Brown softens stand in extremism debate

November 23, 2007

Prime Minister says universities must protect free speech while monitoring threats. Melanie Newman reports. Tackling extremism on university campuses remains a key government concern, the Prime Minister has said.

Addressing the House of Commons last week, Gordon Brown highlighted the role of universities as he outlined new measures to "root out terrorism and to strengthen the resilience of communities to resist extreme influences".

But his speech appeared to signal a softening of the approach of the previous Government, which was heavily criticised for compromising academic freedom and free debate on campus when it suggested that academics should monitor student activity, including internet use, and report suspicions to the authorities.

The Prime Minister stressed the importance of protecting academic freedom, and he put new emphasis on developing a greater understanding of Islam.

Mr Brown said that as well as updating advice for universities on how to deal with extremism on campus, the Government will "invite universities to lead a debate on how we can maintain academic freedom while ensuring that extremists can never stifle debate or impose their views (on others)".

He added that he had asked the Higher Education Funding Council for England to look into setting up a European Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies.

Responding to the Prime Minister's statement, Universities UK chief executive Diana Warwick said: "Universities will continue to play a leading part in the debate on the vital subject of protecting academic freedom and tackling extremism."

The Government's current guidance, issued last November, focused on the threat of violent extremism in the name of Islam.

Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell said at the time there was "serious" evidence of such activity on UK campuses.

The University and College Union said that the Government's previous guidance did not put sufficient emphasis on improving interfaith and intercultural campus relations.

Universities UK noted that its own advice addressed all kinds of extremism, and not just violence in the name of Islam.

Anthony Glees, director of the Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies at Brunel University, said: "I expect that the new government guidance will stress the values shared by all the parties, such as democracy. The rumour is that it won't include the word Muslim."

Professor Glees pointed out that although MI5 director Jonathan Evans focused on terrorist threats and al-Qaeda in his first public speech earlier this month, he did not mention Muslims or Islam.

This, Professor Glees argued, would "play into the hands of people who want to claim that this group (Muslim extremists) is far larger than it is.

"The Government should deal with the problem properly and encourage universities to understand that it is in their own interests that it is addressed," he said.

Dennis Hayes, professor at Canterbury Christ Church University and founder of the campaigning group Academics for Academic Freedom, said: "The existence of so-called extremists has been used to stifle debate, by people who feel that certain comments are so hard to accept that they shouldn't be heard." A government-sponsored debate would lead to more loss of liberties, he predicted. "What Mr Brown is announcing is the beginning of a clampdown disguised as debate."


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