According to the annual report published by its student union society, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) has been in active collaboration with the British Ministry of Defence (MOD) for more than four years. SOAS provides “cultural advice” and training to become “cultural specialists” to MOD personnel, directly fighting on the ground. The report, published by Decolonising Our Minds Society, is seen by anti-war activists as an indictment of the institution, which is ranked at par with some of the most prestigious research institutions in the world, and its part in the United Kingdom’s wars of aggression.
The job of a cultural specialist, trained at SOAS, is to help the military personnel deployed in a region to deal with the peculiarities of the locale and the culture. They become a support system for the military expeditions that are conducted by the UK in these nations.
The lessons are intended to provide the military with better tools to sustain their military occupation of foreign lands. The military’s Defence Cultural Specialist Unit (DCSU) works directly with the military forces on the ground in counterinsurgency operations. In other words, the job of the cultural specialist is to provide “soft” tools of domination.
The report also added that, SOAS is among the leading institutions organizing the Regional Study Weeks for the MOD. As per the information received by some of the students under Freedom of Information Act, SOAS has received around GBP 400,000 (approximately USD 489,000) since 2016 from MOD for the lessons.
In the recent years, SOAS has fallen short of government funding to finance its course expenses. It has seen a fall in student intake for its undergraduate programs lately and claims its reserves would dry up within the next two years. Its administration has announced massive cuts in its staff costs to deal with the “problem”. Hence the collaboration with the MOD becomes a crucial source of funding for the institute.
Decolonising Our Minds Society is a recognized students society, founded by a small group of students and activists within SOAS in 2015. The community began with the aim of greater representation of people of color in the academia. It has since included a critical overhauling of the curricula and teaching methods and a more representative public spaces as part of their agenda. The society has come to take on key positions in the students union, very recently.
In their latest annual report, they have deemed the collaboration between the institute and MOD as a “colonial project”. According to the report titled ‘No Decolonisation Without Demilitarisation’, this collaboration is expected to grow stronger, particularly under the new prime minister Boris Johnson.
Most of the training to the MOD personnel is done by the faculty of SOAS, but there is extensive involvement of other universities in the UK too. The report also highlights the fact that the UK has around 22 military camps around the world. The DCSU itself has its roots in the Human Terrain Mapping Unit, that came up during the NATO invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The wars necessitated knowledge and understanding of local cultures in military operations. The Human Terrain Mapping Unit of the British military became DCSU in 2010. DCSU’s counterpart in the US is the Human Terrain System which is based on extensive training in anthropology for better execution of occupation.
The use of anthropology and social research for military purposes has often given rise to fierce debate within the academia. Many, both in the UK and elsewhere, have opposed it as unethical, while others have argued that it helps western powers avoid its past mistakes in such military operations and helps sensitize military personnel of local cultures and sensibilities.
The report also demands that SOAS “must cut all of its ties with the MOD and refuse its historic role as enabling the coercive administration and imposition of neo-colonial capitalist empire across the Global South.”