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Beware the ‘Campus Stasi’ at British universities

Demands that lecturers monitor students for signs of Islamic radicalism pose a bigger threat to academic freedom than Islamo-cranks do.

Maria Grasso

Topics Free Speech

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Are radical Islamists storming Britain’s ivory towers? Are extremists with violent intentions corrupting the minds of British students, including students at those bastions of knowledge, Oxford and Cambridge? Fears of a radical Islamist infiltration of campuses are rife. Last week, four first-year students from Bradford University were sentenced at the Old Bailey to three years in jail after being found guilty of ‘possessing material for terrorist purposes’. Apparently they planned to travel abroad and fight against British soldiers. The judge said they were ‘intoxicated’ by radical Islamist propaganda, most of which they downloaded from the world wide web (1).

When it was revealed that some of those allegedly involved in the failed car bomb plots in London and Glasgow at the beginning of July had resided in Cambridge, and one had studied at Anglia Ruskin University there, commentators raised concerns about the ‘radical Islamicisation’ of Cambridge-based students. Meanwhile, Omar Bakri, leader of the pan-Islamist group al-Muhajiroun, who once was based in Britain but now resides in Lebanon, recently claimed that his supporters have made an impact at Oxford University. This led the British weekly the Spectator (many of whose contributors are members of the Oxford set) to publish a handwringing piece titled ‘Jihad amid the dreaming spires’, in which the author claimed that Islamic extremists had burst into the ‘Oxford bubble’ and are trying to turn ‘nice middle-class girls and boys into Islamists’ (2).

Some seem to believe that universities should become the latest battleground in the ‘war on terror’. David Conway of the Centre for Social Cohesion argues that ‘universities remain woefully complacent over campus violent extremism’. He thinks that ‘those who run and teach at Britain’s universities’ need to be ‘shaken out of their current complacency in the face of a very real threat that is posed by the presence at them of students who preach or worse still practise violent extremism’ (3).

How worried should we be? In my view, we should worry less about sects of Islamists that may be lurking in a few student dorms, and worry more about the demand for more monitoring of and spying on students around Britain. No doubt some radical Islamic groups are making inroads into British universities, but there is little hard evidence that swathes of Britain’s student body are embracing violent and apocalyptic extremism. There is, however, evidence to suggest that the solutions being put forward to deal with this largely phantom threat could harm academic freedom and open debate on campus.

One of the most striking things about the media coverage of this alleged rise in violent extremism on campus is how much it relies on anecdote and unsubstantiated claims – often made by those whom the media do not normally treat as trustworthy. The Spectator’s scary-sounding report on Oxford is based on an interview with Omar Bakri, in which he ‘admitted to having spoken at al-Muhajiroun meetings in Oxford University over a 14-year period, and described the university campus as the ideal place to recruit new members’ (4). Normally, Bakri’s words are denounced as bluster or as ‘evil’ in British newspapers and magazines – yet when he declares himself effectively to be the radical caliph of Oxford, he is treated seriously.


Muslim students on campus

While it is true that some Muslim students around Britain are embracing identity politics, and sometimes reverting to traditional Muslim practises, the evidence for a rise of violent extremism on campus is scant. Journalists are repeating as fact the rants of a few self-aggrandising Islamists. So, the Spectator’s evidence for the spread of violent extremism at Oxford is based on Bakri’s claims. Similarly, for the Oxford Student newspaper, the fact that ‘Bakri claims that al-Muhajiroun distributed leaflets to students outside university buildings’ and had the support of a cell of ‘around a dozen Oxford members’ is enough evidence to support a view of British campuses as disturbing places (5).

Against these claims, Faisal Hanjra, a spokesman for the Federation of Islamic Students, tells me: ‘In our experience, al-Muhajiroun have made statements that have been grandiose and largely unsubstantiated.’ If there are Islamic extremists recruiting at Oxford, they are not doing a very good job. In the five years I have been at Oxford, I have never encountered Islamic extremism; I have never seen radicals selling or distributing inflammatory material at college buildings or on the streets. Nor have I heard of anyone having been approached for recruitment by violent-minded extremists. Walking around Oxford, there are very few hijabs in sight. I have never seen a veiled woman in any lecture or seminar I have attended. Oxford’s student Islamic Society hasn’t even been allowed its own prayer room. Most of the Muslim students at Oxford that I have come across tend to drink, dance and wear miniskirts, and they are usually tolerant of other religious or secular worldviews.

