The Future of Campus Extremism?

09/11/2011 14:24 GMT | Updated 08/01/2012 10:12 GMT

The debate surrounding the presence of extremists on British university campuses was thrown wide-open again recently when the Provost of UCL, Malcolm Grant, claimed that campus extremism was 'made up'. He has since been condemned by organisations which monitor this issue, including the London-based StandforPeace, which after his comments accused him of shirking his responsibilities to his students. On Friday, 4 November, an event took place at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) on Friday which may offer us a model for the future.

There is no doubt that Islamists of different stripes have long operated on British campuses (for more on this see a report I co-authored the Centre for Social Cohesion, which lists incidences of extremists addressing British students on campus), and it is no coincidence that just under 7% of all Islamist-related offences between 1999 and 2010 have been committed by people who were students at the time Yet, an adequate response to this has thus far been difficult to formulate.

The simple reaction is to ban from campus any individuals who are members of extremist groups or who have a well-documented history of preaching violence, misogyny and sectarian hatred. In reality, this is far from simple; not only have universities been reticent to ban anyone from speaking on their properties, but a ban on a popular speaker often has the opposite effect from what it is trying to achieve, angering and confusing many students, as well as martyring second-rate preachers.

Among the more nuanced critiques of extremism on British Universities is that, although it is unfortunate that Islamists are feted on British campuses, the main concern is the provision of unchallenged platforms for extremists. Instead, so as to avoid the problem of banning speakers, many, including myself, have suggested that informed debate may be the best antidote to extremist ideology taking root among students. Islamists must argue their case against panelists who are strongly opposed to their ideology, and able to effectively refute and debate them.

Students who rely on their societies to provide them with fair and balanced views on controversial subjects are often let down by Islamist-influenced Islamic societies who provide them only with speakers who fit their anti-Western and religiously orthodox agenda. In what is perhaps the best documented of such cases is the City University Islamic Society, which was exposed in a report by the Quilliam Foundation for pushing a hard-core Islamist Islam on the students, and bullying and threatening any who dissented.

This is why I was encouraged by what I saw at SOAS last Friday. A few days earlier I had been informed that a student society at the university called the Belief and Reason Society had organised an event about the future of the Middle-East in which Abdul Wahid, chairman of British wing of Islamist political party, Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), was to speak alongside other panelists. HT has long been banned from appearing on university platforms by the National Union of Students, and its members have successfully overcome this proscription by setting up generically-named student groups (such as the Debating Society or Ideological Society) and using these to give open and unchallenged platforms to leading members of the group.

Thus, I was initially skeptical about the event, and it appears that the Belief and Reason Society certainly does have some connection to HT - the Facebook page of the event's chair, Rupon Haque, reveals him to be a strong supporter of the group, if not a member. However, I was intrigued that Wahid's fellow panelists appeared to be genuinely opposed to Islamism, and were not the innocent yet clueless marks usually strung up by HT front groups as ideological piñatas for their leaders to embarrass in front of an impressionable audience. Additionally, the audience was not, as it would be at an HT event, made up primarily HT supporters bussed in to bully any dissenters among the students, although there was a contingent of them present.

Most impressive among the speakers was Ahmed Shebani of the newly-formed Democratic Party of Libya, and fervent supporter of secular democracy. Each panelist was asked to speak for 15 minutes and give their view of what the future of the Middle-East should look like. During his segment, Shebani argued that, in order to recover from 40 years of oppressive government, the Libyans had to take lessons from European and American democracy, and he hoped to see alliances with Western nations over the coming decades. To the self-evident shock of a SOAS audience wholly unused to hearing anything positive about the United States, he also praised America and NATO for finally freeing his people from the shackles of totalitarianism. At this, the HT section of the audience doubled up as if in physical pain, while others looked around like bleary- eyed fawns caught in the headlights of a giant lorry; bewildered and unsure of what to do next.

During one of the more fiery discussions between Shebani and Wahid, one audience member heckled the former, calling him a 'kafir' (non-Muslim). The seriousness of such a claim cannot be overstated and certainly suggests that Malcolm Grant should reconsider his claims about the presence of extremists on university campuses. The act of proclaiming a Muslim as an apostate (also known as takfir) is among the most important aspects of the violent jihadist strain of Islamism, and was a crucial ideological step towards the creation of groups like al-Qaeda.

Yet, despite this unpleasantness, the audience had heard sensible anti-Islamist and pro-democratic arguments coming not from a member of the American or British establishment, but from a Libyan man from Misrata, and this would have had a lasting impact for many of the students already hard-wired to hate the United States.

Wahid followed Shebani, and gave his usual arguments for the establishment of an Islamist theocracy in Libya and the wider Middle-East. Although there were two other panelists, Nadim Shehadi from Chatham House and Onz Shafi, a young Tunisian who took part in the uprising against Ben Ali, this effectively became a show-down between the anti-Islamist Shebani and Abdul Wahid, making for captivating and, more importantly, intellectually stimulating viewing. Wahid was, in my opinion, the weakest and least convincing member of the panel, and he struggled to deal with Shebani's raw passion for a progressive and democratic future for his country, born no doubt of his new found freedom.

As I watched this duel, I realised that this sort of robust debate and discussion was the best way to respond to the presence of extremists, and felt that I was witnessing the answer to dealing with extremism at British higher learning institutes. If indeed the Belief and Reason Society is an HT front group, it has at least given in to pressure and provided students with more balanced panel discussions.