Category Archives: Politics

The New Prevent: Birkbeck and the future of universities

In early February, a former Birkbeck undergraduate student was convicted for terrorist intentions. Last year in May, en route to Serbia, David Souaan was arrested at Heathrow airport on suspicion that he was going to fight in Syria.

His case was minor, nevertheless, the former student is serving a three-and-a-half-year sentence. Souaan exemplifies a phenomenon worrying communities and challenging the government: radicalisation, or the process by which a person comes to support terrorism.

At Souaan’s trial, the court heard that his young age and immaturity made him vulnerable to extremism. The transition from kind-hearted member of the community to potential national security threat is more common in young people, according to a review published by the government. As many young people study in higher education, universities are under pressure to prevent radicalisation.

The counter-terrorism and security bill, which will soon become law having received royal assent, will require internet providers and airliners to retain data, cancel passports of suspected national terrorists, and place universities, including schools and colleges, under statutory duty to prevent the radicalisation of students.

Most universities already follow a counter-terrorism strategy set by the government. Aptly named Prevent, the strategy recommends ways to spot extremism to universities and other public bodies. The strategy was revised in 2011 when al-Qaida was perceived as the biggest threat to national security. Now the threat is Da’ish, or Islamic State (IS), and ‘start-up terrorists’.

The government blames universities – specifically vice-chancellors – for being relaxed about extremism on campuses, while others argue universities are overly cautious in following the Prevent strategy.

Joint Branch Secretary of Birkbeck Unison Steven Ellis believes the strategy is unnecessary for there are already laws to prevent terrorism. “If anybody in a university becomes aware of anybody actually committing some kind of violence or attack,” Ellis said, “anything that is concrete on that level, they should inform the police.”

Birkbeck has been criticised for cowering to police rather than representing the interests of the staff and students. Late last year Birkbeck cancelled a conference on Islamophobia after receiving threats from far-right organisations Britain First and Casuals United. The Islamic Human Rights Commission had hired a classroom for the daylong seminar but the event was pulled at short notice.

“It is unfortunate that the circumstances surrounding this conference changed,” Birkbeck stated. “Not only was there a significant primary threat of disruption and a genuine threat of counter demonstration, but there was also the potential of an escalating situation given the location within the Bloomsbury university area.

“Of course, our concern was for participants of the conference, but our duty of care is obviously broader, and has to extend to consideration for our students, our staff and our visitors who might become caught up in, and adversely affected by, such a situation.”

Birkbeck’s Facilities Manager Elizabeth Whitehead added: “Like Higher Education and Further Education institutions across the city, Birkbeck works with the London Prevent team. Through our networks we access best practice, participate in informed debate and discussion and source training.”

In an open letter, activists and academics retorted: “The decision to withdraw from this event appeared to be as a result of buckling to the Islamophobic threats by far-right groups including Britain First and Casuals United (who threatened to demonstrate this event) as well as pressure from the local Camden Prevent officer.”

They further criticised Birkbeck and the Prevent team for not having supported community groups against extremism.

In their letter, they state: “By reneging on the venue, Birkbeck signalled to all of us that our concerns and fears in dealing with Islamophobia were better silenced than tackled collectively.”

Birkbeck countered: “Birkbeck’s doors are open to one of the most diverse higher education communities in the country; Birkbeck classrooms host people from 18 to 80, and bring together people from a wide variety of social, ethnic and religious backgrounds. The College is very committed to that ongoing tradition.”

For activists and academics, the cancellation of the conference shows that Birkbeck is not as progressive as it believes. They state: “[Birkbeck’s] reputation as a pioneering academic institution with a radical vision of inclusiveness that previously opened the doors for those excluded from higher education, seems merely a nostalgic memory.”

Activists, academics and students fear the foundation of the university as an institute for the freedom of expression will soon also become a nostalgic memory. When the counter-terrorism bill becomes law, the foundation of the university will include the duty to prevent extremism. Universities are to be categorised along with charities as public bodies with the public interest and safety as their principle mission.

Ellis of Birkbeck Unison is concerned extremism could be any -ism attached to a controversial subject, such as socialism: “People study all type of political, religious, cultural ideas, which in everyday life you would describe as extreme.”

A new statutory duty for universities to prevent extremism would make students and teachers think twice before discussing a radical view in class. They would “self-police”, Ellis noted, “squashing freedom of speech.”

The policy legally requiring universities to be responsible for extremism on campuses comes from policy that did not distinguish social integration and counter-terrorism. Home Secretary Theresa May said in 2011: “[The Blair-Brown Labour administration] confused Government policy to promote integration with Government policy to prevent terrorism. … In trying to reach those at risk of radicalisation, funding sometimes even reached the very extremist organisations that Prevent should have been confronting.”

In a speech given after the killing of army officer Lee Rigby on changes to the Prevent strategy, May said: “Unlike the old strategy, there is now a clear demarcation between counter-terrorism work…and the Government’s wider counter-extremist and integration work.”

The division of social integration and counter-terrorism attempts to alter the role of universities as well as the Muslim community. With the unmasking of ‘Jihadi John’ reportedly as Mohammed Emwazi and reports of three London school girls travelling to Syria, along with a number of other cases including David Souaan, the government continues to link the rise in extremism with a failure on behalf of Muslim communities.

David Cameron called on the Muslim community to challenge the ideology of IS and actively prevent extremism. The Prime Minister and other national leaders are of the opinion that this new terrorist group has manifested from a religion uncritical of the violent minority of its followers.

The government has challenged Muslims to prove their nationalism.