Part of the problem with the shock-horror stories about British campuses is that some media commentators seem ignorant of the fact that radical Islamists do tend to be middle-class and well-educated. The Spectator says the failed car bombs in London and Glasgow woke the British public to the fact that ‘respectable-seeming professionals can be terrorists too’, and no longer should we look at the ‘chaos and fear wrought by terrorism’ as something distinct and separate from our education system (6). However, over the past three or four years, as spiked has reported, most of the major studies of al-Qaeda and its offshoot groups have shown that they tend to be made up of university-educated, well-employed individuals from middle-class backgrounds (see Meet the al-Qaeda archetype, by Brendan O’Neill). Some commentators have translated their own surprise about middle-class extremists – which is based on ignorance of the facts – into public fear over campus life.

The curent media fearmongering about radical Islamists corrupting ‘nice middle-class’ students could lead to a denigration of academic debate and freedom. Last year, the then Department for Education and Skills issued guidelines on how to deal with ‘extremists’: it advised university staff to ‘monitor’ Muslim students. According to the Guardian, the DfES document asks professors and university staff to ‘inform on students to Special Branch because the government believes campuses have become “fertile recruiting grounds” for extremists’ (7). Campus Stasi, anyone?

As Professor AC Grayling has argued, a culture of spying could damage lecturer/student relations and degrade academic debate. ‘Universities exist for purposes of research and education; they are not an arm of the security services, whose responsibility is to protect the public against all forms of crime, including the particularly nasty mass-murder kind now dubbed “terrorism”’, said Grayling (8). Professor Frank Furedi of Kent University points out that monitoring students not only undermines the culture of trust and openness on campus – it also avoids the real issue of why radical Islamist ideas may occasionally win over students. ‘One reason why such groups succeed in gaining influence is because their ideas are rarely challenged on campus’, says Furedi (9). So in undermining academic openness, the authorities are also undermining our ability to defeat through open debate radical Islamist ideas that are antithetical to liberty and progress.

By urging academics to monitor students, to counter what still remains a fairly minor threat of violent radicalism, the authorities are helping to damage, in the here and now, academic culture. They are encouraging lecturers to be suspicious of students, which will lead students to be wary of lecturers: this will undercut the relationships of trust that allow rigorous and honest debate to flourish on campus. Yet again, we can see that the real problem lies with the ‘war on terror’. Radical Islamists may have made speeches and distributed leaflets at various universities, but they are not powerful enough to undermine the traditional university system of sharing and deepening knowledge. Instead, it is the authorities’ own exaggerated fears and concerns that might end up doing that.

Maria Grasso is researching a DPhil at Nuffield College, Oxford University and is on the committee of the Battle of Ideas festival.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild asked Who’s afraid of Israeli academics?. Maria Grasso and Lee Jones argued that if we want open borders, we need open debate. Steve Bremnerdiscussed apick’n’mix attitude to free speech. Or read more at: spiked issue Free Speech

(1) Four guilty over terror material, BBC News, 24 July 2007

(2) Jihad Amid the Dreaming Spires, Spectator, 7 July 2007

(3) Universities Remain Woefully Complacent Over Campus Violent Extremism, Centre for Social Cohesion, July 2007

(4) Jihad Amid the Dreaming Spires, Spectator, 7 July 2007

(5) Jihad Amid the Dreaming Spires, Spectator, 7 July 2007

(6) Jihad Amid the Dreaming Spires, Spectator, 7 July 2007

(7) Universities urged to spy on Muslims, Guardian, 16 October 2006

(8) I, spy?, AC Grayling, Comment Is Free, 16 October 2006

(9) Don’t suppress radical Islamic ideas, challenge them, Frank Furedi, Guardian, 24 October 2006

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech

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