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Are universities recruiting ground for extremists?
« Online: 19 de Julho de 2005, 03:37:52 »
'They don't sit with a sign recruiting for terrorists'

Are extremist groups on campus providing the 'tipping point' for disaffected students? In the wake of the attacks on London, Polly Curtis investigates

Tuesday July 19, 2005
The Guardian

Being a university graduate is often used as a defence in court, a sign of good standing. But since the London bombings, the label has taken on a new meaning. Stories have emerged of the government monitoring extremism on campuses, in the belief that students are being recruited through universities. Newspaper reports have portrayed undergraduates "got at" by religious fundamentalists.

And since Britain got its second punch in the stomach, when we learned that the attacks were the first case of suicide bombing in western Europe and that the bombers were British, universities have begun a process of re-examining themselves, too. In the past, their efforts to combat terrorism have concentrated on foreign students studying subjects that might be exploited for use in terrorist actions - IT, chemistry and other sciences. Now they must look at their entire student body.

Of the four London bombers known about at the time of going to press, one was a graduate of Leeds Metropolitan University. There is no evidence that any of the bombers were involved in extremist groups on campus. But secret documents circulating among ministers last year, published by the Sunday Times after the London attacks, revealed that security services are monitoring campuses where they believe extremists are recruiting members.

Professor Anthony Glees, director of Brunel University's centre for intelligence and security studies, is about to publish a nine-month study on extremism on campuses, funded by the Social Affairs Unit. Details of the report, Security Culture in the UK Today: How Safe are British Universities?, which he has released to Education Guardian, make uncomfortable reading for anyone working in universities.

He has documented 14 cases over the past 12 years in which people implicated in terrorism have been linked to universities. He describes how the contact ordinary students have had with extremist groups on campus have provided the "tipping point" at which their views become extremist. He describes a university education as the "thin red line" that links many of these cases.

"Universities actually play a critical role in this business," says Glees. "On the one hand, universities are a marvellous means of integrating people into British culture and British liberal ideas. On the other, there are many ways in which universities can be abused by groups who have no interest in those values.

"We know that to get people to move from a situation where they may be angry young men and women to being prepared to kill other people and themselves, they need to be inspired and encouraged that this is the right thing to do. Student societies may well exist at universities that may provide links to those which do that inspiring and encouraging, and university authorities have not the first idea what's going on in student societies. The whole problem of free speech has meant that universities are very wary of getting too involved."

This is exactly what the organisers of the Muslim student movement have feared. The Federation of Student Islamic Societies (Fosis), which represents 90,000 students in Islamic societies across the country and has close ties with the Muslim Council of Britain, has condemned the London attacks. It has also prepared advice for its members on how to stay safe when they return to campus in September, fearing that Muslim students will become the target of reprisal attacks.

Wakkas Khan, president of Fosis, says: "I've been to loads of campuses and I've never seen this kind of extremism which people are talking about. They are as alien to me as they are to you. They don't sit around with a sign recruiting for terrorists.

"That's not to say it doesn't exist. It's just so small and obscure that Muslim students don't know where they are."

But he acknowledges that there has been a heightened level of debate on campuses in recent times. "I think it's fair to say that in the past few years there's been an increase in the level of frustration felt by Muslim students and students in general. They've got more disgruntled and a lot more angry about a lot of things," he explains. "First there's anger at how Muslims are portrayed - not necessarily anti-Muslim, but we're not shown in a good light. Then, of course, there's issues regarding foreign policy. Because of that people have become more vocal."

What are in evidence, he says, are representatives of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group considered by some to be extremist and banned in Germany and Holland. The National Union of Students has also barred Hizb ut-Tahrir from its unions because, the NUS policy says, the group is "responsible for supporting terrorism and publishing material that incites racial hatred".

Last year, Hizb ut-Tahrir held a conference which it claims had 10,000 participants, though not all were members. In the wake of the bombings in London, Hizb ut-Tahrir condemned the killing of civilians.

A second major Islamist group banned by the NUS, al-Muhajiroun, was known to be active but was disbanded last year. But several other groups have emerged that are not explicitly barred by the NUS. They include the 1924 Society, the Muslim Media Forum and Muslim Cultural Society, which, according to the government documents reported in the Sunday Times, all have "extremist tendencies".

