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“This is not a university with a one-track mind, it is one that says all opinions are valid and all should be discussed …”

That’s a significant part of the problem right there, isn’t it? If the question is How does a university suddenly break into the global limelight for having graduated Jihadi John and sponsored Haitham al-Haddad? part of the answer lies in the fact that the Westminster University student I quote in my headline believes he’s saying something good about his school when he tells us it’s a place that believes all opinions are valid. He’s boasting.

Presumably not everyone at Westminster University thinks it’s valid to opine that homosexuals should be slaughtered like pigs, or that women whose clitorises are still attached to them are apostates. Probably some people at Westminster can think of yet other invalid opinions, opinions that reflective institutions like universities shouldn’t spend time discussing. The Holocaust never happened. The Earth is flat. The Bush administration planned and carried out 9/11. All non-Islamic artifacts must be destroyed.

To be sure, reflective people should be interested in the phenomenon of large numbers of people believing things like this. The more we know about cruelty, fanaticism, conspiratorial thinking, and the failure of any element of the empirical tradition of thought to take hold, the better off we are.

A university graduating people unable to make basic distinctions between valid and invalid beliefs creates a safe space for fanatics. This is what Westminster University appears to have accomplished.


Joseph Weissman:

… Emwazi studied in an environment where his sympathies for jihadi terror were considered “the norm”, and therefore unremarkable; praiseworthy, even. Here, his perverse ideas could be nurtured by his surroundings, rather than flagged up as a concern…

In 2006 at the University of Westminster, the ISOC Annual Dinner from that year featured the Al Qaeda recruiter, Anwar Al Awlaki. It also featured hate preachers Murtaza Khan and Haitham Al Haddad – both of whom support Islamic terrorists killing those deemed “apostates”.

… [Jihadi John] walked into a university which had welcomed hate preachers dreaming of an Islamic State.

… [T]here will be a brief flurry of media interest in how Emwazi attended a university which hosted a leading Al Qaeda recruiter just before he joined, and in university extremism in general. When that dies down, [Haitham] Haddad’s invitation to the University of Westminster may well be restored, and we will all go back to ignoring Islamist extremism on-campus, because it takes too much effort to solve, and it’s too awkward to talk about in polite company.


Avinash Tharoor:

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 considerably more prevalent within the institution.

The only thing shocking here is the instructor’s failure to challenge the student. Totally irresponsible; and, for students like the Westminster graduate writing this opinion piece, totally demoralizing.

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.

Margaret Soltan, February 27, 2015 11:47AM
Posted in: democracy

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5 Responses to ““This is not a university with a one-track mind, it is one that says all opinions are valid and all should be discussed …””

  1. david foster Says:

    Note that immediately after saying that all opinions are valid, he says:

    “Universities have their place to play in halting radicalisation, but they are not the source problem; the source problem is our continuing marginalisation of groups of our society and the racism that can still exist in our national institutions”

    …the quoted text apparently being in his view the *only* opinion that is valid in explaining this kind of radicalization.

  2. Greg Says:

    The set of problems, of which the University of Westminster has become the emblem on these pages, is both simple and complex. At the simplest level, if nothing is factually or morally untrue, then nothing can be true as well. Truth, as a means, is necessary to getting things done (e.g one needs to know the true force of gravity on earth to accomplish certain things – say design a parachute) and, considering some truths as ends, reflective people feel a need to know what is morally good and what is not.

    What is complex is the positive value we often assign, as part of modern liberalism, to the tolerance of beliefs and practices we think wrong. Ultimately no one is willing to compromise core values except partially as a way to advance them. Perhaps that’s by definition. Hence, ultimately, I cannot condone female genital mutilation as simply a cultural difference. It conflicts with my views about gender equality and perhaps, beyond gender, about what is owed to humans as humans. What I think toleration must mean is to consider, and to periodically reconsider, what seem our fundamental values. When a reasonable* reconsideration leaves us with the same strong views, then we need to act strongly on them. That is the best we can do with truth and toleration.

    Deciding how to reconsider and test is, among other, a moral art, not easily reduced to a simple formula.

  3. Colin Says:

    It would have been a very brave instructor who challenged the student in Tharoor’s example. A charge of bias or bigotry would have shortly followed, with dangerous consequences for even a senior professor, let alone an instructor. In my own UK university, our students are explicitly asked on their feedback surveys if they have ever been made “uncomfortable” on the basis of race, gender, religion, culture etc. There is a whole process to follow if even one says they were. And we’re a vastly more serious outfit than Westminster.

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Terribly depressing, Colin.

    Yet I have difficulty believing that a professor who responded to the student by saying, for instance, to her and to the class, “What does it mean to say that one does not believe in democracy?” would find herself in trouble.

  5. Colin Says:

    If it was in response to a statement that began “As a Muslim…”? Maybe, maybe not. Much safer to keep clear. That’s true in universities, and it’s true in police departments, and in child services. Google “Rotherham child abuse scandal”. We live in depressing times.

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