In a letter to Muslim community representatives after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Secretary of State Eric Pickles wrote: “You, as faith leaders, are in a unique position in our society. You have a precious opportunity, and an important responsibility: in explaining and demonstrating how faith in Islam can be part of British identity. … There is a need to lay out more clearly than ever before what being a British Muslim means today: proud of your faith and proud of your country.”

Zakariya Mohran, member of UCLU Islamic Society, told the Lamp and Owl: “British values are Muslim values, and Muslim values are British values.”

Mohran and the president of the Society, Yusuf Zakaria, believe IS is not alone in abusing the teachings of Islam – the British government and the media do as well.

The portrayal that “Islam is about violence, and Islam is unaccepting of other faiths, that Muslims generally want to take over [the world], is completely not true,” Mohran said. “When an event happens that is evil [the media] link it up with something to do with Islam, which it’s nothing to do at all [with Islam], and vilifies Islam as a whole.”

He gave the example of how dawah – opening dialogue to teach Islam – has been linked to the act of killing, such as with the murder of Lee Rigby.

“They are implicating a whole bunch, a quarter of humanity, that are devout followers of a religion to a bunch of nut-jobs who just want to go out and do some evil stuff,” Mohran said.

The Society has been criticised for inviting extremist speakers who have supported terrorist attacks. Mohran said the speakers’ comments have been “blown out of proportion” and “taken out of context.”

Speaking on the counter-terrorism bill, Mohran said the legislation “makes extremism applied to whatever they want to apply [it] to – it’s very ambiguous.”

The theory of radicalisation is also ambiguous. For such a complex process, it is often reduced to deceivingly simple terms. Cameron has used the analogy of a “conveyer belt”. This brings to mind the image of a young student going through a machine marked ‘terrorism’ and coming out as a balaclava executioner.

Some critics see radicalisation occurring in a different way. The advocacy organisation CAGE suggests Mohammed Emwazi was radicalised in reaction to harassment and pressure from MI5 officers to join their agency: “Emwazi’s treatment by the UK fuelled his radicalization, and not the other way around.”

The Home Office have neither confirmed nor denied that MI5 attempted to recruit Emwazi.

Other critics see both interpretations of radicalisation as one-sided: they do not factor in other contributing elements such as British foreign policy and the fragile state in the Middle East.

For all of the thwarted plots Home Secretary Theresa May has boasted before, recent debate in the government has focused on the management of intelligence agencies and their failure to prevent crimes related to terrorism. They have been criticised for not monitoring closely Lee Rigby’s killers, Emwazi and the three travelling London schoolgirls.

The counter-terrorism bill was not required for the authorities to become aware of David Souaan. Nor was it by using the Prevent strategy that the former Birkbeck student was flagged up. By their own volition, students informed the authorities about David Souaan, concerned about his extreme views.

“Hello from Syria” Souaan texted to a friend at the start of last year. Squatted on top of a shelled, destroyed tank, Souaan faces the camera wielding a machine gun. He is the only person in the picture. There are palm trees behind, blue sky above and rubble about. The battle seems to have moved on – Souaan late on the scene. The photograph was taken January 2014 when Souaan travelled to Syria.

At his trial he told the Old Bailey the reason for his trip to Syria was to help collect his grandfather’s belongings after Assad forces fired rockets at the family’s hometown of Deir ez-Zor.

The prosecutor, Sarah Whitehouse QC, told the court Souaan’s friends might have exaggerated the photos he had shown them, but further evidence supported he was preparing for terrorist acts.

When Souaan was arrested at Heathrow, police uncovered documents on his laptop and smartphone revealing his “extremist sympathies”. One such document was a video clip of a man slitting the throat of another.

Other footage reportedly showed Souaan at a demonstration in the UK calling for the flag of Tawheed, used by IS, in London. Along with text and Skype messages, all this evidence suggested Souaan’s record of “extremist sympathies” equated to extremist activities.

According to the Press Association, Judge Peter Rook admitted to Souaan in court: “…his case was at the lower end of the scale but nevertheless serious.”

The increasing influence and power of IS, and Western withdrawal of support for Syrian rebel groups likely factored in the jury’s verdict to find Souaan guilty of terrorist activity.

Souaan’s lawyer Ali Bajwa QC described the defendant as experiencing “loneliness and isolation” from family when studying Global Politics and International Development at Birkbeck. The homesick student was “emotionally immature and naïve,” Bajwa said.

The UK is not Souaan’s native country. His home is Serbia where his Christian mother was born – his Muslim father is Syrian.

Replying to the question of why he posed with guns in Syria, Souaan said: “At the time when I was there I felt something like I wanted some trophy – the photos.” He added, as though he was much older: “As the teenagers say nowadays, it looks ‘cool’. So that was the reason.”

It hasn’t been that long since Souaan was a teenager. He is 20 years old. He is serving a three and a half year sentence at a young offenders institution.

What about the Welfare? #BBKelects

A week ago Monday, the Birkbeck hustings saw two big personalities take to the stage to argue the merits of voting for them to become the 2015-16 Welfare Officer. There had been some significant competitive steam on the Internet in the runup to the hustings after Darren Shaw of the Psychology society and Steven Hayden of the Law Department released campaign videos.

I’ve been at Birkbeck for a few years now and this was the first time I saw campaign videos as part of social media campaigns on Facebook, despite having regularly seen it from friends in more conventional universities. Although one of the competitors was a first year at Birkbeck, both contenders at the hustings were grown men.

The first year, Hayden, had tried to court my vote over a pint by evoking negativity around the other candidate, just prior to the opening of the two-week polling period. This bitter attitude continued into the hustings, where candidate Shaw heckled Hayden in Jamaican Patois for making a passing insinuation of his inability to run the Welfare portfolio on the basis of his successful Psychological society.

