By The Economist
Mar 28th 2015
IF THERESA MAY is in the running to be the next leader of the Conservative Party, as no less an authority than David Cameron believes, she will have to avoid missteps like the latest one over universities and free speech. Mrs May had wanted to order universities to vet all outside speakers for extremist views; student unions would have had to tell the authorities who was coming in advance. That struck the House of Lords, the Liberal Democrats and several Conservative ministers as intolerably illiberal, and the home secretary backed down. Yet she has a point.
Almost every day newspapers carry stories about British Muslims who have disappeared, presumed en route for Syria and the welcoming arms of Islamic State. These new recruits are often students. Mohammed Emwazi, who has been named as the hooded “Jihadi John”, studied at the University of Westminster. Similarly, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound jet in 2009, studied at University College London. Asif Hanif and Omar Khan Sharif, who tried to bomb a bar in Tel Aviv in 2003, were at King’s College London. Omar Sheikh, who murdered the journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002, attended the London School of Economics for a spell.
In particular the government frets about university Islamic societies—Mr Abdulmutallab was head of the one at UCL—and the tendency of some to invite objectionable speakers. An event organised by the Islamic Society at the University of Westminster with Haitham al-Haddad, a Muslim cleric who has called homosexuality a scourge and has worryingly unclear views on a man’s right to beat his wife, was postponed after Mr Emwazi’s identification. A similar lecture at the University of Kent was put off in March.
Islamic societies, which emerged in the 1960s, have long had links to conservative and political forms of the religion. The Federation of Student Islamic Societies, an umbrella organisation, once had close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. In the 1980s and 1990s the Saudis lavished money on university groups, says Parveen Akhtar, a sociologist at Bradford University, imbuing many with a strong flavour of Salafism, a fundamentalist strain of Islam. Islamist groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir have always had student outfits in their sights.
Universities have long been naive about the risks posed by radical preachers, argues Usama Hasan, a British imam who fought in the jihad in Afghanistan but now works for the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think-tank. Many officials assume that their addresses resemble university lectures where ideas can be debated and questioned. But speakers are often invited to sermonise at Friday prayers—at which a challenge to their views would be thought inappropriate.
The problem is greatest in London. The capital has long been a refuge for extremists of all varieties, including Muslim ones. Its universities are less oriented around campuses than those elsewhere, making it harder to keep track of students. And many students in London—unlike, say, in heavily Muslim cities like Bradford—are far from their families, who might pick up on signs of radicalisation.
Britain seems to be unusual. In Germany, for example, home-grown terrorists tend to come from troubled backgrounds (they often have prior criminal convictions) and few have gone to university. But that does not necessarily mean that British universities are causing radicalisation. One possible reason lots of British Muslim zealots have gone to university is simply that lots of British Muslims go to university. The country is peculiarly successful at educating immigrants and the children of immigrants, points out Jytte Klausen, a political scientist at Brandeis University.
In any case, Mrs May’s abandoned policy would not have tackled radicalisation at its root. Those who invite radical preachers have already been convinced. And Islamist lectures are widely available online, even if their disseminators are banned from giving them in person.