Extremism on Campus: Islamist Narratives are Going Unchallenged

In the “deepest circle of hell” ISIS has entered. Last month, ISIS seized the refugee camp of Yarmouk outside of Damascus. Public executions, shootings and beheadings have followed. 5,000 people have tried to flee their homes since ISIS stormed the camp but they have no place to go. There are fears that 18,000 inside the besieged camp could be massacred. When you stare down the barrel of a Jihadist’s gun, your refugee status counts for nothing. Any Christians, Shia, Homosexuals, Atheists, all that is Kafir, risk being murdered or enslaved in Yarmouk.

extremism islam college

After four years of the Syrian Civil War, we have become accustomed to the barbarism and horrors committed by Daesh. Their horrors have been broadcast on our TV screens and brought to our nearby shores. Yet, ISIS do not stand alone. They are one face, one faction, of a violent totalitarian movement; from Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, to Boko Haram in Nigeria via the Taliban in Afghanistan; the rise of ISIS must be seen within the context of a jihad-insurgency that is now global.

World leaders denounce these terrorists and decry their ‘death cults’. We send war planes and drones to bomb them as we send Special Forces to take out their hierarchy. But, as thousands leave Europe to join these groups, little seems to have changed. Islamism, the ideology that drives these terror groups, cannot be bombed out of existence. This ideology, its ideas, and how they’re promoted must also be challenged.

As Maajid Nawaz argues, “recognizing this as an insurgency affects entirely how we react to it […] counter-insurgency rests on the assumption that the enemy has significant enough levels of support within the communities it aims to survive among”. And we must understand and challenge why this is the case. Why, for example, have more British Muslims joined ISIS than the British Army Reserves? We must understand the deeply rooted issues that make individuals vulnerable to extremism — social exclusion, institutionalised racism and a feeling of disconnect from British society. But, if we do this while ignoring the ideology that drives extremism we are bound to fail.

Daesh’s 100,000 foot soldiers were not born evil, nor was their radicalisation ever inevitable. The experience of racial or religious harassment and discrimination isolates communities and individuals, and makes them susceptible to extremism. However, there still needs to be purveyors of an ideology to manipulate these genuine grievances, and indoctrinate the vulnerable. It is the ideology that pushes an angry, alienated kid to embrace violent extremes – be that neo-Nazism or Islamism. Disenfranchisement doesn’t inevitably lead to extremism, that simplistic argument would be absurd. But a disenfranchised individual makes ripe pickings for a charismatic recruiter to the cause. They can channel and feed their grievances, and give the disaffected a new identity through ideology.

In 2011, a review of the Prevent strategy by the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism identified higher education as one of primary sectors that is vulnerable to radicalisation. In this damning report it showed that a “culture conducive to the promotion of non-violent extremism has developed on a number of UK university campuses”.

The report went on to say, “there is unambiguous evidence to indicate that some extremist organisations […] target specific universities and colleges […] with the objective of radicalising and recruiting students”. Moreover, “[that] extremist preachers from this country and from overseas […] have also sought to repeatedly reach out to selected universities and to Muslim students”.

To combat this, the NUS currently ‘No-platforms’ six extremist organisations. These organisations are banned from attending or speaking at any NUS function or conference, and are banned from standing for election for any NUS position. These 6  include three far-right groups: The British National Party; The English Defence League; National Action; and three Islamist organisation: Hizb-ut-Tahrir; Muslim Public Affairs Committee; and Al-Muhajiroun.

The report by the Home Affairs Select Committee stated that those who, “distrust Parliament and who see a conflict between being British and their own cultural identity” are susceptible to radicalisation. It is clear that there are speakers appearing at our universities who are promoting the divisive narrative that Islam is incompatible with Western secular democracy, and facing little challenge or counter-narratives.

Despite the new legal duty facing universities, too many institutions are still allowing events featuring extreme or intolerant speakers to go ahead without ensuring adequate challenge. Between the start of 2012 and the end of 2014, there were 400 incidents of extremist speakers at our universities.

