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Abdulmutallab – His Radicalism is his College’s Fault

Riot police all look the same.The Daily Telegraph’s broadside against University College London for failing to root out "radicalism" would not please its radical godfather, Jeremy Bentham. The Telegraph has rediscovered an old saw from forty years ago, when Ronald Reagan was governor of California. It blames UCL for failing to stop alleged airline bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from becoming a dangerous radical. It had nothing to do with government actions or failures of routine law enforcement. Now move along.

The right never misses a beat trying to dumb down the populace, alienate it from educated elites, grab civil rights or enforce censorship. This example from the UK is likely to visit your high school, college and university in the near future.

The Detroit airline bombing suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, went to college at prestigious University College London, where he was president of its Islamic Students Society. UCL is consistently ranked among Britain’s top five universities and last year was considered one of the global top five. Which puts Abdulmutallab among Britain’s brightest, most ambitious, and foreign students.

Since its founding two hundred years ago as a counterweight to England’s stoutly upper class, church-affiliated ancient universities at Oxford and Cambridge, UCL has striven to be a classless institution that prized excellence over religious affiliation or political views. It is not considered among the University of London’s most liberal or "foreign" constituent colleges. At one time, the London School of Economics and the School of Oriental and African Studies vied for those honors. It is mainstream, if non-conforming.

The Daily Telegraph, on the other hand, vies with the Times of London as the mainstream British press’ most rightwing paper. (One reason it is colloquially known as the Torygraph). The Telegraph’s "chief reporter", Gordon Rayner, has a front page article today claiming that UCL was irresponsible in not shutting up Abdulmutallab years ago, before or as he was "being radicalized".

Anthony Glees, professor of security and intelligence studies at the University of Buckingham, said UCL had no excuse for failing to root out extremism on campus.

He said: “I believe Abdulmutallab’s radicalisation from being a devoted Muslim to a suicide bomber took place in the UK and I believe al-Qaeda recruited him in London. Universities and colleges like UCL have got to realise that you don’t get suicide bombers unless they have first been radicalised….

“All British universities must look at their Islamic Societies and demand assurances that no radicalisation will be allowed. If they can’t give those assurances, they should be disbanded.”

The Telegraph and Rayner’s hyperbole is reminiscent of Fox Noise and Minority Report. In its defense, UCL says that Abdulmutallab, as a student from 2005-08, “never gave his tutors any cause for concern”.

It is not a university’s job to police student radicalism before it becomes violent behavior. It is not Western society’s job either. University is where young minds first wrestle with their adulthood and adult themes in depth. Reality, sexuality, intellectuality, awareness, study and research, and often prejudice meet head on. London’s universities have excelled at teaching students through this maturing process. In particular, they have been the educational institutions of choice for generations of top students from around the world, especially from former British colonies.

Mr. Rayner seems to suffer from GWOT fatigue, because he fails to mention circumstances that might have more directly contributed to Abdulmutallab’s "radicalization". Most especially, it occurred during the height of Bush’s GWOT. Had Mr. Rayner skimmed a single blog, Glenn Greenwald’s or Juan Cole’s, for example, he might have become aware of the US and Britain’s multi-front assaults on Islam and oil-rich Islamic states, and of credible evidence that both countries lied themselves into large-scale wars against them. He might also have read about targeted assassinations and the associated, nonchalant killing of innocents (as long as they number less than 30), a radicals’ recruiting tool that is spreading from Afghanistan to Yemen.

Although not too much to ask, Mr. Rayner had other research in mind. He skimmed news reports to find that three other London students had also committed terrorist acts in the last five years. I’m surprised he didn’t look further back and include Cambridge and the Inns of Court, where Gandhi was a student and student barrister. Had he counted "counter-revolutionaries" trained by the CIA or communist spies trained at Oxford and Cambridge, his list of radicals would have been longer.

None of this is to excuse Abdulmutallab’s alleged attempt to kill himself and his fellow passengers. But blaming universities for not fulfilling their proper Orwellian role as thought police – coupled with his studied ignorance of more obvious causes of radicalization – is foolish and dangerous. Expect Newt, the Beck and Lucky Limbaugh to peddle Rayner’s argument soon.

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