Like some kind of geopolitical Newtonian law of motion, the actions of a minuscule number of jihadi lunatics leads inevitably to a reaction from those who claim to defend us from the threat of terrorism.
Today’s announcement by Universities minister David Lammy that anti-terrorism police are being stationed in universities considered “at risk of being targeted by extremists” is undoubtedly the latest response to the arrest of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the ‘panty bomber’ who tried to blow up a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day. The first was the list of 14 countries whose nationals automatically face more intensive body searches and luggage checks, an assumption of blanket suspicion. But because Abdulmutallab was a former student at University College London and had been president of its Islamic Society, the university itself has been forced onto the defensive. The evidence may suggest that Abdulmutallab actually embraced his extreme views in a madrassa in Yemen, but as Jerome Taylor in the Independent said at the end of December 2009:
Much of the generalised paranoia about Islamic societies has been stoked by the likes of Douglas Murray of the right-wing (and misnamed) Centre for Social Cohesion or by commentators such as Melanie Phillips, who tried to imply some kind of link between Abdulmutallab and another former UCL student, the decidedly secular Samar Alami, who was convicted of detonating a car bomb outside the Israel embassy in London in 1994 (in what has always seemed like an appalling miscarriage of justice). David Lammy’s proposals take us a step further, however, from what is undoubtedly a covert surveillance presence already in a number of universities. Putting police officers on campus - and publicly announcing an intention to do so - can only increase fear and mistrust, risk closing down any potentially critical debate about the ‘war on terror’ and make Muslim students feel even more under siege. It’s hardly a great way to win hearts and minds.
Some believe that Britain’s universities remain alarmingly open to Islamist radicals. Others fear that a "reds under beds" style hysteria that treats all Muslims students as potential threats to national security will force Islamic debate in our universities underground and behind closed doors.
Then there is the small matter, which I really must mention, of how poor police intelligence about terrorist threats from ‘student cells’ has been. You may recall, for example, the ‘anti-terror’ raids that followed Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick’s failure to conceal secret documents from photographers in Downing Street. On 8 April 2009, the result was the hurried arrest by armed police of twelve students in the north west of England as alleged terrorist suspects. One, a Liverpool University student, was thrown to the ground and held there at gunpoint for an hour (above). At the time, Gordon Brown spoke his lines from the security services and the police, saying:
But just like the immediate aftermath of the Forest Gate raids in June 2006, this turned out to be more nonsense: after three weeks of interrogations and searches, there was no evidence against any of the students. Manchester police admitted they were innocent but unlike the two brothers who live around the corner from me, the ordeal was far from over.
"We are dealing with a very big terrorist plot … there were a number of people who are suspected of it who have been arrested. That police operation was successful.
Ten students, all Pakistani citizens, were immediately rearrested and imprisoned as a ‘threat to national security’ (or to cover the government’s embarrassment, depending on your point of view). The remaining two were electronically tagged and forced to live under curfew conditions. Denied bail, the ten were held as Category A prisoners and were moved around the country from prison to prison. Neither they nor their lawyers were told of any “evidence” against them at a special immigration court and eventually the twelve agreed to voluntary repatriation to Pakistan rather than face prolonged imprisonment.
So is there religious extremism on Britain’s campuses? To a degree (if you pardon the pun), the answer is yes, of course there is. There has been a rapid expansion of high education over the last decade, more and more young people attend university and it is certainly true that many of those who have subsequently been involved in terrorist incidents have been university-educated. Is that enough, however, to rubbish studies (as bloggers on Harry’s Place tried to do in 2008) showing what those of us who lives in areas with sizeable Muslim populations already know, that the majority of young British Muslims are opposed to political Islam and more likely to join Amnesty International than al-Qaeda? Only if your immediate knee-jerk reaction to the minuscule number of jihadi lunatics is to assume that the majority of Muslims are almost certainly extremists too.
Moreover, if you are a student facing the prospect of police officers on campus, a fear of being labelled ‘extremist’, even the prospect that innocence will not be enough to avoid detention as a ‘national security threat’ or even expulsion from the country, another question may well seem far more important than whether extremism exists or not on campus.
How on earth can universities hope to remain as centres of free speech in an atmosphere as poisoned as this?
David Lammy’s interview for BBC Radio 4’s The Report is broadcast tonight at 8pm.