Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

Islamist Extremism and University Societies

Recently, several studies have been published concerning the role of campus university societies in inculcating and advancing Islamist extremism. A good article of moderate but still delicious length on the subject is available here.

Without a doubt, some of the Islamic student societies have engaged in activism and discussion that falls in what I would call the ‘extremist’ category. To quote the article:

“It’s not a ‘what if’ situation,” she says. “We’ve already seen four former senior figures in university Islamic societies convicted of terrorist-related offences, with another on trial for the Christmas Day attempted bombing.

Another noteworthy tidbit from the article, describing the findings of a report by the counter-radicalisation research institute Quilliam:

After starting with a reference to UCL, this focuses on City University London, where “the head of another ISoc and his followers praised Anwar al-Awlaki, Abdulmutallab’s al-Qaeda supporting mentor, called for ‘offensive’ and ‘defensive’ jihad, advocated the murder of homosexuals and non-practising Muslims, and set their own ISoc on a collision course with the university authorities, staff and other students”.

Incidentally, I felt a bit uncomfortable myself at a recent talk at UCL on ‘Islam and Homosexuality’ wherein a Muslim law student, to applause from a sizable Muslim portion of the audience, announced that the correct action to take against a homosexual according to Islam is to ‘put to death him and the person he did it to.’

If you think that groups whose leadership are willing to involve themselves in terrorism and political violence and whose members openly espouse and support extremist views are breeding grounds for radicalism, you’re probably right. Psychological studies show that an individual may adopt radical views out of solidarity with friends who appear to be doing the same, in what is termed ‘group extremity shift’. These studies have observed that when groups of individuals convene to discuss an issue, people within those groups tend to move towards a more extreme version of whatever initial opinion is preferred by the majority at the outset of the discussion (McCauley and Moskalenko, 2005). Furthermore, organisations which breed hate and intolerance can push members towards violence, as for most the decision to resort of violent activism lies far along a process of increasing extremism and radicalism (Moghaddam, 2007).

So something should change here, I’m sure we all agree. Quilliam has some reccomendations:

  1. An individual is required who is responsible for the oversight and guidance of all the religious societies on campus
  2. All speakers must comply with a university’s statement of value
  3. To ensure a “civic challenge”, student union events teams should ensure that all public events are appropriately advertised so that any potentially problematic viewpoints get the opportunity to be challenged by students
  4. Gender segregation at public events should be prohibited by student union management in accordance with a university’s equality guidelines, although such regulations should not be extended to events intended purely for religious worship
  5. Universities should encourage students to challenge Islamic extremism on campus, while ensuring that those who do so are not subjected to intimidation, vexatious complaints or other threats to their freedom of speech
  6. The representation of students should be through universities’ democratic structures rather than through societies assumed to speak for religious, political or cultural groups

The UCL’s own report had some more reccomendations:

• The UCL Union’s process for monitoring invitations to visiting speakers should be further reviewed and strengthened

• The UCL Union should supply further information to UCL on the number of student society events that do not take place in centrally bookable locations and then consider ways of ensuring that these events are subject to some kind of central scrutiny before they go ahead

• UCL should continue to develop a more structured approach to monitoring the operation of student societies within individual academic departments

Let’s back up for a moment before we discuss these recommendations and think of any more we might have. Before we do any of that, we need to define what it is that we want to see in a university community: what attitudes, culture, practices, institutional structures, and intellectual zones we hope to establish for students both in their academic work and in their participation in campus society. Here’s my position:

A university should be a place of total intellectual freedom, wherein members are free to propose, engage with, and criticise any and all ideas, and organise to faciliate this in any manner they see fit.

However, even if we accept this position, we need to remember something else:

To have open conversations, we must feel safe expressing our views.

Right now, some of us don’t feel so safe. And the best evidence suggests that this fear is to some extent justified.

So back to the issue of what we should do. Let’s first talk about Quilliam’s suggestions. The first and second are reasonable. I like the idea of having an enforceable university statement of values, so long as that statement basically establishes that incitement to violence is unacceptable, that all individuals and views must be tolerated at university events, and otherwise doesn’t require much else. The third is lovely, and should make our discussions that much more fun! The fourth is not so lovely. The university should require that any campus meeting be open to all, regardless of gender, and religious rituals should not be exempt. The fifth is also not so lovely if a university is singling out Islamic extremism in particular, but fantastic if it involves a general exhortation to speak out against views that we reject. The sixth is good so long as student democratic pathways are good. Since they’re often not, it makes sense to allow societies to represent their own members in some cases, lest we risk closing off channels for democratic participation entirely. As for the UCL recommendations: good, good, and good. But let’s go a bit further, shall we?

I have some recommendations of my own:

  • Society leadership should be made responsible for applying a university code of ethics to their speakers, events, and members. If speakers or members espouse views that contravene this code, the society leadership should publicly repudiate them.  If they are unable or unwilling to do so, they should step down or be subject to disciplinary proceedings.
  • Societies should not be abolished except in the most extreme circumstances. One lesson we can all learn from looking at any autocracy on the planet is that shutting down or overly-restricting an overt space of discourse merely drives that discourse underground, where it is smaller, harder to monitor, and prone to groupthink.
  • Recordings of any lectures held by a society should be made available to anyone who requests them.
  • There should be a good system for lodging complaints against a society that violates the ethical code, and those complaints should be followed up in an efficient and non-prejudicial manner.

Feeling offended is a normal part of life.  It does not reasonably prevent you from being part of free discourse. Feeling threatened does. While it is important to distinguish between the two, and to act on credible threats, we should always strive for the closest thing to free speech possible.


McCauley, Clark and Moskalenko, Sophia. ‘Mechanisms of Political Radicalization: Pathways to Terrorism,’ Terrorism and Political Violence, 17(3) (2005).
Moghaddam, Fathali M. ‘The Staircase to Terrorism: a Psychological Exploration.’ In ed. Bruce Bongar et al, The Psychology of Terrorism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).


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