On Friday, Tony Abbott raised Australia’s terrorist threat level to high, readying the country for a new normal of intensified anti-terror policing and security screenings. Less noticeable amid the media noise surrounding terrorism and the IS was the fact that two days earlier, vice-chancellor Michael Spence did the on-campus equivalent, by citing a hastily commissioned ‘security assessment’ to ban a visitor to Sydney University.
Hizb ut-Tahrir spokesperson Uthman Badar was scheduled to speak on September 11 at a Q&A event called ‘Grill a Muslim’. His presence was part of Islam Awareness Week, a typical campus ensemble of cupcake stalls, leafleting and talks. But Badar evidently got a different sort of grilling to the one he might have expected and found himself prevented from entering the university.
In reporting the incident, the tabloid press has revived the misleading hype that surrounded Badar’s talk at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, where he was introduced (erroneously) as a defender of honour killings. The Chinese whispers surrounding Badar’s views on honour killings led to the cancellation of that speech, and pursued him to a recent event at the University of Western Australia, which was called off because ‘Mr Badar has been reported to hold the view that so-called honour killings are morally justified’.
It would be more correct to say that these speeches were cancelled because of Badar’s unwillingness to play the good Muslim, and condemn everyone and everything that politicians and the media demand of him.
In invoking a security risk, Sydney University avoids the accusation that it is suppressing any particular point of view – a wise move for an institution dedicated to the free exchange of ideas. But in doing so it has added to the paranoia currently surrounding all expressions of Muslim political opinion beyond the slavishly loyal, and set a worrying new precedent for the exercise of administrative fiat on campus.
What sort of security risk did this Q&A present? Was the gathering of Muslim students deemed a threat? Or was Badar himself suspected of planning something? What else are we supposed to think? The only other possibility here is that there was a threat against the meeting – in which case we’re equally entitled to ask: who made it, and why?
The trick with a ‘security assessment’, of course, is that no answers need ever be provided to these questions. Like the forty-seven asylum seekers currently facing a lifetime in detention thanks to highly classified ASIO security assessments, Uthman Badar must wear the innuendo that inevitably surrounds such pronouncements, without ever being able to respond to the details. If ever demonstration was needed of the fact that new extremes of policing, if unchallenged, will gradually normalised throughout the rest of society, this is surely it.
In the absence of any public explanation for the banning, of course, the imagination is left to its own devices. A fortnight ago Christopher Pyne weighed in loudly on the cancelling of Badar’s event at UWA, stating that he ‘applauds the university for condemning the speaker as inconsistent with university values’. Sydney University and the Group of Eight are currently locked in a delicate dance with the Liberals around the issue of fee deregulation. Could it be that silencing Badar was part of Sydney University’s efforts to keep faith with Pyne?
Notwithstanding our university’s commitment to an inclusive campus, sinister-sounding ‘security assessments’ targeting Muslims will inevitably erect a barrier between Muslim students and the rest of the student body.
Presumably, the administration would like us to think that such actions serve to shield the university and its mission of intellectual inquiry from disruptive elements hostile to that mission. In fact, the Badar banning is simply the bluntest among a series of instruments currently being adopted to limit the scope of debate on campus.
When Pyne announced his proposals to deepen the intrusion of market forces into higher education, we were told that the university was interested in consulting on ‘our response’ to the reforms. Since then it has become increasingly evident that this much vaunted consultation process is simply a technocratic exercise in finessing the implementation of fee deregulation.
Rejecting a petition for a ‘Convention’ to debate fee deregulation, the University Senate instead held a Town Hall meeting to discuss the ‘balance between public and private contributions’ in a deregulated education market. The next step in the process, we learn, is to be a series of focus groups to brainstorm how the university should provide financial aid in the wake of fee deregulation.
In other words, the consultation process on what Pyne has called ‘a once in a generation reform’ concerns only the details of who will pay what when fees go up, and not the merits of the policies themselves. Voices critical of the Pyne package will be ignored, despite the strong likelihood that those voices represent the majority of staff and students. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that under the guise of consulting with it, the administration is railroading the university community into treating fee deregulation as a fait accompli.
Security assessments and carefully manipulated consultation processes represent hard and soft policies that both serve to fix the boundaries of acceptable speech on campus. It is crucial, then, that we do not turn a blind eye to the hard policies applied to a minority, lest we weaken our ability to confront the soft policies that apply to us all.
As a new war in Iraq looms, Australian Muslims will inevitably bear the brunt of the increased anti-terror policing, but we all stand to suffer from the constraints on public debate that heightened militarism will bring. A university’s role is to question these trends, not exacerbate them.