There are solid reasons why students are attracted to Islamist groups, and we must address them says Frank Furedi
University authorities and government officials are deeply concerned about the growing influence of Islamic groups on campuses. They are worried that impressionable students will be seduced by religious extremists at this year's freshers' fairs. Some have called for tightening security and clamping down on radical organisations. They warn that universities are targeted by agitators and that campus has become another battlefield in the war against terrorism. Anyone who is hostile to proposals that curb free speech is dismissed as a politically correct fool unwittingly assisting the enemy.
Curbing free speech never provides an enlightened solution to a political problem. In today's confused political climate, repressive measures are likely to lend moral authority to the targets. They distract us from facing up to the question of why radical Islamic groups are gaining influence over students. It is easy to push the repression button. It is more difficult to effectively challenge the appeal of radical Islam. The myopic focus on the outside agitator overlooks the fact that radical Islam resonates with many dynamic students.
Those who associate with organisations such as Hizb ut-Tahrir are often highly motivated, articulate and intelligent young people. In contrast to many of their peers they are highly idealistic and deeply interested in changing their world. At public meetings these students often command authority. At a time when traditional political societies are moribund, and left-wing activists have become disoriented, Islamic radicals appear to have something to say. Conventional political societies hold little appeal for idealistic students. They merely recycle to a university audience the cynicism that prevails throughout national public life. Switched off by mainstream politics, a growing number of students have gravitated towards radical Islamist groups. That is why such organisations have succeeded in gaining a large bloc of delegates to recent National Union of Students conferences. That is why on many campuses they constitute the most active and best organised student societies.
Those who denounce extremist agitators are reluctant to face up to the realities of contemporary political life. It is tempting to blame the outside agitator. It is much more difficult to account for the fact that a large constituency of students are far more disposed to accept the radical Islamic account of global events than the official version. Anyone who talks to Muslim students will find out that many of them believe that in some way Washington was responsible for September 11, 2001. A significant proportion not only oppose the war in Iraq but also possess sympathy for the "other side". Their view of the world has rarely been challenged by coherent counterarguments.
Sadly, this state of affairs is likely to continue during their university experience. Instead of closing down debate, universities ought to provide opportunity for a free exchange of opinion. We need public meetings where the issues can be openly raised and clarified. Banning organisations and outside speakers implies that students lack the capacity to intelligently assess competing arguments. Worse, this standpoint is underpinned by a mood of moral cowardice that lacks faith in the capacity of secular democratic ideals to prevail in open debate. If those who fear that outside extremist speakers are gaining influence believe they can wish the problem away through promoting censorship, they discredit their own cause.
Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at Kent University.