Mohammed Emwazi, Michael Adebolajo, Seifeddine Rezgui – by all accounts quiet, unassuming individuals until they became ISIL’s celebrity executioner, Lee Rigby’s murderer, and author of the Tunisian massacre respectively. Insofar as any common thread binds this grim trio and all too many other recent terrorists, it is not poverty, deprivation or social isolation, but their youth, university education and rapid conversion to extremist Islamist ideology.
The Prime Minister’s groundbreaking speech on Monday, detailing how government is to tackle such Islamist terrorism, was a clear recognition that this multi-headed hydra will be slain only once the ideology which nourishes it is confronted head-on, in much the same way that both fascism and communism were faced down in the last century.
While the government will be setting out a broader counter-extremism strategy in the autumn, David Cameron’s speech was a uniquely personal collection of conclusions, drawn from five years in high office dealing with this toughest of issues. This made it an especially comprehensive and powerful statement of intent that will see all parts of our community called upon in the fight. Universities will be granted no exceptions.
It is alarming to reflect that many of the highest profile Britons convicted of terrorist offences over the past decade or so have been graduates, whose radicalisation was triggered or developed by activism at university. As Cameron observed, too many young Britons today feel a deep sense of conflict about their identity as they seek to reconcile the culture and ethnicity of their parents or grandparents with the nation in which they have grown up. It is often at sixth form or university that such Britons find themselves most susceptible to radical ideology, which offers bold, definitive and simplistic answers to that conflict, as well as active routes to express their inner discontent. Away from their families for the first time, students are not only more vulnerable to new influences but harder to keep tabs on, particularly in the non-campus environments of the London universities.
So it is small wonder that students have been targeted by extremist Islamist organisations wishing to extend their vision for a caliphate, all too often via infiltration of university Islamic societies. Between the 1970s and the turn of the century, the growth and flourishing of Islamic societies on campus was typically funded by money from Saudi Arabian sources, generally supportive of the fundamentalist Wahhabi strain of Salafism. The default setting for most university authorities has been to turn a blind eye to the activities of these groups – whose umbrella organisation has until recently had close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood – unless actual violence has been invoked. Meanwhile, radical preachers invited to speak at college events organised by these societies seem only to fall foul of university rules when views objectionable to women’s or gay rights groups are espoused.
The government has expended a great deal of political capital removing some of the most notorious hate preachers from the UK and trying to expunge radicals from mosques. It should come as little surprise if our universities, especially here in the capital, now find themselves at the forefront of efforts to do the same on campus. Cameron has underlined his commitment to free speech and the proud university tradition of encouraging open debate. But he equally exposed university authorities’ passivity, challenging them to treat extremist Islamist preachers with the same distaste that might be reserved for neo-Nazi speakers on the extreme political right.
At the start of this year, plans to oblige higher education establishments and student bodies to vet outside speakers for potentially extremist views were dropped amid coalition tussles. But emboldened by an overall Conservative majority, it may be that the government now returns to this proposal in the autumn. Not that obliging universities to take a sterner stance under the law will necessarily be the answer. Indeed, the internet risks neutering any new legislation designed to tackle radicalisation on campus. Fundamentalist Islamic preachers may in future, as a matter of course, be banned from our universities, but often their message of ideological purity, division or hate may have already radicalised young, impressionable minds online.
Virtually all UK immigrant communities instinctively appreciate the key importance of education to social mobility, aspiration and economic progress. This is in stark contrast to much of the rest of Europe, where immigration and lack of educational attainment go hand in hand. Paradoxically, the UK’s relatively strong record of integration in education has spawned a new set of headaches for our already beleaguered university authorities. The government has given clear notice that it now expects them to administer a much more robust antidote.