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Nick Cohen
Sunday 10th October 2010
Buck-passing in the universities.

I have a piece in the Observer about the lamentable manner in which University College, London reacted to the discovery that one of his graduates had turned into a potential mass murderer.

A few months ago, I sat in a magnificent Victorian lecture hall at University College London. It was once one of finest centres of intellectual inquiry in Europe, thanks to the efforts of its founder, the sternly anti-clerical philosopher Jeremy Bentham. It did not take me long to realise that fear of clerical fascism had led Bentham's trembling successors to abandon intellectual inquiry and basic intellectual standards along with it.

I had come along with hundreds of others because, on Christmas Day 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a former UCL student, tried to detonate plastic explosives hidden in his underwear and kill the 278 passengers and crew on Northwest Airlines' flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. After such a narrow escape from mass murder, I thought that no one could deny that the universities needed to confront campus sectarianism.

I reckoned without the limitless capacity for self-delusion of British academe.


Please read the whole thing. As I explain, UCL's official report, out last week, was an awful assembly of buck-passing, fact-dodging twaddle, as it was always going to be. But what I found heartening was the reaction of the new generation of activists. Student Rights, a campaign group founded to promote democratic values on campus, was far more scathing than I was. In the interests of giving the young a helping hand, and of encouraging them to always question the complacency of their elders, I give you Student Rights' comments in full.

The report claims that there, "was no evidence to suggest either that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was radicalised while a student at UCL, or that conditions at UCL during that time or subsequently were conducive to the radicalisation of students."  Student Rights staunchly refute these claims, with Director Raheem Kassam stating,

"This white-wash is not only ignorant but extraordinarily dangerous.  Anyone reading the report can see the gross inconsistencies, various admissions of guilt and vested interests of UCL for the sake of its image."

"The list of those consulted is very limited and regardless of various admissions of guilt, the conclusions drawn incorrectly excuse University College London.  At the present time, when the Western world faces escalating threats from would be terrorists, for an organisation like UCL to release this kind of a report is grossly irresponsible."

Various organisations, including some supported by the UK Government have concluded that conditions on university campuses lend themselves to radical recruitment by jihadists - this report attempts to suggest that while the monitoring of students and speakers is lacking, that this played no part in the radicalisation process of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.  This is a dire shirking of responsibility and one that Student Rights finds completely deplorable.  We receive complaints and intelligence week upon week from students feeling marginalised, witnessing these kind of events and who are living and studying in fear.

A list of our concerns with the report are as follows, but not limited to:

1.    The advisory panel is of independent authorities on the subject fails to include well known experts in the field. We would like to have seen more counter-radicalisation experts. The British Council is concerning given their recent internal think tank‟s (Counterpoint) report into extremism which falls short at every hurdle.
2.    The UUK investigation is chaired by VP Malcolm Grant, who has already excused the university on this issue - rendering the investigations inevitably biased.
3.    The report acknowledges the trend of UCL students being charged with terrorism (point 16)
4.    The report acknowledges having no knowledge of Abdulmutallab‟s activities outside UCL (point 19)
5.    The report claims there was no cause for concern in his application - as if would-be terrorists would fill out „terrorist‟ under a section that asked about career intentions (point 21). All this admits is that staff and students were not aware of the threats faced and further denial will only help extremists
6.    The report states [paraphrased], „he did not change the way he dressed... and even if he did, that wouldn‟t prove anything‟ - nonsensical, spiral statements employed to confuse and confound (22)
7.    They acknowledge UFA‟s raising of £10,000 for the ISOC is anomalous - and then move on without addressing this (point 24)
8.    They claim that UFA did not organise the War on Terror week but acknowledge he had ultimate sign off and therefore approved speakers like Moazzam Begg (point 25)
9.    They seem to think that "Farouk1986‟ was not UFA on the online forums (point 26)
10. To suggest (point 28) that having events glorifying 9-11 alongside former Gitmo detainees is not gravitation towards extremism is shocking
11. They cite a successful Student Rights campaign on point 34 to have Abu Usamah cancelled last year and acknowledge they‟ve had to change procedures since (see point 37 and 38 also) - this is a damning admission that the conditions were conducive to radicalisation and by and large, still are - there has been no culture shift - just denial - they acknowledge in August 2010 there were still major issues, although they put it down to unfortunate timing (39)
12. Point 56 states what Student Rights have claimed previously - the principle reason for this whitewash - UCL does not want its reputation tarnished and parents had strong views about their children attending Friday prayers at the ISOC post-UFA. This point also states they consulted FOSIS, which has previously hosted and defended events with highly controversial and offensive speakers
13. To our knowledge, the report did not consult Student Rights, Quilliam Foundation, the Centre for Social Cohesion or ICSR at Kings College London -all known to be experts in this field. The limited consultation is damning - though they do consult one ICSR report mentioned in the bibliography (Appendix 1: 11)
14. Point 61 (recommendations) insist that monitoring invitations changes (therefore an admission of guilt or at least complacency)
15. Persons interviewed by the panel (appendix 2) arguably have a vested interest in the image management of UCL - and in fact in their jobs as a consequence (everyone knows the financial difficulties the organisation faces; it doesn‟t need to bear the brunt of admitting it‟s a breeding ground for terrorists)



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About Nick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom (Fourth Estate) and What's Left? How The Left Lost Its Way (Harper Perennial). Living With Lies, a collection of his writing for Standpoint, is available as an ebook. 

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