Responses to Terrorism

Minette Marin in The Times:

If the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, the same is true of public safety. The failed airline bomber at Christmas has reminded everyone of that. But vigilance is not the same as constant state surveillance: that would make freedom itself the price of public safety. It is surely obvious that vigilance must be carefully directed and focused — in other words, targeted. Only by careful targeting of the few can we avoid indiscriminate, mass intrusion into the freedom and the privacy of the many.

It is admittedly disturbing that Professor Malcolm Grant, the president and provost of UCL, felt able to say that what Abdulmutallab did “came as a complete shock to the UCL community”.

Grant’s ignorance is extremely odd. Anybody running a British university, especially one in London, ought to know that Isocs on many British campuses have become centres of radicalism — and not just radicalism, but alarming Islamist hatred, or at least frighteningly illiberal and fundamentalist views. Yet chancellors have been extremely reluctant to acknowledge that. They have ignored or denounced those who have tried to make them face it, in a way that suggests little respect for the academic ideal of keeping a mind open to evidence.

A study (and YouGov poll) published in 2008 by the Centre for Social Cohesion gives a worrying account of the attitudes of young Muslims on British campuses. Extremist preaching and extremist texts are routinely propagated. The poll found that one in three Muslim university students here believed that killing in the name of their religion could be justified. This figure was almost doubled, to 60%, among students who were active members of Isocs; 40% supported the introduction of sharia into British law and 58% of those active in Isocs supported the idea of a worldwide caliphate. Bad enough, but even worse was the fact that the UK’s Federation of Student Islamic Societies rejected the report entirely, as did the National Union of Students and the higher education minister of the day.

The government is less blind now to these facts, but in this context it is quite remarkable that the provost of UCL and his colleagues should be quite so “completely shocked” by Abdulmutallab’s transformation into a terrorist.

However, whatever the cacophony of denial and wilful ignorance, I do not think it is the role of universities to spy on their students. I share the liberal academic belief that universities are places of freedom of speech and association and students are entitled to say daft things in dodgy groups, as are their teachers. It is that belief, I hope, that prompts vice-chancellors to deny the problem exists. But denial of the facts is a poor strategy to preserve what is good.

What chancellors should be saying is not that Muslim extremism doesn’t exist on campus, or that it doesn’t matter, but that it is not their problem. If spying is to be done — and clearly extremist students must be spied on and already are — let it be done by proper spies, not by academics. Nor should it be done by the police. It must be done by specially trained and highly skilled secret service agents (as it already is). Obviously a university has a duty to report on anyone who breaks the law, but otherwise it is not there to do the life-saving dirty work of intelligence services.

[T]here are some serious risk factors, such as being Muslim and young and much travelled between certain countries, that together are enough to justify extra vigilance. To deny this is to express a different agenda or an indifference to the safety of one’s loved ones. Profiling is part of the acceptable price of public safety.

Howard Jacobson in the Indie:

There’s an old Lithuanian proverb: every man is his neighbour’s matching shoe. No there isn’t. I’ve invented it. But there should be such a proverb. Ties of affiliation bind us and at the same time trip us up. Bonds of blood, loyalty, fellowship, even hatred, not rights. We call this what Mrs Thatcher wouldn’t – “society”. Society being a collective for the sake of which we agree to have our shoes tied together and our freedom to do as we wish curtailed.

The suicide bomber seeks to curtail our lives. We need not trouble ourselves with what he seeks to do to his own. By targeting us, he steps outside the collective, forfeiting our fellowship and our protection. He is no longer a companion shoe. In order to prevent his curtailing our lives, we consent to more of our freedoms being curtailed instead. But not our most precious freedoms. Not our freedom to think or to hold and express contrary opinions. Not our freedom to love whom we choose, to not love whom we choose, to go our own way in our heads (for we can be bounded in a nutshell and still count ourselves kings of infinite space.) Just our freedom to pass through airport security without immense inconvenience, a sometimes unnecessary degree of rudeness, and without the outlines of our private parts being flashed up on an X-ray screen or whatever.

Grace Barnett, University College London Union, Communication and Services Officer:

Following the arrest of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on suspicion of attempting to detonate an explosive device on 25th December 2009, UCLU can confirm that he was President of the Islamic Society in 2006-07. Since the incident, UCLU has been co-operating with the authorities in all investigations.

UCLU is disturbed by press reports claiming that UCL and the UCLU Islamic Society were ‘complicit’ in the radicalisation of this individual and would urge our members, the public and the press to refrain from being suspicious of the Muslim community.

Extremist and violent behaviour has no place in UCLU activities, and we are committed to ensuring that there is no platform for the radicalisation of our student members UCLU is committed to encouraging free speech and thought-provoking debate. We currently support nine different faith groups and are dedicated to allowing them all to express their opinions and practise their religion in a safe and non-discriminatory environment. We are proud of the fact that our societies provide opportunities for our students to openly debate a broad range of philosophical, moral and global topics; this sort of vigorous debate should be encouraged, not restricted.”

We want to remind students that Islamophobic harassment and bullying will not be tolerated on campus or amongst UCL students. We would urge all students to report any incidents to their tutors, to Dr Ruth Siddall, Dean of Students (Welfare) on *****@ucl.ac.uk or Nicki Challinger, UCL Union Welfare Officer on *****@ucl.ac.uk. Below is also the contact phone number of the London Metropolitan Police should there be any further assistance required and experiences of prejudicial behaviour encountered on part of students following the recent events or in case any student has relevant information; please note UCL Union will consider all matters very seriously and support appropriate action to safeguard the welfare of each and every student at the University.

London Metropolitan Police hotline: 0800 *** ***

UPDATE: James Hodgson, University College London Union, Student Activities Officer:

“Of course it is going to be difficult and I am sure we will get some stick, but we are going to defend the Islamic Society and its right to hear from controversial speakers,” James tells me over coffee. “We will not allow extremist activities. But at the same time we are determined not to yield. The Islamic Society is not a hotbed of extremists. Its activities are prayer meetings, cultural events, debates and music. We are going to stand up for freedom and tolerance. Surely that’s what the terrorists want to destroy.”