The Times (£) today features as its cover story a report by Student Rights on ‘extremist’ speakers on university campuses in the past year and incidents of segregation at Islamic society events. The article references speakers such as Haitham al-Haddad, Hamza Tzortzis, and Abu Usamah at-Thahabi, of the Green Lane mosque in Birmingham, as examples of the sorts of ‘radicals’ that are preaching to young minds. The report also cites quotes from Professor Anthony Glees, Usama Hasan of the Quilliam Foundation and, of course, Raheem Kassam of Student Rights, in support of arguments that university students are being feed a diet of ‘brutality, hate and intolerance’.
Needless to say the report makes no mention at all of counter-factual evidence contained in the Home Affairs select committee report into the ‘Roots of Violent Radicalisation’ which, in relation to university campuses as potential sites of radicalization, observed:
“…the role of prisons and universities was less obvious. Much of the uncertainty relates to the fact 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.
“…we are concerned that too much focus in the Prevent Strategy is placed on public institutions such as universities, and that it may be more accurate, and less inflammatory, to describe them as places where radicalisation "may best be identified". We consider that the emphasis on the role of universities by government departments is now disproportionate.”
The omission of the select committee report is significant when one considers the provenance given to the views of Professor Glees as “an intelligence and security expert consulted by the All Party Parliamentary Homeland Security Group”.
Of course The Times fails to mention that said APPG is served by the Henry Jackson Society as secretariat and that Raheem Kassam, when not wearing his Student Rights hat, is Director of Marketing for HJS. The notion of universities as ‘hotbeds of radicalisation’ was aggressively pursued in the Homeland Security report with no consideration given to counter-evidence that might refute the premise that universities are recruiting grounds for potential terrorists. Take, for example, the report of the Caldicott Inquiry which followed the attempted terrorist attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a former student at UCL.
The further issues explored in the article relate to the causal relationship, if any, between the social conservatism expressed by some of the speakers profiled, segregation, and violent extremism.
Social conservative views, as Cristina Odone reflected on in her review of the Pew Muslim attitudes survey of last week, are common to Muslims as well as Christians and yet no one would consider Christian objection to same sex marriage as indicative of a mindset vulnerable to violent extremism. Social conservatism may well reflect ways of thinking in parts of the British Muslim student population but it is some contorting stretch to connote that conservatism equals susceptibility to radicalisation
Segregation also features as part of the conservative mindset and is used in the article to criticize universities for not acting to stem behaviour that purportedly runs counter to equalities legislation. But the purpose of equalities legislation is to render individuals free and equal to exercise choices, not to dictate what those choices should be. To do so would be no different to the attempt by the French state to ‘liberate’ Muslim women and render them equal citizens of the French Republic by legislating against headscarves in schools and face veils in public places.
An important point arises from the article’s profile of speakers and a short, accompanying column by The Times’ religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill. Gledhill remarks on threats made to speakers at an event at Queen Mary College and the legislative protection on incitement to hatred and the use of ‘abusive, insulting or threatening’ words.
In relation to the speakers, the benchmark against which views must be assessed is whether they breach the law on incitement. However detestable views may be, and the views of BNP leader Nick Griffin on Islam are no different, unless words are uttered that breach the prosecution threshold, free speech would allow for the expression of even vile views.
The second, related, point concerns the disparity in legal protection on incitement to racial hatred and incitement to religious hatred. As documented in the report on Freedom of Speech on Campus:
“It will be noted that the focus of these offences [incitement to religious hatred] is on threatening words or behaviour but not insulting or abusive words or behaviour. Further, as the offences all involve the intent to stir up religious hatred, the defences available in relation to racial hatred do not apply. Intent is a necessary ingredient of the offences – it is not sufficient to show that religious hatred was likely to be stirred up.”
The unequal protection, leaving Muslims more vulnerable to incitement to hatred on religious grounds without adequate legal redress, explains why only one person has been prosecuted under the 2006 Act and even then, he was acquitted. But there is no exploration of this in the column by Ruth Gledhill in which she concludes “The law at present is sufficient”.
Nicola Dandridge, the chief executive of Universities UK, makes a fine point of asserting the role of universities in nurturing critical faculties and providing platforms for reasoned debate. The antics of Student Rights in recent years would suggest the organisation has very little interest at all in respecting the rights of students to exercise their critical faculties without paternalism or patronage.
See also Huffington Post.