Dear SOAS Student Union: Strident Self-Righteousness Doesn’t make you Right

SOAS Student Union

Perhaps it was no coincidence that this headline appeared in the Times of London on January 15th, the day before Martin Luther King Day: Black students’ progress is being stalled by university tutors who are “60-year-old white men” and “potentially racist”.

In a report, cleverly titled ‘Degrees of Racism’, the SOAS student union demanded that, “all academics must be prepared to acknowledge that they are capable of racism”.  The set of “potentially racist” tutors is exactly all tutors, so this demand is about as useful as an ashtray on a motorcycle.  All academics (indeed all adult human beings) are capable of cannibalism too, but that in itself is no reason to conclude that they will be likely to cannibalise students. Presumably some other subset of academics is not capable of racism … and I’m guessing this would be, uh, BME professors? The report’s unstated premises are (1) that the only potential victims of racism are BME students and/or (2) that the only potential perpetrators of it are white tutors. Even if we accept the premise that most racism has been perpetrated by white people, the argument would be invalid.  The reasoning goes something like this:

  • Most known racists have been white.
  • Mr. X is white.
  • Therefore Mr. X is a likely racist.

The structure of the argument is identical to this:

  • Most known terrorists have been tea-drinkers.
  • Ishmael is a tea-drinker.
  • Therefore Ishmael is probably a terrorist.

We are being asked to accept the conclusion that most white people are probable racists on the basis that most known racists have been white people. The reasoning would be valid only if being white were a sufficient condition for being a racist. Many factors, such as culture, religion or poor education can account for racism, and there is no evidence of any one-to-one correlation between racism and being white per se.

But then reasoning is not what matters here. The SOAS students’ accusations appear to be less about formulating arguments than using emotive buzz-words as propaganda ploys. Who could resist such emotionally-charged appeals to universal taboos like “racism”? Newsflash: assertive self-righteousness does not make you right. More often, it is the last resort when your arguments are bankrupt. Essentially we are being encouraged to treat as a suspected racist any teacher who is not black or from a minority ethnic group.  To understand how racist this is, just imagine the reaction if we were asked to treat as a suspected terrorist any tutor who is not white European, or as a suspected sexist any tutor who is not female. SOAS student union representatives might retort that I am changing their wording from ‘potential’ to ‘probable’. But unless they wanted us to think that white teachers are more likely to be racist, their report and their demands would be pointless. Their report serves to problematise the teaching of BME students by non-BME teachers in the UK, so ‘potential’ must mean ‘likely’ or else the problem disappears.

The student union also claims that “unconscious bias” is rife at the school.  Is there any reliable way to measure this claim?  The student union’s demands are not a response to any actual incident or accusation made against any particular teacher at LSE or SOAS. It is a blanket charge that is impossible to assess in light of its vagueness and shows scant interest in what words like ‘racism’ mean. If racism means everything – from ‘having more in common’ with Westerners than Arabs to being a card-carrying member of the KKK – then it ceases to mean anything.  Racism is an important issue; using the word cynically to end political debate before it has even begun, or to poison the well, only trivialises it’s meaning and reduces it to a cliché, blunting its forcefulness against genuine cases of institutional or systemic discrimination.  Anti-racism should be a vivid, living ethic, not a dead dogma that we unthinkingly apply more promiscuously than a two-peckered Billy goat. The political use of the ‘racism’ trope has begun to resemble weaving a ‘shark net’ with mesh as tight as cheesecloth, and then calling everything that gets caught in it a ‘shark’.

The students’ report also claims that white tutors allow white male students to dominate class discussions. Before drawing hasty generalisations from this, we might wish to assess this claim a bit further.  For example, we might ask how many of the white tutors who allegedly “allow” white male students to dominate class discussions are female. If the number of female professors is reasonably high, we might conclude that any number of factors, including a Western cultural climate of male entitlement, might explain the dominance of white males. (By the way, acknowledging this does not mean that non-Western cultures do not also foster a climate of male entitlement.) Other culture-specific factors, such as cultural taboos about inter-generational ‘disrespect’, could also account for differences. But the student union’s report goes on to claim that white tutors also have lower expectations of black and ethnic minority (BME) students because of “racist stereotypes of people of colour as less capable, or lazy”.  This speculation about the interior psychological expectations or motivations of tutors is impossible to evaluate.

However, one thing is sure, it is odd that the racism of low expectations, when fostered by the regressive left in sympathy with BME activists in defence of exceptional protections for non-Western and/or theocratic culture warriors, garners no such complaints of “racism”.  In fact, it is quite the opposite. As Haydar Zaki has argued, if the far-right’s orientalism can be summarised as “Muslims are barbarians”, the far-left’s neo-orientalism claims “Muslims are barbarians, but it’s  just who they are and/or it is ‘their culture’.

