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Updated: January 5, 2010 00:55 IST

Radicalisation of U.K. campuses

Hasan Suroor
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WRONG EDUCATION: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab
AFP/U.S. MARSHALS SERVICE WRONG EDUCATION: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

Abdulmutallab’s London connection has strengthened the Right wing’s call for a crackdown on campus radicalism.

What is it about London and Muslim extremists? It is perhaps the only major western capital which finds itself so frequently linked to Islamist radicals. No matter where in the world — from Mumbai to Detroit — a terror attack takes place or a terror suspect is caught, more often than not it turns up a London “connection”.

Indeed, Britain has become so notorious for its reputation as a safe haven for the radical flotsam and jetsam of the world that whenever a plot is uncovered intelligence agencies instinctively look for a link with London, dubbed “Londonistan” to rhyme with such hotbeds of extremism as Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The revelation that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian youth who attempted to blow up an American airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day, spent three years at a London university where he allegedly dabbled in extremist propaganda has reignited the row over the so-called “Islamisation” of British campuses with the government being accused of not doing enough to tackle the problem.

It has emerged that during his time at the University College London, Abdulmutallab was president of the Islamic Society whose branches in various institutions are often controlled by radical groups, notably Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT) that calls for the establishment of a worldwide Islamic state and some of whose ex-members are said to have gone on to become militant jihadis. It has been claimed that he is the fourth president of a university Islamic Society to face terror charges.

Lately, a number of former HuT activists — now supposedly “reformed” — have come in from the cold to give an “insider’s” account of outfit’s activities and presence on British campuses. They include Ed Husain who has written a best-selling book, The Islamist, on the subject and now heads a high-profile think-tank that advises the government on “de-radicalisation” strategies.

Radicalisation of British universities has become a major political issue in recent years. Three months after the July 2005 London bombings, Professor Anthony Glees, a Right-wing academic, published a rather alarmist report sensationally titled When Students Turn to Terror in which he named more than 30 universities where, he claimed, “extremist and/or terror groups” operated. Within months, the government issued guidelines to universities advising them to “vet” students for extremist tendencies, identify potential jihadis and report them to security agencies. However, it was forced to tone down the advice after academics protested that it amounted to asking them to “spy” on their own students.

The Right has seized the botched Detroit plot to demand that the old guidelines be revived and strictly implemented, and to attack universities which accept funding from “Arabic and Islamic sources” (as one self-styled “Islamic specialist” put it) for setting up centres of Islamic studies. “Reformed” radicals, fired by the zeal of a “new mullah”, have joined calls for strict “policing” of campuses and warned that otherwise “we will see more Umar Farouk Abdulmutallabs.”

Writing in this week’s Observer, a former senior member of HuT, Rashad Ali, painted an alarming picture of how extremist groups have penetrated universities through organisations like the Islamic Society.

“When I was involved with Hizb, we controlled the Islamic Society of Sheffield Hallam University for several years, as well as running the society in Bradford University and Birmingham University. We were full-time activists dedicated to fomenting dissent, anti-western feelings and nurturing those who we believed could help to advance our cause,” he wrote accusing universities of being in denial about the “level of radicalisation” taking place on campuses.

Post-Detroit, there have been renewed calls for a ban on HuT and other similar organisations. But there are those who sensibly argue that banning religious or cultural groups, no matter how toxic their views, goes against the very idea of free debate associated with campus tradition. Besides, a ban would simply drive such groups underground and make it more difficult to monitor them.

Outlawing a group simply because of its views is seen as the first step towards a slippery slope that can only lead to turning universities into cantonments. Historically, universities have been battlegrounds for competing ideas and worldviews; and, occasionally, things may have gone wrong but as John Sutherland, Emeritus Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London (yes, the same college that Abdulmutallab attended) says, British universities have “usually got it right.” Important campaigns against fascism and war, for example, have come out of the tradition of free speech on university campuses.

In an article in The Times, Prof. Sutherland argued that universities had to take “risks” and tolerate “radical and dissident elements” in their midst. He warned against knee-jerk reactions and urged university administrators to “keep a cool head” when faced with demands for “drastic” measures.

The question they must ask themselves, he said, was: “At what point must institutional tolerance give way to heavy-handed control? And if you ban the Islamic Society, do you also ban the Jewish Society, or the female students’ consciousness-raising groups? At what point does militancy — never in itself a bad thing in a young student — become signing up to terrorism?”

Increasingly, however, sane voices such as those of Prof. Sutherland’s are being drowned by shrill calls for a “crackdown” and there is a real danger that campuses could soon turn into “cantonments.” All it will take is one more HuT/al-Qaeda-inspired atrocity with a London connection.

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