‘I have finished yet another round of talks at universities. I am both impressed and disheartened’
So far as I can recall, I have only once had a glass thrown over me in my professional life. (Close readers will note that I have avoided including my private life in the tally.) The place where I wore someone else’s drink was Cambridge University. At the time, I brushed off the incident as proof that Cambridge students had forgotten the better ways in which to dispense the good stuff. But in truth the throw came from a student in the Union bar enraged by what I had just said in a debate about the undemocratic nature of the Iranian regime. Adding to a quiet pleasure in the fact that the alcoholic missile was one of which the mullahs would for once have disapproved, if the dry-cleaner is to be called for a political cause, then it strikes me that Iranian democracy is as good as any.
I mention this only because as we head towards the end of Michaelmas term (“Christmas” for the rest of the world), I have finished yet another round of talks at universities. Once again, I am both impressed and disheartened.
I have spoken on university campuses ever since leaving my own in the summer of 2001. I remember hostile receptions early on, particularly one at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London where I spoke fondly of Israel. The flip-chairs in the auditorium snapped up one by one – a sort of negative staggered standing ovation. Today, the situation is palpably different. We have a generation graduating who were at school when 9/11 was perpetrated and who went up to university in 2005, the summer of the London bombings. More and more, I notice the question they ask is not “Is there a problem?” or “What is the problem?” but rather “What do we do about it?”
For the last couple of years, I have been invited to speak on campuses more frequently, and most weeks I find myself doing a couple. It’s usually a students’ union or a political or religious society. A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of giving the inaugural talk to the secular society at a university up north. I try to be available for students because, as anyone who cares about the culture wars knows, this is where they are most fiercely and decisively (for the sake of future opinion-formers) fought.
For this, I have been ushered out of the occasional back-door and been briefed on security by many an overweight walkie-talkie-wielding campus security guard. I have seen students arrested on suspicion of terrorist offences both before and after I have spoken on campus. But even those of us who get the occasional message telling us where, when and in what manner we will be killed, know that we cannot shirk the debate. Increasingly, I notice that this favour is not returned.
Asked to speak to the Jewish society at a London university the other week, I discovered a new tactic. The Islamic society had tried to bar me from the campus. They failed, but not before smearing me as a “racist” and “Islamophobe” who should be “no-platformed”. Since my think-tank, the Centre for Social Cohesion, published the first poll ever carried out into Muslim student opinion on campus, this has become an increasingly common phenomenon. My detractors – sadly, they are generally the Palestinian or Islamic societies – now rarely seek to debate face-to-face.
They attempt a drive-by verdict consisting of lies before the event, record the event to no purpose and then mount a smear-campaign afterwards. If they are really smart, then they try to claim that raising the issue of Islamic extremism or defending Israel constitutes something likely to “endanger” relations between different faith-groups on campus.
I have always thought it intolerable that students should have to spend their college days – time they should spend growing up, enjoying themselves and reading about subjects they aren’t studying – in a kind of low-level imitation of global conflicts.
But campuses in the UK are not what they were even eight years ago. Jewish and Israeli groups in particular find themselves besieged. Attempts are even made to close them down as “racist” organisations. Islamic societies, meanwhile, try to claim that their own record is above reproach even after the London School of Economics produced the murderer of Daniel Pearl and King’s College, London, the bombers of Mike’s Place in Tel Aviv, not to mention many other British students who have been charged with and convicted of plotting Islamist terrorist acts.
A student in Ireland – claiming to speak for the Palestinian people – recently arrived late and for once tried to denounce me to my face. “Can you imagine him even speaking to a Muslim?” he screamed. Listening to this student’s histrionics, I thought of one much-loved Muslim friend in particular, who died earlier this year. Not for the first time, I found myself wishing that the religion that she and so many other friends believed in had not become represented by a younger generation of loudmouths trampling on a faith they barely know at seats of learning whose purpose they don’t seem to understand.