Note to Neocons: Universities Don't Create Extremists

Human Rights

The attempted terrorist attack on 24 December has brought out a familiar line from the previously subdued neocons: British universities are to blame. The Telegraph's foreign editor Con Coughlin led the attack last week by thundering over the fact that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was "allowed to be elected" president of the Islamic Society at UCL:

Can you imagine a British student going to Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, getting elected head of the local Christian Union, and then arranging a series of debates on the need to launch a new Crusade against the Islamic world?

That's right. We should be looking to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for guidance on student liberties. Neoconservative ideologue Douglas Murray, meanwhile, told the Telegraph that by studying at [University College London], Abdulmutallab "could hardly have found a place more conducive to his views". The Jewish Chronicle's editor Stephen Pollard wrote in the Daily Express: "The role of British universities in breeding and fomenting extremism is one of our country's most shameful secrets."

Singling out universities as potential conveyor belts for terrorists is an old talking point for neocons. The most notorious example in recent times was American commentator Daniel Pipes's project Campus Watch, which created dossiers on professors and universities that did "not meet its standard of uncritical support for the policies of George Bush and Ariel Sharon", according to one critic. Anthony Glees, professor of security and intelligence studies at the University of Buckingham, told the Telegraph: "UCL boasts on its website that it has 8,000 staff for 22,000 students, which is an enviable staff/student ratio. What have they been doing?" Their jobs, perhaps?

There are two issues here. The first is about academic freedom of speech and civil liberties, which have been completely sidelined in the debate. Abdulmutallab was at UCL from 2005 to 2008 and was president of the student Islamic Society in 2006-07. The charge against UCL is that he was allowed to organize a week of debates around the US "war on terror". It included debates on Guantánamo Bay and terrorism. Fancy that. There's no evidence that he was radicalised at this point – almost every university in the country holds several such debates every year.

Neither has it been established for certain that he had contacted an extremist cleric (speculated by some newspapers to be Anwar al-Awlaki, but it's not confirmed) during his time at UCL or during the time he was head of the Isoc.

A debate on US foreign policy does not make you a terrorist, but that's the insinuation made in newspapers and blogs. Any Muslim questioning US foreign policy is now apparently suitable to get a visit from intelligence services. UCL's Malcolm Grant defended his university's long tradition of championing free speech and this week but it seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

The second issue is about UCL's role. The question isn't whether those students were radicalized at university -- but what those institutions could have done to prevent it. What are the universities supposed to do? Spy on students? Or perhaps only the Muslim students. I'm sure that won't make them feel they're being blamed for the actions of others. Why don't we treat them like Saudi Arabia treats Christian students? There are several arguments against profiling.

Or perhaps universities should record all debates and speeches? That would just drive the radicals undergound, making them harder to detect and pushing them further into extremism. And who will pay for all the recording equipment and administer it? Calling for university professors to engage in counterterrorism is neither safe nor viable. That should be left to the expert.

This shoddy approach to free speech was demonstrated a few years ago too. Then, the thinktank Policy Exchange published a report on "hate literature" (later exposed as containing several inaccuracies), which seemed to demand a ban on material simply because it was "offensive". To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin: those who wish to give up freedom of thought to purchase temporary safety, deserve neither.

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