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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Land of the free

An intriquing and very disturbing letter in the Western Mail this morning from a Christopher Wood, who describes himself as an Attorney at Law, (US Federal Law), and who is based in Arlington, Virginia (in the DC metro area). He writes:

I was astonished to read Swansea University Professor Sheehan's diatribe in the Western Mail ("Britain and US seen by Muslims to have failed the Islamic world", August 14).

By these statements Swansea University is actually justifying future terrorist acts on Welsh and British soil, an astonishing and disgusting position for Swansea University to adopt.

In the absence of immediate clarification, this position taken by Swansea University will have devastating repercussions and will reverberate around the world.

As a Welshman and as a US citizen, I am disgusted by Swansea's University's stance in justifying past and future terrorist acts.

In the absence of immediate clarification I intend to take this matter up with Senators and Members of Congress to demand Swansea University's position as a participating institution in the US government federal loan program is anything but.

Swansea University has, In the absence of immediate clarification, rendered itself a pariah in the fight against international terrorism.

My first reaction was to ask whether in the sanctions he was suggesting Mr. Wood was confusing my home university with Swansea, Massachusetts or Swansea, South Carolina. It turns out however that Swansea University is signed up to the US Government Federal Loan programme, presumably for the benefit of the few American students who come over here to study. It is strange that somebody would seek to restrict educational opportunities for fellow countrymen and women because he disagrees with the views of one Professor.

In fact the tone of the whole letter is bizarre. I thought America was the place where freedom of speech is enshrined in the constitution. Nowadays that only seems to be the case if you agree with the neo-cons. As an Attorney at Law Mr. Wood should also be aware that one employee cannot set policy for an institution in the way he implies, especially when that person is giving a professional view based on years of research and experience.

What is even stranger is the interpretation of Professor Sheehan's comments, which can be found here. His thesis is that the phenomenon of British Muslims prepared to carry out attacks on their own soil is the result of British foreign policy which has alienated the Arab world. He does not make excuses for their actions nor does he seek to justify them. His sole purpose is to try to explain and in doing so shed some light on recent events.

Professor Sheehan, who is also head of the university's Callaghan Centre for Conflict Studies, said, "It's not a rejection of British society as such but a rejection of British foreign policy. Britain is on the sharp end because it's seen to have failed the Islamic world in terms of its slavish support of Israel and failure to support Palestine. That's created a major dislike of the West, and specifically the UK and the US, because they are seen to be most associated with Israeli interests.

"There's a sense that the West isn't really interested in the Arab world - apart from oil - and, when it does have an interest, it favours Israel.

"The invasion of Lebanon has reinforced the feeling that it's one rule for Israel and another for the rest of the Arab states in the Middle East.

"As long as you have got that feeling, there will be some people who will be prepared to take violent action against the West."

Although some have linked the rise of Islamic extremism among young British Muslims to divided communities, failed assimilation and lack of a shared concept of Britishness, Professor Sheehan disagrees. He links the growth of organisations, such as al-Qaeda and groups linked to it, to the "march of fundamentalism" fuelled over the past 20 years by the rise of anti-West powers in some countries within the Middle East and the retreat of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, which he said convinced many of the conquering power of Islam. Such religious fundamentalism, rather than a lack of British identity, is to blame, he said.

"I think the people who are arguing have misunderstood the situation. They have over-reacted to the events of last summer and come out with this idea before they knew about the groups and the people connected with them," he said.

"People come to Britain because it's an attractive place to come to. It was a refuge from the horrors they were fleeing. You wouldn't go to a country if you hated it.

"But, as long as you are part of an immigrant community, you will continue to have a connection with the home country."

This is a reasonable analysis, but even if you disagree with it that is no reason to seek to suppress it. We need to have this debate simply because we must accept that the World situation is very complex and that there are no black and white solutions. All sides have committed acts that can be questioned. If we are to find answers then we need to understand how people arrived at the positions they are at and then work to resolve differences.

The sort of head-in-the-sand, knee-jerk censorship being advocated by Christopher Wood is both anti-democratic and contrary to the principles of free speech championed by his country's founding fathers. His views are a sad reflection of the bunker mentality that some Americans, including the President, have got themselves into.
"I intend to take this matter up with Senators and Members of Congress to demand Swansea University's position"

I'm sure Swansea Uni is shaking in it's boots - not!
You have to wonder about the educational values surrounding this attorney at law. Is it not the job of and duty of our leading academics to ask queations of the world? Considering Prof. Sheehan works in the Dept. for International Relations, it is entirely within his line of work to discuss uk foreign policy and seeing that his ideas are also shared by some Members of Parliament, will C. Wood be asking the Speaker of our House to condemn them? What a farce.
To describe Sheehan's depiction of terrorism as 'a rejection of British foreign policy' doesn't seem to me to be a reasonable analysis, to use your words.

Extremist Islamic terrorists don't just object to our foreign policy, Peter. They object to our domestic policy on, say, equality of opportunity for men and women, and our reluctance to murder people because of their sexuality. And they object to representaional art. And music.

Which of our these would you willingly give up?

