Who’s radicalising who?

Today it was revealed that a report commissioned by University College London, the college where Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to bomb a plane from Amsterdam to the USA last December, concluded that he was not radicalised while at the university (report available as PDF here). He left the university in 2008 having gained a 2.2 degree in engineering and business finance, and went to study in Dubai and then in Yemen. It was natural that people should be interested in when exactly he turned from being just a “devout Muslim” to being a bomber, but it doesn’t follow that it was the college’s own Islamic Society that was responsible. A guy called Raheem Kassam from a group calling itself “Student Rights” was interviewed on BBC Radio earlier, and had this to say:

They call this an independent inquiry; they need to contact the independent organisations that have expertise in Islamic radicalisation and in the history of Islamism, people such as the Quilliam Foundation and I would have hoped to have Student Rights consulted as well; the Centre for Social Cohesion; they’re all people with great background and great knowledge of radicalisation on campus.

Student Rights seems a bizarre name for a group which has as its main aim “tackling extremism” (as they see it) rather than, say, campaigning for better funding for student welfare and lower (or no) tuition fees, which is what student rights meant when I was a student in the mid-1990s. A look at who’s on their advisory panel reveals that they are anything but independent:

  • Robert Halfon, MP for Harlow, who has held consultancy roles for the Conservative Friends of Israel
  • Daniel Johnson, editor of Standpoint magazine which is published by the Social Affairs Unit, a right-wing think tank, and is noted for hostile reporting on matters related to Muslims
  • Dr Alan Mendoza, executive director of the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society
  • Shiraz Maher, best-known for boasting of having joined Hizb-ut-Tahrir after 9/11 and left them, to become a media-friendly HT-basher, after the London bombings in 2005.

Their recommended books include Infidel and Nomad by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Celsius 7/7 by Michael Gove and Londonistan by Melanie Phillips. The groups they recommend, similarly, are not independent: the Centre for Social Cohesion is based out of the same offices as Policy Exchange, a known Tory-aligned think tank, and is known for its spying antics around various mosques in London and producing inaccurate reports as a result. The Quilliam Foundation may not be linked to one political party or other, but it is also a group which attempts, like all the others mentioned, to police the ideologies espoused by Muslims, to denounce anyone who does not fit their agenda as an extremist or a radical. In the recent past, such ideological policing on left-wing ideologies would be called McCarthyism.

It’s dishonest to play on non-Muslims’ fears of extremism and terrorism to suppress ideologies you dislike for your own reasons, particularly when you do not have the evidence to prove a real connection. Islamic societies have guest speakers once in a while, and even if they promote a particular view of Islamic history or politics or convey anti-gay or anti-feminist or anti-Zionist views, half an hour of that is hardly likely to lead to someone going and bombing an aeroplane. To talk about someone “being radicalised”, in any case, takes the blame away from the person who committed a terrorist act and assigns it to someone else who may not even have the same views as he does and may have never spoken a word to him in person; the terrorist may have made his own mind up by reading various websites or by speaking to people he knew, at college or outside, or even well before he got there. He can have access to these people and website all the time, rather than for half an hour every few weeks at an ISoc event; he could easily have been biding his time and keeping his views and intentions a secret for at least some of the time he was at UCL.

Besides, Umar Farouk spent nearly 18 months in the Middle East after leaving UCL, much of it in Yemen, and there are plenty of people there who could have persuaded him towards more radical attitudes than any he could have encountered in London. Also, as I believe I have said here before, university Islamic societies may change their positions substantially from one year to the next as a new committee is elected with a totally different stance to the old one, in some cases emptying out the prayer room book collection and completely replacing it with books of the new committee’s liking. Ordinary Muslim students may pay little attention to what goes on, just as long as they get the Friday prayers and the Ramadan and Eid refreshments organised properly. There may be a case for reforming the ISoc scene, but a tenuous and unproven connection between UCL and its Islamic society and a terrorist is not part of it.

The fact that UCL commissioned this report at all demonstrates that they bent to media pressure, given that in our time when any disaster happens, we ask “who is to blame?” (even if the answer is obvious, as in this case) and “how can we stop it happening again?” rather than “is there any reasonable way of stopping this happening again?”, “reasonable” meaning without sacrificing everybody’s freedom in the process, much as we do when one child in a class of 30 acts up on a school trip. He passed through UCL and ran its Islamic society for a while … so it had to be the fault of one or both that he ended up as a bomber. Uh, no it doesn’t. And the observation that “the risk of radicalisation cannot be ‘eliminated’ without altering UCL’s educational mission and character”, which seems to have been taken on in some quarters as meaning that UCL (and presumably every other educational facility) should do precisely that, seems actually to mean that they cannot reasonably be expected to totally remove the risk, and given that it’s not at all established that radicalisation at UCL is what happened here, they should not be expected to.

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