Douglas Murray and Robin Simcox
The British government’s new counter terrorism strategy, Contest 2, saw the government patting itself on the back for the ‘key achievement’ of promoting the UK as ‘a centre of excellence for Islamic studies outside the Muslim world’. A Degree of Influence, the new Centre for Social Cohesion report, shows that if the British government is relying on Islamic studies to prevent radicalisation of young British Muslims, then we're in trouble. The report looks at the funding of strategically important subjects, including Islamic studies, and uncovers disturbing facts about the state of UK academia.
The way in which UK universities are run is being altered. Following a Â£16 million donation, Prince Alwaleed of Saudi Arabia established two Islamic studies centres at Cambridge and Edinburgh. These institutions have members of their management committees hand-picked by Alwaleed, and regulations at the centres can only be altered subject to his approval. Edinburgh has already made clear that the intention of the Islamic studies centres is to ‘build bridges’ in order to combat ‘ignorance and phobia’ about Islam. But where exactly is academic balance meant to fit in here? What happens to the problematic aspects of Islam that are routinely invoked by Islamic terrorists in order to justify their actions? Will they even be allowed to be discussed? Or will they be ignored because of the lack of bridges they might build? Most importantly, how can the next generation of British leaders hope to be properly educated if universities have decided that their remit now extends to changing the way that one religion - Islam - is perceived?
As A Degree of Influence reveals, censorship is already occurring. An Oxford academic is shown discouraging the discussion of sources of terrorist fundraising at a conference at the university in order to ‘show respect for other Muslims’ beliefs’ and declaring that speakers ought to ‘bear in mind what is appropriate to say in the venue where you might be going beyond what would be comfortable for everyone to hear’. Censorship is not just restricted to academic discussion. A photograph taken by a Saudi artist at an exhibition on Saudi art was taken down at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, after the principal funder decided that it - a picture of a bridge, oddly enough - was offensive to Islam. This photograph has been seen widely in the artist’s homeland, yet clearly what is OK in Saudi is too much for SOAS.
Universities are not only keen on avoiding offending their undemocratic, unelected funders - they actually go as far as glorifying their ‘achievements’. Following a donation to Oxford’s Middle East Centre from an arm of the Saudi government, the university organised a lecture series ‘paying tribute’ to the founder of Saudi Arabia, in which every other year a member of the Saudi government comes to Oxford to extol the virtues of their system. A similar situation has arisen at SOAS. Following a donation from the Iranian government, the university organised an event - in conjunction with an Iranian regime front group based in the UK - in which a member of the Iranian government was invited to address students on the ways in which Ayatollah Khomeini had ‘modernised’ Islamic thought.
It is not just the Middle East that has latched on to the opportunities available by giving generously to UK higher education. The Chinese government has obtained an inordinate amount of control over how China is perceived in the UK via its Confucius Institutes - cultural and language centres attached to ten UK universities. These have been described by the Chinese government as part of their ‘foreign propaganda strategy’ in promoting the image of an ‘intellectual and harmonious’ China and UK universities are falling over themselves trying to acquire such Institutes. All this despite the fact that members of the Chinese government sit on the advisory boards at the centres, and the fact that each university must ‘accept operational guidance’ from Beijing in order to meet the ‘relevant teaching standard’. The ‘relevant teaching standard’ involves a largely biased curriculum with an entirely skewed interpretation of the Tibetan issue, in particular. This is a totalitarian foreign-government propaganda masquerading as academia.
The regimes most keen to fund the UK higher education system are, strangely, those most keen to shut down academic debate in their own countries. China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and their like have shown little stomach for open and critical debate in their own nations and so it is hard to believe that they are suddenly open to the virtues of academic freedom abroad. Do UK University heads actually believe that the Iranian government, which imprisons and tortures its own students, simply wants to extend the hand of cultural understanding to their British peers?
As long as the money keeps coming in, such fundamental questions appear to barely even get asked. The Iranian government recently revealed that it was in talks with British Islamic studies departments - the same ones that the government designated as vital in their counterterrorism policy - in order to ‘train and educate experts on Islam’. This is appalling. It should hardly need pointing out that the Iranian interpretation of Islam isn’t working out all that well for those living under it, and Ahmadinejad and Khamenei's Islam is hardly a kum-bay-yah hug-fest. If it weren’t happening it would be almost impossible to believe that the world’s current largest sponsor of terrorism is now actually funding the institutions that the UK government thinks are part of the means of stopping extremism. It appears that UK higher education is open, not so much to the highest, as to the most degraded bidders.
Douglas Murray is Director of the Centre for Social Cohesion, Robin Simcox is a Research Fellow at CSC and author of 'A Degree of Influence'