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British Universities Need Radical Ideas, Not Bigotry

Muslim students make up a significant proportion of Britain's further and higher educational institutions. These young people are as varied as the Muslim community itself: a 'community of communities' and not - contrary to what some might believe - a single monolithic block.

As the new Government-backed anti-Muslim hatred body, 'Tell MAMA' has just reported a rising level of anti-Muslim hatred and sentiment is creeping into British life. We appear to have passed the point where Baroness Warsi referred to Islamophobia 'passing the dinner party test'.

Since the terrible events of 7 July, 2005, the Muslim community has often been stigmatised for apparent 'fifth column' instincts: for desiring to 'take over', to 'impose Sharia law', for oppressing women, rampant homophobia, harbouring terrorist sympathies, and apparently being unwilling or unable to adapt to 'Western' ways.

The terrible logic of this so-called 'counter-jihadist' narrative is that, unchecked, it leads to Anders Behring Breivik. Breivik's justification for his Norwegian killings was that the mainly young, white Norwegian Labour party members he killed were "cultural Marxists", part of a liberal elite selling out Europe to some sort of 'Eurabia' fantasy.

The irony is that Muslims' loyalty to Britain is actually ranked higher than that of other Britons - 83% versus 79% according to a recent survey. This was also highlighted in a recent Campus Extremism, Freedom and Security conference at the London School of Economics.

British Muslim youth

Muslim students make up a significant proportion of Britain's further and higher educational institutions. These young people are as varied as the Muslim community itself: a 'community of communities' and not - contrary to what some might believe - a single monolithic block. Originating from the four corners of the world, they hail from incredibly diverse ethnic, linguistic and religio-cultural backgrounds.

In last summer's Olympic and Paralympic Games, this contribution was well recorded. From Mo Farah to thousands of ordinary helpers, together this community joined in with the rest of Britain and made London 2012 the 'greatest show on Earth'. (I played my own small part as a board member of the London Organising Committee.)

The overwhelming proportion of Muslim students are from a new generation: raised and schooled with fellow British citizens. Most of their families, though, still live in poorer inner-city conurbations. Some of these students may display overt religiosity in their dress and expressions; however, they are remarkably similar in their hopes, aspirations and dreams to any other young, modern Briton. They are, to whit, an integral part of our society.

Muslim students are also among some of the most active members on a university campus. They fundraise thousands during Charity Week for orphans and needy children around the world; they are actively involved in organising stimulating debates and discussions; and many give up their free time for volunteering and transferring their skills back to their own community.

Sadly the current trend in national politics is to see Muslims through the 'prism of security'. 'Securitisation' of government policy has put Muslim students at the sharp end of an unfair scrutiny. There is a risk of alienating a generation of young Muslims who are simply trying to secure better futures for themselves and their families.

Prevent legacy

The Prevent agenda that was initiated by the Blair government in the aftermath of 7/7 created serious disquiet. His successor, Gordon Brown, attempted to redress some of the flaws through a review chaired by Dr Phyllis Starkey, but the Tory-led Coalition ignored her recommendations and initiated another Prevent review within months of coming to power. No noteworthy civil society or Muslim groups were consulted. The government formally distanced itself from mainstream Muslim groups (deemed as insufficiently 'moderate'), which included Britain's largest and most representative Muslim umbrella organisation, the Muslim Council of Britain. It also included FOSIS, the student body.

In these troubling times, far-right groups such as the English Defence League (EDL), were able to rise, orchestrating a number of violent demonstrations against mosques in British cities from 2009 onwards. Muslim women - particularly those wearing a veil - have born the brunt of attacks from white EDL or BNP supporters, according to the Tell MAMA project.

Universities were advised to inform the police about Muslim students "who are depressed or isolated under new guidance for countering Islamist radicalism." The mistrust surrounding Muslim students was part of the reason for draconian measures such as 'section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000'.

The Tory politician, Baroness Warsi, rightly claimed couple of years ago that Islamophobia was now socially acceptable in Britain. No wonder a recent YouGov poll found that fewer than one in four people believed Islam was compatible with the British way of life.

The consolation is that many have now acknowledged that the Prevent strategy is 'discriminatory' against Muslims. The NUS warned ministers that "wild sensationalism" over claims about radicalisation on campuses would "only serve to unfairly demonise Muslim students".

Reappraising Muslim students

The greatest fear in modern times is violence and terrorism; some undertaken in the name of religion. However, 'racialisation' or 'Islamisation' of crime is not going to solve the problems that we face. We need to deal with the true extremists collectively - not by stigmatising one community or dealing unfairly with its young people. In a modern pluralist society no group or community should feel pushed to the margins, for the misdemeanor of a few.

When it comes to Muslim community, I have not seen a mass desire for establishing an 'Islamic caliphate' with 'sharia law' in the British Isles, despite what the EDL or certain think tanks or hate-filled blogs might claim. Similarly, I have not heard any call for death penalties, punishment of homosexuals, forced marriages or degradation of women by the vast majority of ordinary, law-abiding Muslim citizens.

Yes, there are disagreements on some of parts of government policy - sometimes foreign, sometimes domestic - and that is part of democratic process. Universities as seats of learning are places forthis debate; their success can only be achieved through fresh, creative and contradictory ideas that are often 'radical'.

Britain has changed. There is a generational shift among young Muslims and other Britons, providing an opportunity for more liberal and progressive understanding of one another; the proportion of young Britons viewing Muslims as a threat to white Britons or a danger to the West is going down. Muslim students today are different from what they were a decade ago. With a significantly higher presence in the campus now they have a huge potential to become a serious force for good in wider society. Our policy makers must better-understand their make-up and beliefs, rather than encourage universities to muzzle all ideas and debate.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, writer and freelance parenting consultant ( Follow him on Twitter:

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