The link to the video has been included with minimal difficulty.
On Tuesday the 15th of March, Moazzam Begg visited Exeter University as the Outreach Officer for Cage, an organisation that works to empower communities affected by the War on Terror. He was in Exeter University to give his talk at an event named ‘Preventing Prevent – Students Not Suspects’. Prevent is one of the four P’s which comprises Britain’s post 9/11 terrorism strategy. The event was a collaboration effort by: Socialists Students, Friends of Palestine, Feminist Society, and the Islamic Society.
Begg was one of a panel of four who were united in their condemnation of the government’s policy. ‘Preventing Prevent’ is a discussion that needs to be had, because Prevent clearly has many problems. Our panelist via Skype, student Rahmaan Mohammadi, give us an insight into his experiences at the hands of Prevent Officers – experiences which were depressing and laughable in equal measure. With the panel in complete agreement, this was not a debate, and was seemingly intended to mobilise likeminded students. However, the event was not structured to stifle audience dissent and for the most part its civil atmosphere should have created constructive dialogue. This, then, was an opportunity to get at the heart of the issue. However, the enmity roused by Moazzam Begg’s attendance overshadowed this opportunity and I submit that this is the fault of the organisers of the event, who, in all other respects, pulled of an excellent event. They gave Begg the platform – but where they right to do so?
During the talk, a subversive A4 pamphlet was circulated which on one side defended Prevent and on the other side lampooned Begg. One bullet point accused Begg of terrorism in Bosnia. Begg is a problem not because he took up arms against Serbian fascists. Neither is Begg a problem because of his spell in Guantameno. The Begg problem is not a problem of his past, it is a problem of his current beliefs.
Begg is nothing but persistent while flogging his favourite dead horse – British foreign policy. As long as Iraq remains in chaos he will never recognise the role that ideology plays in radicalisation; there is no compromise and there is no nuance, there is only foreign policy – indicative of the Cage from which he works. At one point during his talk, he mentioned Samina Malik and Shakespeare in the same breath. While I don’t think this was done in order to draw a literary comparison, his defense of the so-called lyrical terrorist still represents a degree of narrow-mindedness. Writing a poem called ‘How to Behead’ is not a crime in itself, but it might be interpreted as a concerning choice of title. Begg seems to entertain no middle ground, and did not give any time to options which might put pragmatic pressure on government to reform aspects of their policy. So far, however, none of this warrants no-platforming.
The reason that Moazzam Begg should not have been invited to speak was brought to light during the Q and A session, when one student asked whether Begg would disassociate himself from a view expressed by Asim Qureishia, who in a recent interview said that it was right to stone women to death when Sharia conditions were met. At the time of this interview, Begg was sitting next to the man and raised no objection. It should have been easy enough, shouldn’t it, for Begg to set himself apart from such a view? Suffice to say that Begg’s answer was evasive – calling it a “red-herring” – a quick manoeuvre which felt well rehearsed. According to questioner James McSweeny, he repeated this question to Begg again after the talk had ended, which elicited a slightly more specific response – he reportedly eluded to the issue as a matter of scripture. Regardless of whether this occurred, his deficient answer on the podium should be enough to leave anyone wondering whether his views on women’s rights are just as uncompromising as his views on British foreign policy.
Let me be clear. Begg did not say that women should be stoned. What Begg didn’t say was that women shouldn’t be stoned. Of course, this does not make him wrong about Prevent, but it does tarnish the event by association. Every time he garnered a round of applause, no matter how justified his point, it left a bitter aftertaste as I remembered that under Sharia this clapping audience of students would be divided according to gender. And this debate was co-run by the Feminist Society? It is difficult to know how to raise awareness to the problem of his invitation. Either you boycott the event, and in doing so allow him to go unchallenged, or else you go to the event, and in doing so become another audience member legitimising his presence.
Begg comes at an opportunity cost. This article could have been spent discussing the substance of the matter itself, but instead I felt obliged to write about him. Begg is entitled to his own views, no matter how extreme they might or might not be. He also has the right to voice these opinions – and it is my belief that he didn’t exercise this right here at this event. Yet while university societies certainly have a right to invite Begg to speak on campus, it was still an unnecessary platform to give him – a platform that could have been given to someone who has no qualms about stating, publicly and explicitly, that women shouldn’t be stoned to death. Someone else should have been invited to speak, someone who doesn’t need to be asked such a question.
* Here is the video – curtesy of Student Rights. Judge for yourself whether Begg should have been invited and whether I should have been published.
** The day after this blog post went up, the new editors of Exeposé assured me that while my initial suppositions were right, my final hypothesis on opinion was wrong, and they would happily publish my article.