The real problem is not Adam Habib, but the SOAS trustees

John Kane-Berman writes on the investigation launched into the School's Director

Weird place, the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). To investigate Adam Habib and all the “pain” he caused, as well as promote “anti-racism”, its Board of Trustees has commissioned one Judy Clements. Not any old Judy Clements, but “Judy Clements OBE”. When last I checked, those letters stood for Order of the British Empire. .

What’s with the SOAS trustees? No statement they make fails to mention that OBE. Presumably then they are as proud of this OBE as Ms Clements herself obviously is (no doubt with very good reason). So to look into racism the trustees appoint the bearer of an imperial medal. Obviously the SOAS trustees are not nearly as woke as their counterparts on other campuses, who have long since cottoned on to the fashionable notion that the British Empire was itself a racist enterprise. That’s why they are all falling over one another in their haste to topple statues of British racist imperialists.  

Perhaps Ms Clements should give her imperial medal back to Her Majesty. Otherwise the SOAS lynch mob might get on to her after they have finished with Professor Habib.

Although she does not mention it in her statements on the Habib affair, Marie Staunton, who chairs the Board of Trustees, holds a CBE, which makes her a Commander of the said Empire. She informs us that Judy Clements OBE will conduct an external investigation into, among other things, “unexplored and unactioned complaints about anti-black conduct across the school”, this to be done “in the context of anti-blackness as a structural issue in SOAS”.

However, Judy Clements OBE’s investigation will not be a repeat of the work already being undertaken by the “Race, Accountability, and Listening Action Steering Group”. This group will engage black staff and student societies to “organise listening spaces designed to identify the major strategic and practical shifts that need to occur in the institution”.

Ms Staunton also says, “We want to re-affirm that SOAS has to be – and be seen to be – committed to anti-racism, to tackling hate, to bringing people together, and to listening and learning throughout life”.

As for plain and simple “Adam”, source of the “pain caused to many in the community”, his “unreserved apology” has been noted. He has “re-affirmed to us that he will focus his time listening to black colleagues and students, to help to educate himself, and to keep on learning”.

All this because Professor Habib said in a webinar, in answer to a question, that “if someone used the word ‘nigger’ against another staff member, then it would violate our policy and action would be taken”. He said – no doubt truthfully – that he intended no offence, but nevertheless apologised. He also made the entirely valid point that “you cannot impute malign intention without understanding context”.    

He has nevertheless had to “step aside” from the directorship of SOAS during the investigation by the lady with the OBE “so as not to compromise that investigation”.

Professor Habib’s use of the word “nigger” has prompted an investigation into “anti-blackness as a structural issue” at SOAS. Despite his unreserved apology and explanation of the context in which he used the word, he has promised “to help to educate himself and keep on learning”.

Professor Habib’s name is sprinkled all over the trustees’ statement about “anti-blackness” at SOAS and what is going to be done about it. He has in practice been saddled with the blame for a great deal more than the “pain” his use of a single word is said to have caused.

In thus implicitly pinning the blame upon him, the trustees have contrived to humiliate him, tarnish his reputation, and in the process make him a scapegoat for all the anti-blackness and hate they say exists at their institution. If anyone needs to “educate” themselves and “keep on learning”, it is the SOAS board of trustees, whose cynical and cowardly behaviour is tantamount to legitimating a lynching.

Not only that. Professor Habib took up his post only in January this year. All the “structural anti-blackness” and “hate” must have been there before he arrived. So too the backlog of “unexplored and unactioned complaints about anti-black conduct across the school”. Perhaps Judy Clements OBE will ask the trustees why all these complaints have remained “unexplored and unactioned” until now.

To add insult to injury, the trustees state that “Adam has re-affirmed his commitment…to promoting the best possible reputation for the School globally”. How is that possible with a bunch of bosses such as the SOAS board?

*John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.