hen Bill Rammell, the higher education minister, visited Newham College in east London as part of a campaign to talk to Muslim students on campus, he met a "significant" group who believed that the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre were planned and executed by the White House.
Rammell was shocked - but the group was unshakeable in their belief. The minister suggested that there was no evidence for this view, but they said, no, they had seen DVD footage to prove it. For Rammell, such instances are a good reason to have an open debate about the attitudes and desires of Muslims in British society, and particularly in colleges and universities.
Another reason he wants a debate is that he thinks some students have unrealistic expectations. They want more prayer facilities, for example, in a wider variety of locations. "While it is reasonable for universities to try to meet their demands it isn't always reasonable for students to have such expectations," says Rammell. "There is a debate to be had here and we duck it at our peril."
The minister undertook his tour of higher education institutions after the terrorist attacks in London in July 2005. "There was some evidence that groups or individuals representing radicalised, sometimes dangerous, views had gained a foothold on campuses, albeit an extremely small number of people," he explained in a speech in May, "It was certainly true that the bombers had had sometimes recent experience of further or higher education."
The upshot of all this was that Rammell announced two reviews, one into the teaching of British cultural and social history to schoolchildren, the other into the teaching of Islam on British campuses. "There are weaknesses in the way young Muslims are educated about what their faith really requires," the minister said.
"There is a concern that the teachings which the great majority of Muslims would want to stress about living in peace, protecting the vulnerable, avoiding harm to others, are sometimes sidelined."
In some cases students are being exposed to wrong-headed influences in the name of religion, he added, particularly to teachings that explicitly condone terrorism or foster a climate that is sympathetic to the motivation of terrorists.
But the minister then went further and criticised the higher education curriculum in a way that surprised those who believe that government should not dictate the content of what is taught and mystified others who don't understand what he meant. "There is evidence that unhelpful narrow interpretations of Islam are available to many young people," he said. "I do not want to dictate course content, but I would like to be satisfied that what is available for students is not too constrained.
"We all surely want to see religiously-oriented courses that are not restricted to narrow interpretations of belief that fuel extremism. We need to look at the content of other courses in the arts and humanities. We need to look at the nature of the spiritual advice that young students have access to, and how this can be improved."
What has perplexed academics in the field is what Rammell means. Islamic studies is taught in a number of universities including the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) in London, Oxford, Cambridge, Lampeter, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Durham, Edinburgh, Lancaster, Exeter, Nottingham and St Andrews.
According to Professor Anoush Ehteshami, head of the school of government and international affairs at Durham University, these are not religiously-oriented courses. Instead they are about developing a better understanding of the political forces in Islam. "They look at the history, ideas and political impact, not the theology," he says. Asked about this, Rammell reiterates that the Government has no desire to dictate to universities what they can teach. But he hopes that Dr Ataullah Siddiqi, director of the Markfield Institute of Higher Education, who is heading this inquiry, will come up with a body of work that higher education institutions "can draw upon as they look at their courses". When I ask Rammell what he means by his criticism of Islamic teaching in universities, he goes off the record and refers me to the organisation, Forward Thinking, which acts as a conduit for Muslim groups to talk to politicians and the media. Forward Thinking met the minister for his research on the subject. One of those in on the meeting was Sheik Michael Mumisa, a scholar at the University of Birmingham and a member of a new group of Muslim theologians who advocate a reinterpretation of Islam.
Confirming Professor Ehteshami's point, he says that British universities are simply not equipped to teach students about the theology of Islam. That is because British academics are not trained in the classical texts that are required for the job. But, even where they are equipped, they do not want to question the theology for fear of introducing ideas about, for example, the role of women that might be anathema to Muslim students. "Or if they are non-Western Muslim academics, they often cling to the idea of a mythical East, arguing that bringing Islam up to date and putting it in its contemporary context means that it loses what makes it unique.," says Mumisa. "That is the Islam we associate with the Taliban."
But Mumisa believes it would be a good thing if British universities got involved in the education of Muslim clerics. These clerics should be introduced to ideas such as feminism, he thinks. They should take courses in sociology, literary criticism and modern theological thinking just as Christian, Catholic and Jewish trainees do.
As it is, imams in Britain receive a very restricted education in Islamic classics and nothing in the way of politics or social sciences. "They can't provide answers to young people on political issues, which means that the young people turn to the internet," he says.
It is interesting that Soas, which has a successful Islamic Studies Centre run by Professor Muhammad Abdul-Haleem, a brilliant Egyptian intellectual who has just produced a translation of the Koran, does not have a full-time expert in Islam. Because it is such a sensitive area, the religion is separated off.
"In addition Islam in Britain tends to be taught in a very Middle Eastern context," says Brian Bocking, professor of the study of religions at Soas. "That is a austere type of Islam and it is not the Islam of most Muslims in the Britain who are from South Asia."
All the experts say that most Muslim undergraduates who are seeking to understand their faith better rely on pamphlets put out by Islamic societies rather than on academics. These pamphlets are likely to promote a narrow Arab-focused Islam that may well contradict the Islam they have grown up with at home. It is difficult to see how this material can be controlled.
But the Government could possibly do something about the training of imams and that could, in turn, percolate down and improve the quality of the material put out by societies on campus. According to Dr Jeevan Deol, who teaches at Soas and is doing research on Jihadi terrorism, the Government could introduce a system of licensing the training of religious leaders. "What would eventually happen is that universities would start coming up with religious studies degree programmes," he says. Imams would be required to have a qualification that guaranteed they were equipped for their responsible role.
The training of imams is not going to happen in the universities, he says. But you could have the seminaries affiliated to the universities, as happens now in some cases. That, combined with some form of certification, would enable future Muslim clerics to have a broader education and to be able to reinterpret Islamic texts in the light of today's world.
If the debate that Rammell has sparked and the inquiry he has established ends up producing a cadre of Islamic leaders who are prepared for contemporary Britain, they will have been worth it.Reuse content