A week later, it materialised that both these candidates had stood down from the race. Steven Hayden, regardless of his opinion of Darren Shaw, made a good point that the Welfare Officer position would entail a great deal of work. Housing, he stressed, was the main area of issue for Birkbeck students.

We will never know what either would have brought to the job beyond rhetoric. Hayden and Shaw’s supporters were keen on discrediting the other on the grounds of an “All Flash, No Substance” argument. The Law clique affiliated in the Students Not Profit slate passed accusations on Darren on the basis on his having different Facebook profiles; meanwhile, Tony Halliday’s changing array of names, which ended up as Steven Hayden on the bill, raised the same questions of integrity.

Regardless of what truth was in their names, there is only one recognizable union name left standing on the Welfare bill. Sofiya Ahmed is a 3rd year PPH student and Kashmiri liberation activist. She was originally Anti-Fascism, Anti-Racism Officer at Birkbeck before ascending to joint Women’s Officer of NUS London. Her base in the Islamic society and politics department gives her a real chance of winning. The question remains: What do Birkbeckers expect of someone in this important role? As she did not attend the hustings, there is little clue of what is being offered beyond a generic commitment to “free education”, among other buzzwords seen on her flier.

Street Girls in Cairo: An Interview with @NellyAli

Nelly Ali teaches childhood studies and children’s rights at the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) and is studying the International Childhood Studies PhD at Birkbeck. She recently edited a special issue in Global Studies of Childhood on methodological and ethical difficulties of studying sexuality and childhood. She did ethnographic research in Egypt for 3 years, working with street girls, specifically, girls 9-16 who have children of their own.

She keeps a blog where you can read more about her experiences and thoughts doing research in Egypt.

I had a chat with her about her research.

Street girls – Does that mean they’re homeless and live on the street?

Yes, or moved into shelters or lived at shelters while living on the street.

Are there any street boys in Egypt?

Yeah there are but what’s really interesting is when you refer to “street children” people are often referring to street boys, and you know that because when they’re talking about street girls they say “street girls.”

That’s really interesting.

Isn’t it? And it’s important because a lot of facilities that provide for street children are very boy-focused. For instance, in Egypt, the shelters for girls only started providing services that were gender-specific in 2003. So the same NGO was working for street children – street boys – since 1998, and it took them 15 years to catch on that girls would need services as well.

And it wasn’t like, “Now we’re providing these services for girls; everything is wonderful.” They found so much resistance from the local community. The local community felt like, “This shelter is like a brothel. You bring them in, you wash them, and you let them back in the street where they’re being prostituted for higher prices now that they’re clean and well-dressed.” They were breaking the windows of the shelters. There had to be a lot of community work and awareness-raising. They eventually had to move to a different location altogether.

Before I went out, I read 187 books, journals, and articles about street children, and only three of them were about girls and they were written from accounts that boys made. When I went out to Egypt, my research aims were to research resilience in street boys between the ones who left home and the ones who carried on in their poverty or abuse at home. When I went to Egypt in 2011, the uprising happened and they overthrew the government. I was part – I’m originally Egyptian – of this activist movement – I put the PhD on hold and started going to these demonstrations – realising then that there were street boys and girls at the protests.

So when you saw them you thought, “Wow. This is missing from the literature!”

Yeah. I’m definitely going to start researching this. And of course all my research aims changed when I started living with these girls. The one physical characteristic that I noticed on all the girls is that they had a scarring under their eye and a bit of flesh hanging off their cheek. When I got close to the girls and I asked what the scar was, I realised that within 24 hours of being on the street the girls were gang-raped, and after the rape, they were scarred like this to mark them as no longer being virgins. They were like spoilt goods.

So, the theme of violence came up as a research theme because they suffered domestic violence, then they were on the street suffering a completely different type of violence, and the shelter violence, the governmental institutional violence … My whole study became around the experience of violence and the everyday lives of street girls, and around gender and sexuality as well. You know, living on the street as boys to minimise the risks associated with being a girl on the street … and many that I worked with were lesbians who would pretend not to be once they were in the shelters because they knew their access to care depended on them being good Muslim girls, and being a good Muslim girl meant they can’t be a lesbian. And then their struggle around how they live with and marry boys when they don’t actually want to be in a sexual relationship with these men. Really fascinating.

Yeah.

I get really passionate about it (laughs).

There are so many issues there.

So you mentioned girls who are lesbians will try to hide that. You edited a special issue called “Young People and Sexuality” in Global Studies of Childhood, and in your introduction you mention  that some shelters will make homophobic comments.

Going off that – what are the challenges with researching childhood and youth sexuality, especially in Egypt, in a different culture?

It was difficult on many levels.

It’s so difficult being the outsider. The children do see me as someone who came from Western culture, and sometimes in Egypt, even if I’m Egyptian myself but have lived in the UK, I’ve come from a very loose culture where the devil does his work, and I can’t be bringing that in. So I had to be really careful because I could compromise my access.

The conflict comes in part from the needs-based approach that these shelters have versus the rights-based approach that I was coming in with – children have the right to choose their private life and part of that is their sexuality. It’s a value I hold very strongly, so I found it very challenging,  for instance, when I was speaking to a girl and she was trying to tell me about a relationship she had with a girl but she was really testing my waters because she wanted to know whether I would relay that information to the shelter, and the shelter would know she’s a lesbian. She would say, “She was a really good friend of mine; She understood me so well.” She said, “One day she hugged me”, not at the shelter but at the governmental corrections centre, and the supervisor came in while they were hugging and tied them to the bed and beat them with a wooden plank until their bones were broken. So expressing her true sexuality was associated with getting punished.

