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Campus counter-terrorism: student-led or top-down?

The issue of counter-terrorism in Britain's universities has been raised again as the government finally publishes its review of the 'Prevent' strategy. The director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy argues for a holistic approach.

Tehmina Kazi
16 June 2011

This article is part of a series on the government's 'Prevent' counter-terrorism strategy.

The issue of campus extremism is never far from the spotlight, and the government’s recent review of the counter-terrorism ‘Prevent’ strategy has once again brought it to the fore.  It has been difficult to negotiate an appropriate balance between liberty and security on this issue.  The Home Secretary has described some universities as “complacent" in their approach.  Conversely, the previous Prevent strategy was criticised for its over-reliance on surveillance technology on campus. For every successful leadership project funded by Prevent, there was an equivalent action which ended up shattering trust.  A pertinent example is the case of Nottingham University student Rizwaan Sabir and staff member Hicham Yezza, who were arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000 in May 2008, then released without charge six days later.

Greater clarity, consistency, and grassroots engagement are required to break the current impasse.  Firstly, there needs to be a consensus as to what constitutes unacceptable speech and behaviour on campus.  This is particularly relevant to discussion of the protected equality characteristics i.e. gender, race, disability, religion and belief, sexual orientation and age.  The Universities UK report, “Freedom of Speech on campus: rights and responsibilities in UK universities” (February 2011) draws the line at behaviour “which has the purpose or effect of violating another’s dignity or creating a hostile, intimidating, offensive, or humiliating environment.”  The report urges all students – regardless of their background or beliefs – to be mindful of this. 

Secondly, the same standards must apply to all campus stakeholders, no matter which religion or ideology they represent (or claim to represent).  Reciprocity should be the main guiding principle here; it is crucial that different groups on campus should apply the same high standard of behaviour to their own representatives as they do to others. Much of the media focus has been on Muslim extremism, but the forty universities who responded to the Universities UK report survey stated that the most common type of challenge they faced was “in connection with animal rights.”  Yet this finding has received little to no coverage in the mainstream media.  

Thirdly, good practice manuals need to be distributed more widely (particularly those written by individual students themselves).  Between May 2009 and March 2011, I acted as a consultant and facilitator for the Citizenship Foundation’s “Young Muslim Leadership Network” which featured three groups of Muslim students, all aged 16 to 21.  One of the groups came up with a good practice guide, entitled “How can University Islamic Societies be more inclusive?”.  In addition, Campus Salam, an initiative run by the Lokahi Foundation, has produced guidance for students on the etiquettes of debate and disagreement.  This stresses the principle of reciprocity mentioned above: “Are you fair and even-handed, or are you judging them in a way you don’t judge your own group?”

Finally, we need to work towards a more holistic understanding of radicalisation and its causes.  Several commentators have referred to the analysis of Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist and former CIA case officer.  In his 2008 book, “Leaderless Jihad,” based on over 500 terrorist case studies, he asserts that radicalisation is a four-pronged process which does not have easily definable boundaries.  The four main aspects are identified as: moral outrage, a perception of Islam under siege, the resonance of moral outrage with personal experience, and mobilisation by networks.  While this makes the “conveyor belt” theory of radicalisation seem overly simplistic, it shows that the influence of non-violent extremist groups cannot be ignored, and universities are highly aware of this. In February 2010, the University of Westminster enforced the NUS’s “No Platform” policy in relation to Hizb ut-Tahrir, by disinviting a member of their Executive Committee from speaking at a campus event.  In March of this year, a month before the new Prevent strategy was made public, FOSIS – the Federation of Student Islamic Societies – held a conference on campus extremism. Whether or not we agree with the perspectives put forward or decisions made, it is encouraging that universities are beginning to develop their own strategies to deal with this issue, rather than ceding to a top-down approach.

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