Universities are fertile recruiting ground for extremist Islamist groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir and al-Muhajiroun. Vice-chancellors need to start paying attentionby Shiraz Maher / September 24, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
The idea of British-Muslim suicide bombers was unprecedented until April 2003, when Omar Sharif and Asif Hanif first attacked Mike’s Place, a popular café in Tel Aviv. In the intervening years, an eclectic picture has emerged of Britain’s growing band of willing martyrs. They are usually young, male and of Pakistani heritage—they are also increasingly well educated, affluent and articulate. Several of the individuals arrested in connection with the latest alleged airline plot are college-educated, and one of them, Waheed Zaman, is reported to have been president of the Islamic Society at London Metropolitan University. Zaheer Khan, a friend of Omar Sharif’s, has described how Sharif was first converted to radical Islam whilst studying at King’s College, London.
Conventional wisdom has long suggested that the key to resolving Islamic extremism lies in providing greater opportunity and economic empowerment. But social advancement has also provided new opportunities for extremist recruitment within higher education.
One reason for this is that colleges and universities have, in some parts of the country, offered an alternative to the deadening conservatism of the mosques. This has allowed many young Muslims to discover a more liberal, “westernised” way of life, but it has also allowed some to escape into an extremist, Islamist faith with its confident, all-encompassing worldview. With at least four out of five imams in Britain coming from the Indian subcontinent, the problem is not simply about whether they can speak English, but whether they can fully appreciate the tensions that exist between Islamic values and liberal society. Keen to preserve a sense of identity and values, many mosques perpetuate the tribal “biradri” system, an unwritten law of social conduct revolving around ideas of honour where individual interests are subordinated to those of the community. Informally administered by community elders, whose authority cannot be challenged, the biradri system necessarily disenfranchises the young.
Biradri influence has never, however, permeated into the universities—which is one reason extremism can thrive there. During the early 1990s, a wave of exiled political dissidents from the Arab world, including Omar Bakri Mohammed, Farid Kassim and Mohammed al-Masri, regrouped in London and began touring the nation’s universities. There, unimpeded by the conservative values of the south Asian community, they found a willing audience and quickly built a cadre of loyal supporters among second and third-generation British Muslims. These young people were offered an alternative political programme which seemed to empower them and challenge some of the most reactionary elements of Asian culture. Although deeply anti-western, this form of Islamism encourages the active participation of women, rejects arranged marriages and opposes honour killings. Neither fully western nor eastern, this discourse of alternative Islamist identity is “supra-cultural” and identifies with an idealised umma, the global fraternity of the faithful.
An increasing number of extremist groups now compete for the attentions of a growing proportion of Muslims in higher education. A study conducted by the Foreign Policy Centre earlier this year suggests that nearly half of British Muslims of Pakistani descent between the ages of 18-30 are in higher education. Tariq Modood argues that for many British Muslims, Islam serves as the source of educational aspirations, providing a basis for upward mobility—a kind of “Protestant ethic”—where new career paths are negotiated with otherwise socially conservative parents from traditional, often rural, backgrounds. This makes them particularly prone to targeting by extreme Islamist groups on campus. Modood suggests that “those that do not follow academic paths are not less but more likely to be assimilated into white working class lifestyles.”
In recent times, Takfiri movements, ideological variants of Wahhabism, have begun competing alongside the well-established Hizb ut-Tahrir and al-Muhajiroun groups, for students at universities. All share a common opposition to democracy and insist that Muslims must resist integration. Although these groups rely heavily on their university activity to ensure a steady stream of recruits, Universities UK, the governing council of Britain’s leading research universities, has largely ignored the problem. Despite a report published last year by Anthony Glees and Chris Pope, “When Students Turn to Terror” (Social Affairs Unit), which described the presence of extremist Islamic groups at over 20 different campuses, vice-chancellors have refused to take action. Of course universities are, and should continue to be, home to freedom of speech and robust intellectual enquiry. But Islamist groups operate on campus with the specific aim of recruiting students to their organisations.
The NUS took the lead over a decade ago by applying a “no platform” policy to Hizb ut-Tahrir and al-Muhajiroun, although this proved largely ineffective—the groups simply created front societies to sidestep the ban. This is where universities must co-operate more closely with the NUS to ensure that extremists are not allowed to flout the rules. The danger which violent extremism now poses to our society means we all need to accept some trade-off between freedom and security. Vice-chancellors are at the heart of this trade-off—they must accept their responsibilities in curbing the growth of radicalism within their institutions whilst at the same time doing their best to maintain free speech.