As a teacher and lecturer, I’ve had a fair amount of indirect contact with Soas — the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University. I first met one of its doctoral students in 2001, around the time I began to send my A-level students to join its impressive list of alumni, which includes government ministers, ambassadors, diplomats, judges and a Nobel laureate. It has also produced impressive research tomes of international renown and is always high up in the university league tables. A sea of diversity under one scholastic sky, with so much to learn through intercultural exchange. For many, the Soas library is a place of pilgrimage.
But I’d now think twice before writing a Ucas reference to send one of my young students there. Not because I’m into the cotton-wool cladding of ‘safe spaces’ against freedom of expression: on the contrary, I view academic study as battleground of radical ideas. But I also value an academic environment in which minorities are not intimidated into self-censorship or bludgeoned into the acceptance of Islamo-Marxist political orthodoxy.
‘When I started there, Indology had presence,’ recounts Dr H, who doesn’t want his name published for fear of repercussions. ‘The corridor I found myself in was that of the South Asian languages department, and it was vibrant. Lecturers had open doors and you were easily acquainted with half of them, even if they didn’t teach you personally. There was a spiritual interest in India and its exoticness, and the number of students was vast. Now, the corridor is quite lifeless.’
This isn’t a consequence of a fall in demand for ‘exotic’ courses, or the fact that students are now encouraged to be more ‘sensible’ about qualification ‘relevance’ in the competitive world of employment. ‘The Soas common room used to be home to a mix of zany students from fascinating backgrounds flaunting their attention-grabbing idiosyncrasies. It was part of what made the place special,’ says Dr H. ‘But it’s now a very different place.’ He pauses. ‘It’s very Muslim-dominant — you can see it all around. You walk into the common room when it’s busy and you feel like you’re in an Arab institution. Before, I didn’t feel a part of the minority because no one was in a minority or a majority: everyone was different and you got to know all sorts of people. But now I do.’
Dr H is a thoughtful Hindu scholar and he acknowledges that he may be guilty of over-sensitivity as a Hindu in a mainly Islamic environment. ‘I do uncomfortably feel a little like a cautious kafir,’ he says. But the experience of other non-Islamic minorities at Soas, such as many of the Jewish students, suggests Dr H is not being paranoid.
Earlier this year, Soas held an ‘Israel Apartheid Week’ , culminating in a vote to ‘boycott’ the Jewish state: not a student protest, but an official, university-sanctioned boycott. Needless to say, there have been no comparable protests against Syria, Saudi Arabia or China, which have far worse human rights records. You might forgive a bit of idealised student geo-political ignorance, but Soas’s decision to boycott Israel was made with the endorsement of the school’s academic staff. The vote was preceded by a six-week campaign during which an ‘apartheid wall’ was constructed and anti-Israel activists went around menacing their fellow students with fake machine guns. Little wonder that Soas Jewish Society president Moselle Paz Solis said the whole experience had left some students feeling isolated. ‘We are too scared to go anywhere so we walk in a group to the station,’ he says. ‘People come up to me and say I heard you hate Palestinians.’ She doesn’t, of course. But such is the ferocity and political dishonesty of the campaigners that Jewish students are considered fair game by some of their more impressionable fellow students.
‘I was surprised that a majority of the academic staff voted in favour of a boycott that left so many Jewish students felling vulnerable,’ says Dr H. ‘But if Arab and Islamic courses are increasing, as they are, then surely the number of academics in those areas will be too.’
Pretty much all student societies at Soas have no choice but to conform to the Islamo-Marxist orthodoxy. Last year, an Israeli student was ejected from the Israeli Society (which is staunchly ‘anti-Zionist’) for having the temerity to oppose the boycott. There is little or no tolerance for anyone who objects to the demonisation of Israel and the casual visitor could be forgiven for thinking that only one religion is tolerated on campus. There’s a designated ‘multi-faith’ prayer room, but the noticeboard has only Islamic information. There’s no prohibition on the monthly meditations of the Urdu/Panjabi poetry-lovers’ group, but those who use the room are expected to conform to Islamic precepts. ‘If I was doing my Hindu prayers to íshvar (Skt. ‘Lord’), then that wouldn’t be a problem,’ says Dr H. ‘But a múrti (Skt. ‘image/statue’) would not be permissible in the prayer room as it violates the sanctity of the place.’ So the Soas prayer room is welcoming to people of all religions, provided they observe the diktats of the sharia. Small wonder the room is used almost exclusively by Muslims.
The Soas student constitution prohibits societies based on race, yet the entire student body defines itself in terms of concentric circles of ethno–religious rhetoric, each competing for dominance. You can be thrown out of a meeting for being insufficiently black, or have your fraternal entreaties dismissed with: ‘Get lost, I’m Muslim.’ Even Soas’s director, Baroness Valerie Amos, is expected to toe the line. On 6 April, she held a meeting with Mark Regev, Israel’s new ambassador to the UK, which for obvious reasons wasn’t publicised in advance. When news leaked, the student reaction on Facebook was savage: ‘She knows she brings shame to Soas’; ‘Regev is an abhorrent racist’; ‘Who the hell meets a vile Zionist terrorist who defends the mass murder of children?’
First a protest page was set up on Facebook called: ‘V. Amos complicity in Israeli War Crimes: Emergency Demo’, then an angry mob crowded into the corridors leading to her office, baying and chanting. ‘Will be around later on to fuck shit up,’ tweeted the trans and gender-identity officer for the Soas Student Union executive, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Israel is unique in the entire Middle East for its unqualified acceptance of pan-sexuality and gender diversity.
This is all quite sad, because Soas has pioneered so much. Tudor Parfitt, emeritus professor of modern jewish studies, has done Indiana Jones-style work on remote Jewish communities like the Lemba of South Africa. But it is certainly questionable whether Soas is complicit in the general hostility to its Jewish population and its imaginary ‘Israeli’ agents because it allows students to organise themselves into warring ethno-religious factions and then sides with some and not others. After all, it’s far easier to target Zionist phantoms than question your own bigotry or confront the illiberal political reality of many Arab states. Soas has become a regressive institution in which the next generation of government ministers, international ambassadors, diplomats, judges and Nobel laureates can wallow in their anti-Israel delusions, while turning a blind eye to the world’s most repressive regimes.