The recent Home Affairs Committee's report on the roots of violent radicalisation represents a breakthrough in our nation's discourse surrounding campus extremism. The report - which is the closest the government has ever come to an evidence based and responsible approach regarding the causes of violent radicalisation and for which Committee Chairman Rt Hon Keith Vaz should be commended - asserts that "a number of convicted terrorists have attended prisons and universities, but there is seldom concrete evidence to confirm that this is where they were radicalised" and that therefore "the emphasis on the role of universities by government departments is... disproportionate".
The words "told you so" were uttered in the higher education sector upon reading this, and this was positive news for universities and Muslim students in particular, many of whom feel vindicated. Leading bodies have long asserted such conclusions including National Union of Students (NUS), the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) and Universities UK (UUK) - Universities Ministers over the past half-decade including the Rt Hon David Willetts have said the same. Such findings critically pose a significant challenge to neoconservative think-tanks and lobbies that have long sought to criminalise the activities of Muslim students on British campuses by arguing that universities lie along conveyor belt which creates extremists.
Amongst the loudest of those voices, and least credible too, was that of the Centre for Social Cohesion (CSC), recently subsumed by the Henry Jackson Society, which did well to develop a reputation for misrepresenting and foully attacking Muslim communities, in particular student Islamic societies (ISocs). Groups like the also ironically named Student Rights have followed suit (whose name bears little relation to its output). In July 2008, the think-tank released a report titled "Islam on Campus", attempting to link the work of Islamic Societies and Muslim students with extremism. A chorus of condemnation was prompted at the time, including the NUS, UUK and Muslim Council of Britain, all standing shoulder to shoulder with Muslim students. The report was criticised for its methodological flaws, sample population and ambiguous questioning; the NUS President at the time noted how Muslim students' "answers were then wilfully misinterpreted in order to fit this organisation's own tawdry obsession with Islam".
Its seemingly deliberate perversion of reality is not the only factor undermining the integrity of the think-tank, and renders its name as a smokescreen for its real purpose of social disintegration. Confronting the paradox of suspending democracy in order to supposedly defend it, CSC's director Douglas Murray previously called for "Conditions for Muslims in Europe [to] be made harder across the board". Sparing no effort in vilifying Muslim communities through attempting to rationalise a fear of Islam, Murray wrote for The Spectator magazine in August 2008, 'It's not "phobic" to be worried about Islam. It is eminently rational.'
The effect of the Home Affairs Select Committee Report will hopefully deflate the pathological obsession many neoconservative groups have with universities. But a significant obstacle remains the vast sums backing these think-tanks as well their close intimacy with Whitehall, something which civil society must challenge. The think-tank Policy Exchange, an ideological sibling of CSC and noted for its close relationship with the Conservative Party through the guise of education minister Michael Gove MP amongst others, has enjoyed substantial investment from the likes of controversial Tory peer Lord Ashcroft, who bankrolled much of the recent Conservative party election campaign. This casts doubts over whether such a major government report can overcome this ideological trend radiating from the heart of the Conservative party, steering it towards a more nuanced and accurate understanding of the causes of radicalisation.
Civil society must also be alert to the impact these neoconservative groups have on far-right violent extremists - a serious threat that the Home Affairs Committee emphasises requires more governmental focus on, and to which the government has been criticised to have only played "lip-service" in challenging. It is hardly surprising that Policy Exchange is cited in the manifesto of Anders Brevik, the man who went on to mercilessly murder 70 people in Norway.
Through these challenging times there is a real threat that pressured and misunderstood, Muslim students could become isolationist or avoid such discussions. The opposite has occurred - our national Muslim student body, with a democratic leadership consisting of Muslim students across the country since 1963, has campaigned to uphold freedom of expression on British University campuses and hosted government representatives with Muslim students in recent years. Not only have we condemned violent extremism continually (including the "Not In The Name of Islam" publication, distributed after 7/7) but we also organised the first-ever Conference on campus extremism at University College London in 2011 which brought together University leaders, security experts, think-tanks and students to practically think about the issue.
Most recently, neoconservative groups have turned their attention on Muslim speakers invited to speak on University campuses. One must be vigilant not to fall for an absurd concoction of 'speakers of hate' travelling around the country; a quick perusal of colourfully-themed "Islam Awareness Weeks" across the country, with talks about Jesus and Islamic contribution to science and european civilisation by former priests and well-known scientists, dispel such myths and paint the reality of our members.
Sincere efforts, meanwhile, exist in raising female participation in student societies and continuing to encourage political participation; we reject that any of our speakers condone violent extremism - this is not in our spirit. Where concerns may exist which we respectfully are willing to discuss (welcome to student life - Jack Straw, once a radical student leader, falls into such a bracket), they should be highlighted with proper context and maturity at the meeting table, not sensationalism and empty rhetoric - hence our participation with the National Union of Students (NUS)' Project on Hate Speech. All the while, the democratic integrity of Muslim students self-organising should not be undermined and respected.
In the meantime, Muslim students continue to get on with their University courses, seek out good careers, enjoy their campus experience with many positively contributing to their student communities. Aside from charitable campaigns and awareness about Islam, a former Islamic Society president at Salford University is currently serving 7 million students in the UK as Vice-President of Higher Education of the NUS, and "Artistic Jihad" is an ever-burgeoning Muslim student arts-leadership programme which last year travelled across the country. Other notable figures such as Dr Hany El Banna, founder and CEO of Islamic Relief, awarded by Queen Elizabeth II with an OBE for services rendered to the community, came through the ranks of FOSIS, as did the president of Turkey Dr. Abdullah Gul.
The Home Affairs Committee's report - which we were pleased to provide written and oral evidence to alongside Universities UK - brings a new glimmer of hope in reshaping the discourse surrounding campus extremism and ending the climate of fear whipped against British Muslims. Despite the efforts of demagoguery from think-tanks and their backers to mislead, we hope that the report will enlighten others to the reality of radicalisation and allow them to successfully challenge these fictions wherever they arise.
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