Shortly after he tried to bring down flight 253 to Detroit on Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab became the fourth former head of a British university Islamic Society (ISOC) to have been charged with a serious terrorism offense. This is only the tip of the problem. Shaming as it is, during his time studying at University College London (UCL), Abdulmutallab was in the most conducive environment an Islamic extremist could inhabit outside Waziristan.
It is a situation that has come about despite repeated warnings. And I should know, because I've been one of the people trying to do the warning.
The results are often surreal. Just before Christmas, the al Qaeda preacher Anwar al-Awlaki was the subject of an airstrike on his Yemen home that killed many al Qaeda operatives. Only last April my organization was trying to explain to London's City University why he was not a suitable person to address, by video-link, their Islamic Society. Despite already having been known to be spiritual mentor to two of the 9/11 hijackers, he has been advertised as the "distinguished guest" speaker at the U.K.'s Federation of Student Islamic Societies' (FOSIS) annual dinner in 2003, and at Westminster University in 2006. Awlaki is now thought to be the connection between Abdumutallab and the people who gave him the bomb with which he intended to bring down the Detroit flight.
A year and a half ago the think tank I head in London released "Islam on Campus." The reasons for commissioning the report struck me as obvious: The list of Muslim students from the U.K. who had become active in Islamist terrorism was substantial and growing.
It was a graduate of the London School of Economics who kidnapped and beheaded Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002. It was two undergraduates from Kings College London who carried out a suicide bombing in a bar in Tel Aviv the following year.
But as the list of British students turning to terrorism grew, so did the denial that there was anything wrong.
Our report, published in the summer of 2008, uncovered routine extremist preaching on U.K. campuses as well as the propagation of extremist texts. In conjunction with the polling company YouGov, we also carried out and published what remains the only major survey to date of Muslim student opinions in the U.K. The results were deeply disturbing.
The poll showed that one in three Muslim students believed that killing in the name of their religion could be justified. That figure almost doubled to 60% among respondents who were active members of their universities' ISOCs. Other results included the discovery that 40% of Muslim students polled supported the introduction of sharia law into British law, and that 58% of students active in their ISOC supported the idea of the introduction of a worldwide Caliphate.
These horrifying opinions rightly shocked the newspaper-reading public. But the response from government and the university authorities was not to tackle the problem, but rather to attack the messengers.
FOSIS, which had been heavily criticized in the report, "rejected the conclusions utterly." The National Union of Students followed suit.
Then Higher Education minister, Bill Rammell, entered the debate - and studiously stepped onto the wrong side. Mr. Rammell congratulated FOSIS and the National Union of Students, expressing himself "pleased at the speed with which [they] have dismissed the findings." I hope those words don't come back to haunt him.
Mr. Rammell's reaction epitomizes the problem. University authorities and the government would rather ignore the embarrassment than tackle it. And when they do address it, it is almost always to attack those shouting "fire" rather than those working to start one. Last year during Israel's operation in Gaza, I was due to chair a debate at the London School of Economics on Islam and democracy. Radical students already holding an "occupation" on campus apparently threatened violence if I - known to be a critic of radical Islam and a friend of Israel - was to appear. The result was that the university authorities asked me to stay away from campus, saying they could not ensure my security or that of the audience.
As I enjoyed a quiet evening in, the irony of the situation was not lost. Every month in Britain extremist Islamic speakers preach a message of intolerance and hatred at the invitation of Islamic societies. It is one of the reasons people like Abdulmutallab are so often created and nurtured here in Britain.
Only last month I wrote to the president of Abdulmutallab's former university at the University College of London, asking why he had, for the second time in a year, allowed a speaking invitation to go out to Abu Usama adh Dhahabee. Dhahabee's views include that women are mentally deficient, and that apostates from Islam, as well as homosexuals, should be killed. He also teaches where and when to carry out violent jihad. His invitation to UCL was rescinded only after heavy pressure from campaign groups. Last February my organization stepped in twice to prevent Hamas adviser and advocate Azzam Tamimi addressing UCL students on campus. In an interview with the BBC, Tamimi famously said that if he had the opportunity to become a suicide bomber "for Palestine . . . I would do it."
Such poison has spread throughout our universities. It means students at a vulnerable stage of their development are routinely subjected to views that most people, including many British Muslims, would find hair-raising. On campus, such views are normalized and excused.
Just weeks before the attempted massacre on Christmas Day, FOSIS spokesman Qasim Rafiq, who succeeded the Detroit bomber as president of the UCL's ISOC, said "There is no substantial evidence to suggest extremism is prevalent on any U.K. campus." It is a line that many people would like to hear. But it is also a lie.
That lie has once again been exposed. But it must also be dealt with. That means both dealing with the extremists, and dealing with all those who, through ignorance, malice, or fear, have become the assistant idiots of Islamist terrorism, enabling the radicalization and recruitment of a generation. Even now the president of UCL is trying to divert attention by accusing his critics of "Islamophobia." It strikes me that our ivory towers, like our Parliament, are more than overdue for a clear-out.
Gerardo Joffe, President