SOAS, Tories and Libya

By Colin Shindler, June 23, 2011
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Is contact with a foreign university the same as support for the regime? The essentially Trotskyist boycotters of Israeli academic institutions certainly believe so. But so does Student Rights, associated with the Henry Jackson Society think-tank, which has attacked SOAS for agreeing to teach students a master's degree in Finance at Tripoli's Al Fatah University for a fee.

The group, staffed disproportionately by Conservative party activists, implies that this is equivalent to supporting the odious Gaddafi regime. The "revelation" came through a Freedom of information request, yet the agreement with Al Fatah was already on the SOAS website.

SOAS's contacts with Libya are not new. London University's distance learning programme stretches back to when Tony Blair successfully persuaded Gaddafi to abandon his nuclear option. This was followed by backchannel diplomacy between Libya and Israel, aimed at improving relations. Why then is Student Rights so quick to condemn SOAS for links with academic colleagues? Why were its parliamentary representatives silent when Israel made contact with such a despised dictatorship?

Al Fatah University itself has a tradition of opposition. Before Gaddafi's brutal crackdown in Tripoli earlier this year, there is a high likelihood that Al Fatah students were among the most vociferous opponents of the regime.

SOAS has the distinction of being attacked by the right as a den of antisemitism and by the far left as an epicentre of Zionist conspiracy due to its popular Israel studies courses. Both caricatures seemingly exist at one and the same time.

Student Rights' 0 approach serves only to further demonise SOAS and to delegitimise its attempts to teach young people, regardless of background. Libya will be free one day, but it will be due more to the quiet work of educators than to the bombast of wannabe politicians looking for a headline.

Colin Shindler is Professor of Israel Studies at SOAS

Last updated: 1:15pm, June 23 2011