Cambridge Backs

British Universities are not hotbeds of Islamic radicalism, despite fears about the rise of "campus extremism", a new study has found.

Although a minority have extreme political views, most are concerned about human rights and social democracy.

Dr June Edmunds

The Cambridge University report argues that the majority of young British Muslims are opposed to political Islam, and more likely to join Amnesty International than al-Qaeda.

Earlier this year, the Government issued guidelines for university staff on how to combat the threat of violent extremists targeting university campuses as potential breeding grounds for new recruits.

The new study, however, which was based on detailed interviews with students in London, Cambridge and Bradford, found little evidence of any threat, suggesting that such fears have been exaggerated.

Instead, the report describes young Muslims as better integrated into British society than their parents, with a stronger sense of national identity.

Many, it argues, are hostile to political Islam and concerned about human rights, particularly in Muslim countries. Their disenchantment with the British Government often stems from its alignment with regimes such as Turkey, Egypt or (until recently) Pakistan, which oppose political Islam but are nevertheless regarded as oppressive.

Researchers also found that young Muslims view restrictions on the expression of their religious identity, for instance the wearing of the hijab, as an abuse of human rights rather than as obstructing a wider, political Islamic cause.

"The findings show that the young Muslims best-equipped to lead radical opposition to western society are also among the least inclined to do so," Dr June Edmunds, from the University of Cambridge's Development Studies Committee, said.

"Although a minority have extreme political views, most are concerned about human rights and social democracy. The UK in particular now hosts a new generation of Muslims who are more confident of their national identity and more politically-engaged than their parents."

The study was based on interviews with Muslim students at Cambridge University, the London School of Economics and the University of Bradford. Several publications targeting young, professional British Muslims and South Asians were also analysed.

It found that while Muslim students in the West are often regarded as prime targets for extremists seeking young, impressionable and educated recruits; many in fact have a stronger sense of civic responsibility and British identity than their elders.

More than half described themselves as British, and 91% either as British or "British-hyphenated" - for instance, British-Pakistani. Most were members of student Islamic organisations, but these tended to be moderate groups without international links. Their most commonly-listed favourite websites were BBC News and the online editions of The Guardian and The Independent, rather than religious sites.

Whereas the lives of many first- and second-generation Muslims revolve around the family and the local mosque, younger Muslims also revealed themselves to be better-disposed to contribute directly to British society and culture.

Few of the participants in the study were members of political parties, but the vast majority voted and many had attended anti-war rallies. The study also suggests that their links with ancestral "home" countries are weakening, and that their political interests are more global than those of previous generations.

Most participants preferred to dissociate themselves from radical Islamist politics. Many, for example, opposed the introduction of Shari'a Law in Britain on the grounds that "you have to abide by the laws of the country".

When asked in the interviews to prioritise a list of issues, human rights was consistently placed at the top. The study quotes one respondent as arguing: "When I look at the world, I don't look at the world like a Muslim, I look at it as a human being… My Muslim identity is what gives me these human concerns."

For that reason, the report suggests that many young Muslims feel alienated by western governments' efforts to support anti-democratic regimes which oppose Political Islam, and by their own governments' apparent breaches of human rights.

A number of the students interviewed said they had been disheartened, for instance, by Britain's ongoing support for the former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf (finally withdrawn in 2007), whom they regarded as an undemocratic dictator.

Interviewees also cited the wearing of the hijab as a human rights issue. The report adds: "Attempts to ban the hijab were perceived as incompatible with western and in particular British commitment to freedom of speech and multicultural practices, and a European commitment to values of freedom, choice and individuality."

"The overall picture is of a new, settled generation of young Muslims whose interests and needs differ from those of the previous, immigrant generation," Dr Edmunds said.

"If there is a conflict here, it is between the UK government's promotion of multiculturalism at home and its acquiescence with authoritarian opponents of political Islam abroad. Western Muslims could come to play a crucial role in helping to change attitudes to the more turbulent nations that their parents left behind."

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