Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Ban Islamist speakers to prevent spread of extremism, goverment urges universities

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The government will today recommend that violent Islamist speakers should be banned from speaking on university campuses, while suggesting that the struggle against extremism should not be allowed to stifle free debate among students.

In updating existing guidelines on tackling extremism, the government seems keen to state that it does not wish to ban open debate around the issues of Islamism and terrorism. The higher education minister Bill Rammell, while acknowledging that campus extremism is a "serious but not widespread" problem, stressed that "It is legitimate and permissible for people to research the origins of violent extremism, even in some circumstances to say that actually we can understand how that leads people to certain courses of action. But I think it is very clear when you look at ... the views they articulate, there is a line at which you move from analysis an understanding towards outright advocacy of violent extremism."

And it's this that the government seem less willing to compromise on. It has reiterated its view that extremist speakers should be banned from campuses, and has even recommended that universities should share information with each other on speakers who may pose a risk. It has also repeated the suggestion that tutors should monitor their students for signs of extremism and report them to the police if necessary - something that lecturers' unions have said would be tantamount to spying on students.

The new guidelines also advise universities to think twice before providing separate prayer and washing facilities for Muslim students in order to prevent the spread of extremist views in a segregated environment.

We reported on the issue of Islamism on campus back in our September/October 2007 issue, and at that time concluded that it is essential that free debate is allowed to flourish among university students. While university tutors will welcome the government's commitment to this in today's updated guidelines, it seems that the controversy over suggestions that staff should "spy" on students is likely to continue.

The updated guidelines mark another stage in the government's reassessment of its strategy for dealing Islamist extremism. As Dave Rich reports in the current issue of New Humanist, since 2006 the government reduced its dealings with the Muslim Council of Britain and looked for alternative ways of engaging with British Muslims. As you'll see from Rich's article, it seems they're finally getting things right in this area.