The Home Secretary, despite her criticism on campus extremism, only increases the fortitude of Muslim students
By Nabil Ahmed
There is a saying from the Islamic tradition (Martin Luther echoed similarly), that were the world ending and you were holding a seed in your hand, then you should plant that seed. By no means is the world ending tomorrow (I hope, though if it is then you heard it here first), though a palpable sense of urgent adversity is commonly associated with being a British Muslim today –and anti-Muslim hatred in Britain is at an all time high. I myself have experienced it first hand on campuses around the country. The past week has provided a sort of furnace of debate for Muslims as our Home Secretary commented on Muslim students, and our organisation (Federation of Student Islamic Societies [FOSIS]) in particular, intertwined in debates of extremism and prevention.
Amid much derision Muslim students have faced in this past week – if not these past few years – we have worked tirelessly to plant our seeds in Britain. Unexpectedly, though inspiringly through adversity, Muslim students are blossoming; through struggles our fortitude is only growing. This dynamic generation of young Muslims at University today, usually the first generation in their ancestry to attend university, are going on to become professionals, doctors and taking up roles in civic society. We are determined to ensure the victim mentality is overcome, and it is working.
So, if you’re looking for “jihad”, look no further than the struggle for young Muslim artists to find a platform to express their creativity; there is a strong tradition of artistry in many Muslim cultures, from calligraphy to poetry and culture. We celebrated that tradition this year with our groundbreaking “Artistic Jihad” project, the first ever Muslim student art exhibition, which had over 200 submissions and was hosted at the University of Arts, London. If you’re looking for “political Muslims”, look at how we are working today with the mainstream political parties, including Labour and Conservative, with representatives from both attending our Annual Conference this June.
Indeed, on Wednesday I returned from a session of young Muslims together with young Christians campaigning on trade justice, preparing at none other than Lambeth Palace with the Archbishop of Canterbury. And indeed, if you’re looking for “radicalism”, look no further than the very first conference on the issue of campus extremism and free speech that we organised in March, together with University College London. We brought together government official Elizabeth Ammon, Prevent liaison officers, university leaders including Rex Knight and Dame Caldicott, and security experts including Jamie Bartlett from Demos and Marie Breen-Smyth, participating in unison with Muslim students.
Perhaps my own journey is case in point. It was through my Islamic Society that I was injected with faith and subsequently inspired to contribute to greater society, from running 10k to raise money for Diabetes UK with many bearded-men, to interfaith work with Jewish leaders; from facilitating National Union of Students conversations around their infamous governance review in 2008 or indeed holding dialogue with every one of the last three Universities Ministers on requirements for students of faith. Yet I am only one, and there are more than 100,000 Muslim students on campuses today – and the role that both faith and Islamic Societies have played should be recognised. Just as I write this, Islamic Societies in Hull and Manchester have both received “Best Society” awards from their Student Unions – testimony to a year of hard work.
Yet why is it that despite all of this, youthful and voluntary organisations like my own find ourselves singled out for criticism by our Home Secretary? We have always been unapologetic in our condemnation of terrorism and our engagement work post 7/7 speaks volumes. We have continued to work closely with the Universities department of the government, as well as interact with the Home Office on a regular basis, in mutual conversation to protect campuses and help students to aspire. Our messages have consistently encouraged contribution to British society and integration. And indeed, we have amplified the importance of our well-established British laws on incitement to hatred and incitement to violence, be they crossed on campus or elsewhere, we will be the first to say so.
The answer for the criticisms made by our Home Secretary lie with Dame Stella Rimington, the former Head of the MI5. She spoke profoundly in recent years about the politicisation of national security. I think it is apt to say that the government’s revised Prevent strategy is everything to do with politics and the force-feeding of an ideological narrative, and little to do with security. Straddling the narrative of the demagogues, our Home Secretary has already been criticised by none other than the lead body for universities, Universities UK, for “simplistic solutions that will not work”; by the NUS for “wild sensationalism that only serves to unfairly demonise Muslim students”; and even by the British Medical Association.
We believe the discourse around campus extremism must not be sensational in the way that our Home Secretary is conducting her affairs; rather it needs to be responsible and evidence-led – we’re looking at the verdict of Universities UK, the security experts in places like Demos and the European Muslim Research Centre with solid research, and findings of independent investigations such as the now renowned “Caldicott Report”. Our conference on campus extremism is testament to this more mature approach, based on measured discussion. We agree with David Willetts, the Universities Minister, who clearly elucidated how extremism is not widespread on campus, and has questioned whether universities are the “trigger” for radicalisation.
Indeed, we do not believe we can bury our heads in the sand either and rely on rhetoric, nor can we admit that every student society on campus is a beacon of harmony. Some speakers have ruffled feathers, and students don’t “do” boring. But we must be clear on two counts; firstly, that there is absolutely no connection between this and any inkling of violence (the MI5 too state this). Secondly, suspicion and targeting of young volunteers will only disengage citizens from the mainstream political process. On Sunday, allegations in the Guardian that the University of Nottingham has spied on students on its own campus is case in point – and an outrage.
Critically, for campus environments in particular, sincere freedom of expression must be upheld as it provides the platform via which radical ideas can be challenged – which they must be. Troubling ideas, whilst not necessarily “extremist”, can be delegitimized openly. Creating a climate where citizens cannot openly discuss ideas takes voices away from this public sphere, where they cannot be found or challenged. And as the mist clears we realise that the debate that is being played out in front of us will go on to define how we as a society tolerate dissent.
In its attack on “non-violent extremism” the insubstantiality of the government’s updated Prevent strategy comes into a world of its own. What exactly is a non-violent extremist? How do you find one? In the absence of any evidence whatsoever to identify what one looks like, or any support by credible security experts, the pandering to politicisation of national security emerges. Moving forwards, suspicion of bodies like our own, and spying of entire minorities (which has occurred for Muslims, according to the Institute of Race Relations), must be avoided at all costs – and the law and only the law should be used for those that incite hatred and incite violence on campuses and in our society.
We have invited the Home Secretary to join us at our Annual Conference with Muslim students from around the country, so that we may properly sit down and discuss these issues, as citizens mutually concerned about our campuses. The Prevent strategy has been published, some words have been said, but our actions must now turn not to suspicion and division, but rather to trust and engagement. It is high time that we embrace the potential and the futures of the 100,000 Muslim students on campuses, who – with or without suspicion or assistance – will continue to sow their seeds and contribute to our common future.
Nabil Ahmed is president of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) est.1963, an organisation that represents the interests of 100,000 Muslim students. A graduate from the University of Manchester, he has led in the National Union of Students, advised Universities and Ministers, and had involvement in the UN Alliance of Civlisations programme. He has appeared on BBC News, Newsnight, Al-Jazeera English, and ABC News, and has written for the Guardian and Times.
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