In recent months there has been considerable debate both in the media and in government, of university Islamic societies being "conveyor belts" for extremism and terrorism.
The Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS), the umbrella organisation for student Islamic societies, has been particularly singled out as an organisation which "are training the violent extremists of tomorrow." Home Secretary, Theresa May, has also outlined her concerns for the need to tackle extremism within University Islamic Societies.
Now let us look at the flip side of this argument, or as many of us would like to put it, the reality of how these groups operate first of all, and if violent extremism is really widespread in student Islamic societies.
Established in 1963, FOSIS is a body that caters for the needs of Muslim students in further and higher education across the UK and Ireland. It aims to represent and serve Muslim students, unite all existing student Islamic organisations in the United Kingdom and Ireland and encourage and help in the formation of such organisations.
From charity functions to Islamic lectures to political debates, FOSIS has an impressive track record of grassroots democracy, mainstream activism and charity work throughout university campuses across the UK and Ireland.
I've had the opportunity of attending a number of FOSIS events including the FOSIS 2007 annual conference at the University of Nottingham. I would far from say FOSIS is promoting extremism and terrorism. I would emphasise that they play a vital role in combating extremism with events such as 'Radical thinking - between extremes of freedom and security on campus' held at the University College London (UCL) which discussed extremism and attended by many individuals involved in fighting extremism in the UK.
The FOSIS 2010 annual conference also tackled radicalisation in its programme with speakers such as the Guardian contributor, Jonathan Githens-Mazer and Professor Anthony Glees, a previous consultant to the War Crimes Inquiry in the Home Office. Other events and campaigns have included Service Fast Stream Careers Evening, Grandparents Day and an annual charity week event.
How could any of these events be close to ''training the future generation of violent extremists?"
Islamic societies, just like most other religious student societies, exist to assist Muslim students balance their studies, religion and social activities while at university. During my time as a student at the University of Birmingham, I attended many University of Birmingham Islamic Society events ranging from political debates to spiritual talks and sports events. It helped me as a student to meet other Muslims on campus as well as have fun the 'Islamic' way. I was not 'radicalised' or drawn into violent extremism.
While critics have claimed that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, also known as the underwear bomber, who tried to detonate explosives while on board a US airline, was radicalised at UCL' s Islamic Society, there has been no evidence to indicate that was the case.
Anyone with knowledge on extremism and terrorism would know that many studies have shown that radicalisation stems from a range of factors and that no individual can be radicalised by one single method such as watching YouTube videos or being exposed to extremist views. It is therefore, premature to claim that the Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was radicalised as a result of his involvement with UCL's Islamic Society.
Shaykh Haitham al-Haddad, an Islamic scholar who was scheduled to speak at a London School of Economics Islamic Society event, sparked controversy by critics who branded him as a 'hate preacher' and a negative influence on Muslim students. However, he is the chair and operations advisor for the Muslim Research and Development Foundation, part of the Islamic Sharia Council and is known for his knowledge in Islamic finance. He is labelled as 'controversial' but not a 'terrorist.'
University Islamic societies and groups like FOSIS are part of the solution not the problem when it comes to fighting extremism. Even NUS president, Aaron Porter issued a statement in response to Theresa May's accusations of FOSIS:
"Facing up to the challenges that non-violent extremism brings to campus life requires careful support and guidance from government, not wild sensationalism that only serves to unfairly demonise Muslim students. In our experience, groups like FOSIS are part of the solution, not the problem."
Instead of jumping to conclusions and labelling groups who are playing a part in combating extremism as "terrorists", wouldn't a dialogue with FOSIS be more productive or perhaps critics should actually attend some of FOSIS's events to understand what student Islamic societies are all about?
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