Going to Extremes

Our Mole on campus wonders why universities permit Islamist intolerance to flourish

Academia Education The Mole War on Terror

Extremists are being given a platform within British universities, as I have recently seen for myself, intimidation and mob politics are replacing freedom of speech. It is a problem that we can no longer afford to ignore. 

Radical preacher and Hamas supporter Azzam Tamimi was recently invited by Birmingham University’s Islamic Society to speak at an event entitled “Remembering Gaza: In pursuit of justice”. A group of students organised a protest against Tamimi’s presence and I attended out of curiosity. The hype surrounding the event created an intimidating atmosphere. Students fell silent as they were ushered in by security, a gang of glowering Islamic Society members at the door scanning the crowd for any dissenters. 

Rather than addressing the issue that he had been invited to discuss — the victims of Gaza — Tamimi spent the best part of an hour trying to clear his name as a “Jew hater” and attacking those who had criticised him in the past. He defended his right to be there, saying repeatedly: “If you don’t agree with me, let’s have a debate.” While I and most students would agree that rigorous debate should take place about controversial issues, there was no debate to be had on this occasion. The other speakers on the panel shared Tamimi’s political standpoint and any challenging questions at the end were simply shouted down. When a Jewish student accused Tamimi of pushing his own agenda on the back of an emotive political issue, Tamimi pointed at him and shouted: “You! I feel sorry for you! You are the product of Zionist indoctrination!” The student pointed out that Tamimi had failed to address his question, only to be told to “shut up, yeah?” by members of the Islamic Society. This incident, which had a distinctly sectarian element to it, is precisely what those protesting against Tamimi’s appearance had sought to avoid.

Birmingham University’s code of practice states that the right to freedom of speech is not “absolute and open-ended”, and should stop short of allowing “extremism or intolerance”. Tamimi has publicly applauded suicide bombing as a “noble cause” and has said: “I admire the Taliban, they are courageous.” Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, who has also made a career out of preaching intolerance and extremism, has been banned from speaking at universities under the National Union of Students’ “No Platform for Fascists” policy. The BNP and Islamic extremists are united in their anti-Semitism and share the dream of a segregated society. However, unlike Tamimi, Griffin has never gone as far as calling for the killing of Jews.

Birmingham University was informed by a number of groups about Tamimi’s extremist pronouncements. They accused him of thereby breaching the university’s own Code of Practice, and yet the university still refused to act. Why did the university bend its own rules, defend Tamimi’s invitation and try to silence critics, to allow him to speak on campus, when it had previously shown how easy it was to ban racists and bigots? When it comes to banning the bigoted, why the double standards?

Indeed, Birmingham has a murky record when it comes to allowing extremism on campus. The Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir, which seeks to establish a worldwide caliphate, is treated by the NUS, quite rightly, as the equivalent of the BNP, and covered by that organisation’s “No Platform” policy. Despite this, in 2008 the university’s Guild of Students promoted an event by Hizb ut-Tahrir on campus.

In 2009, Hamza Tzortzis, a Greek convert to Islam who has links to Hizb ut-Tahrir and who explicitly refuses to condemn barbaric punishments under Sharia-such as executing adulterers and cutting off the hands of thieves-spoke at an event entitled “Islamic Law-Barbaric or Misunderstood?” 

The university has also given a permanent platform to Mohammed Naseem, who works as a part-time student chaplain and mentor. Naseem, who is also the chairman of Birmingham Central Mosque, is a conspiracy theorist who has repeatedly suggested that the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks were carried out either by Israel or by the British and American governments. After a journalist confronted him with the martyrdom video of one of the bombers as evidence of their involvement, Naseem is reported to have said: “We are in the 21st century. The cows can be made to look as [if they are] dancing, the horses can speak like humans, so these things can be doctored or can be produced.” 

Birmingham is just one of many universities providing an unchallenged platform for these figures, who circulate the country “on tour”, giving talks that are ostensibly about serious political issues but dabble in casual anti-Semitism and homophobia in an attempt to rouse as many adherents as possible. This despite the fact that Islamic societies are meant to be religious, not political, bodies. In light of the growing evidence of Islamist extremism on their campuses, universities must now accept that they have a responsibility to prevent the radicalisation of their students.

The snowball effect of British universities’ misguided approach to extremism was brought to light recently by the revelations about the Detroit bomber’s links to University College London. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was the president of the UCL Islamic Society between 2007 and 2008, during which time he organised a “War on Terror week”, and a series of panel discussions, which included apologists for and supporters of Islamist terror. Abdulmutallab is the fourth president of a London student Islamic society to face terrorist charges in the last three years and the latest in a long line of UK students who have been involved in Islamist terror. Waheed Zaman, the former president of the Islamic Society at London Metropolitan University, was a member of the terror cell that planned to detonate explosives on at least seven transatlantic airliners. Omar Sheikh, now in prison in Pakistan for beheading Wall Street Journal writer Daniel Pearl, was radicalised at the London School of Economics. 

Yet the president of UCL, Professor Malcolm Grant, insists that universities have not become “hotbeds of extremism” and has defended the right for radical speakers to be allowed on campuses in the name of free speech. Is this because he simply cannot see the link between the radicalisation of ideas and the recent attempted attacks on planes or is he deliberately looking the other way? Since the same university recently opted to ban all military personnel from campus for “waging an aggressive war overseas”, it is safe to assume the latter is true. What is happening here is not freedom of speech but double-standards.

In the spirit of openness and intellectual rigour, universities have a duty to their students to provide a non-partisan forum for debates and other political events where people feel secure enough to challenge the views of others. Stretching the parameters of debate is one thing. But providing a platform for unrepresentative and offensive views to go unchallenged turns the logic of free expression on its head. 

We have reached the point where universities risk their own reputations in fighting for the rights of those who belittle the fabric of a liberal society, while denying their students the same freedoms. Steps must be taken before irreversible damage is done to the spirit of openness in tertiary education. 

The vast majority of people in higher education-students and staff instinctively support freedom of speech, and for good reason. But in reality there is a deliberate manipulation of these decent instincts by those who spread an extremist message.