A democracy of suspicion

Dejan Djokic
27 May 2008

On 14 May 2008 Hicham Yezza and Rizwaan Sabir, respectively an employee and a postgraduate of The University of Nottingham, central England, were arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000, charged with possession of an al-Qaida manual. Both were released without charge six days later. It emerged that the manual was freely available at a United States government website and was downloaded by Sabir for the purpose of his research. Yezza, who had a free access to a printer, printed the 1,500-page document for his student friend (see Melanie Newman, "Research into Islamic terrorism led to police response", Times Higher Education, 22 May 2008).

More in openDemocracy about universities, liberties and anti-terrorist legislation:

Geoffrey Bindman, "Civil liberties and the ‘war on terror'" (6 May 2004)

Geoffrey Bindman, "War on terror or war on justice?" (3 March 2005)

Andrew Blick & Stuart Weir, "The rules of the game: Britain's counter-terrorism strategy"(November 2005)

KA Dilday, "The university's freedom lesson" (22 March 20Upon his release, Yezza was immediately rearrested and is currently facing deportation to his native Algeria, after thirteen years of living in the United Kingdom.

Hicham Yezza - or Hich, as he is known among friends - is a former PhD student in mechanical engineering at Nottingham, where he also did his undergraduate degree. For the past several years he has been working as an administrator at the university's school of modern languages and cultures. It appears he is now accused of working illegally, though this seems unlikely given the university's strict regulations (as a former "alien" employee of the same university I can testify to that). He had applied for UK citizenship, but the court hearing, scheduled for July 2008, has been brought forward and there are worries that Hich will be deported.

Yezza's MP, Alan Simpson (of the governing Labour Party), has stated: "It seems to me that this is a clumsy response under anti-terrorism legislation to the incident at Nottingham University. I can see no reason for an emergency deportation other than to cover the embarrassment of police and intelligence services" (see Richard Osley, "'Draconian' Home Office fast-tracks Algerian's deportation", Independent on Sunday, 25 May 2008).

I ought to disclose to the reader that Hich is a friend of mine. Besides his PhD studies and the full-time job, he pursues an active interest in literature, poetry, theatre, art and philosophy. Hich is also a peace activist and has written for and edited student newspapers. His charm, pleasant nature, humour and an intellect and knowledge that inspire awe, have made him universally liked. I met Hich a few years ago, when he joined my former school as an administrator, but it soon became clear to everyone that this was not an ordinary clerical assistant. A mechanical engineer by profession, he talks with authority about postmodernism, jazz, Woody Allen, politics as well as football. Because of where I come from, Hich would discuss with me the work of Dubravka Ugrešić, Ivo Andrić, Slavoj Žižek and Emir Kusturica.

Dejan Djokic is lecturer in history at Goldsmiths College, London. He was formerly lecturer in Serbian and Croatian studies at the University of Nottingham. He is the editor of Yugoslavism: Histories of a Failed Idea (C Hurst, 2003 and University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), and author of Elusive Compromise: A History of Interwar Yugoslavia (C Hurst, 2007)

Among Dejan Djokic's articles on openDemocracy:

"Serbia: one year after the October revolution" (17 October 2001)

"A farewell to Yugoslavia" (10 April 2002)

"A conflict of loyalties: 1999 and 2003" (6 March 2003)

"Desimir Tosic (1920-2008): in memoriam" (20 February 2008)

Hich is a highly popular and valued friend and colleague, as is evident from the support he has received while in detention - a website and a Facebook group have been set up (at the time of writing with more than 1,000 members), while students and colleagues at the University of Nottingham will demonstrate against Hich's continued detention and the threat of deportation on Wednesday 28 May. Several MPs have taken on his cause.

The Yezza-Sabir case raises some serious questions that go beyond concern for a friend's predicament. They include the issue of academic freedom, but also go wider: indeed, they touch upon the very nature of societies such as Britain and the condition of democracy within them.

Whether there is a "war on terror" or not, and however the conflict which exploded on 11 September 2001 is described, it is clear that it will not end simply by the bombing and invasion of certain "rogue" states. Nor will it end if western countries such as the US and UK increase surveillance and security measures domestically. Al-Qaida - whatever that means - needs to be understood if it is to be overcome. But, how can it be understood if academics are arrested for downloading "suspicious" documents?

I believe that it is especially important that scholars and students of Muslim background are given an opportunity to study this problem in an environment where free debate and serious scholarship exist (see Ayesha Christie, "Freedom under threat", Guardian, 26 May 2008). Yet, how many will dare do so after the arrest of Yezza, an Algerian, and Sabir, a British-Pakistani? And, would the reaction by the university and the police have been the same had the manual been downloaded by two white, western men or women?

It is tempting, but would be wrong to point the finger of blame at those employers of the University of Nottingham who reported Yezza and Sabir to the police. The responsibility for creating an atmosphere where people are invited to feel obliged to spy on each other rests somewhere else. Yet it would be particularly damaging for academia if it succumbed to the culture of surveillance. Indeed, a student newspaper from Nottingham University itself gave early warning of this danger (see Tim Barwell, "Lecturers told to spy on Asian looking students", Impact, 26 November 2006)

To its credit, UK academia has remained largely immune to interference from government. Moreover, UK academics have not, as a whole, replicated the zealous, prosecutorial impulses of some of their US counterparts (as embodied, for example, in the "Campus Watch" initiative) with all the destructive suspicions that these entail. Overall, Britain has remained true to its renowned tradition of academic freedom. So far, anyway.

Yet it is hard to escape the impression that the Yezza-Sabir case is a sign of times where some in Britain - as in other western societies - are living in a state of fear; fear which may be understandable and sometimes justifiable, but which has to a great extent been generated from above.

As I write these lines I am deeply disturbed by the recent events and concerned about the fate of my friend. I very much hope Hich will be released soon and that he will remain an integral part of Nottingham's intellectual scene. I look forward to seeing him again in his favourite spot at the Costa café in Waterstone's in Nottingham's city centre, citing Woody Allen: "I believe there is something out there watching us. Unfortunately, it's the government."

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