The Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill is currently being debated in the UK Parliament. It is being promoted following the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris at the beginning of this month. Amongst other things it would place a duty on universities to participate in the Government’s “Prevent” strategy. According to a consultation about this:
“Universities must take seriously their responsibility to exclude those promoting extremist views that support or are conducive to terrorism. We would expect the policies and procedures on speakers and events to include at least the following:
• Sufficient notice of booking (generally at least 14 days) to allow for checks to be made and cancellation to take place if necessary;
• Advance notice of the content of the event, including an outline of the topics to be discussed and sight of any presentations, footage to be broadcast etc;
• A system for assessing and rating risks associated with any planned events, providing evidence to suggest whether an event should proceed, be cancelled or whether mitigating action is required (for example a guarantee of an opposing viewpoint in the discussion, or someone in the audience to monitor the event); and
• A mechanism for managing incidents or instances where off-campus events of concern are promoted on campus.”
But this effectively creates a vetting and censorship system, operating in extremely short timescales. There is considerable concern about the effect on freedom of speech in general, and also on the work of Christian Unions (or CUs) in universities. CUs are typically affiliated to the Student Union and hold meetings and services to support their Christian membership and to reach other students with the Gospel. They are all affiliated to the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (usually called UCCF).
So let us imagine what will happen when a speaker is invited to one of their meetings. The university authorities will be notified 14 days in advance, when the content of the event, speaker’s Powerpoint slides and materials will have to be submitted to be checked. And let us imagine that the topic is going to be Joshua and the Battle of Jericho. You’ll remember what happened – the Israelites marched around the city for six days. On the seventh day of marching the priests blew their trumpets, the people gave a shout – all as the Lord said to Joshua – “and the walls came a-tumblin’ down”. It’s a Sunday School favourite, even today. Joshua tells the people to shout, saying “for the Lord has given you the city. And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to destruction” (with the exception of Rahab the prostitute).
There are plenty of secularists around who would like to limit or shut down discussions of Christianity and especially outward-looking bodies like CUs and UCCF. And taken at face value, many people may find that the conquest of the land of milk and honey, the Promised Land, and the Battle of Jericho contains actions of which they disapprove. It is not difficult for parallels to be drawn with the modern Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. Others may simplistically argue this is not dissimilar to the behaviour of Islamic State and Al Qaeda. So it is not difficult to envisage that the university authorities may come under pressure to require the CU to cancel a meeting where there is to be discussion of the killing of a whole city by the Lord’s chosen people.
But is it really realistic to regard the CU as an organisation which wants to promote terrorism? The basic tenets of the Christian faith have nothing to do with terrorism. As UCCF say:
“Given that this is a Counter -Terrorism measure, what possible security benefit can be gained from requesting personal details of Christian speakers and outlines of their talks when they speak at carol services and the like?
CU speakers are already required not to stray beyond a ‘mere Christianity’ and to give written consent to the CUs that they adhere to the orthodox, historic formularies of Christian faith and will not insist on any sectarian or denominational distinctives outside of this.”
There are no known examples of CUs being used to “radicalise” students to violence, murder or terrorism.
Others are also concerned about the effects on free speech. Baroness Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5, said in the House of Lords this week “It is a profound irony in seeking to protect our values against this pernicious ideology we are trying to bar views too vaguely described as non-violent extremism, which falls short of incitement to violence or to racial or ethnic hatred or the other legislative constraints on universities.” She was one of many peers who expressed similar concerns. It would be a great shame if free speech, a long-standing traditional freedom, is curtailed in an attempt to counter Islamist threats.
Others are concerned about this; here are a couple of links to other websites or blogs
Government uses British values to destroy British values – the blog of a free church minister in Dundee
Potential threat to freedom of speech in university CUs – UCCF’s own comment
It would be good to remember this issue in our prayers.