Campus Extremism?

By Tehmina Kazi
Director, bmsd

The issue of campus extremism is never far from the spotlight, and the Government’s recent review of the “Preventing Violent Extremism” strategy has once again brought it to the fore. A myriad of organisations have lamented long and hard about sectarian attitudes emanating from certain Muslim students (as well as some of the speakers that have been invited to address student Islamic society events). It has been difficult for stakeholders to negotiate an appropriate balance between liberty and security on this issue. For example, the Home Secretary described some universities as “complacent” in their approach.

Conversely, the previous Prevent strategy was (rightly) criticised for its over-reliance on surveillance technology. For every stellar leadership project funded by Prevent, there was an equivalent project which ended up shattering trust. A pertinent example was recorded at a college in northern England, where a student who attended a Palestine meeting was reported by one lecturer as a “potential extremist” (it turned out that he was not). Greater clarity, consistency, and grassroots engagement are required to break the current impasse.

Firstly, there needs to be a consensus as to what constitutes unacceptable speech and behaviour on campus. This is particularly relevant to discussion of the protected equality characteristics i.e. gender, race, disability, religion and belief, sexual orientation and age. The Universities UK report, “Freedom of Speech on campus: rights and responsibilities in UK universities” (February 2011) draws the line at behaviour “which has the purpose or effect of violating another’s dignity or creating a hostile, intimidating, offensive, or humiliating environment.” All students – regardless of their background or beliefs – must be mindful of this when inviting particular speakers to their events. There is much talk of the invitees’ individual rights, including freedom of speech, but less emphasis on their concomitant responsibilities (as per the Qur’anic injunction that mentions “wisdom and beautiful preaching.”).

Secondly, the same standards must apply to all campus stakeholders, no matter which religion or ideology they represent (or claim to represent). Reciprocity should be the main guiding principle here; it is crucial that different groups on campus should apply the same high standard of behaviour to their own representatives as they do to others. Inflammatory, sectarian and divisive attitudes must be opposed across the board. Therefore, it is puzzling that the November 2007 Oxford Union debate between BNP leader Nick Griffin and historian David Irving (who served a prison sentence in Austria after being convicted of Holocaust denial) was allowed to go ahead. Much of the media focus has been on Muslim extremism, but the forty universities who responded to the Universities UK survey stated that the most common type of challenge they faced was “in connection with animal rights”. It is staggering that this finding has not received greater coverage in the mainstream media.

Thirdly, good practice manuals need to be distributed more widely (particularly those written by individual students themselves). Between May 2009 and March 2011, I acted as a consultant and facilitator for the Citizenship Foundation’s “Young Muslim Leadership Network” which featured three groups of Muslim students, all aged 16 to 21. One of the groups came up with a good practice guide, entitled “How can University Islamic Societies be more inclusive?”. In addition, Campus Salam, an initiative run by the Lokahi Foundation, has produced guidance for students on the etiquettes of debate and disagreement. This stresses the principle of reciprocity mentioned above: “Are you fair and even-handed, or are you judging them in a way you don’t judge your own group?

Finally, substantial research has been conducted on the psychology of extremism, but there should be greater coverage of the findings in mainstream media platforms. Cambridge University researcher Shahzad Shafqat has conducted an international study on this issue, focusing on extreme positive behaviour as well as extreme negative behaviour.

He states, “We have to accept that extremism – positive and negative – is part of the human condition, just as stress and anger are also part of being human. You can’t eradicate these things but, by understanding them, you can learn to manage them”. Rather than exclusively relying on the superficial explanations given for extremism, we should give this kind of introspection the importance it deserves.

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