UK Politics

Campus Radicals and Community Leaders

There is an interesting article in next month’s Prospect by ex-Hizb ut Tahrir member, Shiraz Maher, on the recruitment strategies of extreme Islamist groups at British universities:

[C]olleges and universities have, in some parts of the country, offered an alternative to the deadening conservatism of the mosques. This has allowed many young Muslims to discover a more liberal, “westernised” way of life, but it has also allowed some to escape into an extremist, Islamist faith with its confident, all-encompassing worldview. With at least four out of five imams in Britain coming from the Indian subcontinent, the problem is not simply about whether they can speak English, but whether they can fully appreciate the tensions that exist between Islamic values and liberal society. Keen to preserve a sense of identity and values, many mosques perpetuate the tribal “biradri” system, an unwritten law of social conduct revolving around ideas of honour where individual interests are subordinated to those of the community. Informally administered by community elders, whose authority cannot be challenged, the biradri system necessarily disenfranchises the young.

Biradri influence has never, however, permeated into the universities—which is one reason extremism can thrive there. During the early 1990s, a wave of exiled political dissidents from the Arab world, including Omar Bakri Mohammed, Farid Kassim and Mohammed al-Masri, regrouped in London and began touring the nation’s universities. There, unimpeded by the conservative values of the south Asian community, they found a willing audience and quickly built a cadre of loyal supporters among second and third-generation British Muslims. These young people were offered an alternative political programme which seemed to empower them and challenge some of the most reactionary elements of Asian culture. Although deeply anti-western, this form of Islamism encourages the active participation of women, rejects arranged marriages and opposes honour killings. Neither fully western nor eastern, this discourse of alternative Islamist identity is “supra-cultural” and identifies with an idealised umma, the global fraternity of the faithful.

An increasing number of extremist groups now compete for the attentions of a growing proportion of Muslims in higher education. … In recent times, Takfiri movements, ideological variants of Wahhabism, have begun competing alongside the well-established Hizb ut-Tahrir and al-Muhajiroun groups, for students at universities. All share a common opposition to democracy and insist that Muslims must resist integration.

Although these groups rely heavily on their university activity to ensure a steady stream of recruits, Universities UK, the governing council of Britain’s leading research universities, has largely ignored the problem.

Of course universities are, and should continue to be, home to freedom of speech and robust intellectual enquiry. But Islamist groups operate on campus with the specific aim of recruiting students to their organisations.

There is also a must-read article by Ehsan Masood, which explores some familiar ideas:

One of the problems we face in the search for better community relations is our insistence on sticking to the idea of the “community leader.” In a modern democracy, the idea that there is such a thing as a community leader and that he has the ability to prevent extremism among “his people” continues to be an important plank of government policy. But it needs rethinking.

Each time there is news of Muslim terrorism, ministers invite television cameras to film a cavalcade of mostly male Muslims who appear to have been summoned to explain themselves to government ministers. Astonishingly, Muslim peers and MPs such as Shahid Malik and Sadiq Khan allow themselves to be cast in this role. I try to imagine what must have been going through the minds of ministers in these meetings: there are these Muslim leaders, who act as a kind of authority on their young. If they tried harder, reminded them of their responsibilities to society, ordered them to attend lectures by moderate imams, their wayward young would come to heel.

Such a picture is hopelessly out of date. To begin with, high-profile Muslim leaders must accept that they have very little influence over violent criminals. And government should understand that command and control through third parties might be how you run an empire of sceptical Muslim subjects, but it isn’t a smart way to build a sense of belonging among sceptical Muslim citizens. Among other things, it allows Muslims to see themselves as separate from the rest of the society—which all too many would be happy to do.