The Threat of Campus Extremists Must Not Be Ignored

This is a post by Ghaffar Hussain of the Quilliam Foundation, printed in the Express

Omar Sheikh, who was convicted of beheading US journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002, was radicalised while studying at the London School of Economics.

Waheed Zaman, who was convicted of involvement in the 2006 transatlantic liquid bomb plot, was the former president of London Metropolitan University Islamic society.

Omar Sharif, who tried to blow himself up outside a bar in Tel Aviv in 2003, was radicalised while at King’s College London, and the list goes on and on.

I could name dozens of cases of radicalisation where the individual concerned came into contact with extremist groups and ideology while studying at a British university.

Furthermore, I know through my years of experience as a former student activist that extremist organisations target campuses for recruitment. It is central to their strategy and tactically the most effective way of recruiting.

I have personally attended many lectures on university campuses in London where well-known members of extremist groups were brought in from the outside to recruit vulnerable young students who in many cases were away from home for the first time.

So why is there almost total denial every time the issue is raised?

Universities today are big business and, like other big corporations, they have a reputation to uphold and customers to attract. Accusations of extremist activity on campus tend to interfere with the business plan somewhat. Take University College London (UCL) and its provost Malcolm Grant.

When it became clear that Umar Farook Abdul Mutallib, the Nigerian student who tried to detonate explosives concealed in his underwear on a plane flying to Detroit, was president of the Islamic Society at UCL, Grant responded by going into denial.

The provost, reportedly on a £376,190 annual salary, began by accusing those who pointed out the problem of being Islamophobic. He then set up an “independent” panel to look into all matters surrounding the period of Umar Farook’s time as a student at UCL. The conclusions of this panel, and the panel itself for that matter, have since entered the annals of comedy folklore among counterterrorism practitioners.

It comprised a random group of specialists in such fields as software engineering and ceramic petrology, with no counterterrorism experts whatsoever. And, to no one’s surprise, they concluded that there was no evidence that Umar Farook was radicalised at UCL.

The Muslim student group the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) has responded to the serious accusations of radicalisation on UK campuses in a similarly immature way. Instead of admitting that there is a problem and that extremists on campuses are a minority that should be tackled by groups such as themselves, they have downplayed the issue, accusing their critics of creating “hysteria” and claiming to be champions of “academic freedom” and “free speech”.

But giving platforms to hate preachers who promote sectarian strife, hatred of non-Muslims and a disdain for liberal democracy, week in week out, without providing alternative voices to challenge them, has got nothing to do with free speech. FOSIS itself has been accused of hosting extremist speakers in the past and its links to extremist institutions are well documented.

Furthermore, FOSIS is not the authentic voice of Muslim students, rather it is an organisation that seeks to monopolise Muslim student views in order to push its own agenda. Most Muslim students are quite happy to peacefully practise or not practise their faith and behave just like all other students without getting involved in politicised Islamic societies.

I feel for ordinary Muslim students who have to put up with a minority of their co-religionists who seek to aggressively assert a politicised and divisive Islamic identity on campuses.

So we have a big problem on our hands and a review of the Government’s Prevent strategy, published yesterday, will attempt to point the spotlight on this issue once more.

Prevent was an attempt to tackle extremism and radicalisation launched in the wake of 7/7 under Labour and has since come under much criticism.

Labour, initially inclined to appease rather than confront extremists, did begin by seeking the advice of groups who themselves have been tainted with accusations of extremism. Later ministers tried to distance themselves from such groups.

This review calls for more focus on ungoverned areas such as the internet, prisons and universities but there is no plan for tackling extremism on campuses head-on. So as things stand, extremists will continue to operate in taxpayer-funded institutions.

Labour’s solution was to throw lots of cash at the problem – £63million a year – and that resulted in an enormous amount of waste and the funding of unfocused projects.

The key issue for government and universities is preventing student Islamic societies being hijacked by extremist elements, often non-student extremist groups seeking to infiltrate campuses from the outside.

It may not appeal to the liberal Left mindset that runs academia but why should the public be subsidising those who seek to create tensions and sow the seeds of division in our society?