Al-Qaeda supporters on campus – so what?
If there’s one place where people should be tested and provoked by all sorts of ideas, it’s the academy.
According to revelations in the The Sunday Times this weekend, over the past year the British domestic security service, MI5, has identified 39 universities as being ‘vulnerable to violent extremism’. The MI5’s Joint Terrorism and Analysis Centre has apparently already briefed the universities and, to help them tackle campus radicalisation, has offered the terror-friendly universities something very attractive at this particular juncture: £10,000. So far, 25 have accepted.
The news that the security services are taking a keen interest in universities is not that surprising. Over the past five years or so, British campuses have increasingly been at the forefront of the domestic side of the ‘war on terror’. In 2006, for instance, then higher education minister Bill Rammell was urging universities to combat ‘violent extremism in the name of Islam’, even issuing guidelines on how to spot jihadists in the making.
In 2007, following the conviction (now quashed) of five Bradford University students for ‘possessing material for terrorist purposes’, and the claim of pan-Islamist group al-Muhajiroun that it was making inroads at Oxford University, David Conway of the Centre for Social Cohesion felt emboldened enough to argue: ‘Universities remain woefully complacent over campus violent extremism… [T]hose who run and teach at Britain’s universities [need to be] shaken out of their current complacency in the face of a very real threat that is posed by the presence at them of students who preach, or worse still practise violent extremism.’ Little wonder that a government briefing document from March this year, only revealed this weekend, asserted: ‘We know [al-Qaeda] and other groups target universities.’
But what does it mean to talk of universities as ‘vulnerable to violent extremism’? Taken on its own terms, this suggests that those who make up the body of these institutions are exceptionally exposed in some way. Not that they are exposed to actual violence exactly. No, it means they are exposed to ideas, ideas that might well contradict reality.
Now, there is an element of truth to this view of the university and its student corpus. Because, yes, students are exposed to ideas – often exceptionally so – while at university. And not only that, a lot of those ideas might well do a bit of conceptual violence to students’ own received opinions and views of the world. But this needn’t be a source of official, security-service angst. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s a good thing.
At a university, students ought to be exposed to challenging ideas, ideas which take them out of their juvenile comfort zones. Where officialdom sees ‘vulnerability’, you could just as easily see a willingness to learn, a willingness on the part of the young to be challenged. Inquisitiveness is surely a youthful virtue, not a flaw to be exploited by al-Qaeda. Likewise, to be inspired by an idea is not strictly speaking a problem. In fact, to be inspired by an idea or – if you prefer the weirdly pejorative parlance – to be ‘radicalised’ by an idea is surely a boon for any student.
But the problem as the security services see it is that the wrong ideas are taking a grip of youthful minds, filling them with resentment of the West and dreams of glorious bomb-induced martyrdom. That’s why, as they see it, ‘al-Qaeda and other groups’ must somehow be kept away from university campuses. Academic freedom is too high a price to pay for our security, runs the thinking. Exposed to the wrong ideas, students, especially Muslim students, will simply adopt them wholesale. This not only underestimates the intellect of students – it also isn’t borne out in reality.
Of course there have been instances of people convicted of terror offences who have also been to university. Kafeel Ahmed, killed by his own bomb at Glasgow airport, had studied at Anglia Ruskin in 2007. Adel Yahya, who pleaded guilty in 2007 to assisting terrorism, had been at London Metropolitan. In the same year, Mohammed Atif Siddique of Glasgow Caledonian got eight years for three terror offences. More recently, and certainly more infamously, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to ignite his underpants during a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. He studied at University College London. (Mind you, he also supported Liverpool, had no friends and blogged about masturbating, so perhaps the JTAC should look at the other contributing factors around his descent into radical underwear.)
However, the fact that a few people who went to university have also become terrorists is hardly surprising given that around 50 per cent of the population currently pass through higher education. I’d bet there are a fair number of murderers, embezzlers and drug dealers with degrees, too. If the power of so-called ‘radicalised Islam’ was so strong on campus, you’d expect there to be more than a handful of would-be terrorists.
But the problem here is not with the actual rather limited power of quasi-jihadist ideas. The problem lies with the crisis of the university’s own authority, the lack of confidence in what ought to be the ruling ideas. In fact, so weak is the conviction that universities still transmit the good and the true that al-Qaeda-like alternate versions of the good and the true, no matter how ridiculous the idea of setting up a caliphate might actually be, acquire a seductive force. The restrictions on freedom of speech on campus are underpinned by the academy’s own cowardice.
Still, you’d think that while there might be one Bin Laden-style critic of Western decadence, there’d be enough people within a university to argue in defence of the gains of Western civilisation. It’s enough to make you think that it’s not students who are vulnerable, but rather the idealess elite.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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