Students at the University of Milan have been told they cannot hold an event featuring a man who fought against the Islamic State (Isis) with the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), as the presence of a fighter would post a "high risk" to the community.
At the beginning of January, an informal student group tried to book a room at the university to hold a talk with Davide Grasso, who returned to Italy from Syria in October 2016 after spending five months in the Kurdish autonomous region of Rojava, in the northern part of the country.
After waiting for a reply for more than three weeks, an email notified the students that the request was not going to be granted. "The participation of a fighter at the event in question is the source of high risk to the university community," the mail stated.
The students were surprised. "We never thought there would be any problem," philosophy student Bruno di Benedetto, one of the event's organisers, told IBTimes UK. The talk was scheduled for Monday 13 February would have discussed the situation in Syria, including the different groups involved in the war, the Kurdish perspective and the role of international players in the conflict.
"This ban is very serious. It prevents us from talking about Syria and the fight against Isis and its political aspects, and this cannot be justified," Grasso told IBTimes UK. The activist, who briefly met the deceased British YPG fighter Ryan Lock and is a friend of British YPJ fighter Kimberley Taylor, has spoken at around 10 public events in the past few months. One of them was at a high school in Turin and another at the university in the same city, both of which went ahead with no issues.
Faced with the ban, students went to the officer responsible for the booking of the rooms to ask for more explanations. Di Benedetto recalled they were told that in their chosen topic of discussion it was not possible to distinguish between "the good and the bad guys". According to the student, this was to indicate that holding an event with a direct testimony from a fighter was going to be too one-sided. The officer also told them that the permission was denied following a conversation with the police about the potential risk of the event.
The university's version
A spokesperson for the university defended the permission denial. The media officer told IBTimes UK that the students were at fault for not following the correct procedure. She said that the student group was not officially registered as a student organisation and, as such, they could not directly book rooms for events.
She also said that the students did not give enough details about the event they were hosting – something that Di Benedetto contested, since he said his request explained who Davide Grasso was, attaching links to articles the former fighter wrote for Italian websites about the situation in Syria.
Speaking to IBTimes UK, the university spokesperson said that they had also been alarmed by a flyer the students used to promote the event, which read: "The war in Syria and the revolution in Rojava. A meeting with Davide Grasso, Italian fighter with the YPG," displaying YPG fighters holding the Rojava flag. "I was told there was the word 'fighter', and it could be the reason for this grotesque misunderstanding," she conceded. "I think there was a lack of complete information."
Grasso reflected: "The university said I, as a fighter, am dangerous, but I lost two friends, [fellow YPG international volunteers, from Germany and the US respectively] Anton and Michael under the airstrikes of the Turkish force," he said. "Who is the real danger, these young men who try to liberate Syria from the Islamic State or the Turkish airforce, [Turkey] being a NATO member supported by the European Union and therefore our governments? The university needs to allow these questions to be asked publicly. The real risk is censorship."
Turkey considers Kurdish groups such as the Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat (PYD) and the YPG, which lead the coalition of the Syrian Democratic Forces, to be terrorists due to their ties to the outlawed Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK).
The US instead considers the Kurdish fighters crucial partners in fighting Isis militants and has told its NATO ally that Kurdish cities like Manbij are not to be targeted. But the new administration of President Donald Trump may decide to drop its support for the Kurds, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly requested in his first call with Trump since he was inaugurated president.
The university spokesperson noted the institution is not afraid of siding against Isis or hosting controversial events. As an example, she pointed out that an event discussing the state of democracy in Turkey was hosted at the university on 9 February. "Our events usually have a substantial cultural weight," she said, explaining that it is rare to have only one speaker at an event, as the university prefers having a moderator for the events – usually an expert in the topic.
The spokesperson said she was not aware of any involvement from the local police office, but she explained that it is common for the police to give an assessment of the risk involved in the events held at the university, as a matter of public security.
A communication officer for the Milan police told IBTimes UK that the university and authorities had been in touch about the event, but that the final decision on granting permission came from the university board. "The police does not suggest nor advise", the police spokesperson said. When asked to specify what would then have been the content of the discussion between the university and the police, the spokesman said "no comment".
The UCL precedent
The University of Milan is not the first to object to hosting a talk with YPG fighters. In November 2015 University College of London (UCL) and its student union banned a British YPG volunteer known as Macer Gifford from addressing the students as he may have led "others going and fighting in the conflict". They said at the time that the decision had been taken pending a consultation with the Metropolitan Police, and that they would have been happy to reschedule it.
Following public outrage at the decision, Gifford was eventually allowed to speak in December. "With all the seats full, the students voted with their feet and came to hear my story. It didn't matter if they went away agreeing or disagreeing with me. What really mattered was that they went home knowing that people had rallied for free speech and academic freedom," he told IBTimes UK on 9 February. "Serious universities should want their students to explore all avenues of debate and reason, even if that exposes them to ideas that are unpleasant or against the norm."
Gifford, who now chairs the Friends of Rojava Foundation, wrote a public message of support for Grasso, whom he had met in Syria. "He decided to join the YPG and he fought in some of the worst battles in the history of the conflict. The man I know would tell the students to think for themselves!" Gifford said.
In Milan, the students plan to go ahead with the event, although the location is as yet to be decided. Grasso plans on sharing his testimony no matter the location: "I will go there on Monday. If there is a room I will speak in the room, if there is not I will speak from outside, if I am on my own I will talk with a megaphone, but I will tell them about what I saw in Syria, what the situation is and I will bring the voice of those who are still there and those who are no longer with us. What I can do is bearing witness."