The regressive left scrutinises every infraction of women’s rights except when it is promulgated by Islamists (under the auspices of ‘Islam’). Well-meaning lefty SJWs revere an image of Muslims as unable to (and therefore not expected to) reconcile universal human rights with their Islamic faith.  “This form of racism pains me,” says Zaki, “It assumes Muslims like me are too regressive for the beauty of human rights, which are reserved for non-Muslims.” Not only have multiculturalism’s do-gooders been reluctant to challenge ultra-conservative Islamist theocrats, they go further and accuse anyone who has the courage to do so of “racism” or “Islamophobia”.  Ironically, they pour scorn even on moderate Muslims who argue for human rights against Islamist theocratic repression.

Maajid Nawaz, a liberal muslim who fights for human-rights, originally conceived the neologism ‘regressive left’,

 As I have argued elsewhere, the racism of low expectations goes hand-in-hand with multiculturalist policies that grant aspects of minority culture or ideology special immunity, treating its adherents as fragile infants. Rather than treating members of minority cultures as adults capable of submitting their beliefs to public scrutiny and defending them in response to critical examination, they are handled patronisingly with kid gloves. By contrast, liberal tolerance (which entails vociferous disagreement, debate, satire, and active engagement with opposing ideas) shows respect for the other by treating him/her as an adult capable of resilience in the face of disagreement.

The SOAS Students Union report makes sweeping demands, including compulsory classes for academics to combat their so-called “unconscious bias”, BME hiring quotas, and the granting of long-term contracts to staff so that “all staff feel able to confront each other’s racism” without threat of repercussions.  This looks like a sure way to embolden those who are wont to abuse the “race” gambit as cover for the importation of illiberal ideologies like Wahhabism into Universities. The report’s title ‘Degrees of Racism’ is ironic in light of another report, published by the Centre for Social Cohesion in 2009, titled A Degree of Influence, which listed a number of donations to SOAS from Saudi Arabia and Iran.

SOAS’s Centre for Islamic Studies was established in 1995 with the help of a £1 million donation from King Fahd of Saudi Arabia to establish a chair in Islamic Studies.  The Saudi ambassador told the audience in a speech that: “The endowment of this chair should be seen as part, and a very important part, of the kingdom of Saudia Arabia’s efforts to present the beliefs, thinking and culture of Islam to the non-Moslem world.” One estimate is that during the reign of King Fadh (1982 to 2005), over $75 billion was spent in efforts to spread Wahhabi Islam. The money was used to establish 200 Islamic colleges, 210 Islamic centers, 1500 mosques, and 2000 schools for Muslim children in Muslim and non-Muslim majority countries(1). The schools were “fundamentalist” in outlook and formed a network “from Sudan to northern Pakistan”(2). In June 1995, thirty senior academic staff members at SOAS signed a petition protesting the university’s acceptance of the King Fahd donation. Commenting on the petition, one of the signatories said, “We wanted to protest about the fact that such a large sum of money was accepted from such a source without consultation. Saudi Arabia is known to have a certain agenda on Islam and there could be implications about accepting money from such a source.”(3)

SOAS also received £35,000 from the Iranian government and from a charity closely linked with the Iranian government in order to fund two studentships over a three year period, starting in 1999.  Independent Iranian academics at SOAS said that they would be intimidated by the presence of people with links to Iran’s state security forces(4). In a letter of protest, 74 international academics said the funding raised serious issues about academic integrity and freedom at SOAS. Nineteen professors, nine department heads and over a third of the academic board said the externally sponsored posts “should be subject to the school’s established appointment procedures, including observance of equal opportunity and procedural transparency”(5). SOAS director Sir Tim Lankester defended the donations.

SOAS also received 1.25 million from Sheikh Mohamed bin Issa Al Jaber in 2001, who has been accused of labour violations at Jadawel International’s Dhahran and Riyadh compounds s (an allegation which Sheikh Mohamed bin Issa Al Jaber denies).  Al Jaber’s donation mostly funded the establishment of the The London Middle East Institute (LMEI), the purpose of which was, according to Al Jaber’s website, to provide “a centre of expertise and resources for academics as well as for the world of business, government, the media and NGO’s”. Among his unspecified donations to the Institute was the endowment of a Professorship in Middle East Studies at SOAS, the holder of which is also designated as the director of the LMEI, which its own homepage described as ‘closely linked to SOAS’. According to the Arabic-language newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, SOAS professors were angry that Professor Muhammad Abdel Haleem had been appointed to the professorship, especially as the new post had not been advertised either inside or outside the university  (Sheikh Mohamed bin Issa Al Jaber denies any direct influence over the appointment of Professor Haleem). It also said lecturers believed that the donation could influence SOAS’s teaching.  Abdel Haleem was also one of seven trustees at the controversial King Fahd Academy in London, which operates ‘under the support and supervision of the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in London’(6) and admitted to using textbooks that two independent translators for BBC Newsnight said called Jews ‘apes’ and Christians ‘pigs’(7). Given SOAS’s lack of responsiveness to academics’ protests about the excessive influence of ideologically orientated foreign gifts, it seems rather rich for BME students at SOAS to direct their suspicions exclusively at the university’s non-BME academics.

