Muslim students fear a backlash

September 21, 2001

Muslim students in the UK fear they will face racism and violence when they arrive for the new university term next week.

Extremist groups believed to be recruiting students on British campuses to fight abroad are prejudicing the public's perception of all Muslims, say student organisations. Universities have been accused of not doing enough to fight these groups.

There is so much anxiety that students are being told there is safety in numbers. Students and their parents are being advised to contact Muslim groups for support.

Rashed Akhtar, vice-president of the Federation of Students' Islamic Societies in the UK and Eire, said: "We are encouraging parents and students to seek out other Muslims on campus before they arrive. Having a group of Muslims may decrease the chance of abuse and may increase the chances of abuse being reported. We strongly recommend that females are never alone, and exercise caution."

Other problems Muslim students might face include vandalism of prayer rooms and difficulties finding accommodation, he said.

There could be implications for Muslim groups. David Wilson, professor of criminology at the University of Central England, said: "There will probably be a great deal more surveillance of certain Middle Eastern organisations."

Mr Akhtar also expected increased surveillance and possibly censorship. "We expect scrutiny from all levels, whether from the government or inside universities," he said. "There will be more eyes watching us and being cautious about what we are doing. It may be that they will not allow Islamic societies to do the same activities that were previously allowed... (for example) lecture topics may be censored. If this infringes the rights of Islamic societies, freedom of speech may be compromised."

But at London Guildhall University, Simon Hallsworth, a senior lecturer in criminology, said that although some radical student groups might be put under surveillance, it would be difficult to justify wider scrutiny.

London Guildhall has one of the highest intakes of Muslim students in the country, at 40-50 per cent of the student population.

At Middlesex, another university with a significant Muslim population, a spokeswoman said: "There is a clear message that we are here if people need to talk."

But problems for Muslim students were being worsened by extremist groups operating around universities, said Mr Akhtar. The most high profile is Al-Muhajiroun, blacklisted by the National Union of Students and banned from most campuses.

Brooks Duke, NUS vice-president (education), was adamant that Al-Muhajiroun was active in universities recruiting young Muslim students to fight abroad.

Reports of such recruitment have focused on Queen Mary College, London, where three students are said to have dropped out to train to fight in 1999.

Phil Willis MP, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said higher education institutions should do more to counter such groups. Speaking on Radio 4's Today programme, he said: "We are trying to get Muslim students from poor backgrounds into our campuses. (These groups) put their parents off. Universities are not doing enough to help students, as they arrive, to counter these particular difficulties."

However, Universities UK said: "The basic principles are free inquiry and free speech within the law. Many universities are currently keeping a close eye on meetings convened to discuss last week's events.

"They are committed to protecting tolerance and vigorous debate, but incitement to violence of any sort, racial hatred or harassment are totally rejected."

Concerned Muslim students or their parents can contact Fosis at .

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