Avinash Tharoor is studying for a master’s degree in international public policy at University College London. He’s the editor of the Prohibition Post, a drug policy news site.
Before traveling to Syria and becoming “Jihadi John,” the masked English-speaker who beheads Islamic State captives on video, Mohammed Emwazi graduated with a computer programming degree from the University of Westminster. I studied international relations there, and although I never met Emwazi, I wasn’t surprised he had attended my alma mater.
Despite boasting an inspiring academic staff and vibrant student life, the university has a dark side to its campus culture. The ideological climate feels conducive for radicalization; even though the university never intended this, it seems to be a place where extremism can fester. I don’t know if that climate is what turned Mohammed Emwazi into Jihadi John, but Westminster was probably a factor in his radicalization.
When I enrolled there in 2010, the year after Emwazi graduated, my classmates were from every corner of the world, including Britons from a range of ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds. It was a welcome change from my homogenous secondary school in the London suburbs. And during the three years I spent at the university, I found the academic life to be intellectually stimulating; the teaching staff was insightful and knowledgeable. My first impression was that the university was an example of multiculturalism’s success.
But the longer I spent on campus, the more I noticed strange occurrences and remarks that seemed to fit with an Islamist ideology. Eventually, I realized, these ideas were deeply ingrained at Westminster, allowing individuals to feel comfortable advocating dangerous and discriminatory beliefs.
I recall a seminar discussion about Immanuel Kant’s “democratic peace theory,” in which a student wearing a niqab opposed the idea on the grounds that “as a Muslim, I don’t believe in democracy.” Our instructor seemed astonished but did not question the basis of her argument; he simply moved on. I was perplexed, though. Why attend university if you have such a strict belief system that you are unwilling to consider new ideas? And why hadn’t the instructor challenged her? At the time, I dismissed her statement as one person’s outlandish opinion. Later, I realized that her extreme religious views were prevalent within the institution.
During my second year at the university, our elected student union chose to close the only bar on our central London campus. The ostensible reason for doing so, the representatives argued, was that the establishment was unprofitable. But the closure occurred soon after the British media reported that the vice president of the university’s student union was promoting Hizb ut-Tahrir — an Islamic organization that advocates for the creation of an Islamic caliphate, which would surely outlaw alcohol — on social media. The student union’s president at the time had also used social media for dubious purposes. He posted a video on Facebook in which he performed a rap he’d written titled “Khilafah’s Coming Back,” using the Arabic word for “caliphate” and lyrics that included a derogatory term for non-Muslims. The university’s response to these findings left something to be desired: “If our students have concerns that the actions of fellow students step beyond acceptable behaviour or statutory regulations, then we have appropriate mechanisms in place to deal with these concerns.”
As a vociferous critic of the Israeli government, I have participated in demonstrations and activities supporting Palestine for many years. Yet in a discussion about the conflict, I was horrified to hear a fellow student, supposedly a scholar of international relations and politics, complaining about “the f---ing Jews.” What bothered me even more than such bigoted rhetoric was that the individuals who voiced these extreme positions appeared to do so with impunity.
The entrenched nature of Islamist extremism on campus became most apparent during my final year at Westminster. Gay friends told me of derisive comments they overheard from individuals who made no attempt to hide their flagrant homophobia.
A Christian friend who campaigned to be student union president faced intimidation and harassment regarding his beliefs and his appearance. He has a beard, and supporters of his opponent alleged that he was growing facial hair to trick voters into thinking he was Muslim. A female friend of South Asian ancestry told me how she was intimidated in the university library by a group of men who deemed her a “non-Muslim b----” after she declared her support for my Christian friend.
These are just a few examples of what I believe to be a more widespread phenomenon of religiously motivated intimidation experienced by students at Westminster. Several of my peers — the targets of these comments — filed complaints with the student union, but they were met with indifference and vague assurances that the issue would be dealt with. In my frustration at the time, I wrote an article about this discrimination for our university’s newspaper, but I received no response from the university or the student union.
From my experiences, I believe that the university is unwittingly complicit in perpetuating such radicalization, as it has often allowed Islamist extremism to go unchallenged. I don’t think the university itself is advocating extremism, but by failing to prevent the advocacy of such ideas, the institution is attracting students who are sympathetic to them. Students who do not identify with extreme Islamist ideology are being put at risk of discrimination, intimidation and potentially radicalization by the university’s failure to properly handle the situation.
Before the news broke that Emwazi was a University of Westminster graduate, the institution was already embroiled in controversy. The Islamic Society was set to host a lecture by a homophobic preacher, Haitham al-Haddad, this past Thursday; the speech was postponed because of what the university described as “increased sensitivity and security concerns.”
I hope that the humiliation of having Jihadi John among its alumni leads Westminster to implement big changes to quell extremism. If it does not, I fear for how many new recruits the Islamic State might garner from the graduating class of 2015.