Last week I did what no university lecturer should ever do. I lost my temper in front of a group of students and shouted at them. I might also have used some bad language.
What’s worse, it wasn’t anything they’d done that caused my anger. They were putting together the excellent independent City University London student paper, the Inquirer, and had asked my advice on how to handle a controversial news story.
The week before last, my good friend and City colleague Rosie Waterhouse had a piece published in the Independent in which she argued that Islamist extremism on university campuses is a growing and under-acknowledged threat to liberal academic values. Contentiously, the article called for a ban on campus on the wearing of the niqab, the full-face veil that fundamentalist Muslims believe should be compulsory for women.
This is a stance that is routinely adopted by secularists in France and Turkey, but is less commonly taken in Britain. Whatever, the piece had been vigorously denounced online and several students at City had expressed their disagreement with the call for a campus niqab ban – which made it a perfectly legitimate story on an ongoing row.
The problem was that the key quote the Inquirer team had for their story, from the president of the student Islamic Society at City, Saleh Patel, was blatantly abusive and libellous – both about Waterhouse and about me. He accused us of running a concerted Islamophobic campaign at the university (including inculcating our students into an anti-Muslim conspiracy) and implied that the university’s journalism department should sack us because of our unprofessional conduct.
It’s when I read his comments that I lost it. Both Waterhouse and I have made it clear time and again that we’ve got issues with the City ISoc. We agree that its brand of reactionary Islamism is obnoxious, though we disagree on what should be done about it (I am not a niqab-banner, for what it’s worth). But we have never discriminated against Muslim students in any way, nor would we ever think of doing so. And the only thing we inculcate into our students is the importance of truth and balance in their writing. How dare anyone suggest otherwise?
OK, I shouldn’t have let the red mist descend. The Inquirer team made it clear to me that they weren't going to use the quote – they're a very sussed crew. But it really was the last straw.
For some time now, the leaders of City ISoc have relentlessly pushed a separatist and intolerant version of Islam, repeatedly promoting apologists for terrorist violence and the most reactionary social attitudes. They have consistently and insidiously played the role of victimised innocents in order to gain sympathy, without any solid evidence, to further their cause.
This time last year, the main treat advertised for the ISoc’s annual fundraising dinner was a video link-up with none other than Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-Yemeni preacher who was spiritual mentor to three of the 9/11 suicide-murderers (and a contact of the December 2009 pants bomber to boot).
The university authorities objected and al-Awlaki’s virtual appearance never happened. But was the ISoc deterred? No way. Next up was an ISoc meeting in autumn 2009 addressed by two other reactionary Islamist preachers, Abu Usamah, who is on record stating that gays should be killed, and Murthadah Khan, who is on record describing Jews and Christians as “filthy”. The university Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Society and the campaigner Peter Tatchell objected, saying that the ISoc was whipping up hatred, but the meeting went ahead. At the end of last year, after it was reported that al-Awlaki had been killed by a Yemeni air attack on a meeting of al-Qaida leaders, the ISoc website praised him and the “staunch al-Qaida fighters” targeted by the raid.
After the Inquirer reported all this, entirely factually, various City ISoc supporters posted none-too-veiled threats on the internet against the students working on the paper. The paper’s editor was assailed (anonymously) for being an Islamophobic Sikh, on the basis of her surname – she’s actually an atheist – and was told that she deserved severe and violent divine retribution for her sins.
In the meantime, the ISoc complained that the university’s Muslim prayer room was not safe. In November last year there was a street fight outside it, in the course of which some Muslim students were badly hurt by local youths, though it remains unclear what the fracas was about. (The building where the prayer room was is on to a dimly lit back street and is rarely used by other students in the evening.)
The university’s acting vice-chancellor, Julius Weinberg, responded, entirely reasonably, by setting up new multi-faith prayer and reflection rooms in the main university block where there is 24-hour security and no exit that can be identified as being used only by Muslims.
Some weeks later, after another controversy over an ISoc speaker meeting at which another gay-hating preacher was billed as the star attraction, Weinberg told the ISoc that its speaker meetings – as opposed to prayer meetings – could not continue to be segregated between men and women and would have to be open debates if they were to take place on university premises.
The ISoc’s next step was to assume the role of aggrieved victim. How could anyone have the temerity to suggest that Muslims should share a space (even if use of it were carefully timetabled) with others? Such arrangements are, of course, the norm in most further and higher education institutions – but the ISoc declared that the new set-up was an outrage against the tenets of Islam and started holding Friday prayers outside the university’s main entrance as a protest, to which it invited supporters from every Islamist group in London to boost numbers. (It also held a press conference at which – laughably – no one was permitted to record its representatives’ statements and no unscripted questions from the floor were allowed. I walked out after announcing that I had problems with these restrictions.)
There is no evidence that the Islamic Society at City has been recruiting for terrorist organisations, or that former members have gone on to commit terrorist acts (although the same cannot be said of other student Islamic societies in the UK of a similar ideological bent). But its insistent pleading for special treatment, its consistent policy of inviting the most inflammatory separatist preachers, its repeated smearing of critics and its refusal to discuss its views in an open and civilised fashion are all intolerable in a university.
The university authorities are quite right to insist that the university is a secular institution in which no faith group has privileged status, and quite right to emphasise that events held on its premises must be both genuinely open to all and free of hate-speech. Those are the rules of the game, they’re not open to negotiation – and it is in no sense “Islamophobic” to say so.
I’m still arguing with the Inquirer team about how they handled the story, incidentally. If they’re anybody’s stooges, they’re certainly not mine – which is just as it should be.