Islamist extremists are infiltrating universities and becoming highly influential amongst students because institutions are continuing to invite controversial speakers onto campus, a report has claimed.

Students are being targeted by radicals via social media, extremist material and external speakers, the Challenging Extremists publication reveals. The study, produced by Student Rights and The Henry Jackson Society, highlights the "continuing and disturbing trend" of extremism on university campuses.

But the report clashes with the Home Affairs select committee's publication produced in February which stated that the internet played a far greater role than universities in contributing to the issue.

The Roots of Violent Radicalisation said the focus placed on university campuses by the government's Prevent strategy had been "disproportionate" and the effects of campuses on radicalisation were "overstated".

In addition, the National Union of Students has dismissed the report as "sensationalist" and claims there are various "inaccuracies".

President Liam Burns issued a statement saying:

"Unfortunately NUS was not given an opportunity to feed into the recommendations before publication so were unable to remove some of the inaccuracies or ensure we don't sensationalise an incredibly complex issue.

"NUS has long-standing policy against hate speech of all kinds and our officers will not share a platform with those who spread hatred. However, students' unions are autonomous and we have no ability to dictate to them how they deal with the potential for extremism."

The government's Prevent Review, launched in 2007 after the July bombings, identified campuses as key areas at risk of radicalisation. Despite demonstrating the tensions between the European Convention of Human Right's freedom of speech article and terrorism risks, the issue remains prevalent, Monday's report insists.

Free speech has special legal status on university campus, and has to be upheld for students, lecturers and visiting speakers alike - regardless of the content of their addresses.

Controversial speakers such as Abu Salahudeen and Murtaza Khan are among those who have been invited to speak.

Salahudeen, who has addressed Aston University twice this year, has appeared in videos promoting the belief of a Western war on Muslims: "As long as the west continues to use military power to torture, rape, murder, genocide Muslims off the face of planet Earth, we must stand up and defend ourselves."

Khan has repeatedly endorsed brutal punishments for adultery and referred to Jews and Christians as "enemies towards us" and deemed non-Muslims "filthy". He has been invited onto campuses four times since February 2012 and the University of West London and London Metropolitan University's Islamic societies have shared videos of his lectures on Facebook.

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The report, published on Monday, also reveals a number of student activists at London universities "engage in Islamist political activism and disseminate Islamist material". According to the publication they promote Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK - two groups subject to the National Union of Students' "No Platform" policy.

In February, suicide bomb supporter Azzam Tamimi provoked student outrage ahead of his speech at Queen Mary University, London.

The university stuck by its decision to let the event go ahead, saying: "Freedom of expression and the sharing of ideas and beliefs are at the heart of Queen Mary’s ethos and we have a very clear policy and mechanisms to support this."

The statement was released days after Jewish students at the London School of Economics clashed with Palestinian protesters, who formed a mock checkpoint and were asking students for "ID papers".

Tamimi has previously spoken at Cambridge University, as well as delivering a speech to Birmingham students.

But Nabil Ahmed, President of Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS), which represents more than 100,000 Muslim students in the UK slammed the report, saying:

"This strange Facebook profile-trawling report sensationally cites but a handful of examples to paint a distorted picture of campus extremism. The Henry Jackson Society needs to get its house in order - whilst it calls for challenging extremists, one of its Directors was banned from speaking on campus at the London School of Economics. Indeed after their last report on Muslim students (then fronted as the Centre for Social Cohesion) they were described by the NUS in 2008 as having an 'unhealthy obsession with Muslims and Islam' . It is understandable thus to question their intentions."

Extremism and student rights experts Rupert Sutton and Hannah Stuart, the report's authors, have issued recommendations to tackle radicalism on campus.

The guidance includes:

  • The NUS no platform policy should be applied consistently and extended to include external or students groups which are fronts for banned organisations
  • Student unions and university authorities should put in place measures for external speakers, including risk assessments
  • Candidates for student union positions with suspect extremist links should be investigated by the NUS
  • Student societies should challenge extremist material on affiliated student social media and report any concerns to the Home Office
  • The Department of Business, Skills and Innovation should update its guidance on tackling extremism to reflect the 2011 Prevent Strategy and changes in student union charitable status

The report concludes student unions have traditionally "done much to confront on-campus bigotry" but adds unions "could encourage a civic stigma around extreme activism" while remaining within the law. Unions are also reminded they are required, under charitable law, to protect their integrity and reputation, by "avoiding association with extremist-linked organisations".

Commenting on the recommendations, a BIS spokesperson said:

“The BIS, in conjunction with local partners, continues to give advice, guidance and support to institutions and student unions to help them manage the risk of extremism and radicalisation.

“The NUS provide guidance to their student unions on undertaking their responsibilities under charities law.

“We will monitor whether universities and colleges require further written guidance.”

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