In one of her first acts as President of the Oxford Union, Olivia Merrett has invited American author and leader of the group ‘Jihadi Watch’ Robert Spencer to take part in next term’s ‘This House Believes Radicalisation is Born at Home’ debate, along with the radical Islamist preacher Anjem Choudary.
Robert Spencer, who also co-founded the group ‘Stop Islamization of America’ (SIOA), is banned from entering the UK, following the Home Office’s 2013 decision that his visit would not be “conducive to the public good”, and that his views would be likely to “foster hatred which might lead to inter-community violence”.
The ban was issued after he was invited to speak at an EDL rally in Woolwich, where drummer Lee Rigby was killed. At around the same time, Anjem Choudary infamously declared himself “proud” of Michael Adebolajo, one of Rigby’s killers, and insisted that Rigby would “burn in hellfire”.
Choudary has also been pictured with Adebolajo
Another EDL rally is scheduled to take place in Oxford on April 4th, when a counter-protest has also been planned by the Oxford Anti-Fascists group.
Spencer has previously claimed that “there is no distinction in the American Muslim community between peaceful Muslims and jihadists”, and has described Islam as a “threat to the peace and well-being of the Western world”.
In the invitation, seen by Cherwell and reproduced in full below, Merrett told Spencer, “Your knowledge and experience will be of huge interest to many in the University.
Though projects such as SIOA may be appear [sic] somewhat questionable, we would like to hear your reasons behind it.”
Merrett also intimated that Spencer would have control over which media outlets would be allowed to cover the debate, telling him, “The level of media coverage is, of course, entirely at your discretion.”
In a post on the Jihadi Watch website, which was taken down almost instantly, Spencer commended the Oxford Union for extending the invitation, and called for it to appeal to the Home Office to get the ban lifted.
Spencer’s associate, Pamela Geller, was banned at the same time, and yet the Oxford Union also sent an invitation to her in 2014, asking her to speak in favour of the motion ‘This House Believes Islam Is Incompatible with Gender Equality’.
It is unclear whether, on either occasion, the Union was aware of the Home Office ban affecting Spencer and Geller.
Spencer told Cherwell, “The letter to me from the UK Home Office specified that I was barred from the country for noting that Islam had a doctrine of warfare against unbelievers. Obviously many, many Muslims worldwide believe that as well, including many imams who are admitted into the UK with no difficulty. Right around the time I was banned, the British Government admitted Saudi Sheikh Mohammed al-Arefe.
“Al-Arefe has said, ‘Devotion to jihad for the sake of Allah, and the desire to shed blood, to smash skulls, and to sever limbs for the sake of Allah and in defense of His religion, is, undoubtedly, an honor for the believer. Allah said that if a man fights the infidels, the infidels will be unable to prepare to fight.’ So apparently one can get into Britain while believing that Islam has a doctrine of warfare against unbelievers, as long as one is in favor of that doctrine.”
Nathan Lean, a scholar at Georgetown University and the author of The Islamophobia Industry, told Cherwell, “Robert Spencer is a Catholic Deacon and former homeschool administrator who poses as an educated and authoritative voice on Islam. In his books and on his blog, he advances a one-dimensional portrait of Muslims that presents violence as a normative tradition within Islam.
“Spencer is an extremist in every aspect of the word: he’s fanatical about his beliefs that Islam must be singled out for critique and scorn; he’s unwilling to consider alternative positions that undermine his own; he advocates a worldview that’s been praised by a global terrorist (Anders Breivik); his phony organisation, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, marginalises Muslim communities in the United States through various public campaigns; and he has a history of fraternizing with neo-fascists and hardline European racists.
“Spencer should not have been invited to speak at the Oxford Union for precisely the same reason that Anjem Choudary should not have been invited: they are both cut from the same ugly cloth of fanaticism. Choudary believes that his extreme version of Islam is true Islam, and so does Spencer. The normative experiences of Muslims all around the world matter little to either of them. Why is it important to amplify the voices of any extremists through a well-regarded debating society?”
But Tommy Robinson, founder of the English Defence League (EDL), and sometime associate of Robert Spencer, defended the Oxford Union for the invitations to Spencer and Choudary, and called for the Home Office ban to be lifted, telling Cherwell, “I think it’s about time we heard some people who were honest. Anjem Choudary’s very honest, and so is Robert Spencer.
“Robert Spencer tells the truth; that’s all he does, he tells the truth. He’s never called for violence, never incited any hate, he’s just told the truth about an ideology. And the only reason he was banned was because they were fearful that it could provoke terrorism.
“So what they’re doing is limiting not just his freedoms but they’re limiting what freedoms we have to listen to people in this country, because of what the violent reaction could be from Muslims. It’s absurd, he should never have been banned in the first place.
“Not just the Oxford Union, but everyone who stands up for freedom of speech in this country should be appealing to turn over the ban. The only reason they did give a ban was to appease a fundamental and radical minority of a minority.”
Jan Nedvidek, who authored a letter last term criticising OUSU for supporting a protest against the far-right French politician Marine Le Pen, also defended the Union’s decision, commenting, “Robert Spencer is of course a very unsavoury character, as is Anjem Choudary. Their views are of course very objectionable and dangerous.
“However, as much as we might dislike that, they are views which shape many people’s worldview. I think it is important that Oxford students are exposed to those views: you must know your enemies to fight them. Giving them a ‘platform’ is not about legitimising their views, but about exposing them to critique and rejection.
“The Union has hosted a great number of very controversial speakers: a chap who denied Stalin’s actions in the 50s in the USSR, for example, spoke in one of the debates in my first year. Not great, but it was good to see how everyone immediately realised that guy was a joke and not worth listening to.”
However, Imran Naved, President of Oxford University’s Islamic Society, commented to Cherwell, “We feel that it is not appropriate for hate preachers, whether Robert Spencer or Anjem Choudary, to be given a platform to express their views at Oxford University.
“Similar to the invitation of Marine Le Pen last term, it is typical of the Oxford Union and also disappointing that certain controversial and unrepresentative characters are repeatedly asked to speak. We understand the need to promote free speech and fully support this, however, for such speakers it is sometimes a point of pride speaking at the Oxford Union and they do not deserve such a platform.
“It seems unlikely that anything constructive would come from this, however we hope at least it was the Union’s intention that it did”
Nikhil Venkatesh, OUSU’s BME & Anti-Racism Officer, said the Union was courting controversy for controversy’s sake, remarking, “It is disappointing that the Union continues to invite speakers for the sake of ‘shock value’ and publicity rather than informed and free debate.
“Inviting such speakers as Spencer and Choudhary intimidates many students in our community, mainly those from already marginalised groups. Good debate requires an atmosphere in which every participant feels comfortable – at the moment, sadly, the Union is not that atmosphere.”
The Oxford Union could not be reached for comment, while the Home Office told Cherwell that since the pre-election period had started, it could not provide a comment either.
The invitation sent to Robert Spencer