Universities have a problem with Islamic extremism. This problem exists even if you don’t believe that extremism is rampant, tolerated or given an easy ride on UK campuses. Because the Daily Mail does, and universities’ reputations are being damaged as a result.
In a recent splash accompanying four pages of reporting, the Mail told readers that “Islamic zealots who backed Jihadi John are poisoning the minds of students”. One focus of the story was an appearance at King’s College London by Moazzam Begg, the former Guantanamo Bay detainee who is now a senior figure in the controversial lobby group Cage. Begg, the paper said, was allowed to speak “unchallenged”, giving views on, among other things, the failure of Western media to cover the deaths of Arab civilians as they did those killed in Paris.
The coverage followed a Daily Telegraph story claiming that “six British universities are facing an inquiry after the controversial human rights group Cage used meetings on campus to encourage the ‘sabotage’ of the government’s official anti-extremism programme”, Prevent.
Both articles continue a long-standing theme in the right-leaning press: that universities are at the very best a soft touch, and probably something much worse.
In our cover story, we ask experts from disciplines including law, criminology, politics and sociology to unpick the issues that have made extremism on campus, and the government’s attempts to tackle it, such a fraught topic.
A recurring theme, as you’d expect, is the importance of preserving universities as places of true freedom of speech, where ideas can be disputed and defeated, as well as propagated.
It’s an argument that universities have been making for years in the face of sustained pressure for a more interventionist stance.
Writing in Times Higher Education in 2009 after a former University College London student had tried and failed to blow up a plane, Malcolm Grant, then UCL provost, identified the “narrow line that we must walk between securing freedom of speech on the one hand and safeguarding against its illegal exercise on the other”.
That nuanced position reflects reality better than the frothing at the mouth and captures the balance crucial to a university’s integrity.
What’s also clear is that universities do indeed face challenges from ideologues seeking ground in which to sow extremism; one suggestion is that they were targeted when mainstream mosques took a broom to the extremist elements that had collected under their roofs.
But for commentators such as Frank Furedi, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent, it is precisely the absence of free debate that puts the “enemies of democracy” in the driving seat, by undermining the moral authority of those who prize freedom above all else.
Furedi speaks for many in higher education when he suggests that the best way to undermine extremist views is to expose them to the light of free, open debate.
Underlying that view is a faith in higher education’s capacity to instil in all students strong powers of critical thinking and a spirit of objective enquiry. Cynics, on the other hand, will ask if that’s a realistic expectation in today’s sprawling, pressured higher education system.
Either way, both the law and the media spotlight suggest that universities are facing some pretty unpalatable choices when it comes to policing freedom of speech on campus.