Hearts, minds and Mecca

Hearts, minds and Mecca

 WHEN news emerged of the life-story of the Nigerian who tried to blow up a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day, there were cries of bewilderment in some quarters, groans of dismay in others, and shouts of “I told you so” from a small army of Cassandras.Whatever motivated Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to become a terrorist, it was not material deprivation; he came from a rich family. The biographical detail that fascinated many terrorism-watchers was his record as president of the Islamic Society at University College London, where he had studied engineering.

Some found his choice of subject significant. A forthcoming book by Steffen Hertog, a sociologist, will argue that terrorists include a high number of engineers—not because of their need for bomb-making skills, but perhaps because of a mindset that likes rigidity and binary choices.

In the young man’s homeland, meanwhile, people noted that for all their problems—including the existence of rival, armed fraternities known as “cults” but unconnected to faith—Nigerian universities are not known as hotbeds of Islamic extremism. It was apparently the loneliness and confusion of life in Britain that set this student on a path that led to terror.

Long before his bungled effort hit the headlines, the role of Islamic Societies (ISOCs in student jargon) in British colleges—and of similar associations on other Western campuses—was sparking arguments. In 2008 a report and opinion poll from the Centre for Social Cohesion, a right-of-centre think-tank, had argued that these Muslim student associations in Britain needed much more careful watching. They seemed to be acting as incubators for fundamentalist ideas that favoured self-segregation by Muslims, and dreamt of Islamic governance and law. And as the report noted, several young Britons involved in terrorism had a record of ISOC activism; for example, Yassin Nassari, convicted in 2007 of bringing missile plans into Britain, had led one branch of the ISOC at the University of Westminster.

But much of the information cited in the CSC report is uncontentious. At almost every British university, there is an ISOC to which practising Muslim students, seeking soulmates, soon gravitate. The societies’ roles include organising prayer rooms and Friday sermons, and securing halal food. Since it was created in 1962, the leadership of FOSIS has often had some ideological overlap with the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat e-Islami, the Pakistani Islamist party. That does not imply sympathy for al-Qaeda’s campaign of global terror, but it does imply adherence to a version of political Islam.The CSC report triggered an angry response from Britain’s Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) and 52 of its member bodies, calling the study “ideologically biased” and “motivated by…malice”. The current FOSIS president, Faisal Hanjra, responded to the news of Mr Abdulmutallab’s failed attack by insisting that there was “no credible evidence” to suggest that British universities were “arenas of radicalism”.

In their countries of origin, Islamist political movements have long experience of recruiting on campus and of forming small groups which owe something to far-leftist prototypes. In Sudan, for example, veterans of the Brotherhood, which took power in the 1989, retain vivid memories of student activism, with a cell structure that Leon Trotsky would have recognised. Such secrecy is not usually necessary in Western countries, but the memory of working in semi-covert conditions must have an effect on the culture of Islamist movements wherever they function.

In the 1990s another global Islamist movement, Hizb ut-Tahrir—which aspires to a caliphate and eschews electoral democracy—was very active on British campuses. It has since lowered its profile.

At the other end of the Islamic spectrum, Turkish students who find themselves far from home (either in their homeland or in a foreign country, such as Britain) often fall under the influence of the Fethullah Gulen movement, which is impeccably moderate in its political views but encourages Muslims to practise their faith rigorously. With its deep pockets, the movement helps many students with practical problems like accommodation; they are then urged to pray more often.

Among Western countries, Britain stands out as a place where Muslim students (who number about 100,000 or around 5% of the total student population) are visible and self-confident. But all over the world, the increased profile of Islam on campus has created tension, curiosity and unlikely partnerships.

Sohaib Nazeer Sultan, the newly appointed Muslim chaplain at Princeton University, says that neither there, nor at the two other American campuses where he has worked, did any student under his care show signs of real extremism. But theological differences certainly exist, and have to be managed. Some students hew to the mystical, Sufi reading of Islam whereas others prefer the one-size-fits-all version of the faith that emphasises the unity of all Muslims and is highly suspicious of cultural difference between say, South Asians and Egyptians.

If Muslims on campus hang out together, Mr Sultan notes, it is not merely to pray or burnish each other’s faith; they are also looking for a modest social life that does not involve intoxicants. In that quest they often find allies, like Orthodox Jews.

At Canada’s McGill University, controversy has been raging since 2005 when the authorities deprived Muslim students (who now number about 2,000) of a prayer room, on the ground that this was inappropriate for a secular institution. The 600 or so who turn up for Friday prayers made their supplications outdoors for a while, until cold weather forced them from one temporary room to another. Nafay Choudhury, a leader of the Muslim Students Association, says things are much better for his co-religionists at most other Canadian colleges; the McGill Muslims are placing their hopes in an appeal to Quebec’s Human Rights Commission.

Across the Western world, many Muslim students feel defensive. A request for information from Al-Furqan, an association of Muslim students at the University of Amsterdam, whose aims include the improvement of Islam’s image, elicited the following reply: “Thank you for your interest in our student association. However we would like to inform you that we have no interest in answering your inquiry.”