This girl was telling me an experience she had in childhood. Now she’s heavily addicted to drugs and married to a guy who is a drug addict and doesn’t work. She prostitutes herself to provide money for her husband, her child, and herself. When I was speaking to her about why she even bothers to get married – this was her 4th marriage – when she’s a lesbian, she says, “So people can say I’m a good girl.” The idea of getting married in a heterosexual relationship would mean she’s a good girl, despite being a prostitute and being reliant on drugs. She’s self-harming to cope with having sex with him. All of this so that she would have access to the shelter, access to that respectability that she would have in that social network.

The struggle came from me listening to this and not being able to tell her, “So what if you’re a lesbian? Good for you,” and leaving her with that conflicting information because she’s not going to get that reinforcement from anyone in the shelter.

Also, I could put them in danger, because if I encourage them that this is ok, and then they say, this is ok, this is the way I am, they won’t have access to care … I’m not there for them all the time and I don’t have an NGO of my own that I could then refer them to. It was one of the worst challenges I had because I was compromising my own integrity.

Did you find that there are NGOs that are more accepting of non-heterosexual sexualities?

They can’t be. They wouldn’t be able to be in business. There’s this one NGO that is run by a Christian lady, and maybe my own prejudices made me think there’d be a little bit more lenience or acceptance. The Christians who tend to be in managerial positions come from a different class than the Muslim ones. It’s a strange structure. Class is a big deal there. People from a higher social class in Egypt tend to be more open-minded about things, like sexuality, but then I realised that the people who run these NGOs are very religious people who are very anti-homosexuality.

And they rely a lot on private donations, and people like to give to charity a lot in Egypt because it’s part of the almsgiving of their religion. So, they don’t encourage homosexuality of course but they’re not even accepting of it because it would give the NGO in Egypt a bad name. There’s this one woman who’s Egyptian, born and brought up in the U.S.A., who went to open an NGO during the time of the uprising, and she’s now behind bars because in her NGO it was ok to be gay. She’s serving nine years.

Is homosexuality a criminal offense?

It’s not illegal to be gay in Egypt but there is a very wide spread of arrests of gay people going on at the moment. What are they being arrested for? Carrying out immoral acts.

In 2004 there was a huge political issue as well and the government was cracking down on homosexuality to prove that they were religious so people wouldn’t go and support the Muslim Brotherhood, who are fanatics. And the same thing is happening now. The government, which is military-based, want to prove that they are also religious so you don’t have to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood. And they do that by arresting gay and transsexual people. There’s this transsexual woman who posted pictures of herself dressed as a belly dancer and dancing online, and she got arrested. The headlines read, “The Most Dangerous SheMale in Egypt.” … This is what’s happening.

Do you think it was any easier for you to make connections there because you have Egyptian heritage?

There were certain things for which it was very important that I spoke Egyptian. For instance, before I left, I decided I was going to do a study on shame. With all the reading I’d done, I felt like I really knew what I was doing. There seemed to be a theme running through all these stories about shame. When I went to Egypt, I realised the concept of shame doesn’t actually exist. It translates into “dishonour.” You bring dishonour to your family, to the society; you haven’t been well brought up by your family. I wouldn’t have caught that if I weren’t a native Arabic speaker.

It made it easier because I had access – especially at that time it was really difficult because there was political upheaval, and having Egyptian identity was really important. There were a lot of researchers and journalists who were getting arrested at the time. Prior to 2011, I always walked around with my British passport to help protect me. After 2011, I had to get rid of anything that showed I was British or affiliated to a British university because that would have gotten me arrested, just by the fact that “everybody was a spy” trying to tarnish the image of Egypt at the time.

Do you have an Egyptian passport?

An Egyptian ID. Always coming out (laughs). So I was doing an ethnography, which means I was doing a lot of observation, and being Egyptian meant I could become a participant instead of just an observer. I could offer services; I could volunteer; I could do things. When I was working out there I volunteered as a project manager. I volunteered at the office for two days and they gave me five days access. It was great to have access through the NGO because of safety … It was very difficult to access street girls in particular because they were always protected by street pimps who were very dangerous and wanted to know why you’re talking to them.

What brought you to focus on Cairo?

I focused on Cairo for really practical reasons: I had a place to stay, I had access to the NGOs – they’re mainly in Cairo.

Why Egypt?

I used to go from a really young age and this issue of street children was always really interesting to me. I went to a sports club once with my cousin, and my cousin’s husband physically pushed the street kid out of the way – he was trying to sell him something. When we got inside, I started talking about street kids and he said, “We don’t have street kids. What are you talking about?” And I was like “Oh my god, they’re so invisible, they’ve become so marginialised that despite you physically touching one, you didn’t even realised you’ve got street kids.”

Did you find that ideas about gender in Cairo were different from here?

Fundamentally it’s more about struggle, so the struggle women have to go through there. It’s not that they’re different – it’s just that they’re a step behind. Struggles we’ve kind of won, they’re still fighting for. Again, the timing was really interesting. Had I done this research prior to 2011, I would have said, “Yes. They’re at home, and they’re being oppressed,” but in 2011 there was this really big push in women’s rights; there was a huge push in equality. Six years ago, women in Egypt were given the right to file divorce. There were all these laws made against FGM. So there was a movement for claiming rights and equality but of course it’s a struggle.

The biggest struggle there is sexual harassment. You cannot go out on the street without being harassed, either physically or verbally. No matter what you’re dressed in; no matter what you look like; no matter whom you’re with. So I think that’s the most outward expression that there is a gap.

