A postgraduate student of counter-terrorism was falsely accused of being a terrorist after an official at Staffordshire University had spotted him reading a textbook entitled Terrorism Studies in the college library.
Mohammed Umar Farooq, who was enrolled in the terrorism, crime and global security master’s programme, told the Guardian that he was questioned about attitudes to homosexuality, Islamic State (Isis) and al-Qaida.
His replies, Farooq said, were largely academic but he stressed his personal opposition to extremist views. However, the conversation in the library was reported by the official to security guards, because it had raised “too many red flags” .
“I could not believe it. I was reading an academic textbook and minding my own business. At first I thought I’d just laugh it off as a joke,” said Farooq, who then instructed a lawyer to help him challenge and rebut the claims.
The university, based in Stoke-on-Trent, subsequently apologised to Farooq, and admitted that the accusation that he was a potential terrorist had exposed the difficulties in implementing the government’s new anti-radicalisation policy. Groups representing universities and students said the episode represented infringements on academic freedom.
When the incident occurred in March, Farooq assumed he was being quizzed by a fellow student but in fact it was the complaints officer. He says he was questioned about his views on Islam, al-Qaida and the news that Isis fighters were throwing homosexuals out of tall buildings.
Farooq said he had been “looking over his shoulder” ever since, and so unsettled by the incident that he chose not to return to the course – but that he felt he had to make a statement about what had happened.
“The implications if I did not challenge this could be serious for me. I could go on a police list, I could be investigated without my knowledge. This could happen to any young Muslim lad. I had to fight back,” Farooq said.
The episode sheds light on how universities are coping with the demands of the government’s new anti-extremism Prevent initiatives, which came into effect this week in response to concerns that campus hate speech was radicalising young people. Some schools are also struggling with the implementation of Prevent. It emerged this week that a 14-year-old boy was questioned about Islamic extremism following a classroom discussion about environmental activism at his north London school.
After three months of investigation into Farooq’s case, Staffordshire University admitted fault and apologised to the 33-year-old, saying it was responding to a “very broad duty … to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”.
The university also conceded that the duty was “underpinned by guidance … [that] contains insufficient detail to provide clear practical direction in an environment such as the university’s”.
Staffordshire added that the official who had questioned Farooq had only had a few hours’ training in December 2013. The university also warned that making a distinction between the “intellectual pursuit of radical ideas and radicalisation itself” was a significant challenge.
When contacted, Noel Morrison, academic registrar and director of student experience at Staffordshire University, said that he was “very sorry that a misjudged situation has impacted on this student.
“We do, however, have the right policies and procedures in place and are confident that the situation was investigated and concluded appropriately.”
“We have apologised to Mr Farooq and are in dialogue with him on how we can support him to continue his studies with us. In light of recent legislation, we are ensuring all staff at the university have the right guidance and training.”
Farooq’s lawyer had also contacted the UK advocacy group Cage, which has been singled out by ministers for campaigning on behalf of terror suspects, for advice.
In a statement, Cage told the Guardian that “since October 2014, Cage has received almost 100 cases [like this]. What this case displays is something we have seen frequently: most notably the over-reporting of normative behaviour, and a fear-based approach that alienates and antagonises communities.”
Although the legal obligation to tackle campus radicalisation took effect this week, in practice it has been observed since the law was outlined in March. Similar duties were put on councils, prisons, NHS trusts and schools in July – as part of a £120m, 10-year programme to tackle radicalisation of vulnerable people.
Megan Dunn, president of the National Union of Students, warned of a lack of clarity in the government’s anti-radicalisation plans. “Students must feel free to learn, explore their politics and campaign on social justice issues while at university,” she said.
“However, we are seeing students worry about being unfairly singled out and staff being forced to monitor students under vague guidelines that damage academic relationships and the education system as a whole. The evidence suggests our fears are again being confirmed.”
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, which represents more than 120,000 academics and lecturers at universities and colleges across the UK, said that the government plans were baffling and fostered mistrust between lecturers and students.
“The latest guidance is confusing and we remain unconvinced the government has properly considered how it will sit alongside universities’ existing duties and codes of practice concerning academic freedom,” she said.
A spokesman for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, which oversees universities, said: “The government has made advice, support and training available in advance of the Prevent duty coming into force. We also have in place a network of regional prevent coordinators who are on hand to advise universities on implementation.
After the Guardian initially published Farooq’s story, the university said it had “apologised for distress caused to the student through the sequence of events”. The institution, it said, had not accused him of being a terrorist, only that “concerns” had been raised by a member of staff.