Evidence heard in Public

Questions 238 - 265



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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Home Affairs Committee

on Tuesday 15 November 2011

Members present:

Keith Vaz (Chair)

Nicola Blackwood

Mr James Clappison

Michael Ellis

Lorraine Fullbrook

Dr Julian Huppert

Steve McCabe

Alun Michael

Mark Reckless

Mr David Winnick

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Professor Geoff Petts, Universities UK, and Nabil Ahmed, President, Federation of Student Islamic Societies, gave evidence.

Q238 Chair: Mr Ahmed, Professor Petts, thank you very much for coming to give evidence to the Committee today as part of the Committee’s ongoing inquiry into the roots of radicalism. I ask all those present to refer to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, where the interests of Members are noted.

I start with a general question about universities to both of you. Is it more likely that, if you go to university, you are radicalised as a result of that experience?

Professor Petts: Clearly that is a very key question. We acknowledge the threat, but we do not see evidence to support that, I am pleased to say. We are all very aware that, in an environment where we have a very large cohort of young, potentially vulnerable people, there is a threat, and we are very alert to that threat. We are acutely aware of our responsibility to those young people.

Nabil Ahmed: Good morning. I would like to thank the Committee for inviting us here today.

As the national democratic body for Muslim students, we are on the ground. We feel, see and understand what is happening on the ground, but we have also engaged on this issue of campus extremism. We held a conference on campus extremism just a few months ago, which provided me with some of the views here today.

There are various myths surrounding the issue of campus extremism. There is far too much sensationalism and insufficient evidence or expertise in this wider discussion. I disagree with the notion that you put forth, Chairman. There is a notion that campuses are hotbeds of extremism, which is unfounded in the expertise and experience of the sector and the experience of students. There is a notion that, just because these people who have gone on to become terrorists went to university, in some way those two things are connected-the evidence suggests not. There was an independent inquiry, for example, into the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who went to UCL, which showed that he was not actually radicalised at university.

Q239 Chair: Do you agree with the Government that some extremist organisations target universities with the aim of recruiting students to support their cause? The Government is quite clear in its Prevent strategy that this is happening.

Professor Petts: Certainly. Again, I would argue that the evidence we have is largely circumstantial. We recognise a very strong responsibility to all these people. The university is a place where young people are exposed to a wide range of views and opinions, and as academics, we want to encourage them to be exposed to those views and to challenge those views.

Q240 Chair: Sure, but are groups going in there to try and expose them in a different direction?

Professor Petts: That is always a threat, but we are responsible institutions, and it is our responsibility to ensure that we have practical protocols in place to ensure that those groups that step across the line are not allowed into our institutions.

Q241 Chair: How do you find them? Do you have secret lecturers-secret policemen-who do that?

Professor Petts: I am from the university of Westminster, and maybe a little context here would be helpful. We are a metropolitan and cosmopolitan institution in the west end of London. We have students from 157 different countries. It is a diverse community. We are not a simple campus that we can put a brick wall around. We encourage people to engage with us, but we have put in place a very detailed set of protocols and procedures to ensure that the engagement with these big issues-and we want to encourage our students to engage with these issues, because we believe that the educational process will actually, to put it crudely, turn people off some of these ideas and certainly not encourage them to engage. We have a detailed process in place and we check all organisations that wish to become engaged with our students, and we draw a line.

To give you an example, I believe that we are one of the few universities in the country where, in the last year, we actually said no on one occasion, and we engaged with an organisation on another occasion to change the programme of events to ensure that our students were not exposed to radical extremism.

Q242 Chair: In the last year, the university of Westminster, with people from about 170 different countries, has only said no to one organisation.

Professor Petts: One organisation. With another organisation, we had a discussion and changed the programme to ensure we were confident about it.

Q243 Chair: Mr Ahmed, the Home Secretary has criticised your organisation for failing to challenge extremism sufficiently. Why have you not challenged it in the way that the Home Secretary thinks you should?

Nabil Ahmed: I disagree with the Home Secretary’s comments here. I think her approach has bought into the sensationalism surrounding this discourse. Our organisation-the democratic national body of Muslim students-has continued to engage with the past three Universities Ministers, security experts, and universities on the issue of campus extremism. In fact, I pointed to the lack of research and evidence on this very issue. Together with the last Government, we initiated research into not only the welfare of Muslim students, but issues of extremism. Unfortunately, when this Government came into place, that research was cancelled.