Last year, when the military took over, one of the laws they brought out to try to gain people’s support was that if anyone sexually harassed a woman in the street, even verbally, they’d immediately – without a court trial – be sentenced to two years in prison. Has it deterred people? It did for about a month. People were sentenced to 2 years, it was actually implemented, and people are still being harassed in the street. It’s so deeply inbred that it’s ok to do this to women.

Under different regimes that take power, they struggle differently. When the Muslim Brotherhood came in for that one year, they didn’t want to sign the UN convention to end violence against women. They said it was against the religion and family values. Different governments bring in different ideologies, but women still suffer under all of them because the culture is still very closed against women’s outward demand of their rights.

You mentioned that a lot of the street kids took part in the uprising. Was that street girls and boys?

Yeah. Basically all the demonstrations took part in Tahrir Square – Tahrir means ‘freedom’ in Egyptian … So on the 25th of January when the uprising started and millions of people were coming down to Tahrir Square, the kids got word that the whole of Egypt were becoming street children … They didn’t know what was going on, but they were like, for years you’ve been telling us to get off the streets, and now you’re on the streets: The streets are our home, and we’re going to show you what it really takes to survive on the streets.

Credit: Tara Todras-Whitehill, AP
Credit: Tara Todras-Whitehill, AP

What was really amazing was that the street kids, during the fights – when the police threw tear gas and opened live bullets on us – would physically not move from the front lines. They wanted to protect us. To them, we’re the only people that would tell the story as it really was – the media wasn’t saying what was really happening – so they said we can’t afford for you to die.

They started off stealing mobile phones, then they realised everyone is chanting for justice, freedom, dignity, bread – stuff that was really basic, that they could relate to. And there was this really nice relationship that developed. We were teaching them to read and write and taking them into our tents, and on the other hand, they were sharing their street knowledge that we didn’t have – where to hide from the police, where to get medication, which pharmacies were sympathetic to our cause, where to get cheap food. It was the first time they weren’t just receivers of charity – they could have a really active role in it.

But you know it wasn’t all positive. There was one street vendor who was shot. He was 13. I have something about this on my blog. It was really tragic. His name was Omar Salah. This boy became iconic because one day we interviewed him on why he was selling hot potatoes in the street. At the end, the guy videoing him said, “What are your dreams?” And he said, “I don’t have the right to dream, Sir.” … The next day he was shot by military in front of the US Embassy, and that was it. He was shot, no one knew to where he was taken, if he was going to be buried, and no one was going to question why he was shot.

We had a blogging campaign; everyone changed their profile pictures to this boy; we changed our flyers to his “I don’t have the right to dream” quote: it was a really big push. And only then were we able to get it to people’s attention. Despite it all – the hundreds of article that came out – they had a little mock trial, where they said it was accidental killing, and the soldier who shot him was dismissed for three years – so no real punishment. That was one of the really sad examples of what it meant to have your children in the street.

So some of us came together, PhD students who were Egyptian but lived in different areas … We created this campaign called “Paper Tissues” because paper tissues are what most street children sell. We were working on rights more generally, but we did some things like train doctors to use the law to … because in Egypt you can’t report abuse unless you’re part of the family, which is ridiculous, so we had a whole training session on how to do that.

One of the things we did was get shelters to come out and physically move the children out before the demonstrations before the violence starts. Again there’s a conflict there with children’s rights. You’re bumping up the hierarchy of the child’s need for protection over the right to participate – in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child they have the right to participate.

Did you find that there were different levels or kinds of violence towards the street girls during the protest?

I think it would be fair to say that both street boys and girls go through a very significant amount of violence. But it’s a different type of violence.

It’s not just about it being sexual: The girls get raped, but boys also get raped … It doesn’t have to be by a criminal paedophile; It will be by older street boys. It’s almost like an initiation process. But the result of it will be different. They will both be raped, but only the girl will get the scarring – because her virginity matters more than the boy’s. So there will be a physical violence in addition to the rape, but also a societal violence. Once she gets that scarring, she will be forever labelled as a street girl and her re-integration will be far more difficult. A great example of this is, before 2008, if a girl was raped on the street and she had a baby, she would be charged with prostitution, her child would be forcibly taken from her and registered as an unknown birth so she would never be able to find her child again, and then she would be sent to a correctional centre for punishment.

Do you still keep your blog updated?

Yeah. One of the ones I update all the time is the accomplishments and achievements one because it always reminds people how doing little things can make a huge difference in a kid’s life. That’s my impact blog. That’s the one I like.

Credit: WordPress - Nelly Ali
Credit: WordPress – Nelly Ali

Did you start that blog when you went to Egypt?

It was my personal blog before I went, then one day I was with the Paper Tissues campaign and we were talking about how shelters decide which girls go to which shelter according to if they’re virgins or not, and we all sat there tutting … how could they do that, they’re reproducing the stigma around being non-virginal. The very next day I went to the shelter and I learned why this separation exists. [Read the story here].

I didn’t know where to go with these emotions and I felt kind of selfish that I was suffering. I thought … why am I suffering as a researcher that has the option to go back home. I used my personal blog to write about this and overnight it was re-tweeted and visited over 6,000 times. Why I kept going wasn’t because it was being read so much, it was because of the impact it had on people. From the surgeon offering free services to remove the girls’ scars, to people sending blankets or having a clothes campaign – all from reading the blog. [Read about the many accomplishments here].

I feel like the research I do in academia might be cited a few times if I’m lucky. To have impact, I felt it had to be a non-academic audience. I’ve dealt with a lot of the ethical issues I had through the blog. You know, I’m gonna come in, I’m gonna get my PhD and live a nice life because … I’ve exploited your stories. It might not be true, but it’s how I felt. I’ve seen so much pain and abuse, but when this happened with the blog I felt so much better. Ok I’m leaving you with something positive for you out in the streets.

