Workers Hammer No. 209

Winter 2009-2010


Student union bureaucrats ban Spartacist society

Down with chauvinist compulsory English policy at SOAS!

The British state’s “war on terror” is the domestic face of the bloody imperialist occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. At universities, this is reflected in government guidelines for “tackling violent extremism”, which place students and immigrant workers squarely in the crosshairs of police repression. Exactly what this means was seen on 8 April 2009 when police arrested eleven Asian men, mainly students, on bogus “terrorist” charges. When the cops finally admitted they had no evidence and released the men two weeks later without charges, ten of them — all Pakistani nationals — were incarcerated by the UK Border Agency. Eight were forced to leave the country while two remain in jail fighting deportation.

A 4 December 2009 Guardian article titled “Terror arrest students fight to clear their names” describes how “men in combat uniforms grabbed Rizwan Sharif outside a Liverpool university last April, pointing a gun at his head”. Another of those arrested, 25-year-old business student Janas Khan, told the Guardian his life had been ruined by the experience, commenting: “The whole thing is rubbish. There was no bomb factory, no link to al-Qaida and they know it.”

It is in the vital interests of students, lecturers and campus workers to oppose the “war on terror” and anti-immigrant witch hunts on campuses. Under Labour’s draconian new immigration rules, universities and teachers are compelled to act as auxiliaries of the immigration police by monitoring foreign students and reporting anything “suspicious” to the state. This has rightly outraged many lecturers. But while the lecturers union UCU states that it is “absolutely opposed to this legislation”, it urges its members to co-operate, stating that: “these duties are part of a legal obligation on universities” and “the union’s protection of members cannot extend to endorsing a breach of the law relating to PBS [points-based system] or defending members who do so” (“Points-based Immigration”, UCU briefing paper, February 2009).

Meanwhile, on 12 June 2009, immigrant cleaners at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) employed by the contractor ISS were called to an “emergency meeting” and set upon by 40 immigration cops who were hiding in the room with the complicity of SOAS management. Nine cleaners were detained, most of whom were subsequently deported. This was a blatant attack on this workforce which had just won union recognition and the London Living Wage after going on strike. The Spartacist League protested this vicious raid and called for full citizenship rights for all immigrants!

It is scandalous that the student union bureaucracy, including the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), has long been colluding with the university administration to enforce a chauvinist compulsory English policy on student societies’ literature that fits squarely in the framework of the government’s 2006 “extremism” guidelines, targeting in particular Islamic societies. At the September 2006 freshers fair, student union bureaucrats led by then-prominent SWP spokesman Clare Solomon, imposed a rule that “all publicity must be in English”, ludicrously passing this off as part of its “equal opportunities policy”. This was subsequently amended to state that all literature must have a direct English translation. Ever since, we have campaigned against this attempt at censorship at interventions into campus events and at regular sales of our literature (including in Arabic, Chinese, Turkish, Tagalog and other languages).

Escalating this chauvinist campaign, a 25 August 2009 email from Ben Sellers, current SOAS vice president for sports and societies, indicated the Spartacus Youth Group (SYG) would not be allowed a stall at the 2009 freshers fair unless we agreed to censor our foreign-language literature. This is somewhat ironic at SOAS which boasts of being a “guardian of specialised knowledge in languages”, offering “an unparalleled range of non-European languages” (! As the SYG’s email reply to the student union made clear:

“We oppose this policy as a matter of political principle because it discriminates against foreign students and is a tool for enforcing the capitalist state’s racist ‘War on Terror’ on campus. This primarily targets Muslim students but is ultimately aimed at immigrants, workers and leftists such as ourselves. Therefore, we cannot and will not censor our foreign language literature.

“We believe that all students and students societies should be free to distribute literature in any language they wish and to express any political opinions that they choose to, including our opposition as revolutionary internationalist socialists to this chauvinist rule.”

When the SYG set up a table outside the freshers fair making clear our opposition to racism and chauvinism, including the foreign-language gag at SOAS, it proved too much for the student union bureaucrats. A 20 October 2009 email from Ben Sellers preached: “This is not acceptable behaviour for the officers of a society, and as such I will not be accepting society paperwork from the Spartacus Youth Group for the coming academic year.” This ban on our communist society is outrageous and students and workers on the campus have an interest in opposing this censorship. As for us, we will continue to oppose the “war on terror” witch hunt and demand: Down with the chauvinist compulsory English policy for student societies at SOAS!