Today's Guardian front page story carries what looks like an alarming-- or is it alarmist-- tale.
Extremist organisations are operating on university campuses across the country and pose a serious threat to national security, according to a new report.
Yesterday the education secretary, Ruth Kelly, ordered vice-chancellors to clamp down on student extremists in the wake of the July terror attacks in London.
But a report due to be published next week by Anthony Glees, the director of Brunel University's centre for intelligence and security studies, lists more than 30 institutions - including some of the most high-profile universities in the country - where "extremist and/or terror groups" have been detected.
"This is a serious threat," Professor Glees told the Guardian. "We have discovered a number of universities where subversive activities are taking place, often without the knowledge of the university authorities."
The study states that the Islamist groups Hizb ut-Tahrir and al-Muhajiroun, which are subject to a "no-platform policy" by the National Union of Students, are active on many campuses and often operate under different names. The report catalogues the activities of far-right organisations and animal rights extremists
And this is the list of the universities at which the supposed extremist or terror groups have been detected:
Birmingham (Islamist); Brunel (BNP, Islamist); Cambridge (BNP); City (Islamist); Coventry (Islamist); Cranford Community College (Islamist); Derby (Islamist); Dundee (Islamist); Durham (Islamist); Greenwich (BNP); Imperial College (Islamist); Kingston (Islamist); Leeds (BNP, Islamist); Leicester (Islamist); LSE (Islamist); Luton (Islamist); Manchester (BNP, Islamist); Manchester Metropolitan (BNP); Newcastle (Islamist); Nottingham (Islamist); Oxford (Animal rights extremists); Reading (Islamist); Salford (BNP); South Bank (Islamist); SOAS (Islamist); Sussex (BNP); Sunderland (BNP, Islamist); Swansea (Islamist); Wolverhampton (Islamist); York (BNP)
That includes a high proportion of our most prestigious universities. I know from the experience of people I trust that there are indeed some very threatening groups at a number of these institutions who have made life difficult for Hindu, gay and especially Jewish students. I'm slightly bemused at the University of Reading, which I know very well indeed, and which has a well deserved reputation for being a backwater of moderation, even conservatism, having an Islamist group. But it's a big university, and it's possible.
And if it did, would that be anything to worry about? The Guardian report tells us that a spokesperson from the Federation of Islamic Student Societies has said that although there are individual members of Hizb ut'Tahrir at many British universities they are not organized as a group. Reassuring, but what about the issue of similar groups reforming under different names? We don't know from what the Guardian tells us. Nor whether the FISS accepts the notion of "Islamist" groups as distinct from Islamic groups, (which I do) and how it would define them or regard them if it did.
We aren't told what the "subversive activities " mentioned are. The report is due to be published next week. It should be interesting reading. And it's interesting that Ruth Kelly, the minister for education, and who has received some bad press for her links to what some regard as an extremist Catholic organization, is said to have ordered university Vice Chancellors to clamp down on the said groups. What would that mean in practice? We aren't told.
Where is the issue of AUT-NATFHE relevant to all this? Well, as I've already noted in an earlier post, both organizations have spent a quite inordinate amount of time and money pursuing whether to mount a boycott of .... Israeli universities. NATFHE is affiliated to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and its general secretary Paul Mackney, regularly makes inflammatory platform speeches, funded by NATFHE as part of his official duties, at PSC & other radical demonstrations and meetings. PSC policy supports a total boycott of everything Israeli, including a total cultural boycott. It needs to be spelled out what that means. The PSC helpfully tells us:
Any cultural events that perpetuate the impression that Israel is a normal and acceptable member of the international community, distort history, or legitimise the occupation should be boycotted. This includes events organised by non-Israeli bodies, such as films, exhibitions etc.
The PSC works closely with the Stop the War organization, and from this web page urges you to join it on the next Stop the War demonstration on 24th September which is co-organized by the STW coalition, CND...and the Muslim Association of Britain. Which is our leading Islamist organization. It is a rival organization to the more mainstream Muslim Council of Britain. And these are the aims of the demonstration:
a National Demonstration to Stop the Bombings, Stop the War, Bring the Troops Home, Defend Civil Liberties and Defend the Muslim Community. Saturday 24th September, 1pm, Central London. More details and materials available soon.
Join the PSC on the demonstration, book coaches to come along on the day and to call for an end to the War and and end to the occupation in Irak and Palestine
So where is NATFHE on the issue of Islamism? Does it recognise the possibility that Islamist extremism might constitute a danger to Hindus, gays, Jews and possibly everyone else, including dissident Muslims? Well, it certainly has a lot to say about why its policy on Israel, which includes support all FE institutions reviewing, with a view to severing, any academic links they have with Israel, does not unfairly single out Israel, and is not anti-semitic.
