Too Radical? Or Too Muslim?

University leaders at international conference reject idea that their campuses have become incubators for violence -- and urge governments to stop viewing higher education in this way.

June 3, 2015
Louise Richardson

LONDON -- When the Islamic State released gruesome videos of hostages being beheaded this year, one of those doing the killing, dubbed Jihadi John in the British press, was identified as Mohammed Emwazi, an alumnus of Britain's University of Westminster. The news focused scrutiny on the university. In the United States, when authorities in April charged six Somali-Americans with preparing to join the Islamic State, the news provoked soul-searching at Minnesota Technical and Community College, where five of the men had studied.

These and other incidents have led to questions about whether some colleges and universities in the West have become too accepting of radical Islam. In Britain in particular, government proposals (now being revised) have set off alarms about whether universities are being asked to monitor their students, and whether concerns about violence are being used to justify monitoring of thought and activity that may be radical and might be Muslim but is not violent.

At Going Global, the international education conference of the British Council, a panel discussion of university vice chancellors (the equivalent of U.S. university presidents) and scholars from Britain and elsewhere largely pushed back against the scrutiny and proposed legislation. Speakers called on academic leaders to defend the place of radical thought in higher education.

“Radical ideas belong in universities,” said Louise Richardson, principal and vice chancellor of the University of St. Andrews and a political scientist whose research specialty is terrorism. She noted that St. Andrews has been around long enough to have had faculty members burned at the stake for their views (during the Reformation), and that universities should be places to challenge ideas in other ways than denying their right to be espoused.

Richardson, whose comments attracted particular attention as she has just been named vice chancellor of the University of Oxford, said she questioned whether universities should be seen as places that are home to future terrorists. “I’m resistant to the notion that there is a link between universities and radicalization,” she said. Violent extremists tend to be young men, and many young men “congregate in universities,” but that doesn't mean universities are nurturing violent beliefs, she said.

Rather, universities should be viewed as “the best antidote to radicalization,” she said. Richardson, author of What Terrorists Want, said that the terrorists she has met had “a highly oversimplified view of the world” and that a true education “robs you of that simplification and of that certitude.”

Richardson said that she has never felt pressure to keep anyone off campus or to squelch any ideas, although she noted that Scottish authorities have been less quick to pressure universities than some have reported authorities have been elsewhere in Britain.

Fazal Ahmad Khalid, vice chancellor of the University of Engineering and Technology, in Lahore, Pakistan, also said that the reports of universities as training grounds for terrorists are untrue. He said that graduates of his and other universities in Pakistan “are doing OK. They want to have better opportunities.” He said it was only “a very small number” -- generally people who did not have a university education -- who embraced violence.

But Bill Rammell, vice chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, in Britain, said that while the overwhelming majority of Muslim students are nonviolent, academic leaders should acknowledge that some number of terrorists are coming out of universities and have had access to a high-quality education.

Rammell was a member of Parliament and minister of state for further and higher education in the last Labour government. He said that in that role, he met with Muslim students at many universities. He said that one of the issues that concerned him was that there is too little knowledge about what pushes someone “past the boundary” of having a radical critique of government to being willing to commit violence for that vision. He urged universities to support more research on the topic.

Government overreaction -- asking universities to monitor student groups, for example -- would be “counterproductive,” Rammell said. And he added that he feared that the new Conservative government in Britain might go too far in that direction.

Universities must continue to protect free speech, he said. But that doesn't mean that there aren't things that universities can do to prevent violence. He said, for example, that universities should have “whistle-blowing systems” in place such that a student who feels he is being pressured to joint a violent group can report what's going on and receive protection.

While British speakers generally argued against heightened security measures to deal with radical violent groups, others said that context was everything.

Mohammed Farouk, vice chancellor of the Federal University, in Kashere, Nigeria, said that he has to operate as if Boko Haram could attack at any time. In such an environment, there are metal detectors and security personnel at campus gates, and at many buildings.

Farouk also said that making students, faculty members and the campus safe was a key obligation, and he noted that Boko Haram has made educational institutions targets. As a result, “we sometimes are working with security agencies so that we are all on the same page… and they provide us with information about the activities of our students off campus.” He added that this was only with regard to “criminal activities.”

Asked if he could permit students to invite a speaker who might espouse views that some could see as endorsing violence, Farouk said that “it's important that you protect your institution as a place where free ideas are discussed and explored.” In Nigeria, he said, “we have to be sensitive to other interests and to stakeholders in our community and take a collective decision on having someone on campus.”

Marie Breen-Smyth, a professor of international politics at Britain's University of Surrey and founding editor of the journal Critical Studies on Terrorism, described working in Northern Ireland (where she grew up) and teaching at an institution where a faculty member was killed by a bomb. Breen-Smyth said that violence is real and is tragic, but she said that the institution at the time did not change security. Many measures imposed as security necessities in modern society, she said, aren't really necessary, but are “rituals.” She said university leaders concerned about security need to remember that “sometimes the right thing to do is nothing.”

Breen-Smyth said she was also worried that the discussion of radical or potentially violent forces on campus seems to be focused on one group. “I am concerned when we start to select out Islam as this factory of violent ideas,” she said. “We know that Christianity is perfectly capable of producing violent ideas. The problem is violence, the problem is not radical ideas.” She said academics should challenge those who claim to be antiviolence but are focused only on Muslims.

Richardson, of St. Andrews and soon to be of Oxford, also made the point about these issues applying to a range of individuals. Asked by the moderator what she would do about a speaker seen by some as advocating violence, Richardson said that she suspected the moderator was looking for one kind of example, but she was going to give another.

Her example was a speech at St. Andrews by Israel's ambassador. Students invited him, and the original location was off campus. The students received threats, as did the venue, Richardson said. Some students objected to the talk because they said a representative of Israel was promoting policies that hurt Palestinians. Richardson said that she arranged to have the lecture moved on campus, where it took place with “robust” debate. That's how it should be, she said, whatever people think of the speaker's ideas.


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