Further to that, we held this conference on the issue of campus extremism, and the voice from the sector was different to what was coming from our Home Secretary. We very much believed, if I may say so, that universities are this very special place in society where status quos can be challenged and where ideas can be built, within the scope of the law. It is very important to protect that.

Q244 Chair: Do you have examples of extremist groups who go to universities and target them with the specific desire to recruit students to their cause, or do you have no examples of that?

Nabil Ahmed: What I am saying here is that we have to be specific about what we mean by extremist.

Q245 Chair: You be specific; what do you mean by extremist?

Nabil Ahmed: Absolutely. If we have people who are willing to cross the line of the law, whether it be issues relating to incitement to hatred, or incitement to violence, we have laws for that, and I will be the first to report those people to the police.

Q246 Chair: Have you come across evidence of that?

Nabil Ahmed: I have not actually.

Q247 Chair: You have come across no evidence that any organisation has gone to any university where your organisation exists to recruit people for an extremist cause.

Nabil Ahmed: Where these cases should happen, these are matters for the police. What is our role-

Q248 Chair: You have no evidence-we understand the police responsibility, but you have no evidence.

Nabil Ahmed: There is no evidence to suggest that there is recruitment, but that should not stop us-we shouldn’t bury our heads in the sand. What we should be doing is saying, "How can ideas be challenged on campus in the first place?"

Chair: Yes, we understand.

Nabil Ahmed: If I may, Chairman, that is where I believe that Islamic societies-

Chair: We will come on to that, Mr Ahmed, but the answer to my question is that you can come here with no evidence that any organisations are targeting students in order to recruit them to their cause.

Nabil Ahmed: To be specific in my answer, I have not come across organisations, in my experience, recruiting to people who are going to cross the line of the law, no.

Q249 Steve McCabe: Professor Petts, can you tell me what is happening with the "Freedom of speech on campus" proposals? You talked about your own university, but in terms of implementation across the country could you give us a brief update on the progress that has been made?

Professor Petts: Thank you very much for asking that question and thank you for, in doing so, acknowledging the important step that Universities UK has made in undertaking this project and producing this report because one of the points that arose from this was the genuine engagement across the country of the majority of institutions in this issue. From my perspective, if I may just divert for a moment, it is an issue around location. In London the biggest threat that I see is not on campus. It is the fact that small groups of students in London can get together very easily with small groups of students in other institutions in London because of the number of institutions in close proximity. Four students in Aberystwyth, with all respect to Aberystwyth, might be rather isolated. Four students in Westminster can talk to four students at SOAS or four students at King’s College very, very easily. So there is that issue around the institutions within their region which is a big issue that is picked up by the Prevent strategy. That is a very positive move.

Specifically on freedom of speech, we are required under the Education Acts to engage in freedom of speech and that involves identifying where the boundaries to freedom of speech are in relation to all the other responsibilities that we have relating to harassment, public order offences and so on and so forth-providing a safe environment. What this report has done is refocus institutions’ minds on how we deliver practically freedom of speech in an environment that is safe and fair to all people.

Q250 Chair: That is helpful. If you circulate copies we should be most grateful. Mr Ahmed, do you have anything to add?

Nabil Ahmed: I would add to that by reiterating from the outset, beyond this issue of extremism, the important role that universities hold in generating ideas and thoughts. The other extension of freedom of expression is that it enables radical ideas to be debated and challenged on campus as well. If I could extend to your earlier question Chairman, about beyond the remit of the law, I have debated with people on campus who use anti-Muslim rhetoric or anti whatever it may be rhetoric, but that is within the framework of the law. I think that is very important to preserve so that ideas can be challenged in the first place.

The second thing I would add is the recent comments by the Deputy Prime Minister and also the Home Secretary, who cancelled, for example, our event-an aspiration careers event with Muslim students; she refused to engage with Muslim students when we invited her to our conference so that she could discuss these issues-and the cancellation of the research we initiated under the last Government. These examples show that, despite our continued engagement with security experts and with the Government, the Government’s attitude is that they are not willing to engage with students on the ground but also not willing properly to research and evidence these very issues. That is a real concern for us.