NATFHE in 2003 adopted this policy on "its Jewish members". It's a curious phrase. After all, NATFHE has policies on lesbians and gays, racism and all manner of equalities. It doesn't call those policies on its lesbian and gay members, for example. And it looks as if the policy has to do only with the lecturers who are members, not the treatment of students and others who use and work in the universities and colleges the members belong to.
The policy on Jewish members repeatedly commits NATFHE to oppose "anti-semitism and Islamophobia", as if they were some pair that automatically went together. There doesn't appear to be a policy stating what Islamophobia is, or explaining why it should be so necessary to invoke it in the context of a policy on NATFHE's Jewish members. As far as I can see, there is nothing on Islamist extremism as a threat to anyone, including those Muslims who don't conform with what the Islamists think Muslims should be doing.
But on NATFHE's home page, there's a prominent splash quote:
London Bombs' Outrage but NATFHE warns against an Islamophobic backlash
It links to this page on which Paul Mackney, after one sentence expressing outrage at the bombings and solidarity with the victims and their families, and one on the heroic work of the rescue services focuses on Muslims as the main focus of concern. He details the attacks which have taken place on mosques and individuals, refers to the tiny Alif-Aleph organization's work on Jewish-Muslim co-operation and tells us that NATFHE is in the course of producing a parallel booklet for the one on Jewish members which will be called "NATFHE and its Muslim members". I'm really looking forward to seeing that. It should be very interesting to compare with the one on Jewish members. Will it also refer to anti-semitism every time it invokes Islamophobia?
But how are all these policies produced anyway? Is it through circulating drafts to all members, using the internet to open discussion to the whole union membership. After all, NATFHE, like AUT includes large numbers of national and international specialists and experts in IT, in media, in leading edge communications technologies. Well, no. Because these policies appear out of small working parties, sometimes out of equalities committees and an international committee . They are never put out to the whole membership for approval.I doubt that the NATFHE membership at large has ever been canvassed on its views about anti-semitism, Islamophobia and what if any threats to lecturers loom large on campus these days. And with current internet technology, there's no reason why they shouldn't.
Instead, we have an immensely arcane new post-merger constitution which makes it as clear as mud just what level of decision-making representation the members of, say, the University of Reading might actually get. And it doesn't look like what I recognise as democracy.
And it seems to me that if there are issues about extremism in our universities, the best way to deal with them is to ensure that the whole membership is able to make good use of the technologies we have now to help identify what is and what is not extremism. Islamism proclaims its rejection of democracy. But some Islamists, like fascist organizations, seek to use democratic structures as vehicles to advance their anti-democratic aims. As Professor Guilain Denoeux puts it:
These and other considerations lead some analysts to question the appropriateness, for policy purposes, of drawing a distinction between moderate and radical Islamists. Such analysts believe that Islamists cannot truly be accommodated within a democratic system. In their view, Islamists may profess a commitment to democracy but only for tactical reasons, when they stand to benefit from greater political space. At heart, they never espouse wholeheartedly democracy and its values. The kind of society and political order that they envision is irreconcilable with a liberal, competitive political system that does not discriminate against certain groups and constituencies. Moreover, they contend, there is no strong evidence that policies of accommodation prompt Islamist parties and leaders to moderate their views and become more genuinely tolerant of, and open to, alternative viewpoints and ideas. In fact, quite the opposite may take place, as Islamists become emboldened by their increasing influence.
In fact, according to those same analysts, efforts to appease, co-opt or integrate Islamist movements into the political process are likely to backfire, creating a context within which political radicalism and/or or social intolerance ultimately may prevail. Islamists may make inroads into centers of power, and their norms and outlook may spread to ever-wider segments of society. According to this view, accommodation of political Islam is therefore a dangerous and self-defeating behavior. A desire to placate or appeal to moderate Islamists may prompt regimes to adopt policies that slowly change, for the worse, the face and social fabric of their countries, undermining a tradition of tolerance, threatening peaceful coexistence with religious minorities, making societies more rigid, and progressively creating an environment in which extremist views may flourish.
Is the new policy emerging from the DfES an attempt to take this on? Whether it is or not, the current outlook of NATFHE, the majority union in the proposed merger, and the outlook of its General Secretary Paul Mackney, does not inspire confidence in its ability to deal with it. For the proposed decision making structure of the merged union is all too clearly a rich pasture for the unrepresentative activists who revel in arcane rule books. It is not about democracy. And we need democracy as our best defence against extremism. Any kind of extremism.
UPDATE I understand that the authorities at the University of Reading are keen to play down the issue. Not because of a cover up, but because they don't see any cause for alarm. Apparently an attempt to organize an Islamist organization on the campus fizzled out through lack of interest. But it is true that someone who graduated from the University in 1990 was involved in the Bali bombing. His PhD was on Malaysian House Prices, hardly an incendiary topic. The view from the University seems to be that there is less to worry about from terrorist and extremist cells on campus than there is from lax recruitment policies and practices. All this reinforces my view that high speed democratic communication structures, not arcane rulebook led working parties which produce fatuous political parrotspeak, are what we need.