Beware the child catcher: the doom and groom theory of campus terror

Whitehall's unhelpful new advice on student radicalisation paints a luridly inaccurate picture of vulnerable naifs and sinister brainwashers, says Frank Furedi.

January 31, 2008

The Government appears to have learnt a few lessons from the response to its previous clumsy attempts to crack down on what it characterises as campus extremism. Its new guidelines continually avow the importance of academic freedom and merely claim to offer "practical advice" on a "number of challenging and sensitive issues". Unfortunately the guidelines are so opaque and evasive that they require the services of a diviner to interpret their meaning. Determined to avoid appearing to pursue a counter-terrorist agenda, the guidelines succeed in depoliticising the problem altogether. The document's title, Promoting Good Campus Relations, provides a comfortable student welfare frame through which the struggle against violent extremism is represented. Outwardly the focus has shifted from banning extremism to supporting "educational providers in protecting and ensuring the welfare of all their students".

The guidelines combine traditional welfare concerns, such as bullying and "appropriate boundaries for behaviour on campus", with the language and ethos of child protection. In line with contemporary wisdom about "sudden radicalisation" and "violent extremism", the guidelines portray recruiters to terrorism as "groomers" and their targets as "vulnerable", impressionable and immature. It is as if the model of paedophilia and child abuse is an interpretive tool for making sense of campus radicalisation.

The guidelines warn that there are students "who may be new to a university or college environment and vulnerable to 'grooming' by individuals with their own agenda as they search for friends and social groups". As with paedophiles lurking at the school gate, we are told, "extremist individuals have also been known to 'groom' likely recruits, by closely observing (those) perceived to be vulnerable and more likely to be easily influenced".

The one-sided psychological interpretation of student extremism is fluenced by the idea of "sudden radicalisation". According to this model, charismatic and manipulative outside agitators can literally brainwash vulnerable students. The government guidelines warn that "even one particularly determined individual can have a significant impact on the extent of extremism at a particular university or college". It is testimony to the defensiveness of official thinking that a "determined individual" is endowed with such formidable power to influence campus life.

This dramatic framing of the threat - "sudden radicalisation" - allows extremism to be seen as a kind of psychological virus that suddenly afflicts the vulnerable and those suffering psychological deficits. Yet the depiction of radicalisation as a symptom of vulnerability overlooks the fact that frequently it expresses confidence and self-belief. Indeed, as many officials know, what is striking is the activism and idealism of these so-called brainwashed. Moreover, experience shows that the people who embrace radicalism are rarely brainwashed by manipulative operatives - often they have sought out jihadist websites and online networks. In other words, they may have made a self-conscious and active choice.

In so far as the guidelines convey a hint of strategy about tackling radicalisation, it has a fantasy-like character. It is based on the belief that you can protect vulnerable and impressionable young things from being exposed to bad ideas through the introduction of more rules governing campus life. Through their emphasis on administrative solutions, the guidelines undermine claims to uphold the right to free expression and political engagement.

Yet the attraction of violent nihilism can be diminished only through an open engagement with the ideas that promote it. That requires both a degree of confidence in what we stand for and in the capacity of our students to reason and weigh up conflicting points of view. Of course if students are infantilised as immature and vulnerable beings, then it becomes difficult to have confidence in the potential for academic debate to clarify the issues at stake.

And sadly that is the main message of the guidelines. The document is far more concerned with monitoring and policing outside speakers than with fostering a climate where anti-democratic views are brought out in the open and tackled in debate. Instead of looking to academics to inspire a questioning and open-minded attitude among their students, the guidelines demand only our vigilance. "Can staff identify violent extremist behaviour?" the document asks. Probably not. But we can and we should motivate our students to think for themselves - and that is probably the most valuable contribution we can make towards overcoming the confusions that afflict our time.

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