By Will Durrant, BA History.
The Students’ Union has renewed its support for the Demilitarise SOAS campaign.In a statement sent to members of the Students’ Union earlier this month, Youssra Elmagboul said that the Union finds any partnership between SOAS and the Ministry of Defence (MOD) ‘unacceptable.’
The Union statement comes after Decolonising our Minds found that SOAS has received up to £400,000 in exchange for ‘Regional Study’ lessons given to members of the MOD. The SOAS Spirit published the findings in its December issue.
The Union began its support for the campaign in November after a Union General Meeting (UGM) motion was passed calling for an ‘end [to] institutional collaboration with the Defence Cultural Specialist Unit and Ministry of Defence.’
In the statement, Elmagboul said: ‘We are deeply concerned that the specialist knowledge that SOAS prides itself on – from anthropology to geography, linguistics to politics – is being used, at best, to generate more inclusive forms of imperial governance, part of a broader military strategy to win ‘hearts and minds’ in occupied countries. At worst, it is being used to neutralise or destroy potential sites of resistance to war and military occupation, thereby maintaining the compliance of local populations.’
Elmagboul also noted that conflicts and wars with which the British military is involved ‘have an immeasurable impact on the lives and livelihoods of millions around the globe.’ The statement continued, ‘We recognise that many members of our community are impacted in various ways by military interventions from Britain and its NATO allies.’
Environmental impacts of war were also addressed in the statement: ‘As fires and floods rage across the world, it is important to note that war and militarism contribute significantly to the climate and ecological crises… We emphasise the sentiment in the UGM motion that it is inconsistent for SOAS to declare a climate emergency, claiming to be responding to the gravity of these crises with the urgency required, whilst it collaborates with the most ecologically destructive industry in the world.’
Whilst the campaign has a wide student backing, one SOAS professor who has delivered training to the MOD came out in public support of the partnership between the School and the MOD. Gilbert Achar, a Professor of Development Studies and International Relations, wrote an open letter to students last July, when the collaboration between SOAS and the MOD first came to light.
“SOAS has received up to £400,000 in exchange for ‘Regional Study’ lessons given to members of the MOD.”
In the three-page letter, Achar warned students that without MOD or state funding, the School would need to raise its tuition fees for international students and press the government to raise its caps on tuition fees for UK and EU students. He said: ‘Taken to its logical ends, the absolutist logic of [ending ties between universities and the British ‘neo-colonial’ state] would lead students to refuse to be educated in public academic institutions, which are arguably cogs in the capitalist/imperialist state system.’
Achar also asked: ‘Should we prefer that the military and security personnel of this country be solely exposed to right-wing education?’
He argued that the MOD should hear from SOAS as a ‘critical institution’ to break down right-wing ideologies present within the British military. He cited the ‘bunch of military right-wingers who were using Jeremy Corbyn’s portraits as targets for shooting training’ as topical evidence that more left-wing voices should be heard by armed forces leaders and staffers. The letter attributes this argument in part to Noam Chomsky, who ‘convinced [Achar] that it is important to let critical voices be heard even amongst the military.’
Despite the Professor’s criticism of the campaign, the Union says that more than 50 academics have signed the Demilitarise SOAS Open Letter calling for an end to ‘academic collaboration with the Defence Cultural Specialist Unit.’ Students, academics, and alumni are still invited to sign the letter.