The SOAS students union report quoted black undergraduates, one of whom asked rhetorically, how he/she could “have rapport” and “feel comfortable talking to” a 60-year-old white man” given that, “our experiences of life are so different and you’re coming from completely different places.” The assumptions about uniformity of experience seem based on the belief that skin colour or age is the main factor around which human experience revolves – which is a totally reductionist view, not to mention racist and ageist. But worse, it demonstrates a kind of tribalism that is antithetical to what education is all about, which is the exchange of ideas between people who may be different culturally, ethnically or generationally but who can transcend their own experiences and learn from one another as human beings who share a common ability to reason. Universities are supposed to be places where people can be exposed to new and different ideas — other than the ones in which they have been nurtured from birth. If there is one thing that literature, cinema and art foster, it is imaginative self-transcendence and empathy with others.  Ideas do not belong to any single cultural or ethnic group.  Ideas can be shared and, through our common human faculty of reason, we are able to understand other languages, reflect on traditions and consider them on their own merit, rather than by their origins in certain groups. By engaging with young people exclusively through the prism of ‘their own’ values or traditions, we only reinforce their sense of difference and separation from wider society. The assumption that only people with shared religious, traditional or cultural backgrounds can fully relate to each other is an essentialist notion that isolates groups into ghettos and sends the message that ‘Western’ ideas are not really for them.  People identify with ideas and beliefs, not only skin colour or ethnicity. This makes the timing of the report on the eve of Martin Luther King Day even more ironic, since King famously stressed (in his I Have a Dream speech) his hope that his four children “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  If the SOAS cry-bullies were correct, then we would have to assume that white students cannot learn from an old black man like MLK, or any other older black pedagogue, which kind of defeats the whole point of racial equality.

This attack on white teachers is just the latest example of what can only be described as a sustained, low-level offensive against the 1960’s-styled liberalism that extended civil rights to blacks, women, and LGBT people and provided the groundwork for one of the most progressive, anti-authoritarian eras in human history. From campuses to courtrooms, an ongoing piecemeal dismantling of political liberalism’s core principles and institutions is underway, partly thanks to student-led movements that are the product of an aggressive multiculturalism.  Young pseudo-liberal social justice warriors no longer seem to know what liberal values are, so they can hardly be expected to recognise when their energies are being co-opted to abolish or attenuate them.

The SOAS student union report called a 10% gap in attainment between white and BME students “significant”, even though it is less than the sector average of 15.3%. They use this statistical gap to shift the burden of proof to Universities in general, stating, “We are open to ideas about how best to address this issue.” The assumption is that the issue of attainment is directly related to their unfounded allegations about race, yet another claim that needs closer analysis. This has not stopped them using their unsubstantiated claims as leverage to pressure universities to comply with their demands. However, the burden of proof rests with them – the plaintiffs – to show that white University professors are racist and that this has caused an attainment gap. Unless they can show that these sensationalist headline-grabbing claims amount to anything more than hot air, Universities have no obligation to redress their grievances.

(1) See also, House, Karen Elliott (2012). On Saudi Arabia : Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines and Future. Knopf. p. 234. “A former US Treasury Department official is quoted by Washington Post reporter David Ottaway in a 2004 article [Ottaway, David The King’s Messenger New York: Walker, 2008, p.185] as estimating that the late king [Fadh] spent `north of $75 billion` in his efforts to spread Wahhabi Islam. According to Ottaway, the king boasted on his personal Web site that he established 200 Islamic colleges, 210 Islamic centers, 1500 mosques, and 2000 schools for Muslim children in non-Islamic nations. The late king also launched a publishing center in Medina that by 2000 had distributed 138 million copies of the Koran worldwide.”​
(3) ‘Troublesome Gifts – A Saudi Arabian Donation Has Outraged Staff At The School Of Oriental And African Studies’, Guardian, 20th June 1995
(5) Ibid
(7) See ‘BBC Newsnight, Friday February 9th, 2007’, available at and for the interview in full,
About Terri Murray 56 Articles
Terri (PhD) is an author, blogger, and has taught philosophy and film studies in Secondary and Adult Education for over ten years

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