1.1 This is an executive summary of a report detailing the findings of an internal investigation into the seating arrangements at University College London during the Islam or Atheism: Which Makes More Sense debate on Saturday 9th March 2013, organized by iERA. The full report of around 70 pages, contains confidential staff and volunteer interviews and personal data, and cannot be made public for legal reasons. In the course of the investigation we have also taken independent advice and guidance from management consultants Communica, with specialist knowledge on management, as well as equality issues.
1.2 The report also contains recommendations of what needs to be done within iERA to avoid the major issues faced at this event.
1.3 The allegations made by the University College London (UCL) are not entirely clear. We have formally requested that they explain how we breached their policy and reasons for the ban a number of times, and to date they have not responded. In the absence of this information, we have taken what has been reported in the media as the reasons for their decision and looked at to what extent iERA had breached this policy.
1.4 From the press statements they have made, the breaches seem to focus on three main areas below and these constitute the key focus of investigation:
a) Intention to Segregate
No specific reference has been given, such as details of what code of practice or terms and conditions were breached. The main statement has been that iERA’s intention was not in line with UCL’s ethos. Based on the discussions UCL had with iERA staff and from point two below, it seems this refers to forcibly segregating on the grounds of sex, and not the provision of a segregated seated option for those with orthodox religious beliefs.
b) Enforcement of Segregation
UCL state that they gave clear instructions that seating was to be ‘…optional and guests could sit wherever they felt comfortable…’
c) That iERA staff had separate entrances for male and female and also prevented male individuals sitting where there were females and this constituted evidence of forced segregation.
1.5 It appears to us that UCL have not objectively investigated what exactly transpired before and on the day. Although they have stated in their press release that they have conducted their own investigation we have not been provided with the findings of it. Indeed, their investigation seems to have taken place without talking to us, ascertaining exactly what happened on the day or talking to our staff and volunteers. Therefore, in our opinion they have made their decision to refuse iERA use of their premises before speaking to any of our staff or understanding what actually happened on the day. This method of investigation doesn’t seem to us to be in line with UCL’s own ethos of fairness and equality.
1.6 The background atmosphere to the event is also worth bearing in mind as actions of UCL and iERA staff appear to have been influenced by them.
1.7 The event was held amidst a background of increased hostility and campaigning against Muslim events by some right wing and neo-con groups and in this case political secularists/atheists.
1.8 Professor Richard Dawkins, a prominent scientist from the University of Oxford, has made his views on Islam well known and it is not clear to us at this point what influence he had on decision makers at the University. Certainly his post debate reported comments using highly emotive language such as “sexual apartheid” and “heads should roll”, had the effect of whipping up hysteria in the media, galvanizing more activism against iERA and the issue of “segregation”. This would have definitely put pressure on UCL staff to have been seen to be doing something.
1.9 The investigation also comments on this anti-Islamic campaigning and how prepared iERA staff were to deal with it, and lessons for future.
1.10 On Saturday 9th March 2013, iERA organized an event under The Big Debates brand at University College London (UCL). The event was titled: Islam or Atheism: Which Makes More Sense?
1.11 The main participant in the debate from the opposing side at the debate was Professor Laurence Krauss, a prominent physicist and atheist.
1.12 Over 350 people registered for the event, and 172 attended. The audience was primarily Muslim but there were a significant number of non-Muslims. From pre-attendance registration it was also possible to discern that this also included people that had previously been Muslim.
1.13 Given the nature of the debate, the participants and those that had registered and the wider climate of anti-Muslim/ anti-Islamic campaigning it was entirely predictable that there would be attempts at political agitating, from all sides.
1.14 It was also predictable that as a prominent atheist, Richard Dawkins would get involved; given it was a high profile Islamic event where science was being discussed.
1.15 iERA staff had expected some trouble at the event, at a staff operations meeting In February 2013 they discussed seating options and plans to disrupt the event being discussed on social media. However they saw the solution mainly in terms of problems of crowd control at the event (examination of initial staff planning for management of problems were around registration and allocation of seating to keep rivals and known trouble makers apart).
1.16 There were no risk assessments or plans to deal with political agendas from atheist, right wing or anti -Muslim agitators, or consideration of how activists might attempt to draw the organizers to say something that may be used against them, or to use the whole issue of separate seating options as a political agenda.
1.17 There were also no instructions from management on how staff should handle certain scenarios or respond to questions designed to draw responses that may be used against them.
1.18 In this respect staff had not fully anticipated the extent of the hostile political climate around them.
1.19 The analysis of registrations highlights those that had planned to attend as follows:-
1.20 Given that the overwhelming number of those registering indicated they were Muslims, iERA staff were right to plan to provide the option of separate seating facilities for male and females, as this is the norm for most social and Islamic events for the Muslim community. To cater for these needs neither amounts to sexual apartheid nor forced segregation, but rather a desire to be inclusive of the needs of the Muslim community (women and men who would not have otherwise attended). This is entirely within the spirit of equal opportunities policies and the law (Equality Act 2010).
1.21 Moreover iERA is a Muslim charity whose donors are entirely Muslim, therefore it is duty bound to meet their needs, and conduct its activities according to the wishes of the community that is responsible for funding its activities. This was an iERA event and the venue, even though it had been booked by a resident student, had been paid for by them (£1200). UCL were always aware of this.
1.22 Those that were planning to agitate against iERA understood this is the norm in the Muslim community and having their own political agenda used this as evidence of forced segregation.
1.23 The event had been had been planned since July 2012 and speakers confirmed at the end of December that year. Professor Krauss had agreed to participate in December 2012 of that year. There were no areas of discussion between the parties and no formal agreement or discussions aside from travel arrangements and questions to be asked. That is until Professor Krauss was lobbied nearer the event about “forced segregation”.
