Don't shut out critics - open the door to debate

February 15, 2002

Universities must consider how to deal with fundamentalist students in the wake of September 11, says Donald Hagger.

Revelations about the involvement of students in extremist Muslim organisations, or at risk of conversion to fundamentalism, mean British universities have been confronted with problems since September 11.

At the extreme, some Muslim students, British and foreign, have been persuaded that the West's political and cultural ideas are incompatible with their faith. Universities have long been aware of, and have ignored, the monitoring of some overseas students by their home authorities to guard them against "contamination" by western political ideas. When the acquisition of western knowledge coexists with a fundamental hostility to the cultural, intellectual and political context in which that knowledge is embedded, the problem is of a different order of magnitude.

When the antagonist is British, the problem becomes intractable. Universities cannot insulate themselves from the issues created by violence against the West. Their function is to transmit knowledge in the context of liberal intellectual freedom. It is implausible, though understandable given the extreme sensitivity of the matter, to argue that the association of terrorism with students is fortuitous or that no practical countervailing steps are available. Neither can the influence of university income from overseas students be ignored.

In this fraught situation, open discussion is vital but the obstacles are severe. The knowledge made available by universities has been created by a culture that rests on an absence of intellectual censorship, opening all propositions to rational inquiry and debate. Whereas embargoes imposed on free discussion by political constraints might be circumvented, those resulting from religious certainty cannot.

Terrorism is normally a product of emotion and intellectual persuasion, intellect later subsumed by belief. Muslim terrorism is a violent opposition to western values that are perceived as heresy and cultural imperialism. The initial reasoning may be based on the fact that the world economy is dominated by the West, a hegemony likely to be increased by globalisation. Indigenous cultures have been corroded, and local economies transformed. Opposition to this process becomes linked to hostil-ity to political regimes held to be in alliance with western capitalism, particularly when the rewards of association are unevenly distributed. Religious values historically and intrinsic-ally alien to western liberal, scientific and secular attitudes, rejecting the separation of state from religion, then provide the justification for action. When religious certainty replaces reason, underlying political and economic objections are no longer paramount or amenable to negotiation. Polarisation has occurred. The West is an evil, its destruction a holy duty.

The universities' response must be based on their responsibility for the education and welfare of their students. Students committed to a terrorist cause are beyond persuasion. If British, they are destructive to the idea of cultural integration and inimical to multiculturalism.

As those committed to terrorism, British or foreign, are hard to identify, what can be done? It would be diplomatically impossible for the British government to place a blanket restriction on recruitment from countries that produced terrorists or that stridently criticise the West. To refuse their students would be unjust to many sincere scholars and would be regarded as an act of cultural aggression by the countries affected. It would do nothing for wider cross-cultural understanding and would be an abnegation of liberal values. If the countries involved were developing countries, such restrictions would counter internationally agreed objectives and would stimulate the intellectual isolationism that aids fundamentalism.

An alternative is to offer opportunities for debate about conflicting ideas and values. Every department could create course components explaining western culture. Institutions can link these to the concepts of rational inquiry, logic and scientific method and the construction of the civic state, with morality and law based on reason and an inbuilt flexibility allowing social organisation to respond to economic, scientific and technological change. Such a move would be a partial return to the liberal ethos of 18th-century Scottish education when technical matters, such as Euclidean geometry, were studied as subjects of philosophical debate rather than as mental operations to be mastered by instruction and practice.

Were all students to attend, there could be no question of partiality or discrimination. And the acquisition of such knowledge might incidentally offset some of the deficiencies in the education at secondary level among home students.

Donald Hagger is an honorary research fellow at the University of Edinburgh.

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