Would you say the blog and activism have been you coping with these frustrations?

Yeah, I’m actually writing a paper about that now, with Jessica Ringrose and Emma Renold. They’re writing a volume about academia and activism – and it’s all focused on sexuality really – so I’m writing a chapter in that.

And I think that’s the way I think I can deal with the traumatic things I’ve seen – through activism and the blog. I always say the street children have shown me the worst humanity has to give as well as the best.

Adventures In Economics Part II

Why do poor people stay poor? How can institutions overcome market failures? Why does capital not flow naturally from more affluent individuals to those less so, and from richer countries to poorer countries? Questions like these have been studied extensively and go back, in some form or another, to Adam Smith’s inquiry into the wealth and poverty of nations.

At the start of this academic year I wrote an article, titled ‘Adventures in Economics’, the modest aim of which was to explore and present the continuity of modern economic thought from writings of Adam Smith to the relatively more recent work of the likes of Gary Becker, Kenneth Arrow and Paul Samuelson. In order to facilitate the reader’s comprehension of this long period, the article focused on applications of economics to two observed phenomena that at first seem incompatible with economic theory, namely altruism and the exchange of information.

In the case of altruism, it is often and incorrectly thought that all economic models are based on the assumption that agents are motivated exclusively by material self-interest. This assumption seems to be at odds with overwhelming empirical evidence from behavioural sciences which systematically refutes the self-interest hypothesis and suggests that concerns for altruism, reciprocity and fairness strongly motivate many people. Moreover, it has been demonstrated that these observed phenomena can be explained by economic theory in a rigorous and tractable manner.

Then there is the economics of information, a fertile area of scholarship which has led to explanations of economic and social phenomena that otherwise would be hard to understand. For example, it is now acknowledged that information is imperfect, that obtaining information can be costly and that there are important asymmetries of information. As a result, many models of reputation have involved both hidden actions and hidden information. Contributions to both these fields have led to several Nobel Prizes in Economic Sciences being awarded. For example, Joseph Stiglitz won his prize for his work on asymmetric information, which he shared with others.

At this stage, an alert reader with strong priors may point out that most of the histories of economics fail to give attention to the pre-Smithian era, which ignores a substantial body of contemporary social thought that is traceable to, for example, Hellenistic schools. Indeed, it was the ancient Greeks who first introduced the term ’oikonomia’, which means the management of household affairs. They also first brought forward critical economic concepts, such as value, the distribution of labour, the functions of money, the just distribution of wealth, and the importance of contracts relating to private property. And yet, while it is true that several Hellenistic, Arab-Islamic, and Byzantine schools referred to economic problems, they did not create an autonomous Economic Science, nor did they aim at doing so.

WHAT HAS MACRO EVER DONE FOR US?

While in the first part of this article we have explored the realm of microeconomic theory, now we will touch upon macroeconomics – the part of economics that focuses on the aggregate level of economic activity. Macroeconomics, or simply macro, is an interesting subject, not least because of it being the subject of intense controversy. In contrast to other areas of economics, observers looking at macro may perceive this field as not only composed of different schools of thought but also characterized by a somewhat recurrent state of disarray. Naturally, one comes to expect a level of scrutiny. Given that macro performance and public policy are closely connected, the major issues of the discipline are also the subject of constant media attention and inevitably play a central role in political and public debate.

Modern macro can be thought of in terms of competing schools of thought. Any theory, consisting of a set of views about the way the economy operates, is organised within a logical framework and forms the basis upon which economic policy is designed and implemented. Theories, by definition, are simplifications of reality. This must be so given the complexity of the real world. The intellectual problem for economists is how to capture, in the form of specific models, the complicated interactive behaviour of millions of individuals engaged in economic activity.

By way of illustration of these dividing lines, the former President of the American Economic Association, Robert Hall, at one point divided macroeconomic thought into two opposing schools: the freshwater school, which referred to the new classical economists (and later the real business cycle economists) located in universities near lakes or rivers such as the University of Chicago, Carnegie-Mellon and Minnesota; and the saltwater school comprising the Keynesians at universities like Harvard, Berkeley, MIT, Princeton, Stanford and UCLA near the east and west coasts of the US. As Hall explains:

The freshwater view holds that fluctuations are largely attributable to supply shifts and the government is essentially incapable of affecting the level of economic activity. The saltwater view holds shifts in demand responsible for fluctuations and thinks government policies (at least monetary policy) is capable of affecting demand. Needless to say, individual contributors vary across a spectrum of salinity.

Part of the difficulty for any neutral observer is that much of the criticism directed towards macro, particularly in the wider media, is badly informed. One only has to pick up a copy of The Guardian for strikingly vitriolic accusations, with headlines like ‘Neoliberal policies have no place in the post-crash world’ and ‘Will this recession signal the end of neoliberalism? Things will have to get a lot worse before UK policymakers ditch the current model for a new Keynesian revolution’ dominating the pages. In contexts such as these, the term ’neoliberal economics’ is little more than a pejorative term loosely aimed at any form of pro-free market policy or ideology, and usually refers to any economic policy that is not primarily based on Marx or the less credible interpretations of Keynes.

The sentiment of such articles, often echoed in other media outlets, is that the reputation of ’mainstream’ macroeconomists has sunk in the wake of the Financial Crisis, so time has come to disregard their opinions. Of course, given that The Guardian aims to sell its copies, any opinion it presents should be taken with a healthy dose of scepticism. A more studious reader interested in the nuances that arise out of the interplay of competing schools of thought may start by considering the debate between Keynes and the old classical model before tracing the development of the orthodox Keynesian school, the monetarist school, the new classical school, the Real Business Cycle school, the new Keynesian and then the Post Keynesian schools.