1.24 We have no clear evidence that Professor Krauss was part of any political agenda or grouping intent on making a point about separate seating. Perhaps he was unknowingly drawn into the debate.
1.25 On the 7th March iERA staff sent out an email to registered attendees about ticket allocations and arrangements. Only one email query was received in response. This was an individual who gave the impression he/she was a Muslim asking about photo ID and if there would be separate seating based on gender. Staff at iERA believing this to be a Muslim, assumed this was somebody seeking reassurance about separate seating for Muslim men and women as is the custom. A brief response not elaborating on the details but confirming separate arrangements on the basis of gender was sent quickly and without thought as to its consequences. IERA staff did not see anything wrong with this reply as it was in line with their ethos and policies of meeting needs of Muslim
1.26 This email was then used as the basis of a campaign and numerous complaints to Professor Krauss and UCL about forced segregation.
1.27 After the numerous emails of complaint iERA staff engaged in dialogue with both Professor Krauss and UCL, to reassure them there would be no forced segregation. The discussions and email correspondence shows clearly that iERA staff had no intention to forcibly segregate on the day, and had informed UCL they would have three areas of seating.
“Further to conversations that have happened between yourself and my colleagues, I am confirming that we will adhere to UCL’s code by having:
- A Mixed seating area
- A Male seating area
- A Female seating area
Attendees will be allowed to sit according to their respective choice as discussed”
1.28 This sketch below shows what the seating arrangements were on the day and as stated in
the email to UCL.
1.29 The UCL response did not query this arrangement and stated:-
“Thanks for this. Please do ensure that you make it very explicit on the signs that the seating arrangements are optional and guests are welcome to sit wherever they feel comfortable”.
1.30 There was a misunderstanding and lack of clarification by both parties on the exact details of how this would operate, as if attendees are free to sit where they wish then it is not feasible to have separate seating provision for those who desire that. Neither party followed up on this.
1.31 The practical details of how this would operate on the ground on the day were not discussed by either party or explained sufficiently by iERA.
1.32 There was also a failure by iERA management to convey the details of the arrangements and on signs that seating should be optional to staff and volunteers on the ground.
1.33 On the day there were signs for male and female entrances and this caused further confusion. This was not an intention to forcibly segregate but to facilitate those who wished to sit separately. Once again this type of facilitation is quite common at Muslim only events, but without proper explanation was bound to be perceived as forced segregation by non-Muslims, who would not be used to seeing such signs.
1.34 There were clearly failings by iERA staff in communicating their policy and Muslim community needs and traditions to the wider public, Professor Krauss and UCL.
1.35 There were also failures of project management, communication, perception and operational management on the day.
1.36 Taken together these failings, allowed those who were intent on agitating against Islam an opportunity to make their political points and engage in publicity stunts.
1.37 A case in point is a number of men wanting to move from the mixed areas to sit in the women only area. One male individual not only insisted on sitting in the Women’s only seating area but also in between two Muslim women and had to be prevented from doing so.
1.38 Although iERA staff made concessions to those wishing to move and the hostile individual was given a number of options he insisted on sitting between the women. The iERA staff and security acted correctly to prevent him from doing so as this constituted harassment and a breach of the freedoms of those women who wished not to sit with men.
1.39 With hindsight, when it became clear that this individual was intent on making a spectacle, harassing women, and causing trouble he should have been removed by security from the hall, rather than dealt with through reasoning.
1.40 These events and the activism of opponents, coupled with threats by Professor Krauss to walk out, made it a media stunt and reinforced the perception that there was an intention to forcibly segregate.
1.41 The perceptions were reinforced because by the time of the event, and as a result of the lobbying, there was mistrust of iERA by both UCL, and Professor Krauss.
1.42 The subsequent comments of Richard Dawkins would have put immense pressure on UCL staff to act, and in fact segregation has now become an issue at other Universities, as a result of this incident.
1.43 Whatever the behaviour of UCL and activists, it is clear that there were failings by iERA staff. These failings came together to create a major situation which could have been avoided or at worst minimized if the correct attention and effort to detail and risks was applied.
1.44 In conclusion, it is clear that issues arose because of aggravating factors. However, these issues became major issues due to some fundamental problems in the way that iERA operated. The three biggest failures seem to be in adequate pre-planning, poor communication and lack of clear operational management and strategy on the day.
1.45 This Executive Summary should be made public to help Muslims and non-Muslims better understand the issues and risk involved in holding events.
1.46 iERA should write to Dr. Krauss offering an explanation of events and apologizing for any distress and hurt feelings caused by their management of events.
1.47 iERA should continue to follow up with UCL asking for explanations for their decision, their exact policy and challenge if needed.
1.48 For all future events, iERA staff should always plan and carry out risk assessments on expecting politically motivated agitation by activists.
1.49 One individual within the organization should always be responsible for evaluating and managing risks, as well as managing the project.
1.50 iERA staff should always communicate very early on with venues directly, to ensure both parties understanding arrangements and how cultural/religious requirements are being met and any policies of the venues are met. Developing a better relationship and understanding with venues will go a long way to reassure them in light of external pressure in the current climate.
1.51 There should always be a binding contract with speakers and venues.
1.52 The management of separate seated option choices at events needs to be reviewed to develop a good practice for the day and to clearly communicate to audiences what is happening.
1.53 Security staff should be used to firmly control crowds and that intent on making trouble, and this should be made clear to all participants at events from the outset.
The Islamic Education and Research Academy (iERA) is a UK-based charity dedicated to providing a better understanding of Islam in order to create a more peaceful and harmonious society.
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