This week, University College London’s students’ union (UCLU) banned anti-ISIS fighter Macer Gifford from coming to speak to the Kurdish Society. Mr. Gifford is a UCL alumnus who has served for the YPG (People’s Protection Units), a Kurdish opposition force to ISIS.
This marks the latest in UCLU’s strange attitudes to free speech, with the reasons listed for Mr Gifford’s banning including that ISIS isn’t necessarily a terrorist organisation, using the classic cop-out “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, and that it was important for both sides of the story to be represented at events.
Asad Khan, UCLU’s Activities and Events Officer whose election to this position was mired in voting fraud, added that the Syrian issue shouldn’t be spoken about on campus since it was “contentious” and “far too complex” for students.
This mirrors the process that societies have to go through to be allowed any speakers at all at events. A ‘speaker request form’ must be filled in and filed with UCLU at least two weeks before the event, with prying questions on the form into the speaker’s background. This form too has a section that asks if and why a speaker is considered controversial; the assumption being that speakers who talk about subjects other than knitting or kittens shouldn’t be given a platform.
The point of many university societies is to engage students with contentious and complex issues, exposing them to events outside of their daily experience and forcing them to see issues from other points of view.
When consulted on details about the proposed event, Mr. Gifford says he would have been happy to engage with the audience, and willing to take any questions they might have had. Any student who may have questioned an aspect of his talk, or disagreed with it, or perhaps have felt that ISIS wasn’t fairly represented at the event was more than welcome to air this opinion. Healthy discussion was to be encouraged at the event, disagreement welcomed, and balance offered by the freedom to express oneself.
However, beyond the suffocating ethos of UCLU’s desire to ‘protect’ students by not letting them hear things which are in any way controversial or challenging, is the sinister way Mr. Khan insists on having what he deems a ‘fair’ debate, one which must include ISIS’s point of view.
Kavar Kurda, Kurdish Society’s president said that Mr. Khan’s actions are “horrible prejudice” against the Kurdish people, and a gross misunderstanding of the plight of the Kurdish people, or the struggles between Kurds and Turks. He also said that this case “proved their unwillingness to take a stance against ISIS”. He reports that UCLU claims that giving Mr. Gifford a platform at the Kurdish Society would encourage students to go and fight against ISIS (as if that is somehow a bad thing?), and still refused after Mr Kurda suggested setting strict guidelines for the speech.
Mr Kurda continued, saying: “Their [UCLU’s] focus then fell on to YPG, one of the most democratic units in the Middle East.
“[T]he great human rights abuse which they accuse the YPG of committing was the enlistment of individuals under the age of 18. Not only have YPG signed a declaration to prevent this from occurring, but in the scope of ‘human rights’ I would hardly consider the enlistment of say a 17 year old the crime of the century.
“Asad concluded that UCLU are not willing to take sides in this conflict. By taking a neutral ground, you are implicitly supporting ISIS.
This madness, I’m afraid to say, comes from an organisation which refuses to sell poppies for the Royal British Legion in their numerous premises across campus.
When asked for comment, Mr Gifford confirmed what had happened, saying:
“I’m really disappointed in UCLU’s decision. I was looking forward to telling the students my story and having a open debate on what’s going on in Syria. Instead I was left feeling like terrorist. I have always advocated peace and my main motivation has always been the suffering of all different communities in Syria. If anyone has any difficult questions about the YPG or me, then challenge me in an open forum! Rigorous and healthy debate is what expands the mind and underpins what a great university is all about.”
Mr. Khan has no care for free speech on campus, but instead insists that we must treat a group that submits innocent journalists and civilians to the most mediaeval and revolting torture possible, as a credible organisation. In Mr. Khan’s eyes, ISIS deserve special treatment from us. No criticism of them can go ahead until we have checked that the feelings of ISIS won’t be hurt and made sure no-one will accidentally say something offensive about them. Our student union is not just mollycoddling students now: it’s also mollycoddling ISIS.
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