Waffling on about free speech and forming committees is no way to deal with nascent terrorists, says Michael Burleigh. Let’s hope the Tories do better
What would a Conservative administration do about the radicalisation of Muslims at British universities? It is a question voters must be asking, given the swell of disturbing reports about student terrorists in the press. Last weekend, it was revealed that British students have been visiting Somalia to fight for the extremist group Al-Shabab (‘The Youth’), while the Sunday Telegraph reported that Yayha Ibrahim, an extremist preacher barred from America and Australia, was planning a speaking tour of British campuses. This just weeks after underpants bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, an alumnus of University College London, attempted to murder 289 people on a Christmas Day flight to Detroit.
The Tories rightly deduce that these incidents are associated with immigration policy — and they seem determined to tackle the problem at source. David Cameron has promised to outlaw the extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which has a strong presence on several campuses. Chris Grayling, the shadow home secretary, has pledged to introduce a £6,000 returnable bond for overseas students wanting to start a three-year course in Britain.
Whereas Labour has merely reacted to each terrorist attack by recycling existing ‘guidelines’ so as to create the illusion of action, the Tories recognise that radicalisation and terrorism are dynamic in nature and require a fleet-footed response.
The need for such vigilance should be obvious. Abdulmutallab is only the latest British university graduate to try his hand at terrorism. Others include Omar Saeed Sheikh, the kidnapper and murderer, a former London School of Economics student; Mohammed Siddique Khan, the Leeds Metropolitan graduate and 7/7 tube bomber; and Kafeel Ahmed, president of Queen’s University Belfast’s Islamic Society, who blew himself up at Glasgow airport.
In some respects, Britain’s problems resemble those of Germany or Italy after their elite universities were recklessly thrown open during the 1960s. Over that decade the number of foreign students in Italy almost trebled to 800,000. Faculties could not cope with the huge numbers of often underqualified students drifting around campuses. The result was the vicious Red Brigades, who between 1969 and 1982 killed 351 people. In Germany, disenchanted students formed the Red Army Faction, commonly known as the Baader-Meinhof gang. Such groups were also products of irresponsible academics instructing the young men and women sitting at their feet in the glories of revolution.
At the time, university managers made much of freedom of speech as they dithered in the face of student radicalism — and something of this principled spinelessness can be seen again in UCL Provost Malcolm Grant’s wounded response to press criticism of his university after Abdulmutallab’s arrest.
He professed dismay that Abdulmutallab had ‘not emerged from a background of deprivation and poverty’ and recalled ‘a quietly spoken, polite and able young man’. Grant did not mention that such characteristics also fit the profile of Osama bin Laden. He further denounced as ‘Islamophobic’ reports that Abdulmutallab was radicalised on campus, even though MI5 has acknowledged that Abdulmutallab was in contact with at least one al-Qa’eda suspect during his time at UCL.
Grant’s desire, of course, was to deflect negative attention away from his multinational space station — sorry, ‘Global University’ — on Gower Street. Only last year, UCL was being described as the fourth best university in the world. Universities, Grant said, are ‘institutions where intellectual freedom is fundamental to our missions in education and research’. This reaction implies a connection between ‘world class’ research on, say, deafness or Milton, and budding Islamist students keenly listening to talks about throwing homosexuals off cliffs.
Steve Smith, the chief of Universities UK, has made Grant the head of a committee to investigate whether student terrorists are being groomed in British institutions. This is simply a cosy ploy that David Lammy, the higher education minister, has endorsed with the alacrity of someone who wants to be seen to be doing something. Yet nothing about Grant’s background, as a New Zealand environmental lawyer turned British committee panjandrum, suggests he is fitted for his post.
According to the Centre for Social Cohesion, during Grant’s period at UCL, visiting Islamic Society speakers included men who claim ‘a very light beating’ is good for errant wives; that the Israelis should vacate Palestine; and that apostates should be crucified.
Abdulmutallab is the fourth president of a British student Islamic society to be linked to terrorist-related offences. Does this really have nothing to do with the fact that Islamic student societies are permeated, and often funded by, shadowy organisations linked to the Muslim Brotherhood? How surprising is it that Wakkas Khan, an apologist for the extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, has just been appointed a ‘faith adviser’ by John Denham, the Communities Secretary?
In short, the government seems determined not to confront the real danger from Islamist students. The preferred technique is to offer apologias for terrorists, to falsify their motives, to waffle on about free speech and human rights, and to indulge in semantic quibbling about such terms as ‘jihadism’. They will do anything, in fact, to distract attention from the organised campus-based hate campaigns to create a caliphate based on an extreme form of sharia law.
The Conservatives should recognise that the threat represented by radical Islam is not something to be dealt with through private government ‘dialogues’ with the self-selecting spokesmen of Britain’s Muslims, nor for that matter, by committees of the great and good. As the Germans and Italians discovered in the 1970s and 1980s, extreme interpretations of individual rights have to take second place sometimes to the survival of the democratic system. Once the threat passed, emergency laws were rescinded.
There is another, simpler way in which government and society can ensure that universities tackle student radicalism. University heads are driven to distraction nowadays by the need to raise money from external sources. If institutions cannot get a grip on Islamic student societies, the government should just withdraw lucrative research contracts. It is ludicrous that UCL (among other institutions) is receiving money for research into airport security, while its students propagate a violent hatred of the West. Furthermore, alumni should refuse to donate money to their universities until they clean up their act.
In a wider context, the Conservatives might also investigate the negative effects of a mass higher education system, which is too often undermined by disrespect for the law, by the separation of learning and morality, by too great a reliance on teaching assistants, and by faculties afflicted with posh liberals from the 1960s. Then the climate within universities might be a little less congenial for Islamist fanatics.