Guest-post – The opinions expressed in the article below do not necessarily reflect the view of Quilliam.
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University students are intelligent people. They are free-thinking intellectuals who show incredible promise and will go on to serve this country phenomenally well. Yet there is a troubling picture emerging, as the Islamist extremist narrative is not only appeased, but supported. The National Union of Students (NUS) in April of this year chose to affiliate itself with CAGE, an organisation that posits as an Islamic civil rights group, and then later stating that it would “not work with CAGE in any capacity.” In October 2014, the NUS came under scrutiny for failing to condemn Islamic State. In a statement regarding the issue, an NUS spokesperson claimed that although the NUS doesn’t support the Islamic State, they felt the wording of the motion would “unfairly demonise all Muslims.” In another case, senior NUS officials have shared a platform with the Hamas-sympathiser Azad Ali, a man who said “democracy, if it means that, you know, at the expense of not implementing the Sharia, of course no one agrees with that”.
Despite David Cameron’s impressive speech on the Islamist ideology last week, the reality is that the youth of today are disengaged with the political elite, even though there is improved engagement with politics itself. Given that it is young people that are disproportionately affected by radicalisation; driven by perceived grievances, identity crises, charismatic recruiters, the Islamist ideology and the associated narrative, it is young people therefore who must lead the fight against it. Rather than government leading counter-extremism efforts with the support of young people, it needs to be young people leading with the support of government. I fear the efficacy of our efforts may be restricted with the former and hence we must strive for the latter.
And this is where university students come in. There are three categories that students involved in this discourse fall into. Firstly, the Loud Minority. For too long, the loud minority within the student community has been allowed to dictate their terms of the debate. The NUS bubble gives off the illusion that Islamist organisations which claim to defend Muslim rights are doing just that, but in reality to forward Islamism, politicised Islam, an ideal not all Muslims subscribe to.
This leads to a second category- the Silenced Majority. Those who hold such organisations in contempt, those who do not deem the Islamist ideology to be an acceptable one, are not confident that they actually hold a majoritarian view, as they are made to believe by the Loud Minority that they fall into the minority and are hence intimidated into not confronting it. These students are silenced.
Thirdly and finally, there are the Pessimists. These students recognise the failings and bigotry that is inherent within the Islamist ideology but do not have the willpower to change national student politics and are therefore not motivated to swing the terms of the debate in their favour.
I was in the third group. Not anymore.
A fourth category is being established within this debate. And I call this category the Change Agents. Government has led the counter-extremism effort, with the help of NGO’s such as Quilliam and several others, because there are simply not enough young people leading it. This can change and I believe the process has begun. In Exeter University, our Quilliam Society is the first of its kind and has received nine nominations to be elected to the Committee. Oxford Brookes University is the first university to have a Quilliam Society affiliated to its student union. Something is changing. With other universities set to do the same, this will only embolden the Pessimists and the Silenced Minority. The narrative propagated by the Loud Minority will be met with fierce opposition. This in turn will encourage young moderate Muslims, who I insist are the majority within Islam, to take heart and promote their Islam, an Islam that is compatible with a secular and culturally integrated society. The discourse within the NUS, an organisation which historically has been excellent in promoting liberal ideas, can and will shift in favour of countering extremism.
We must also remember the young people who do not attend university, which amounts to about a half of young people. With progress made at a university level, other liberal groups will emerge among colleges and schools and can really provide an alternative, more attractive liberal narrative to those who are susceptible to radicalisation. This is not an attempt to stifle free speech among those who do not subscribe to liberalism or brainwash young people in liberal norms. But because liberalism is the status quo in the UK, we take it for granted. Therefore, young people need to appreciate this more and be proud of it.
Counter-extremism starts with young people and that requires a big shift in how we do student politics. It requires those who feel silenced or who feel pessimistic, to take hope and start to promote their beliefs a little more. Quilliam Societies emerging within universities is an excellent start and I hope other young people will follow Exeter and Oxford Brookes’ footsteps, and stand in solidarity with similar-minded people and do the same. Defeating extremism is a long-term, generational struggle. But it starts with the youth of today.
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