According to the recent report from the Quilliam Foundation, fundamentalist Muslim students at City University harass and intimidate staff and students. It’s alleged one student leader asserted in a speech that the Islamic state enjoins cutting the hand of the thief, stoning adulterers, throwing homosexuals off mountain tops and killing kafirs.
Why is this news? Having taught once at a university with a Christian foundation and ethos some students complained about ‘aggressive Christianity’. They seemingly had a point on one occasion, for example, a small group of fundamentalist Christians circulated a flyer about those likely to go to hell. It was an impressive list: atheists; Muslims; Buddhists; homosexuals etcetera. It’s tempting to parody the likes of the Quilliam report in the manner of The Daily Mash ‘Report finds fundamentalist Christians want to brutally torture Muslims throughout eternity.’ It’s not news.
One response to people with crackpot Islamist views is that of Nick Cohen who hits the intellectual nail on the edge about this. He accuses academics of being abject in front of fundamentalist unreason and ignoring its consequences, a situation which he thinks encourages extremists such as the infamous UCL graduate, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the ‘Underpants’ bomber.
However Cohen uses a misleading analogy. Lecturers won’t ‘confront illiberal views, he argues, for three reasons; their ignorance about extremist Islamists: their own opposition to Western intervention, and the general negative effects of the assault on civil liberties. Because of this threefold handicap the majority of academics, when faced with Islamic extremists, will not ‘argue against them with the vigour with which they would argue against the white far right because at some level they think the hate is the fault of the west.’
Cohen gets nearer the mark when he says that ‘Vice-chancellors and their staff do not engage in robust debate with extremists and try to show vulnerable students the moral and intellectual virtues of liberalism because they are frightened.’ But the real problem is that they just do not debate, full stop. I agree with Cohen that academics and students and university authorities are to blame for the rise in the influence of not only fundamentalist and odd ball versions or mainstream religious groups but a whole host of other wacky groups, pagans, witches and even a peculiar revival of ‘humanism’ as a ‘belief.’ Nonsense is on the rise everywhere in the academic culture and in some classrooms because it is no longer subject to vigorous debate and criticism. Academics have forgotten that it is their job as academics to constantly put such views and all views under pressure.
Wacky views only gain ground because universities are empty of debate. In an environment of constant critical debate these views would soon be challenged out of existence and these ‘fundamentalist’ students would soon change their views, not least by finding something out about their religion of which they – like the academics Cohen criticises - are usually woefully ignorant. ‘Fundamentalist’ often means no more than ‘student’ that is young, keen, chippy, but ignorant.
It we really want to transform the culture that tolerates ‘fundamentalism’ we have to constantly remind academics that their job requires that they foster and participate in a culture of debate. Academics cannot accept a diminished view of sections of humanity as being incapable of being persuaded by rational discussion. Their job carries the responsibility to allow all views to be heard and to be challenged.
It’s not fear of fundamentalists, but fear of free debate, that stifles the academy.