CRITIQUE OF MACRO IN THE MEDIA

In July 2009, The Economist put on its cover a cartoon of a wax-like book, titled Modern Economic Theory, melting into a puddle like the Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. The Economist derided the economics profession for (1) helping to cause the crisis, (2) failing to spot it, and (3) having no idea how to fix it. However, there is no accusation here that economists of a specific school of thought ‘caused the crisis’, even though some did see it coming, and many have since helped to fix it. A more sceptical reader may point out that The Economist is hardly the representative of views of the economics profession as, ultimately, it is a current affairs magazine written by non-economists hired for their pithy and catchy writing style, rather than a publication that aims to promote research-based policy analysis and commentary by leading scholars. However, the points that were raised in that issue clearly resonated with a great number of individuals and campaign groups around the globe.

Critiques of macroeconomics and, more specifically, of how the subject is taught, are being voiced by student groups in some of the UK’s universities. One such group is the Manchester Post-Crash Economics Society (PCES). As the FT’s Claire Jones put so succinctly,

Since the financial crisis, student groups have attacked economics departments for failing to deal with the world’s most pressing social issues, including inequality and global warming. They have also criticised professors’ reluctance to teach a range of economic theories, with courses instead focusing on neoclassical models which they claim do little to explain the 2008 meltdown.

While macro-forecasting is clearly not the main purpose of economics, some economists had reportedly ’predicted’ the crisis. However, almost none had forecast the amplification of shocks that was its unique trait. In this respect, amplification mechanisms (or multipliers) converted losses on subprime mortgages of perhaps USD250 billion into a 2007-09 loss of world GDP of twenty times as much and a loss on the world’s stock markets between 2007 and late 2008 of roughly 100 times as much. Is this a syndrome of symptomatic failure of mainstream macro? The answer is no. The big problem here is that accounts of the financial crisis place too little emphasis on the role of regulatory failure, which began back in 1999 with the Clinton Administration’s decision to repeal 1930s-era banking legislation known as the Glass-Steagall Act that had erected a wall between commercial and investment banking. In this respect, perhaps the most crucial issue was the absence of adequate regulation requiring stringent deposit requirements on residential mortgages.

So what next? All disciplinary establishments rightly attract criticism and, as the adage goes, good economists have two hands, thick skin and a healthy sense of pragmatism. It is true that repeated predictive failures have given rise both to ridicule among the critics and to more modest goal setting among practitioners. Yet, whatever view is adopted about the ambitions of economics, there will always remain some room for the critic to be dissatisfied with its performance. In this respect, PCES’ efforts are really just a continuation of a tradition of critique of how we think about and do economics.

The reality is that although many university programmes offer optional units of heterodoxy, virtually every economist hired by policy analysis institutions, industry, governments or banks has their core training in the standard curriculum. And while there are many students who are campaigning for curriculum reform, the overwhelming majority of students are not. Perhaps this is due to them having done their due diligence and having come to a realisation that a 3 year degree can only do so much. Even the most rigorous undergraduate economics programmes – at say Cambridge or MIT – only scratch the surface.

Charles Shaw
Birkbeck Economics And Finance Society
Twitter: @BirkbeckEFS

Journalists: New Tools for Privacy and Decoding Encrypted Emails

Used under CC license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode
Credit: flickr – Elvert Barnes

We have heard about the Snowden revelations on privacy and security. Nevertheless, have we really taken time and thought about what this threat from government and non-government agencies means? What we know is that government organisations, such as the NSA and GCHQ, want to have every bit of information there is to know — this was what Edward Snowden revealed. The NSA is collecting phone records and web usage data, seemingly from everyday people. Following the Snowden revelations, journalists in particular face a complicated situation.

Contemporary civilization is immersed in technology and especially social media.  It’s a truism that human civilization is transcending with the aid of machines. We are entering a vast new territory of “massification.”  This new sociological  structure and its criteria of civilization seem both inevitable and undeniable. It has thus become imperative to reconsider the situation of oneself in the world.

The problem for journalists is that you need to be aware of what information you are sharing on your devices and with whom — especially if you are doing investigative journalism. As I wanted a visual presentation and theoretical perspective to understand the extent of this revelation, I decided to attend an information, security, and surveillance lecture organised by the Centre for Investigative Journalism at Goldsmiths College the other week.

The situation is pretty grim: I found out we are very open and susceptible to hackers. The technological revolution of the so-called big data analytics of the 21st century, whereby our intimate data stored on Facebook, Gmail, and YouTube is sold to third parties, is real and threatening. Furthermore, iPhone users are the most effected because their phones have built-in tracking devices.

Credit: flickr - EFF Photos
Credit: flickr – EFF Photos

This means the NSA can check emails and text messages through GPS tracking  tools with the click of a button.  Nobody wants to take precautions because it’s made to sound trivial and complex to do.

History shows that new technologies often present unforeseeable effects which are much more disastrous than if the technology had not been developed at all. The problem is, modern man is obsessed with ‘keeping up with the Joneses’; everybody wants immediate gratification and the next shiny object. There’s no caution, until it’s too late, and something’s gone wrong.

Privacy and surveillance are big issues in a technological society. The Centre for Investigative Journalism aims to educate journalists in particular about the measures available for their own safety and the safety of their sources.

Does this mean journalists should do away with Facebook, Gmail, and iPhone for privacy? The answer might be YES!

