UK Muslim students under spotlight

Head of Islamic federation says logic linking ‘terror’ to UK students is flawed.

A group of UK universities plans to launch a panel to discuss how to prevent ‘terrorism’ [EPA]

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the man accused with attempting to blow up a Delta/Northwestern Airlines plane flying to Detroit, could face up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

The 23-year-old Nigerian national was charged for attempting to blow up a crowded Airbus 330 as it approached its landing in Detroit from Amsterdam on Christmas Day.

Abdulmutallab had studied at the UK’s University College London (UCL). He was also president of the university’s Islamic Society. After graduating from UCL in 2008 he travelled to Yemen. On Thursday, Yemeni authorities pointed fingers at Britain, suggesting he came into contact with al-Qaeda members during his stay in Britain.

Britain refutes this claim, saying he became ‘radicalised’ after he left the country.

This week, a group called UK Universities said it will launch a panel in January to “consider how to best prevent terrorism while ensuring academic freedom”.

Indlieb Farazi spoke to Faisal Hanjra, president of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (Fosis), an umbrella group for Islamic societies at universities in the UK.

Islamic societies at universities around the UK are coming increasingly under the spotlight – being accused of breeding grounds for extremism? Rightly so?

Since the tragic events of 7/7 the Muslim community has been under intense scrutiny. Unfortunately, for Muslim students it has been no different.

There has been a small but vocal group of individuals who have suggested that university campuses are breeding grounds for terrorism. Their rationale – some individuals who have committed terrorist attacks at some point in their lives studied at a UK university institution.

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They link the two, the acts of terrorism and the fact that these people studied at a university. Naturally this logic is flawed. People who have gone on to commit terrorist attacks went to university, they went to the mosque, they watched the news, used the internet, went to the gym; at what point they became ‘radicalised’ is unclear.

We have no evidence to suggest and this is very much in keeping with other organisations that are involved in the higher education sector, including the government, the National Union of Students and other bodies that university campuses are breeding grounds for terrorists, people who say otherwise need to substantiate their claims.

Having established the reality to date, we are not complacent. We need to remain vigilant and we need to ensure that appropriate safeguards are in place so that where there are concerns these can be addressed.

Have you come across radicalised individuals?

I think this is something central to the whole media discourse around the issue of terrorism.

Some within the non-Muslim community suggest that the Muslim community needs to do more to challenge the radicalised individuals within our midst, and it is hard to blame them given the kind of media coverage that surrounds the arrest of a terror suspect.

The reality though is that these ‘radicalised’ individuals (and the understanding of that term is itself up for much debate) make up a tiny percentage of the approximate 2 million Muslims in the UK. We just do not encounter them, be it on campuses or within the community. 

What measures do Islamic societies have in place to deal with anyone holding extreme views?

Campuses are meant to be arenas of debate and discussion, an opportunity to share ideas and discuss solutions to problems in society.

Students are meant to be radical and are meant to be controversial and campuses should be these hubs of debate and discussion. Some current day politicians were during their student days calling for the overthrowing of democracy, students were at the forefront of the struggle against the apartheid and the campaign against the Vietnam War.

We must work to preserve and protect the liberties that allowed those students to campaign in the way that they did, particularly during these difficult times when it can be all too tempting to chip away at fundamental values which underpin and define our society. 

Islamic societies on campuses often have in place strong communication channels with the various Colleges and Student Unions; where there are concerns these can be raised with the relevant officials.

The Friday sermon, regular talks and circles are all opportunities which can be used to challenge ideas and narratives if necessary. Islamic societies always have the opportunity to get into contact with ourselves for further advice if and when they are worried. Using our expertise and contacts, we are well placed to deal with most issues that arise.

Heads of UK Universities are to set up a panel looking into preventing violent extremism. We always hear about Muslim extremist groups – we rarely hear about other religious extremist groups or right wing groups on campus, why is that?

Animal rights activists as well as far-right activists are known to operate on some campuses and have in the past used violent means as a way of getting their messages across.

It is unfortunate that there is not more focus on this type of extremism.

We need to look closely at why the media does not cover this in more detail, perhaps it is not as newsworthy, perhaps those stories would not sell as many papers.

Either way with the rise of the BNP and other fascist groups within the UK different stakeholders within society must play their part in highlighting and addressing issues of common concern.  

This panel is a response to the failed Christmas Day airline attack, in which a former student at University College London allegedly tried to blow up the US-bound passenger plane. How effective will this panel be?

Certainly the initiative is a positive one and it would be useful to look at the facts surrounding the story away from media speculation and to understand exactly what went on.

We need to wait and see though exactly what the remit of the panel will be as well as the individuals involved in the review.

Yemeni authorities suggest Abdulmutallab – who studied engineering and finance at the central London institution between 2005 and 2008 – may have been recruited by “radical” groups during his time in Britain.

Could this have happened during his time at UCL? Will Muslim students now be under constant close surveillance?

The full facts of the case have yet to be established and the individual in question is yet to stand trial. Due legal process needs to be allowed to take its course before we start jumping to conclusions and making assumptions.

Many different people are saying many different things. The Yemeni officials are saying one thing, this is contradicting what our intelligence services and the home secretary are saying over here. Abdulmutallab’s parents are saying something quite different, while the people who knew him well are saying something else.

It is all very confusing. What we know to date is that there is no evidence to suggest he was recruited by radical groups while in the UK. This is very much in line with what the intelligence services in the UK have mentioned as well as the Home Secretary and those people who knew him well. Naturally we will wait for the full facts to emerge before concluding anything definitive.

Yemen suggests Abdulmutallab may have been recruited by al-Qaeda in the UK[AFP]

We hope that Muslim students will not be under increased surveillance. Our response to this must be measured and sensible.

All in all Muslim students continue to play an active and crucial role on university campuses.

The scourge of terrorism is international and affects everyone. This distortion of the Islamic faith which suggests that the killing of innocent people is acceptable continues to be challenged by Muslim scholars around the world.

The tiny minority must not be allowed to hold hostage the 1.7 billion Muslims around the world. Muslim students continue to be at the forefront of bringing positive change to their local communities, they will not be defined by terrorism, they will not let their student experience be ruined by it.

We must all take responsibility for ensuring that our response to events, wherever they are in the world, does not drive our communities apart but rather brings them together.

Source : Al Jazeera

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