One cold lunchtime at City University London, 100 male Muslim students were praying in rows on the ground. Above on a balcony, a dozen female Muslim students, dressed in black and wearing the niqab – a veil covering their face apart from their eyes – handed out leaflets. These said they were demonstrating because the university had allocated a "multi-faith" space as their new prayer room. "It is impermissible for Muslims to offer prayers in a place where other than our Lord, Allah, is worshipped", it said.
The site of their prayer room was changed late last year after a group of Muslim students was attacked by local youths, in what police said was a racist incident after leaving their former prayer room. The lunchtime protest was the latest in a series of events staged by City's Islamic Society in the past year which has brought them into conflict with university authorities.
In April 2009, organisers invited three radical Islamist preachers to address the society's annual dinner, with the "brothers" and "sisters" segregated, and the latter forbidden to ask questions. One preacher, Anwar al-Awlaki , was to speak by video-link from Yemen, because he is banned from Britain for alleged links to terrorists. But the then vice-chancellor Malcolm Gilles intervened and the video-link was banned.
After this I met Gillies to say I was concerned about the activities of the Islamic Society. Several research papers and Ed Husein's alarming book, The Islamist suggested that certain British universities, including City, were potential recruiting grounds for violent extremists. We agreed this was a sensitive subject but I argued that it was time universities took action. Gillies, who has since moved to London Metropolitan University, said there were two taboo topics among vice-chancellors – Islamic extremism and pensions.
My anxiety continued. I was particularly disturbed by the sight of Muslim female students wearing the niqab, a dress statement I find offensive and threatening. Don't they value the rights and freedoms they enjoy in Britain? In Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan they are forced to cover up and denied an education.
One of my journalism students, who is a Muslim woman, interviewed four British-born Muslim girls who said they began to wear the niqab only after coming to City and joining the Islamic Society. They found it "liberating", they said.
I think the niqab should be banned at university. Some of my colleagues agree with me; others don't. But the issue should be debated. Should universities be more vigilant in monitoring Islamic societies and the literature they disseminate? Some of the material contains extremist ideology, at worst promoting "jihad", variously translated as personal struggle and holy war, at best advocating total separation from the "kufir"– non-believers or infidels – and effectively promoting religious hatred, now a criminal offence in English law.
City's Islamic Society website has links to blogs from known extremists including Awlaki. He encourages all Muslims to support "jihad" including fundraising for and joining Mujahideen fighters. A US citizen, Awlaki preached at American mosques attended by three of the 11 September hijackers.
Vice-chancellors have been reluctant to act, but concern is growing. A planned Islamic Society event at UCL in November 2009 was banned on the somewhat spurious grounds of health and safety. In late December it emerged that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, arrested on Christmas Day for the attempted bombing of an aircraft on a flight to Detroit from Amsterdam, was a former president of UCL's Islamic Society.
Last month City's acting vice-chancellor Professor Julius Weinberg talked to staff and students about debate in universities. In the interests of free speech people with whom you profoundly disagree should be allowed to speak, Weinberg said, but he would not allow gender segregation or anyone to speak who advocated violence.
"There are people we would ban," said Weinberg. "People who were calling for behaviours that are outside the law." Where do we go from here? It will be a brave vice-chancellor who confronts the issue. But at least we have started a debate at City.
The writer is the director of the MA in investigative journalism at City University London.
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