Universities feel the heat over flight bomber

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The Independent Online

The revelation that failed Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab held a "War on Terror Week" of lectures when he was president of University College London's Islamic society has increased pressure on universities to assess how much of a threat violent Islamists are on campus.

Britain's intelligence agencies have openly admitted to monitoring our universities while the American media is increasingly suggesting that Abdulmutallab's radicalisation occurred as much in the lecture halls of UCL than the tribal badlands of Yemen.

Some believe that Britain’s universities remain alarmingly open to Islamist radicals. Others fear that a "reds under beds" style hysteria that treats all Muslims students as potential threats to national security will force Islamic debate in our universities underground and behind closed doors.

Given the geopolitical fallout over the past nine years since September 11, including major wars in two Muslim countries, it is hardly surprising that the president of an Islamic society would organise a week of lectures on America's so-called "war on terror".

Islamic societies, by their very nature, have become increasingly political, rather than purely spiritual, organisations. And being collectives that are populated by young, intelligent and articulate students, the political tone will often be towards the more radical end of the spectrum. But radical politics and a nihilistic commitment to political violence are two very separate roads. For every Abdulmutalab who turns to terrorism there are many more British Muslims who reject and abhor it.

The government has repeatedly asked universities to do more to monitor "Isocs", something that lecturers are understandably keen to avoid if Britain's universities are to hold on to their reputations as academic centres of excellence where issues, no matter how controversial, are discussed and debated openly.

AC Grayling, professor of philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London, has regularly shared a platform with radical Islamists that he is ideologically opposed to.

"Universities must be bastions of free speech where vibrant debate, even on controversial subjects, is allowed to flourish," he explains. "One of the many objectives of terrorism is to close down debate and we should do everything we can to resist that. It would be a terrible mistake to fall into the trap of banning groups and societies we don't like because if history has taught us anything it is that forcing people underground simply makes them more radical and violent."

But Islamic societies, he believes, must do more themselves to debate, criticise and dismantle the nature of violent jihadism: "They must be prepared to answer and discuss why a small number of their co-religionists have turned to a form of violence that somehow believes it is permissible to kill women and children on planes".

Douglas Murray, the director of centre-right think-tank the Centre for Social Cohesion (CSR), takes a different view. He believes Islamic societies that promote an intolerant interpretation of Islam should be closed down. "Every week we inform a university somewhere in the country that their Islamic society has invited a preacher who holds abhorrent views, such as advocating the murder of homosexuals, and 90 percent of the time we are completely ignored," he says. "If any other student society were inviting those sort of speakers on to campus they would be closed down in seconds."

Last month UCL's student union cancelled at the last minute a talk from Abu Usamah, a firebrand imam with Salafi leanings who was once recorded by Channel 4 saying gays should be "thrown off a mountain", after pressure from CSR and campus gay rights groups. Two weeks earlier a talk to students at City University went ahead.

Navid Akhtar, a filmmaker who has created numerous documentaries on young British Muslims, says that while the occasional violent radical will always slip quietly through the net, (few of those who knew Abdulmutallab had any idea of the path he was taking) people should also recognise that Islamists are routinely challenged on campus by their co-religionists. "It's patronising not to recognise that the vast majority of Islamic society members, who busy themselves in raising money for charity or holding vibrant debates, don’t themselves get up and challenge the radicals," he says. "They do it often and can do so because universities are places where you are free to speak out."

Last year a poll conducted by CSR last year claimed that Islamism was rife on campus. CSR's critics countered by claiming the research was too limited to really know whether it was representative enough. Just over 600 Muslim students were asked a variety of questions regarding their beliefs with the standout statistic being that 28 per cent of Muslims students felt it was justifiable to kill in the name of religion if their religion was under attack - a figure which jumped to 49 per cent for Isoc members. An equally significant but less reported figure, however, was that only 11 per cent of Muslims students polled were even active members of Islamic societies suggesting that for the vast majority of the estimated 100,000 Muslims students studying at universities an Isoc is something they are not even interested in.

Both the National Union of Students and the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (which represents most, but not all, Isocs) have urged the media to avoid blaming Abdulmutallab's radicalisation on UCL until all the facts have been established.

Faisal Hanjra, a spokesman for FOSIS, said yesterday: "The spotlight will now naturally fall on Islamic Societies and Muslim students and we must resist the criminalisation and labelling of Muslims as a suspect community."