We can't peer into souls but we can open minds

July 22, 2005

Could university authorities have stopped a former student carrying out the London bombings? Simon Lee reflects

In the middle of our graduation festival last week, the mass media wanted urgent answers. Was one of the suspected suicide bombers involved in the London atrocities a former student? What did I know about terrorism, about diversity, about extremism on campuses or community relations in a multifaith society?

On the more general points, I could have said that I have studied and written about these complex matters for a quarter of a century; I spoke at a heated meeting in Bradford at the height of the furore over Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses ; and worked in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and the peace process.

Or, I could have been more personal still and said that I will never forget the student I taught who was shot dead after leaving the law library at Queen's University Belfast.

None of this, sadly, qualifies me to stop a former student, who completed a foundation degree at Leeds Metropolitan University in the year I arrived, 2003, from falling under malign influences. Nor could my predecessors have prevented the bombings through the idea now fashionable in the media of banning extremist groups. Indeed, they did ban some extremists.

What we can do is to redouble efforts to develop critical thinking that will build resistance to cults or to other dangerous group thought, including media fashion.

I set out ideas on this in my first few days at Leeds Met. My first report to the academic board drew attention to the curriculum: "There are several ways in which we can both internationalise our curriculum and widen its appeal to individuals and communities more locally, for example world religions, war and peace or studies in international conflict." We have appointed three professors in ethics and created a School of Applied Global Ethics. We have also increased emphasis on internationalism, diversity and good citizenship in communities.

If someone asks a hostile question such as "Why didn't you ban extremist groups?", the answer "We did" does not disarm them. Instead, the next question is something like, "How do you know who is using your Muslim prayer room?". Again the answer - that our Headingley campus prayer room is only yards from my office so that I share washroom facilities with students using it - does not open a closed mind that simply wants to blame university authorities.

So, instead of trying to convince journalists of my long-standing interest in these issues, I carried on shaking hands with some 5,000 graduands one by one. We timed the walking across the stage so that the 400th graduand in our first ceremony on Thursday received her doctorate just in time for us to join people across Europe in the two-minute silence. Afterwards, my short address sought to make some sense of the co-existence of tragedy and celebration.

We also need to make some sense of university life to journalists in a hurry. First, I learnt as a law student the importance of establishing the facts. Khan and Hussain - the surnames of two of the London bombers - are common names on our databases. So we did not let the media set our pace.

Instead we co-operated with the police, and we now know a little more about how to work on our records. Once the police formally identified those involved, we issued a statement saying that Shezhad Tanweer had been a student of ours.

Second, even if we knew everything, instantly, about a former student, it is not our role to divulge details about, still less graduation photos of, an alumnus who was a son, a brother, a husband or a father, with relatives who might themselves be former or current students.

Third, studying at university does not necessarily involve students going away to live on remote campuses, aged 18, even if that is what perplexed journalists did. Students are nowadays able to pursue lifelong learning while living at home, switching between colleges and universities.

Fourth, universities are intertwined with communities. We share their joy at graduations and their grief at tragedy. We will not withdraw from community engagement and widening participation. We began well before funding became available, and we will be involved long after it is withdrawn.

Finally, returning to the question why we in universities did not stop the appalling terrorism in London, I would say that even a lifetime's experience does not allow us to peer into another's soul. Universities are not indifferent to extremism. Rather, in offering our condolences to all affected by the horrific bombings in London, we will strive to think more deeply and act more radically to make even more of a difference.

Simon Lee is vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University.

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