Extremism at university: What is to be done?

Counter-terrorism expert George Readings looks at the problem of Islamist extremism in university and examines what can be done to tackle radicalism.

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Telegraph, home secretary Theresa May yesterday warned that universities are ‘complacent’ over the radicalisation of their students.

Speaking ahead of tomorrow’s launch of the third UK ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’ (Prevent) strategy, she said:

I don’t think they have been sufficiently willing to recognise what can be happening on their campuses and the radicalisation that can take place.

“I think there is more that universities can do.”

Her rhetoric reflects that of David Cameron’s Munich speech:

“Whether they are violent in their means or not, we must make it impossible for the extremists to succeed…

“We must stop these groups from reaching people in publicly-funded institutions like universities or even, in the British case, prisons.”

However, universities minister David Willetts has previously suggested he believes only a few individual students have become involved in extremism and that there is no wider problem on British campuses:

“I then ask the experts and the Security Services ‘what caused this to happen?’ Do we know that this person was radicalised as a result of being at a British university?

“…it is quite hard to pinpoint whether the university experience was the specific trigger.”

This comes after a report from Universities UK (UUK), the organisation representing British universities, said that universities should address only “aberrant behaviour”, claiming:

“The view of experts within government is that the higher education sector does not currently have a major problem with violent extremism”

More recently, UUK’s chief executive Nicola Dandridge reiterated these sentiments in an interview with the Telegraph:

“I don’t think there has been any evidence suggesting that speakers who are offensive to many people cause violent extremism in the student audience. There is no evidence of that.”

This is despite a steady stream of individuals leaving British Higher Education institutions and going on to become involved in terrorism.

Most famously, Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to detonate a bomb on board a plane to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, was previously a student at University College London where he was involved at the college’s Islamic Society. Similarly,Roshanara Choudhry – who tried to kill Stephen Timms MP – was previously a student at King’s College London.

Abdulmutallab is not the only individual involved with an Islamic Society to go on to become involved in violent extremism. Others include Kafeel Ahmed (Queen’s University Belfast/Glasgow Airport attack), Waseem Mughal (University of Leicester/convicted of inciting murder for terrorist purposes overseas), Yassin Nassari (University of Westminster /convicted for carrying blueprints of weapons) and Waheed Zaman (London Metropolitan University/’liquid bomb’ plot).

It is not only the threat of terrorism that is a concern. A recent report from the National Union of Students (pdf) revealed that 31 per cent of Jewish and LGB students have suffered hate incidents because of their identity.

Peter Tatchell has identified a link between homophobic and anti-Semitic incidents on campuses and talks given there by hate preachers:

“Many Vice-Chancellors are too weak and cowardly to take a stand. They fear being branded racist and Islamophobic. Instead of challenging these false slurs, they cave in to the hate-preaching fundamentalists.

“The failure of many university authorities to take a stand against homophobic and anti-Semitic clerics is complicity with fundamentalism and radicalisation. It is collusion with the gateways to terrorism.

These are serious problems which the Government has promised to address. At the same time, there is a risk that the disagreement between Willetts, on the one hand, and Cameron and May on the other, may have hamstrung efforts to counter university radicalisation. Whether or not this is the case will be seen tomorrow when the new Prevent strategy is announced.

9 Responses to “Extremism at university: What is to be done?”

  1. Hens4Freedom

    RT @leftfootfwd: Extremism at university: What is to be done? http://bit.ly/jua6xy by @GeorgeReadings #NewsClub

  2. joe kane

    What about support for zionist extremism and the Israeli racist war crimes regime on British campuses – any thoughts?

  3. cim

    Your evidence for “serious problems” mainly seems to consist of innuendo and faulty logic.

    This is despite a steady stream of individuals leaving British Higher Education institutions and going on to become involved in terrorism.

    Given that over a third of young British adults go to university nowadays, it would be really quite surprising if none of them ended up being terrorists. That doesn’t say – as Willetts rightly points out – that it was being at university which made them choose to be terrorists. (Also impossible to measure: the number of people who would have become terrorists but were talked out of it during their time at university)

    On this measure the real threat is not university islamic societies – which not all terrorists have been associated with, but supermarkets. All of the terrorists arrested in the British Isles in recent years have held supermarket loyalty cards – sometimes more than one! What are supermarkets doing to tackle extremism, I ask you? Nothing, that’s what!

    A recent report from the National Union of Students (pdf) revealed that 31 per cent of Jewish and LGB students have suffered hate incidents because of their identity.

    Also from that report: 17% of Muslim students also reported hate incidents, as did 30% of students with a Chinese ethnic background. Unless your point is “discrimination at universities is commonplace, just as it is in wider society”, I’m really not sure where you’re trying to go with this.

    Furthermore, despite your implication that this harassment is Muslim-led, the NUS report says nothing about the perpetrators. A massive number of white Christian people are bigoted against LGB people (I know at my uni the evangelical Christians were far more of a problem than the Islamic Society). Despite what you’d believe by reading the Daily Mail, most harassment of LGB people in this country is not by Muslims.

  4. Selohesra

    CIM you refer to LGB people but isn’t it normally LGBT or do you not like the Ts for some reason?

  5. George Readings


    Good question. I have absolutely nothing against the T. I am merely using the statistics as reported by the NUS and, as they used the term LGB, I imagine these must have excluded transphobic behaviour for some reason. A question to take up with the NUS, however, not me.

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