Dr Imran Waheed is a spokesman for Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. He strongly rejects the NUS's accusations in its policy that the group has supported terrorism or published leaflets that incite racial hatred. "We reject any allegation that we are extremists. There is going to be an attempt to blur the line between political Islam, which is what we do, and political violence, which we don't condone." Hizb ut-Tahrir has approached the NUS to overturn its ban but the union's conference this year rejected the request.

Waheed describes how the group operates on campuses, despite the ban. "We are not working clandestinely or underground, in the community mosques or on campuses. We have nothing to hide.

"The Hizb ut-Tahrir principal aim is dissemination of thoughts and therefore we will use different means to attend societies. At some universities we are allowed to hold activities." He says they include London universities, which he doesn't name.

"I would say we have a presence in a lot of universities. Wherever there is a significant Muslim community, there are Hizb ut-Tahrir members. I studied at Birmingham and I was very involved in the Islamic society. I regularly delivered the Friday sermon for the Islamic society because generally many of the Islamic societies allow a wide variety of opinion to exist. Even though the Islamic society is not Hizb ut-Tahrir they will allow a rota of people with diverse opinions. That is to be encouraged; anything else is thought-policing."

Mustafa Arif, president of Imperial College student union, which is not affiliated to the NUS, says: "The culture here would never have been to bar them [Hizb]. They were very small and died out about five years ago. They are nothing compared with some hotheads you read about. As a Muslim I find Hizb a nonsense. Physically they are harmless and in practice they all work in merchant banks. But they shouldn't be banned. Universities should be here as forums for discussion, not brushing these things under the carpet."

Khan says Hizb ut-Tahrir's influence is controversial but limited. "Each community has people at either end of its spectrum. I personally don't think that Hizb ut-Tahrir are a violent organisation - they have condemned the attacks in London. I don't agree with their methods or sentiments. I think they are a sensationalist party and they don't do themselves any favours in the image they portray."

Glees says: "What our research indicates is that you need a variety of things to bring people to a tip-over point where they might engage in violent activity. One of the things that brings people to that point is access to terror-justifying ideas.

"It's the same as the animal liberation front and the BNP - on whom we also focused - where free speech is perverted into saying the most appalling things. I would reject the argument that these organisations don't play an important role in pushing people over the threshold."

Glees' solution to the problem is extreme and would be controversial. He suggests a new era of surveillance on campuses, where students would be fully vetted by universities. "Universities are consumed - and I've been in the business since 1973 - by a passion for ever greater student numbers. There are huge problems with that.

"The universities in the lower half of the university ranking will be giving clearing places to students who are not immediately properly referenced and vetted. At postgraduate level, there is evidence that universities are actively seeking partnerships with countries that are potentially hostile - China, Middle East states, sending graduates to study computing studies."

His report concludes that universities should monitor their students, including in student unions, by keeping records of societies' memberships. In the most extreme cases, he argues, universities should sanction covert action on campuses. He suggests that monitoring should be of all students, not just Muslims, to ensure that potential BNP or animal rights extremists are watched, too. He freely acknowledges that his ideas hark back to the surveillance that has existed through history of universities: from the 1930s, the Bolsheviks, to the communists and the cold war.

Khan's response is clear. "I think that's bang out of order. OK, fine, we've been hit by a complete atrocity but to clamp down in that manner and regulate students is too much. It would target Muslim students.

"Muslim students are already concerned about the big brother state and monitoring of their religious activities. This is just going to add to that hysteria. The concern is that any monitoring will crack down on the right and democratic idea of a difference of opinion. We need to have open discussions.

"Anyway," he adds, "If it was that simple, those four guys [behind the London bombings] would have been caught."

There are, however, plans in place that will make universities more aware of what is happening in students' unions. Universities UK is to issue advice to its members, the vice-chancellors, on how to combat extremism on campus; it is due to be published by the end of the summer, including revisions made since July 7, and will include advice on how universities can get a better idea of what is happening in their student movements.

"We will not be directly monitoring student unions," a spokeswoman told Education Guardian. "It's about making sure there are good lines of communication between university management and unions and the societies. We're not advising universities to be looking over the shoulders of their unions; it's about taking an interest."

Despite the careful wording, the move is likely to send shivers down student union bosses' spines. With new evidence of the government monitoring student activity, and now universities having to take a closer look at what is happening in their unions, students will return to their campuses and a very different world in September.,9830,1530994,00.html
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