Hamza Tzortzis is a senior member of Islamic Education and Research Academy (ISRA) and is a regular speaker at British universities. He has close links to banned Hizb ut-Tahrir. He has said:

“We as Muslims reject the idea of freedom of speech, and even the idea of freedom. We see under the Khilafa (caliphate), when people used to engage in a positive way, this idea of freedom was redundant, it was unnecessary, because the society understood under the education system of the Khilafa state, and under the political framework of Islam, that people must engage with each other in a positive and productive way to produce results, as the Qur’an says, to get to know one another”

Our universities are meant to be a ‘safe space’ according to the NUS. This idea of ‘safe spaces’ has facilitated a culture of censorship that has embedded itself within our student unions. Many universities now have an outright ban on ‘transphobic material’, as well as having vague restrictions on ‘offensive’ dress and conduct. Human rights campaigners and secularists have been banned for offending religious sensitivities. Even certain feminists have faced black-listing for daring to say that they believe trans-sexual woman are not ‘real women’.

So when our student community recoils in disgust over the government’s plans to ban “non-violent” Islamist extremists from speaking on campuses, we must feel uneasy. These students and academics, so happy to censor everything from offensive pop songs to ‘page three’,  will fight tooth and nail for the rights of religious reactionaries to preach their prejudices about women, Jews, homosexuals, and apostates unopposed. In the 6 month period from September 2015 and January 2016, we have had speakers on campuses who have promoted sectarian violence, hatred of gays and hatred of Jews.

While many of the Islamist speakers who are appearing on our campuses may not directly argue for Jihad, they do routinely offer apologia for terrorism and violence. A prominent example is CAGE, an advocacy group who works closely with high-profile figures within the NUS. Qureshi, an executive director of CAGE, was recorded in 2006 saying, “When we see the examples of our brothers and sisters, fighting in Chechnya, Iraq, Palestine, Kashmir, Afghanistan, then we know where the example lies […] We know that it is incumbent upon all of us to support the jihad of our brothers and sisters in these countries when they are facing the oppression of the West”. Last year, Qureshi described the now deceased executioner and propagandist, ‘Jihadi John’. as a “beautiful young man”.

According to an article on CAGE‘s website, the Bring Back Our Girls campaign is a “colonial trope”, and criticism of Boko Haram is really about “demonising Islam”.Proud feminists and NUS members regularly sit alongside CAGE to denounce the Government’s anti-extremism programme.

The ideas promoted by CAGE  that Muslims generally (rather than individuals holding extreme views) are under attack; that the authorities are untrustworthy; and that the threats of extremism and terrorism from non-Muslims are greater than the threats from Islamist extremism and terrorism; these ideas have a lot of currency among sections of the Left. Once these Leftists are able to turn a blind eye to CAGE and their allies’ views on women’s rights, homosexuality and Jews; sharing a platform with them comes quite naturally.

When a CAGE spokesperson says to Muslim audience members that,“each and every one of us is a terror suspect, it may not be now, it may have been yesterday, but we certainly will be tomorrow, the way things are heading” we must surely question whether this rhetoric is divisive or constructive, right? Does it not feed into the picture (used by Islamists to promote a grievance narrative) that the West is at war with Islam?

When the student Left align themselves with Islamists and offer them an unchallenged platform, they betray the very principles that they claim to uphold. When extremists are presented as ‘mainstream’ and ‘moderate’ voices of Islam, we betray liberal reformist Muslims; feminist Muslims; gay Muslims; dissenting Muslims; and minority sects that suffer more from religious fundamentalism than we can ever imagine. They are minority within minority, persecuted within theocracy, white-washed by us.

Just a few months ago, the University of Kingston held an event entitled “The Rise of Islamophobia’” One of speakers on the panel, Bashir Ibrahim, claimed the government was seeking to engineer a ‘Government sanctioned Islam” and that the security services’ “modus operandi” were harassing Muslims, using Mohammed Emwazi (Jihadi John) and Michael Adebolajo (Lee Rigby’s murderer) as examples. These tropes are commonplace. In December, Muhammad Dilwar Hussain visited University College London a man known to have claimed that there is, “a full on ideological/cultural war is being waged on Islam and Muslims” and described reformist critics as “drunken liberal garbage”.

