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
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…