I believe that education is the cornerstone of our society. It is crucial to building the knowledge and skills of our young people, and also in nurturing their values and beliefs.
In my work as a Muslim Chaplain at the University of Bristol, I promote what I believe to be the fundamental rights of students; equality, freedom of speech and expression, the right to study and live in a safe and nurturing environment, the right to question and the right to be protected from prejudice and extremism.
It is vital that students are taught and encouraged to practice critical thinking. Teaching students to constantly question what they are told or shown is so important in developing the skills needed to resist those who aim to force ideas and values upon them.
Over the last 18 years I have worked in the education sector, I have had the opportunity to observe and share in the challenges faced by students who are away from home for the first time. While many embrace their newfound freedom, for others this situation can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. Our duty should be to help and support these students. However, as I have witnessed first hand, there are those that seek to manipulate and exploit these insecurities.
I recall an upsetting case of a talented and bright young man who following a personal trauma whilst at university began to attend presentations at a mosque at which he was exposed to the ideologies of particularly extremist thinkers. He then went on to listen to extremist speakers online.
His behaviour changed for the worse and his mother shared her concerns with me. Previously a very promising student keen to learn, he dropped out of his course as he no longer considered it compatible with his beliefs. He also began circulating hate-filled messages on campus and around the local community including statements such as the local Mosques were not true followers of Islam and should be shut down.
This is only one of many similar instances I have encountered where, had his lecturers been aware and equipped to deal with the situation, he could have received support. This could have come in many forms, such as theological mentoring. Sadly, he was never given this opportunity and instead decided, with little or no guidance, to throw away his future.
For that reason, I find it deeply troubling when those who are supposed to represent and stand up for the welfare of students appear unwilling to accept the responsibility to challenge extremism. This fills me with sadness and frustration, because in doing so, they are actively failing to support vulnerable students, and allowing hateful ideologies to spread on campuses. As a parent of children at university I have spoken to many parents who share my concerns.
We all agree that education is a universal right. So too is the right to learn in a space that is safe and secure, and one which is not coloured by the ideologies of hatred, bigotry and extremism.
My concern is that in our misguided anxiety not to offend, we actually risk failing those who we should be helping to protect. Extremist ideologies, unless challenged, can find fertile breeding grounds among vulnerable members of society.
It’s imperative that as a society we must all work together to combat extremism. As part of that effort, student groups and their leaders play a critical role in standing up to extremists on university campuses.
Let’s be clear. Freedom of speech is the bedrock of academia, just as it is a principle that we hold dear as a nation. Equally, students have the right to learn in an environment where they are not regularly exposed to extremist ideas, which among other things advocate the demeaning of women, express hatred towards gay people and attack democracy.
We should not underestimate the damage that the unchallenged propagation of extremist ideas can cause on university campuses. Sadly young people continue to make up a disproportionately high number of those arrested in this country for terrorist-related offences.
In recent years, there have been a number of instances in which university students have attempted to commit acts of terrorism. In November 2014, Erol Incedal, a law student at London South Bank University, was found guilty of possession of a bomb-making manual. Others believed to have been radicalised whilst at university include Glasgow Airport attacker Kafeel Ahmed, who was a student at Anglia Ruskin University.
That these individuals could have fallen under the influence of poisonous and violent ideologies whilst attending British universities prompts uncomfortable questions – which we need to address with candour and courage.
If we regard extremism as anathema to the values of tolerance, pluralism and free speech that we value in our universities, then it is right that we work in partnership to challenge it and create an environment where freedom of speech and freedom from harm co-exist.
The student movement has in the past shown determination in tackling hateful ideas, for example in campaigning against racism. But in turning a blind eye to vile extremist ideas, and in refusing to acknowledge the threat they pose to students, they do a disservice to themselves and the wider community. If they had seen the way that extremism can wreck young lives, as I have, they would surely not be so complacent.