Limits of tolerance

November 11, 1994

Is Britain's liberal and secular academic tradition coming under fire? It would appear so. Last week, there were stories that an Islamic fundamentalist party, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, had been stirring up hatred against Jewish and homosexual students at the School of Oriental and African Studies. It is not the first time the group has hit the headlines.

This week, it also emerged that Ahmed Sheikh, the man who allegedly lured three Britons to captivity in India, is a British-born student until recently enrolled at the London School of Economics. He was recruited by another Islamic group, Harkat-Ul-Ansar.

These could be isolated incidents. On the other hand, they could be the tip of a very long minaret. Arrests in France this week show the extent of the problem there and in recent months the French press has accused British universities of providing havens for Algerian fundamentalists.

On Monday, the Indian High Commissioner claimed that Islamic terrorist groups are actively recruiting in British universities, though he produced little evidence. Now the School of Oriental and African Studies, like the LSE, has rightly banished the anti-semitic and homophobic Hisb-ut-Tahrir from its campus.

What makes British universities vulnerable is their commitment to free speech, part of their raison d'etre. And, lest there be any doubt, laws passed in the 1980s insist that they uphold it, providing a platform for all views "within the law". This law, passed by and mainly used by Conservative politicians, applies to all.

The universities' defence against extremists on campus depends not on their own discretion but on the race relations and public order laws. Paradoxically, their ability to cope responsibly with such extremist groups has been substantially weakened by party politicians acting in their own narrow and highly partisan interest.

There are important distinctions to be made. Anyone must be free to think whatever they like. Provided they do so in moderate and non-inflammatory terms, they should also be free, above all in universities, to say what they think. Political correctness has gone too far on many American campuses, leading to a limpness of debate that is unhealthy. Such freedom must extend to students and to staff as well as to visiting speakers who pick universities as useful places to air controversial views.

We should not be afraid of forthright discussion: it is one of the foundations of our university tradition and one which must be defended even if it is uncomfortable. But freedom of speech and tolerance of views depends on intolerance of certain kinds of behaviour. The behaviour, not the views, is the crucial issue. Incitement to racial hatred or to riot, recruiting people to engage in terrorist acts and exploiting young people for motives which are concealed are not acceptable.

The Islamic fundamentalist groups are exploiting students for their own political ends. They are not interested in engaging in an intellectual debate. Many Islamic students in our universities come from countries with little tradition of democracy and free speech. They are inevitably vulnerable to the excitement of encountering ideas they have not been able to hear before.

No wonder moderate Islamic governments are concerned at what may happen to their students here and are, like Malaysia, anxious to provide for their education at home -- at least until the student reaches the level of postgraduate.

The fundamentalist groups are also recruiting among first-generation British Muslims -- well-educated young people, brought up in this country, who may be grappling with difficult questions of their own cultural identity. Tensions within these groups can be explosive -- and very helpful to the recruiting agent.

Part of the difficulty arises because Islam does not distinguish between the religious and the secular, while our universities' rational and scientific traditions require separation of faith and reason. As Wang Gung Wu, vice chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, pointed out in The THES in the summer (August 26) this leads to difficulties -- particularly in the humanities and social sciences where pursuit of objectivity can come into conflict with transmission of traditional values.

Serious efforts are being made, for instance in Malaysia (page 17), to address these dilemmas. They need to be addressed in our universities too. That does not mean, however, that we should abandon our own values of toleration and free speech. It does mean we should assert them with confidence, defending them against those who would exploit what can easily appear to be weakness in order to advance intolerance.

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