If Theresa May is in the running to be the next leader of the Conservative Party, as no less an authority than David Cameron believes, she will have to avoid missteps like the latest one over universities and free speech. Mrs. May had wanted to order universities to vet all outside speakers for extremist views; student unions would have had to tell the authorities who was coming in advance. That struck the House of Lords, the Liberal Democrats and several Conservative ministers as intolerably illiberal, and the home secretary backed down. Yet she has a point.
Islamic societies, which emerged in the 1960s, have long had links to conservative and political forms of the religion. The Federation of Student Islamic Societies, an umbrella organisation, once had close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. In the 1980s and 1990s the Saudis lavished money on university groups, says Parveen Akhtar, a sociologist at Bradford University, imbuing many with a strong flavour of salafism, a fundamentalist strain of Islam. Islamist groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir have always had student outfits in their sights.
Britain seems to be unusual. In Germany, for example, home-grown terrorists tend to come from troubled backgrounds (they often have prior criminal convictions) and few have gone to university. But that does not necessarily mean that British universities are causing radicalisation. One possible reason lots of British Muslim zealots have gone to university is simply that lots of British Muslims go to university. The country is peculiarly successful at educating immigrants and the children of immigrants, points out Jytte Klausen, a political scientist at Brandeis University.
In any case, Mrs May’s abandoned policy would not have tackled radicalisation at its root. Those who invite radical preachers have already been convinced. And Islamist lectures are widely available online, even if their disseminators are banned from giving them in person.