Keeping watch on fascism

Kevin Ashton looks at attempts to monitor the activities of extremist organisations on university campuses
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The Independent Online
In early January, Students' Union officers at Brunel University in Middlesex received a letter threatening to "hospitalise one of your students every day" if a poster advertising an anti-fascist phone line was displayed on campus. The phone line in question was Campus Watch, a 24-hour voice bank set up by the National Union of Students (NUS) and the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight.

The system is intended to monitor fascist activity at universities and colleges across Britain in response to what the NUS president, Jim Murphy, describes as "the rise of fascism in Britain now, and the targeting of the student community". Since its inception at the end of last year, Campus Watch has received far more calls than expected, detailing incidents including hate mail campaigns against left-wing, gay and Jewish student societies and racist graffiti and stickering on campus.

There is a growing feeling throughout the student movement that fascism is on the rise, and Brunel is one university with first-hand experience of the problem. Last summer, after a particularly intense period of racist stickering, a Sri Lankan student had a bag forced over his head before being repeatedly kicked and punched. Daniel Harris, news editor of Brunel's student newspaper Le Nurb, is convinced that the perpetrators were not students.

"Brunel is a single campus university with a public right of way through the middle," Mr Harris explains. "If people are caught stickering, we can report them for defacing university property, but we can't stop them from being there."

Tony Robson, of Searchlight, agrees with this view, pointing out that Uxbridge, where the campus is based, is "a bad area for fascism" and home to more than 100 known and active neo-Nazis. Fascist activity has also been reported at Leeds University and Leeds Metropolitan University, where members of Combat 18, a quasi-terrorist alliance with links to far-right groups such as the British National Party (BNP) and the Ku Klux Klan, have been sighted gathering information about gay, Jewish and left-wing students.

Campus-based racial intolerance is not just restricted to white extremist groups, however; one reason for the high number of calls to Campus Watch has been the recent rise of two Muslim fundamentalist organisations, the Nation of Islam and Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Both groups preach anti-Semitism, homophobia and racial separatism. The Nation of Islam tends to attract Afro-Caribbeans, whereas Hizb-ut-Tahrir (the name means "party of liberation") is a predominantly Asian organisation.

It has targeted university campuses for several years, and as a consequence has been banned from most Students' Unions. It now even has trouble holding meetings at London's previously tolerant School of Oriental and African Studies, where a recent talk, attended by less than 20 students, had to be held in pouring rain on the college steps.

The Nation of Islam, on the other hand, has received little publicity but poses what one prominent Jewish student describes as "a far more serious, more immediate threat". The group has gained a toehold at South Bank University, London, where a recent meeting attracted an audience of about 300 students.

Unlikely as it may seem, there is even talk of links between the various white and black extremist groups active on Britain's campuses. According to Tony Robson, these organisations are "nothing if not pragmatic", and despite mutual loathing are more than capable of uniting on a platform of anti-Semitism, homophobia and racial purity. He cites a long list of examples of co-operation which appear to back up his case, including meetings in America between National Front members and Nation of Islam leaders, and public donations made by the Ku Klux Klan to Islamic extremists.

These links are ideological as well as practical: members of Hizb-ut- Tahrir recently called themselves "the true heirs to Hitler".

Even without this kind of association and co-operation, the threat of increased far-right and fundamentalist activity on campus is one that students' unions across the country are taking seriously.

At South Bank, Orlando Clarke, student affairs officer, believes that doing nothing now could have grave consequences. "The worst case scenario is black and white students not associating at all, and student elections being fought along purely racial lines," he says. "We're keeping things under wraps as best we can, but I don't know what will happen in the future. I just hope things calm down."