The Crisis of Islamism in Western Universities – A Case Study

The Crisis of Islamism in Western Universities – A Case Study

by Aurele Tobelem

In 2019, four British universities (SOAS, Coventry, Durham & Lancaster) published a joint 70-page report on Islamophobia and how it presents itself on British campuses. Entitled Islam and Muslims on UK University Campuses: Perceptions and Challenges, the report suggested that even discussing the issue of Islamist radicalisation in a university setting could constitute Islamophobia.

According to the document, concerns about radicalisation on campus and support for the British government’s Prevent duty are “strongly associated with negative views of Islam and Muslims.” The document further criticises existing counter-terrorism programs as discouraging students from “exploring, researching, or teaching about Islam.” The report concluded that there was a “lack of evidence about presumed risk on campus” when it comes to radicalisation.

In a 2021 article criticising the report, writer Rohan Gupta warned: “Universities are a place for critical thinking, and if this is forgotten, the cost will be great.” His predictions have unfortunately proven to be true in a post-October 7th world.

I am the current President of the Israel Society at King’s College London, among the UK’s foremost academic institutions. On 20th March at 6:30pm, we had scheduled an event discussing conflict resolution in the Israeli-Palestinian context. The event was supposed to be held in partnership with Prometheus on Campus, an organisation seeking to promote freedom of discourse and liberal philosophy in universities.

Two experts, Ely Lassman and Kiyah Willis, received invitations to the event. Lassman, the creator of Prometheus on Campus, is a British-Israeli educator who served in the IDF in 2017. Willis is a fellow at the Objective Standards Institute, committed to educating the younger generation about philosophy and associated concepts to enrich life and promote liberty. Both speakers were referred to the Students’ Union a month before the event was scheduled to take place. They had been reviewed and approved as per the Union’s guidelines.

Following our event announcement, we were immediately faced with one of the most deplorable social media campaigns we have ever seen. A pro-Palestine Society at King’s, an organisation whose members have previously been charged with misconduct for intimidation and reputational damage to the university, fiercely protested the event until we were forced to cancel it due to imminent security threats.

They circulated news of the event to prominent Islamists, sent a threatening letter to the Dean and Vice-Chancellor of the university, and launched an online crusade with the sole intent of defaming our ex-IDF speaker, Ely Lassman. The day before the event, An Al Jazeera contributor falsely claimed in a since-deleted tweet that Lassman had been “actively involved in the genocide in Gaza and possibly committed war crimes against Palestinians.”

Lassman subsequently received so many death threats that we were unable to proceed with the event, and he has continued to receive threats from individuals with known jihadist sympathies. The pro-Palestine Society has praised the cancellation as a “victory to the people” on their official Instagram page. The university decided not to act upon any of the students involved for their anti-democratic behaviour. In the aftermath of this fiasco, the UK Committee for Academic Freedom (CAF) have issued their verdict: “Where an invited speaker to a student society receives such a volume of death threats that the society is forced to cancel the event, academic freedom is violated.”

Al Jazeera contributor later admitted that his claims had been fabricated, but insisted that the event was inherently anti-Muslim on account of its ties to the Israeli army. Suppose it is Islamophobic to be engaged in war against Hamas, an organisation with historic ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. In that case, we should expect him to condemn the Islamophobia of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE in their fight against similar groups. Additionally, nobody seems to have reminded Al Jazeera contributor that the number of Muslim Arab volunteers for the IDF has increased in the aftermath of 7th October. These accusations are patently false, provide no context, and make no attempt at nuance. Unfortunately, that seems to be rather standard for most Al Jazeera contributors today.

To the detriment of many, this incident has taught a dangerous lesson to the excitable – and often heavily deluded – young students who currently roam the halls and fill the classrooms of Western institutions. It has taught them that if they defame people they don’t like, threaten higher authorities, and deliberately create a culture of fear, they will get what they want. This is not ‘peaceful’, nor is it ‘protest.’ It is pure brutality, encouraged by external Islamist forces, legitimised by academics, and ignored by administrations.

This was not an outlier, but part of a wider downward spiral in which Islamist rhetoric has become embedded within academic circles. Anyone who condemns or even addresses the associated concerns is faced with accusations of Islamophobia, as recommended by the 2019 report mentioned earlier. It is incredibly insulting to the Muslim faith to suggest that in protecting those with extreme jihadist values, we are protecting the rest of the Muslim community.

This trend’s primary sponsor and beneficiary is invariably the State of Qatar. For over a decade, this Machiavelli of the Middle East has inserted itself into Western institutions through financial means. Senior Hamas leaders have found refuge in Doha’s luxury hotels, while 2 million people in Gaza face a devastating humanitarian crisis. And yet, the Qataris have appointed themselves as the heroic hostage negotiators of the Israel-Hamas war.

Most large-scale studies have focused on Qatari involvement in the United States, but more attention must be drawn to their financing of British academic institutions. In 2014, it was discovered that the university provided advisory services to the Qatari army. King’s College London directly relates to the Qatari Central Bank through their Qatar Centre for Global Banking and Finance established in 2019. Once an academic institution knowingly and enthusiastically enters into a financial agreement with Qatar, it ends up in the unfortunate position of having to acknowledge the directives of the Al Thani family. In effect, they are forced to make excuses for the same Islamist activity which, in its quest to end the West, has brought nothing but chaos and death to the Muslim world.

The violation of academic freedom at King’s has awoken many university administrators to the monster which they have willingly incubated for decades. However, I fear that when governments and institutions finally decide to uproot Qatari-sponsored Islamism in their environments, it will be too little, too late. Instead of drawing valuable lessons from Gulf countries who view the fight against political Islam as a matter of national security, Britain and its allies have for years insisted upon tolerating such madness in the name of diversity and inclusion. In this respect, it is high time the West learned from its Arab neighbours.

Aurele Tobelem the President of KCL Israel and a Youth Advocate for Harif UK.