Radicalisation on campus: why new counter-terror duties for universities will not work

There are no easy ‘tell-tale signs’ of radicalisation. Students via Intellistudies/www.shutterstock.com

The government’s attempts to prevent university students from being drawn into violent extremism and terrorism could backfire. From July 1, there will be new duties placed on universities following changes to the government’s PREVENT programme in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015.

Universities will now be required to provide specialist staff training on radicalisation, carry out risk assessments on the vulnerability of students and have appropriate welfare programmes in place, among other things. While I am acutely aware of the dangers of students being drawn towards extremist ideologies of any persuasion, my concerns are that these new measures will be counter-productive.

One rationale for the new duties is that university staff are uniquely placed to see the changes in the behaviour and outlook of students who have been radicalised. The notion of easily identifiable “changes” have been around for a while, first posited by the then home secretary, John Reid a decade ago. Back then, he was telling Muslim parents about the need to be vigilant in watching their children for the “tell-tale signs” of extremism.

Oft-repeated since, no politician has yet set out exactly what these “tell-tale signs” might be. Neither does the new PREVENT guidance. Unsurprising because in essence, when “changes” or “tell-tale signs” are referred to they are in many ways little more than mere code for becoming “more Muslim”. Whether visual – growing a beard or wearing the niqab for example – or vocal – practising your religion more openly or developing political views about British foreign policy or Palestine for instance – it is the recognition of more Muslim-ness that is problematic.

A number of worrying assumptions underpin this. First, because being “more Muslim” is understood to be a bad thing. This does, however, resonate with the “good Muslim/bad Muslim” quandary that has featured prominently in various political discourses since 9/11.

Second, why is being “more Muslim” seen to be bad? The answer is because it is seen to go against the norm; against who “we” are, hence the recent emphasis on Britishness and British values in the education system. This is a recurrent theme in my research into Islamophobia: Muslims being routinely seen to be a homogenous “Other” – known and understood through various negative stereotypical attributes and characteristics that seek to demarcate “them” from “us”.

Because those stereotypical attributions and characteristics affirm that Muslims are inherently violent, manipulative, anti-Western and supportive of terrorism, it can then be argued as mere “common sense” to not only be suspicious of those who become “more Muslim” but to monitor them as well.

Most worrying is that even before these new duties were put in place, researchers Katherine Brown and Tania Saeed had shown how counter-radicalisation programmes had established universities as spaces for covert policing and surveillance where it is almost impossible for many to reconcile being publicly Muslim with being an “ordinary” student. The new duties have the potential to make the situation even worse.

Greater scrutiny

Universities are also spaces where wider issues about the demonisation of Muslims and Islam can also be seen to be played out. Here at the University of Birmingham, this was all too evident when a spate of Islamophobic graffiti attacks on campus took place in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris.

Islamophobic graffiti on campus. Author provided

Messages such as “Kill Islam before it kills you” and “Islam must die” were sprayed on some of the university’s most prominent buildings. Some people I spoke to dismissed the graffiti out of hand on the basis that it was perpetrated by those from outside the university. Given that similar graffiti continued to be found inside buildings and toilets, such dismissals may have been as optimistic as they were premature. The university reported the graffiti to the West Midlands Police, who told The Conversation that there had been no subsequent arrests and that the investigation was closed, pending any new information.

As one Muslim student at the university responded:

As a Muslim student at the University of Birmingham and a born-and-bred Brummie, am I surprised by these attacks on my community? The short answer: No.

Another wrote:

It’s normal now. But then you can’t ignore it … Every time you come back on to campus, you’re reminded of it … it’s that nagging thought in the back of your head that keeps coming back … do I belong here?

Futile but damaging

As social and urban geographer Arshad Isakjee puts it, approaches to “spot” radicalisation have to date been entirely futile. In spite of the fact that the “tell-tale signs” continue to appear obvious to politicians, they remain elusive to the rest of us.

However, it is the impact of the even greater scrutiny of Muslim students that is most worrying. Given the current situation, the mere perception that Muslim students will now be subjected to even more monitoring and scrutiny – irrespective of the reality – will present even more barriers to Muslims being just “ordinary” students.

And if so, this will have the potential to reinforce the very basis of those extremist narratives that the new duties have been introduced to tackle: that “Islam” and “the West” can never coexist. If, as I predict, Muslims students feel increasingly pressurised, marginalised and excluded as a result of these new duties, then the law is likely to reinforce rather than counter the very same arguments that are used to justify the transition towards being radical and extreme.