Fears of radicalism constrain scholars

February 9, 2007

The Government's efforts to improve the teaching of Islamic studies to prevent students from falling under 'wrong-headed influences' is leading to self-censorship, Olga Wojtas hears worried academics claim, while Rebecca Attwood explores the anger that follows a decision by the British Academy to end its funding of UK archaeological societies working in the Middle East.

Government-led fears that UK Islamic studies departments could be helping to fuel student extremism are driving the field into self-censorship and could increase security threats to Britain.

This was the warning from a group of the UK's leading scholars in Islamic studies who published a report this week robustly refuting concerns that their work could have any link to extremism or student radicalisation.

The report, Islam on Campus , is the fruit of a conference at Edinburgh University that was inspired by an article in The Times Higher in May 2006.

The article revealed that the Government, wary of extremist influences within higher education institutions, was planning a major review of the way Islam was taught.

Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, said last year that the quality of university teaching on Islam had to be improved. He claimed that some students were subjected to "wrong-headed influences... in particular, exposed to teachings that either explicitly condone terrorism or foster a climate of opinion that is at least sympathetic to terrorists' motives".

Mr Rammell appointed Ataullah Siddiqui, director of the Islamic Foundation-sponsored Markfield Institute of Higher Education, to advise "on how the quality of information about Islam available to students in universities and colleges can be improved". Dr Siddiqui's recommendations are expected shortly.

But an open debate with policymakers was demanded this week by the academics at the Edinburgh conference, who included Muhammed Abdel-Haleem, professor of Islamic studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies; Ian Netton, head of Arabic and Middle Eastern studies at Leeds University; Mona Siddiqui, director of Glasgow University's Centre for the Study of Islam; Anoush Ehteshami, head of the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University; and James Piscatori of Oxford University's Centre for Islamic Studies.

The conference was convened by Yasir Suleiman, professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at Edinburgh and director of the Edinburgh Institute for the Advanced Study of the Arab World and Islam. He said there was "bewilderment" over apparent fears about Islamic studies.

It was not a single discipline, he said, but a broad area ranging from textual study and anthropology to social sciences and politics. Those who teach it are appointed by standard procedures, and their teaching is subject to quality assurance.

"The Islamic studies curriculum was balanced, nuanced and designed with the long-term intellectual interests of the student at heart," the report says.

"While lecturers delivered the curriculum with integrity, they could not control how students used the knowledge that they received."

The conference warned that there was a growing danger of self-censorship.

Researchers looking at websites of extremists or pursuing fieldwork alongside those whom the Government had deemed "terrorist" were in danger of falling foul of the Terrorism Act. There was also a risk that if some research and fieldwork were considered dangerous or suspect, academics would rely on secondary sources that merely reinforced official viewpoints.

Professor Suleiman said there was complete agreement that if scholars did not defend academic freedom "the very agenda of producing knowledge that can be relied on would be compromised". The report argues that teaching Islamic studies leads to a better understanding of Islam by Muslims and non-Muslims and helps to undermine extremists.

It was important for universities to promote robust debate, Professor Suleiman said. "The feeling is that if we don't make that public space available these debates start to go underground and there is no way of tracking them." Islamic civilisation should be studied "warts and all", the report says: students need to be exposed to all currents of thought, however much they might disagree with them. And the scholars say it is crucial to resist the tendency to treat Islam "as a single monolithic entity rather than a collection of diverse histories".

The Department for Education and Skills recently issued guidance on tackling violent extremism in the name of Islam at universities and colleges. But the academics condemn it as confused, saying that it does not clearly separate the academic curriculum from political Islamic activism.

The report says it is crucial to differentiate between thought and action.

Students often engaged in "alternativism", creating non-mainstream views of the world. This was different from radicalism, where young people felt inspired by their learning environment, and both could be distinguished from student activism.

olga.wojtas@thes.co.uk

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