UK College Lecturers See 'Witch Hunt' Against Muslim Students

By Kevin McCandless | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

London ( - The largest union representing British university lecturers on Wednesday condemned what it called a government "witch hunt" against Muslim students.

Meeting in Bournemouth, delegates at the annual conference of the University and Colleges Union (UCU) voted unanimously to "resist attempts" by the government to make schools step up surveillance of Muslim or other minority students.

The measure stems directly from new guidelines issued by the Department for Education and Skills, urging universities to more vigilant against Muslim extremism.

The guidelines say there is evidence that some students are involved in "violent extremist activity in the name of Islam" but no proof that the problem is widespread.

They also say campuses can prove to be a "recruiting ground" for extremists and that schools should balance the need for keeping them out on one hand with preserving civil liberties on the other.

The guidelines recommend that schools watch out for extremist literature being distributed and radical speakers being invited to campus. Appropriate "reporting mechanisms" should be put in place for staff and students to contact the authorities about any concerns they may have.

Some lecturers at the union meeting said that while they would always report any suspicious behavior, the new guidelines were "overkill" and would result in more fear and prejudice against Muslim students.

After the vote, UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt said lecturers want to teach and not take on the role of the police.

"Universities must remain safe spaces for lecturers and students to discuss and debate all sorts of ideas, including those that some people may consider challenging, offensive and even extreme," she said.

In response, Minister for Higher Education Bill Rammell said the guidelines were designed to help schools deal with violent extremism on campus and protect vulnerable students from bullying.

The National Union of Students has already condemned the guidelines and on Wednesday another group, the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS), welcomed the vote.

FOSIS spokesman Faisal Hanjra told Cybercast News Service he rejected the notion that colleges are a hotbed of extremism.

While he said he wouldn't go as far as to characterize the guidelines as a witch hunt, they would make life more difficult for the average Muslim student, who's already worried about being watched by intelligence agencies.

"The average Muslim student is concerned about being watched by MI5," he said. "They're concerned about being watched by the [police] Special Branch.. They're concerned about just being Muslim and at university."

However, the head of the British Muslim Forum (BMF), an umbrella group representing more than 300 mosques, said on Wednesday that she approved of the guidelines.

BMF chief executive Zareen Roohi Ahmed said in an interview Muslim parents had a right to expect that universities would look after their children at an age when they are susceptible to radical ideas.

She said students should be passionate and challenge injustice wherever they found it, but young men and women were often vulnerable to groups preaching violence.

She noted that, among other examples, at least five of the British Muslims suspected of involvement in the July 2005 terrorist attacks on London had become radicalized while at university.

Ahmed also recounted that her own niece had entered a university in London as a normal student and had later emerged as someone holding extremist views.

"I don't think educators should be shirking their responsibly," she said. "It's not just about teaching a curriculum."

In another recent development, it was reported last month that the British government would start vetting graduate students coming into the country from foreign nations outside the European Union -- if they were studying potentially sensitive subjects, including nuclear physics and biological sciences.

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