The Nottingham Two and the War on Terror: which of us will be next?

Three academics at the University of Nottingham argue that the recent arrests of a postgraduate student and a staff member herald an erosion of civil liberties and a clear threat to legitimate research

I will suggest that in academic freedom lies one of the most powerful means at our disposal to refute violent extremist views on campus. And further, I believe that unless it is used actively to challenge those views, then academic freedom will find itself undermined by violent extremism." Thus spoke Bill Rammell, Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, on 27 November 2007.

Yet recent events at the University of Nottingham have left academics and students in doubt about their civil liberties and human rights when it comes to researching controversial political and social phenomena. The question that many of us ask today is whether UK universities will stand up and defend academic freedom in the face of the potentially draconian ramifications of anti-terror legislation.

On 14 May, Nottingham student Rizwaan Sabir and an administrative member of staff, Hicham Yezza, were arrested and held without charge for nearly a week for downloading an edited version of the al-Qaeda training manual. The arrest followed the discovery of the printed document by members of university staff, who reported it to the police. It should be noted that the document is from an open source widely available via respectable websites such as the US Department of Justice, the Federation of American Scientists and the Rand Corporation; the document itself is not required reading, but on our reading lists are websites that can lead one to the text. No doubt there are dozens of students and academics around the country who have downloaded similarly sensitive open-source documents.

The two men were finally released without charges on 20 May. Mr Yezza was subsequently re-arrested under immigration charges, and now faces deportation to Algeria, thus severing the deep ties he has developed with his community, the university and civil society in Nottingham over the past 13 years.

The response of the University of Nottingham seems to have conflated having a document with holding extremist views and planning to act upon them. But if you are looking into unpleasant subjects, then the chances are that you will need to review unpleasant material in the course of your work. Whatever happened to the maxim "Nothing human is alien to me"? Moreover, the university's management seems reluctant to accept that the downloading of such material for political studies is unexceptionable and necessary. Have they not checked out online reading lists on terrorism? Have they not seen that the Nottingham branch of Waterstone's sells the collected speeches, interviews and statements of Osama bin Laden?

The Nottingham arrests set a dangerous precedent for intellectual freedom and the scope of academic and journalistic research. How can we follow political scientist Hedley Bull's injunction to "pursue the question" if we are only to examine squeaky clean sources? Where does Nottingham's response leave terrorism studies in the UK? We cannot combat terrorism by adopting an approach in which we see no evil or hear no evil. A panicky response can only undermine vital research on terrorism and public understanding of the problem. What about our PhD student researching Arabic-language sources on the Iraq war? What about those researching or studying al-Qaeda propaganda at the University of Leeds? What about those wanting to research the recruitment to terrorist organisations? What about those who want to go beyond internet sources and venture into the messier world of fieldwork?

Where do the Nottingham arrests leave the much-hyped citizen journalist or blogger? University managers are narrowly interpreting intellectual freedom to authorised academics and registered students. Indeed, university managers appear reluctant to concede that a non-academic might legitimately possess sensitive open-source documents. Citizen journalists and bloggers beware!

Academic and intellectual freedom is one of the values we should be defending in the War on Terror, and we are doing the terrorists' work if we submit to a climate of fear and suspicion. The way for us to defeat obnoxious ideas is not to bury our heads in the sand, but to have more engaged and informed citizens. Individuals are more likely to become susceptible to obnoxious ideas if we let those ideas fester or glamorise them through censorship rather than exposing them to the light of critical analysis.

The problem of terrorism cannot be defeated militarily, it must be defeated politically. The more informed and open public debate we have, the more we as a society can address obnoxious ideas and expose their weaknesses. Yet if universities choose to run to the police when confronted with documents expressing extremist views instead of tackling these ideas head on, they are ducking their intellectual and moral responsibilities. Panicking in the face of extremist ideas might be an expected response from shocked maiden aunts, but it will not combat terrorism or political threats. A vibrant intellectual climate fostering an engaged and informed public might.

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