Oh, and they object to freedom of the press and freedom of expression and freedom of religion, too. The US Consitution is anathema to their nasty theology.

Wood doesn't advocate censorship, as you claim. He isn't being 'anti-democratic', as you claim. Yes, the Bill of Rights protects freedom of speech; no, it doesn't oblige American taxpayers to support financially just any institution that holds its cap out.
I think you need to re-read the post David. I did not describe Sheehan's depiction of terrorism as a 'rejection of British foreign policy', he used those words himself to define one of the motivators of muslim terrorists. Nor have I expressed a view on Sheehan's thesis other than to say he is entitled to put it forward and that it is necessary to have a debate. In that sense your questions are academic and rhetorical. You are better directing them at Professor Sheehan. By the way the US Federal loan programme does not support Swansea University it supports the American students who attend there.
Not publishing my response, Peter?

You described Sheehan's analysis as reasonable when it isn't (tell me, what specific foreign policy was being object to when 67 Brits were killed on 9/11); you said Wood was trying to censor and supress views when he isn't; you described Wood as anti-democratic when he isn't (as far as it's possible to tell); you suggest freedom of speech in the US is protected only for neocons - it isn't, just Sunday I bumped into a demo right in front of the White House.
I have published everything you have posted on this issue David!

Frankly, I think that Sheehan's analysis is reasonable. It certainly is not complete because there are other factors as well but clearly the tone of US and British Foreign policy has led to militant reaction that I believe is unacceptable but is there nevertheless. I find your whole anti-Muslim tone to be objectionable and unreasonable. There are extremists in every religion and a great deal of damage has been done in the past in the name of Christianity.

As for Wood he is clearly seeking to censor views. You are the only person who does not see that. Ostensibly America does have freedom of speech but the way that the neo-cons use the levers of Government to subtly penalise people who hold contrary views to themselves goes against the spirit if not the letter of the First Amendment.
Here's a link to a photo I took of the demo last Sunday, right opposite the White House:


- and you also implied Swansea Uni isn't supported by the loan scheme - it is, it pays US students' tuition fees
I think my saying that the Federal Loan programme supports the American Students who study at Swansea is much the same as you saying that it pays their fees. The principle is that the funding follows the students and not the institution and that if it is withdrawn it will be the students who suffer the most.
Let's not fling around cheap unpleasantries, Peter. Your position demands a more level-headed discourse.

You read my remarks as having a particularly 'anti-Muslim' tone, an allegation I object to very strongly. In fact I wrote about extreme Islamic terrorists. The 9/11, Beslan, Bali, Madrid and 7/7 terrorists were avowed Muslims, certainly in part motivated by their understanding of their faith. The supporters of al-Queda, the Taliban, were explicitly extremist Muslims. The same goes for the Shia extremists of Iran, Hamas and Hizbollah, all of whom explicitly argue for the destruction of Israel (and, in the case of the fruitcakes of Hamas, the end of all Rotarians, too).

It seems peculiarly blinkered to ignore the religious component of their extremism, expecially when they themselves put so much store by it. What, in your world, would I be allowed to call them if not 'extremist Islamic terrorists'? Could we agree on Islamofascists?

It's also true that Islam is generally against sexual equality, against homosexuality, against freedom of expression and freedom of religion and representational art and most if not all kinds of music.

Of coure there are or have been extremists in every religion. Any religion claiming direct, infallible knowledge of the wishes of a one true God will foster extremism. I don't follow your line of thought when you suppose that in pointing out the past misdeeds done in the name of Christianity in some way cancels out horrors perpetrated in the name of Islam or invalidates opposition to them.

At the moment, though, I wasn't concerned about Christian, Buddhist or Hindu terrorists when I flew back from Washington yesterday morning. Why do you think that was?

Whether or not Wood is 'clearly seeking to censor' views, you've overreached yourself in claiming I'm the only person who doesn't see that he is; and besides, as a private US citizen he's within his rights to protest in the way he's proposed. As a private citizen he's unlikely to have any sway whereas you, as a public official, might well pause before making the sort of remark you've just made.

As for sneering that 'ostensibly America does have freedom of speech', America has the best protection of free speech of any country I know about. Do you know any better, Peter?
With regard to the issue of academic freedom of expression, I concur absolutely that academics enjoy freedom of speech within the law. I have never indicated otherwise.

Professor Sheehan took care to point out that he was a Swansea University Professor and headed up Swansea University’s Centre for Conflict Studies. Putting on such clothes he should have qualified his statement to the effect that he was not speaking on behalf of Swansea University or even on behalf of Swansea University’s Centre for Conflict Studies that he heads up.

It turns out that Professor Sheehan was not representing the views of Swansea University. Thus, the matter is cleared up. I now know this because I received a communication from a representative of Swansea University who stated clearly that Swansea University has not expressed a corporate view on the matter. Specifically, Professor Peter Townsend (Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Administration, University of Wales Swansea) communicated to me (on 16th August, 2006): “Secondly, and probably what you are seeking, is that the views of Professor Sheehan in this article are his own personal views. The University has not expressed a corporate view on these matters. It is unfortunate that the newspaper did not make this clear.”

The matter is, for me, closed.

Christopher Wood
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