Chair: Thank you that is very helpful.

Q251 Dr Huppert: We talked quite a bit about Islamist radicalisation but, as I think you touched on, that is not the only direction of radicalisation that can happen. I should be interested to know whether you would have similar comments about other radical groups-the far right or whatever we may be talking about-and also comments on some of the no platform ideas that have been floating around for some of those groups.

Professor Petts: I go back long enough to remember animal rights issues, which I guess is the one issue where most institutions have had most experience in the longer term. Clearly the whole issue about violent radicalisation is of particular concern and extends well beyond any particular issue there. But let us identify that violent radicalisation is different from the development of radical ideas by young people. Violent radicalisation is a particular threat to everybody and we are very aware of that. Freedom of speech really addresses the boundary between freedom of speech to debate an issue and incitement to commit. That really is the important development we have made in the university sector in addressing where that boundary is.

Nabil Ahmed: If I may add to that, I am actually very much in agreement with the professor’s comments here in relation to radical discussions about animal rights or whatever it may be. They too exist on campus. I think there has been a disproportionate and unfair focus on Muslim students, and I think this attitude is actually quite unhelpful, especially when we consider that we want all members of society to be able to contribute properly, rather than pushing them and segregating them in the first place.

I want to say as well to this Committee that I think this discourse needs us to realise and remember when we were students. Students wake up in the morning thinking about their lectures and their careers. They do not wake up in the morning thinking, "I am going to go and stop some terrorists today," and other such things. This discourse needs some reality checks as to what is actually happening on the ground in relation to students.

Q252 Michael Ellis: Mr Ahmed, you have made some rather partisan points in relation to the Home Secretary, and you have alleged that the Government do not have any policies to deal with the issues, which I would clearly suggest is nonsense, but I want to ask you something specific. It is not just the Home Secretary whom you have been rather keen to criticise this morning. I am looking at an oversight report by Lord Carlile, who-I think I am right in saying-worked extensively with the previous Government on matters not unconnected to this. He states in the report that "there is evidence too that The Federation of Student Islamic Societies [FOSIS] could and should do more to ensure that extremists will be no part of any platform with which it is associated, alongside demonstrating that it rejects extremism." Do you accept that the federation could and should do more? Are you doing anything to demonstrate that you do indeed reject extremism, or do you disagree with Lord Carlile as well?

Nabil Ahmed: Thank you for the question, actually. Our organisation has continued to denounce and condemn extremism. We are a 50-year-old democratic Muslim organisation and that is not an issue for us.

Q253 Michael Ellis: If you would just answer the question, please, because Lord Carlile does not agree with you. He says in his report that you have not, so can you please tell me your answer?

Nabil Ahmed: Absolutely. We disagree with the comments made here. Extremism is no part of our work. Our work is to do with charity, with engagement between different faiths, with leadership projects and so on and forth. I need to add to, if I may, to finish my answer, that I did not say that the Government have no policies on the issues, rather that the approach has to be based upon research and freedom of expression on campuses, so that ideas actually can be challenged. It must also be one that engages with Muslim groups on campus, which provide a definitive mainstream on campus through which ideas can actually be challenged. You asked about our work on this issue. I will reiterate it again for the benefit of the Committee and the public here.

Chair: Briefly.

Q254 Michael Ellis: Even more briefly than the Chairman expects. I would just like you to tell us how you demonstrate that you reject extremism, because that seems to be a fundamental concern of Lord Carlile. How do you reject extremism?

Nabil Ahmed: We have continued in our statements and in our work to condemn extremism. It seems like quite a loaded and unfair question to actually question that in the first place. Let me add to that. I hope that our work-whether it be a conference on tackling campus extremism, which included Government security experts and universities, whether it be our research on this issue, whether it be actually providing these definitive mainstreams on campus, through which extremism can be challenged, or whether it be our engagement with the Government on this issue-provides sufficient basis to say not only that we are doing enough, but also that the Government could learn from the higher education sector about how extremism can and should be dealt with.