For journalists, if you go to a source, the best advice is to leave your phone several miles away. Better still, leave it at home, because otherwise you will not have a private conversation. The NSA obtained access to the systems of a number of US technology giants, including Apple, and allowed GCHQ to eavesdrop via this access as well.  Apparently these companies have to comply with US intelligence.  Although, Apple has denied their involvement in the PRISM surveillance programme.

Basically, the irony is, all these devices are like asbestos because they are convenient, strong, and safe in the short-run but show themselves in the long-run to be horrible material with very real negative consequences.

If privacy and confidentiality are issues for you then you need to be conscious and knowledgeable about the Internet. Journalists ought to take precautions. Firstly: start using encrypted emails. Secondly: surf the internet on a TOR browser

Here are some cheap software options for journalists on a shoe-string budget:

  1. Encrypting data TrueCrypt is open source encryption software. Download: https://truecrypt.ch/ TrueCrypt works the same on Windows, Mac and Linux systems and the encrypted containers are cross-compatible between these systems.
  2. Encrypting email for Mac, you will need to download:
    • An email client/mail manager for your desktop – I recommend Mozilla’s open source “Thunderbird.” Download: http://www.mozilla.org/en-US/thunderbird/
    • GPG – Gnu Privacy Guard, which is encryption software. The first pink download box, “Download GPG suite” will be the latest version – click on it to download at https://gpgtools.org/ When the downloads are complete, open Thunderbird from your Downloads folder and drag the Thunderbird icon into the Applications folder.
  3. For Windows, you will need to download:

There’s also a handbook for journalists  to read, which gives a detailed explanation of my overview.  It provides more information on how to surf safely on the internet.

This interview with Arjen Kamphuis, co-founder of Gendo and publisher of the attached handbook, Information Security for Journalists, also provides some great insights.

The Politics of ‘Pride’ Then and Now

If you saw the film Pride at the cinema, you may have experienced what audiences across the world did: people clapped at the end of the movie.  This doesn’t happen often but sometimes an audience is so moved and filled with joy that they must offer up their physical praise right then and there.  In the filled lecture theatre for the BiGS event Pits and Perverts Revisited: ‘Pride’ the movie and politics now! audience members and panelists affirmed having this experience when they saw the film.  If you’ve seen it, you’ll know why.  It’s a very inspiring story.

L to R: Siân James, Bev Skeggs, Diarmaid Kelliher, Daniel Monk, Mike jackson
L to R: Bev Skeggs, Diarmaid Kelliher, Daniel Monk, Mike jackson

At the Pits and Perverts event, we revisited the story of the group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) forming an unexpected alliance with the striking miners in South Wales.  We heard tales recounted by activists who were there, including Swansea East MP Siân James who participated in the strike and Mike Jackson, who founded LGSM.  The feeling left by the film permeated the evening.

The miner’s strike was a response to the government’s announcement of the intended closure of 20 mines and over 70 pits, leaving thousands of workers job-less. Thatcher famously referred to the miners and the Labour party as the “enemy within” in a speech given to the House of Commons on 20 July 1984. LGSM formed because they saw themselves as sharing an experience of oppression with the miners, Mike explained. They were both outcast by society, being labelled by the government as an enemy, and being harassed by police. Bev Skaggs, a sociologist from Goldsmiths who spoke on the night, explained that Thatcher’s government named many “enemies within.” In the early 80s, newspapers often called HIV/AIDS the “gay plague,” like the Daily Mail’s headline, “Britain threatened by gay virus plague” on 6th January 1985. Meanwhile the miner’s strike was an illegal (not balloted) action, so the mining families were struggling to feed themselves without pay or access to government benefits.

A short documentary about LGSM, made in 1986, was shown at the event. It showed campaigners standing outside of the local bookshop Gay’s the Word with bucket pails, asking for change to support the miners. They raised about £300-£400 per week to send to the miners. The miners relied on support groups for sustenance, and LGSM was one of their biggest donors.

SAM_2484
Mike Jackson

Mike Jackson said he joined the Gay Liberation movement because he was tired of compromising his sexuality while campaigning for the Labour party. “The Labour party was characterised by white men in grey suits – mostly sexist and homophobic,” he said. He said he felt that the Women’s Liberation movement was Gay Lib’s big sister.

Siân noted how the strike changed her role as a wife and a woman.

Siân James
Siân James

Before the strike, she was just an adage to her husband’s Trade Union activities. However, the strike needed women to be on the front lines, taking the risk of getting arrested. Women weren’t working, so “we couldn’t be sacked like the men,” Siân said. Siân shared an exchange between her mother and a photographer of women in the strike, Imogen, that captures this change:

 “Isn’t it nice, what’s happening?” Imogen asked, while waiting in Siân’s living room.
“No. I never know where she is now,” said Siân’s mother.
“Where was she before?”
“Sitting at home knitting.”

She plans to soon resign as MP to get back into grassroots campaigning.

The film has given an energy to all who have seen it, whether it rekindled an old passion or ignited a new one. I know many people in the lecture theatre that night walked out wanting to do something. Let’s take this energy and put it into action. We need it now.

You could volunteer for the Camden LGBT Forum, donate to OutRage, or join the LGSM in their campaigning, as they have reformed after 30 years. To do the last one, I recommend inquiring at Gay’s the Word at 020 72787654 or sales@gaystheword.co.uk. One speaker of the evening, Diarmaid Kelliher, emphasized how important Trade Unions are to the solidarity movement, and recommended that more young people join and broaden the unions. You can look find your local union here.

The London Pride march in 2015 will mark the 30th anniversary of the miners coming to the Pride march to return the support the lesbians and gays gave them.

Pride is still playing at the Odeon Panton Street in central London at 17:00 M-R.