This narrative, that, ‘’Islam is under attack and we must defend it” is central to radicalisation, extremism and terrorism. In terrorism, it is used to promote violence; in extremism, it is used to promote values that are antithetical to human rights norms; in radicalisation, it is used exploit vulnerable people and recruit them to the cause.

Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Charles Farr, has stated that the government is deeply concerned about people, “who are speaking regularly against core UK values and whose ideology incidentally is also shared by terrorist organisations”. There is little doubt that CAGE fall into this group. The Preventing Prevent lobby, which seeks to undermine counter-extremism work by fitting it to the broader Islamist narrative, has gained traction within the student movement.

As a report from the Quilliam anti-extremist think-tank pointed out, “The Islamist narrative has been normalised in the United Kingdom, and other European countries, over the last two decades due to the influence of non-violent Islamist organisations”.

The normalisation of these narrative show no sign of abating. The controversial new President of the NUS, Malia Bouattia, embodies this – a President who won, on part, by campaigning on a ‘Preventing Prevent’ ticket, and has unsurprisingly been endorsed by CAGE. In a written response to critics who have questioned her over alleged anti-Semitism, she publicly attacked the organisations who have been investigating radicalisation and extremism on campuses. When challenged, she has accused her critics of being driven by nothing more than anti-Muslim bigotry.

Those who speak out against Islamism in our universities often face false accusations of racism, anti-Muslim prejudice and ‘neo-colonialism’. Human rights campaigners, such as Peter Tatchell and Maryam Namazie, have faced McCarthyite smears. Furthermore, anti-fascist organisations, like Hope not Hate, have been attacked by the Left for merely speaking out against Islamism and Islamic sectarianism.

We find ourselves in a situation where the Left is caught in ‘double bind’; on one hand speaking out against prejudice towards Muslims and the excesses of the state in the ‘war on terror’, and the need to oppose the ideas, beliefs and actions of religious reactionaries, Islamists and jihadi apologist. We can do both, and we must do both!

There are clear failings with the Government’s PREVENT strategy, and British Muslims feel increasingly marginalised and alienated. But when we take these extremists as the legitimate voice of Muslim opinion, as we do on so many university campuses, we’re doing great harm. We legitimise their corrosive narrative that there is an unbridgeable divide between the ideas of Islam and Western liberalism.

What stands before us is far-right political movement based on a fundamentalist and reactionary interpretation of Islamic doctrine. What groups like CAGE sustain and apologise for is a totalitarian ideology. The ideology cannot be separated from its violent interpretation. The ideas peddled on our university campuses are not separate from the atrocities committed abroad in the name of ‘Jihad’.

The Islamic State has outlined in their own magazine, Dabiq, that its aim is to eliminate what it calls the “grey zone,” the middle ground between Islamist theocrats and anti-Muslim bigots, so that everyone is forced to pick sides. In this way, Islamic State hopes to turn non-Muslims against Muslims. We cannot let the likes of CAGE drive this narrative. Let’s fight for this ‘middle ground’ where liberalism lives and thrives.

No wonder the Taliban rallied around the cry, “Throw reason to the dogs”. Rational debate and reason – these are the enemies of tyranny. The values of the Enlightenment are theocracy’s greatest fear. We must combat Islamism’s politicised manipulation of the Islamic faith through rational enquiry and critique. The least we can do is open up their platforms to critical voices and challenge their ideas. Combating Islamism on campus should go hand in hand with fighting for free speech on campus.

We won’t defeat the ideologies of fascism and Islamism through blanket censorship. We defeat these ideas by exposing their fallacies and undermining their arguments through open debate and criticisms. Islamists and their fellow-travellers on the far-Left will attempt to shut down this discussion, but we cannot let this happen. Let’s promote progressive voices and open up debate on our universities. Let’s both work with and reform the PREVENT agenda –  let’s change the narrative.

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