Q255 Michael Ellis: So what advice do you give your members in relation to engaging with extremist organisations? Do you give any advice to your members if they come to you on that subject or even if they do not come to you?

Nabil Ahmed: I will give you an example. I am a member of this, so I can perhaps relate to this first hand. I have personally debated with people. Whether it be with anti-Muslim, quite fierce political views on campus, our encouragement is one that both engages with people on campus and debates with real critical discussion the serious issues. That is our approach, as opposed to isolating groups.

Chair: Thank you, Mr Ahmed. That is very helpful indeed.

Q256 Mr Winnick: I have one or two questions on extremism. If someone comes along to a meeting and argues that according to their interpretation of Islam-I speak as a lifelong atheist, but we know all religions have extremists-stoning to death is perfectly justified for adultery and homosexuality, would you consider that extremist?

Nabil Ahmed: We had a speaker last week at one of our events. He noted the importance of respect for homosexuals. That is what our speakers are actually speaking about. That was just a few days ago. Radical ideas, again. Let us step away from the myths and into reality.

Q257 Mr Winnick: We can have respect for homosexuals, heterosexuals, all kinds of sexuals. The point is that if someone came along and said, unlike the speaker you mentioned, that those who engaged in adultery or homosexuality-to repeat myself-should be stoned to death in a perfect Islamic society, would you consider that to be extremist?

Nabil Ahmed: I consider that that is not really relevant to our work today and something that needs to be challenged and criticised.

Q258 Mr Winnick: Yes or no?

Chair: Mr Ahmed, please answer Mr Winnick’s question.

Nabil Ahmed: Personally I consider that an extreme view relating to Britain today. It is an idea that needs to be discussed and challenged, as with anything. I ask the Committee again really to look at the questions it is asking, and turn to the reality of campuses. This sort of rhetoric and discussion does not actually engage and reflect the realities on the ground in campuses.

Q259 Mr Winnick: That is your opinion. One other question if I may. Say someone comes along-and they may have done-and says that the systematic extermination of millions of people due to their racial origin during the Second World War, the holocaust, is a lie, a hoax, a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world and so on, would you consider that to be extremist?

Nabil Ahmed: Yes, I consider that not only to be extreme but hurtful to my Jewish brothers and sisters. It was not only Jews who were targeted during the world wars; there were Muslims and many others. Let’s remember that. Again, I ask the Committee to turn to the reality. Some of this rhetoric is distinctly unhelpful. This is why I ask the Committee to ensure-

Q260 Mr Winnick: What rhetoric? Those who argue of holocaust denial-you are saying that is unhelpful?

Nabil Ahmed: I think it is unhelpful and needs to be debated and challenged. Of course it does.

Chair: I can assure you the Committee is engaging with students on campuses. We have a conference at De Montfort University on 13 December. I hope you and colleagues will come and participate in that engagement. We are not just holding sessions in Westminster.

Q261 Mr Clappison: A quick question: can I clarify what you said a moment ago regarding gay people? If you heard somebody advocating extremist views of intolerance, including violence, against gay people, you would condemn that. Yes or no?

Nabil Ahmed: The law is very clear on these issues and we stick to the law, of course. Violence against homosexuals? It seems such an obvious question, that violence against homosexuals is something that should be condemned. Of course, that is against the law. Incitement to hatred and incitement to violence?

Chair: Order. We can only have one person asking the question and one person answering at a time.

Q262 Mr Clappison: You would condemn that yourself, yes or no?

Nabil Ahmed: Yes. Incitement to hatred or violence against any group is against the law. Of course, it should not only be condemned, but be a matter for referral to the police. It is such a simple thing.

Q263 Lorraine Fullbrook: I would like to ask Professor Petts about the Prevent strategy and how it should be put into action in the university sector. The National Union of Students has argued that there is insufficient guidance available to universities to enable them to work alongside Government to mitigate the threat of radicalisation. Would you agree with that? What specific information would be useful and in what form?

