Justice, British Style

May 15, 2011

In News

Two weeks ago, Dr Rod Thornton, a respected lecturer and counter-terrorism expert at the University of Nottingham, published a “whistle-blowing” paper, running at 112 meticulously detailed and footnoted pages. The document makes serious allegations about the conduct of senior university managers in the lead-up and aftermath of the arrests three years ago, under the Terrorism Act, of two university members: Rizwaan Sabir and myself. As I read Thornton’s paper, my curiosity soon turned to astonishment and, page after incriminating page, to fury.

For those unfamiliar with the case, a brief summary: on the morning of 14 May, 2008, I hurried to my office at the university, where I was a member of staff, having been informed it was full of security officers. To my surprise, far from being the victim of a break-in, I turned out to be the suspect: a terrorism suspect no less. I was immediately handcuffed, bundled into a police car and taken away.

Two days earlier, a colleague of mine was using the computer in my office when they noticed three documents: two academic papers on radical Islam, as well as a publicly available booklet, downloaded from the US justice department website, and obtainable from the university library, entitled the al-Qaida training manual. They reported this to senior managers, who called the police.

These documents had been sent to me by Sabir, an MA politics student at the university. I had been, since 2003, the editor of Ceasefire, a political and cultural magazine. Sabir, who was also arrested, had asked me to advise him on his research and routinely sent me copies of articles and books he was using. I quickly explained this misunderstanding to the counter-terrorism agents interviewing me, confident we would be freed within minutes. Instead, the police continued digging. On the seventh day we were eventually released, without charge. However, I was immediately rearrested for immigration issues that had “emerged”, and was informed that I was to be deported on the next available flight to Algeria.

Outraged, a campaign of support erupted in Nottingham and beyond, leading to my hurried “whisking away” being cancelled. A legal fight subsequently ensued over the next two years, culminating in a victory over the Home Office that confirmed my right to live and work in this country.

Drawing on hundreds of pages of official evidence, including internal correspondence, Thornton’s paper sheds dramatic new light on to what had happened. More specifically, Thornton alleges that senior management, in calling the police without seeking appropriate expertise, had ignored not only government guidelines, but also their own.

Worse, his paper suggests that, instead of coming to our assistance, senior management engaged in a sustained, systemic campaign of disinformation, innuendo and spin targeting myself, Sabir and others. The university has since released a statement in which it “rejects utterly”, what it deems to be “baseless accusations he [Thornton] makes about members of staff”. It says the report was “highly defamatory” of of a number of Thornton’s colleagues.

If confirmed, Thornton’s revelations about my alma mater are particularly hurtful. As an undergraduate and PhD student, I had spent the best part of 10 years serving the university, including as a member of its senate and student union executive. I was a key point of contact between management and Muslim students on campus. For a decade, university prospectuses carried a profile of me, quoting my description of the institution as “excellent”.

And yet, once arrested, I became a non-entity whose connection with and contribution to the university were either downplayed or denied. Sabir did not fare much better: upon returning to his course, he says he was subjected to repeated attempts to prevent him from getting on to the PhD programme, causing him enormous distress and leading him, within weeks, to leave for Strathclyde University, where he is now a doctoral researcher.

Amazingly, instead of engaging with Thornton’s findings, the university has now suspended him. The British International Studies Association, which had published the paper, has also removed his paper from its website acting, it stated, “on legal advice”.

Thornton’s suspension is a serious attack on academic freedom. The university claims in its statement that “academic freedom is a cornerstone of this university and is guaranteed in employment terms under the university’s statutes”. But it is precisely critical voices such as his that must be encouraged if freedom of expression is to mean more than facile sloganeering. The suspension appears even more senseless considering that Thornton says that he had spent the past three years exhausting all avenues to have these grievances addressed internally, only to be ignored and dismissed by management.

This is not about irrelevant campus squabbling, but about the irrevocable damage done to the lives of two innocent Muslim men, and the silencing of an academic who dared to speak up in their defence. This is about protecting the reputation for religious and ethnic tolerance of an institution that belongs to all of us, and whose senior management, as Thornton’s paper convincingly argues, has a case to answer.

If we are serious about fighting extremism on campus and beyond, the fight starts here. This is not a side battle but the very core of the fight. I therefore add my voice to that of Noam Chomsky and others, who called here for Thornton’s immediate reinstatement, and for an independent public inquiry to be conducted into the very serious allegations raised in his paper. Indeed, if, as the university seems to be claiming, Thornton “defame[s] [his] co-workers and attempt[s] to destroy their reputations as honest, fair and reasonable individuals”, then it should be the first to welcome such an inquiry.

Nottingham students are protesting on Thursday against the suspension; I hope senior management will take note. There is no shame in them admitting error, but they must understand that any efforts to protect a few red faces at the top, at the expense of Nottingham University’s good name, would be irresponsible and, ultimately, bound to fail.