In a document leaked from the Department for Education, outlining plans for university lecturers to help in the fight against Islamic extremism, Jack Straw announces his distaste for the Muslim niquab and there are riots in Windsor over plans to build a mosque; October has indeed been a dark month for Britain’s celebrated multiculturalism. The Muslim ‘issue’ now has such dominance over column inches and airtime that one could be forgiven for thinking that we’re running headlong into the complete disintegration of communities across the country. If this hysteria does not cease, there is a real danger that we might be.
The idea that our beloved lecturers are in a position to relay sensitive information about their students to the Special Branch is so risible that one wonders whether any of the mandarins in the Department for Education have ever set foot in a university. My experience of lecturers to date has been in the far-from-intimate setting of the lecture halls in the Exhibiton Centre where, short of sitting on the front row and wearing an ‘I-love-Osama’ t-shirt, there is very little I can do to point anybody, let alone the lecturer, towards my stance on the Middle East. The most vital aspect of university education is the development of independent thought and, to this end, limited contact with the university authorities outside of lecture time is essential. How, therefore, this proposed ‘Thought Police’ is supposed to function is beyond me.
In essence, the notion that universities must attract special attention in combating extremism has some truth to it. As students, we are indeed more likely to be drawn to radical political ideas than older sections of society. The view, however, that our forays into different areas of the religious or political spectrum must be monitored by our elders who, of course, know better, is fundamentally patronising.
A more disturbing conclusion comes from the fact that the focus of the leaked document lies specifically on Islamic extremism. There are radical groupings that profess anti-establishment ideologies in all of the nation’s universities. There are anarchists and animal rights activists, there are racists and radical communists, all of which have the potential, or claim to have the potential, to threaten national security. Yet, with consummate hamfistedness and as a response to the Daily Mail-sponsored hysteria that is gripping Middle England, the government has chosen once more to single out our new favourite bogey man – the young Muslim male. Far from aiding community cohesion, the apparently much-needed ‘open debate’ about racial integration is in danger of fanning the flames of a conflagration that started after the July 7th bombings.
The response of academics at York to the leak from the Department for Education has been refreshing. There seems to be a consensus that government-sponsored spookery has no place in the remit of lecturers. Professor Haleh Afshar’s suggestion that the Government needs to take an active, participatory role within university Islamic societies, however, seems rather strange to me. Successive British administrations have had contact with Muslim societies for centuries. Even if you buy the classic “the world changed after 9/11” garbage, the fact remains that Muslim people are no new thing on the British political horizon. What more, therefore, can the Government possibly hope to learn?
As the more immediate grievances, such as the lack of employment and suitable housing in Muslim areas, go completely unnoticed, the Muslim community will continue to be perceived by the public at large as innately at odds with the national agenda. The problems of Islamic extremism and community integration will only be solved by taking a comprehensive, systemic approach that starts with the re-thinking of policy at a governmental level. University lecturers are the last people the government should be talking to