Professor Petts: Prevent is a very important strategy. We are particularly pleased with the revised version, which has removed what we felt was an unhelpful specific reference to Muslims in the original version. The current version of Prevent focuses on the regional agenda and looks at sharing best practice and guidance, and is very helpful. I know from a survey undertaken by Universities UK that the vast majority of institutions has signed up wholeheartedly to the Prevent strategy. It is also important because it encourages universities to engage with their communities, the police and the security authorities. That engagement is how we collectively understand and evaluate a threat. The Prevent agenda has re-catalysed universities’ contributions to seeking practical solutions to these real problems.

Chair: Mr Ahmed, as briefly as you can.

Nabil Ahmed: As final comments, I would say the following: yes, the approach needs to move forward in taking the issue of campus extremism seriously, but based on evidence and firm research, which does not exist at the moment. I ask the Committee to consider that engagement with Muslim students on the ground should happen and should not be ignored or criticised, because that sends out a distinctly unhelpful message. Research projects should be considered, but you should also consider the great work, despite all the challenges, that Muslim students continue to do on the ground, whether it is raising hundreds of thousands of pounds in charitable work, better careers and so much more. You are all very welcome to any of our events as first-hand witnesses.

Chair: We all have a constituency interest. We all have Muslims within our constituencies, including Muslim students, so we are all able to engage on this, especially Nicola Blackwood, who must have a lot of students in Oxford.

Q264 Nicola Blackwood: Professor Petts, it is good to hear Universities UK welcoming the role of universities in Prevent and in combating the threat of radicalisation at universities, but there was initially some concern about the practicalities of how this would work. Could you give the Committee some idea of how you think this might work in practice? In particular I wonder whether it would be tutors, pastoral staff or administrative staff. Who would be engaged in making sure that the oversight is working properly? What kind of guidance are you thinking about providing to universities on how to implement some of the proposals in Prevent?

Professor Petts: Recognising the time, I will give you a few quick bullet points.

The regional agenda is the key. Universities UK is made up of a large number of organisations of different size, shape and location, and they each require a different answer to your particular question. In my own institution, we have a team of four individuals who are responsible for ensuring that we have the right protocols in place, that staff are aware of those protocols and that students are aware of those protocols through the student charter, which explains to students their responsibilities to each other and the staff’s responsibilities to them. It is very much a personal development process framed around clear guidelines through these protocols.

Q265 Dr Huppert: There were some comments on the improvements to the Prevent strategy. Would either of you want further changes to the Prevent strategy? If so, what exactly would be on your wish list?

Professor Petts: The current Prevent strategy is relatively new. We are engaging with all academic institutions, communities outside our institutions, the police and other authorities. There is a lot of learning to do, and Universities UK is ensuring that there are appropriate forums for the universities to get together to learn from each other. We have a long way to go, but I have been very impressed by the commitment of my colleagues to this agenda.

Nabil Ahmed: I present the same thoughts to you as I did to the Home Office when I met them on this security issue.

My brief five-point plan is as follows. First, there needs to be serious evidence-based research on this issue-cancelling research will not help. Secondly, freedom of expression is crucial to challenging ideas on campus and it must be upheld. Thirdly, groups such as Islamic societies are, and have been shown to be, part of the solution to building a definitive mainstream on campus that challenges ideas. Fourthly, we have the law, which must be upheld and stuck to-that is our line. Finally, engage with Muslim students and all students, their societies and democratic representatives on the ground. We need to view Muslim students like all students, not through the lens of security. Dame Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5, said that there has been this politicisation of our national security discourse. I think that that has very much fed into this discourse here today. Let’s view students as human beings who wake up in the morning, want to go to their lectures, want better careers and so forth, not through the lens of security, because I think that this all together will provide us with a more definitive, accurate and effective means of challenging extremism.

Chair: Thank you, Mr Ahmed. I assure you that we on this Committee do treat students as human beings. Some of us have children who are students and therefore we are well aware of what students have to go through. I also assure you that we are going to De Montfort university on 13 December. We would like to see as many universities and as many students there as possible to engage with the Committee in our report. We will not be publishing our report until we have got the widest possible view. If there is anything that you have missed out today that you feel will be helpful to the Committee, please write to the Committee and we will follow it up.

We are most grateful to both of you for coming here and for giving us your views on this very important issue. Thank you very much.

Nabil Ahmed: Thank you.

Professor Petts: Thank you.

Prepared 16th November 2011