Fighting Islamist extremism on university campuses
by Justin Stares
It is not easy to moderate hate-filled speeches when British students consider the United Kingdom government to be Islamophobic. PublicServiceEurope.com talks to Student Rights, the organisation left to pick up the pieces of a broken policy
Rupert Sutton's core business is monitoring Facebook groups - around 130 of them. He is on the lookout for signs of radicalism on British university campuses, mainly from "Islamist elements". As a researcher for Student Rights, a "non-partisan group dedicated to supporting equality, democracy and freedom from extremism", he gets tip-offs from atheist contacts and others in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual community regarding visiting speakers. His goal, he says, is to ensure students attending these events get a balanced - and therefore less extremist - message.
It is not an easy job. Pressure on student societies to moderate their guests' hate-filled presentations can push them to simply take the event off campus. "There is a relationship between campus extremism and local religious institutions," Sutton says. "In a lot of cases, student societies will move their events off campus if there might be a controversial speaker involved". Earlier this year, London Metropolitan University refused to allow permission for one radical - who believed homosexuality should be a crime punishable by death - to come onto campus. The event was moved to a local mosque and since then all such events have been held at the mosque "completely bypassing any kind of oversight". It is quite common for student societies to close down social networking sites to public viewing at around this time, further increasing the group's isolation.
The British government, meanwhile, is not exactly helping. The government's 'Prevent' programme, which officially aims to "help protect vulnerable young people from radicalisation", is seen by many students as a poorly disguised system for spying on Muslims. According to Sutton, Muslim students "positively loathe" the programme. Student bodies and lecturers have been approached by Prevent "coordinators" and asked to identify members of Islamic societies. In one infamous case, one student, Rizwaan Sabir, was wrongfully arrested and locked up for seven days after accessing material on the internet for his research project. The pain of the arrest was compounded by a recent report alleging police fabricated evidence against him.
"We tell people at Prevent that they should put more emphasis on far-right extremism to avoid the perception that the programme is only about Islam," Sutton tells PublicServiceEurope.com. Britain's National Union of Students is "not keen, to put it mildly" on Prevent, to the extent that unionists Tweet each other messages about "preventing Prevent". Far-right recruiters are said to be imitating the Islamist radicals' techniques on British campuses, though they are not as advanced. Islamist radicalism is by far the biggest problem, Sutton says. The NUS declines to comment.
Student Rights - with just two staff - encourages universities to exchange information on extremists. There should be a "risk register" of hate-preachers, says Sutton. He admits, when pushed, to supporting censorship of more extreme web content. Why should student bodies be permitted to promote hate-preachers, he asks? Academic staff do have a "duty to report" suspicious cases, he says. As a counterweight to the Rizwaan Sabir case, he mentions a former student found guilty in 2007 of several terrorism offences - including weapons training. The man was seen accessing extremist websites while at university but "staff were reluctant to do anything for fear of some accusation of racist conduct". One of the London subway bombers is said to have caused consternation among his teachers by scribbling "I love Bin Laden" on his notebooks. Again, no action was taken.
With the worsening economic crisis the fight against extremism is now taking on new political undertones. Islamist preachers are anti-austerity and anti-fat-cat-banker in much the same way as the hard left, Sutton points out. Leftists and Islamists are not worlds apart on the political spectrum; this might help explain students' animosity towards Prevent. Islamic finance, with its ban on usury and emphasis on 'hard money' is being promoted as an alternative to capitalism.
"There is nothing wrong with someone being radical, they're just challenging the status quo," says Rashid Ali, a former leader of the revolutionary Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahir. Ali, like Sutton, is talking at an event in Brussels organised by the European Foundation for Democracy - a not-for-profit body that promotes "individual freedom and equality". Those who preach intolerance should however not benefit from taxpayer funding, Ali says. An Egyptian journalist ends the debate by telling panelists the EFD's fight against extremism is all very well, but its principles should not apply to Palestinians, who are freedom fighters. The Middle East is "complicated" replies Lorenzo Vidino, the EFD moderator. Extremism, like terrorism, is after all a very subjective term.
"There is nothing wrong with someone being radical, they're just challenging the status quo," says Rashid Ali. When you apply his idea to someone who preaches that homosexuals should be put to death or someone who thinks that Shariah law should be the legal system in the UK, with Buckingham Palace replaced by a mosque, you know that it is a problem.
Now can people realise why dilly-dallying like that practiced by Her Majesty's government and others for fear of being accused of racism is giving terror elements breathing space, when they should not have any and when on paper they don't have any?
Anti-terror policies are failing in practice but are fully effective on paper; this makes it difficult to push through legislation in parliament to make the policies more efficient and to argue in the courts when accused of stepping out of the confines of the law.
Aritra Gupta - Kolkata
Perhaps Student Rights would like to be more honest and open on its views towards the gay community. Their patron has had plenty to say about gay marriages; perhaps, there's a hidden agenda Student Rights isn't telling us about?
Yvonne Ridley - Jedburgh, Scotland, Respect Party