Britain’s top universities are fertile ground for hate speech, says a think tank that ranks SOAS as the top venue for extremist lectures.
Universities in the UK hosted more than 100 events featuring an extremist speaker last year despite official claims that most higher education establishments were following rules on tackling campus radicalisation, according to a new thinktank report.
The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London hosted the most events featuring extremist speakers or groups with 14, according to the report by the right-leaning think tank the Henry Jackson Society.
It also found that the six most prolific speakers accounted for more than half of the events identified as extremist by the organisation.
The most regular speaker was Hamza Tzortzis who appeared at 14 events in the 2016/17 academic year. He has called for an Islamic state and has previously stated: “We as Muslims reject the idea of freedom of speech, and even the idea of freedom,” according to the report.
He has apologised on his website for a statement that he made that “beheading is painless” which he said was made under pressure during an on-line video blog. “It was a ridiculous, immature and irresponsible statement to make,” he wrote.
Mr Tzortzis said on Friday that the Henry Jackson Society report was flawed and said that he spoke out against all forms of extremism.
“My work has a track record for promoting tolerance, compassion and respect. A few comments that where made around a decade ago have been clarified, retracted and explained on my website,” he told the National in a statement.
The charity he works for has “a robust extremism policy which involves educating staff and volunteers on the dangers of extremism and how to prevent it.”
Another of the prolific speakers identified, Adnan Rashid, was a senior member of the Hittin Institute, which the report claimed hosted Anwar Al-Awlaki in 2009, the senior al-Qaeda operative who became the first American to be killed in a drone strike.
The thinktank claimed that its findings suggested that the presence of extremist preachers on campus remained a current issue of concern despite government initiatives to prevent vulnerable students being drawn into terrorism.
Universities have been ordered by the government to introduce “robust policies” to identify and mitigate the risks posed by extremist speakers.
It does not amount to a ban on extremist views but rules include ensuring that speakers with controversial views are challenged by others on the same platform.
The measures followed a series of reports that suggested universities and student societies had been linked to the radicalisation of young Britons who later become involved in terrorist acts. They included Mohammed Emwazi, who featured as an execution in ISIL videos before he was killed in a drone strike, who is suspected to have been radicalised to some degree while at university in London.
Richard Black, the report’s author, said: “In most instances, these events have been unbalanced in nature, meaning that speakers are disseminating their views without being challenged.
“Only a joint effort by university staff, students, event organisers and practitioners from across civil society will ensure that extremism is challenged robustly.”
Paula Sanderson, registrar at SOAS, said that no police or officials raised concerns about the events identified by HJS as featuring extremist speakers.
“We take our duty of care to our community and our legal obligations very seriously,” she said in a statement. “At SOAS we believe that it is only through freedom of debate and robust discussion that universities can work to address some of the most complex and challenging issues facing the world today.”
The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) reported in August that 95 percent of more than 300 universities and higher education centres were following government rules on tackling campus radicalisation.
The body said that the duty of universities was not to cancel events or close down debate but to manage the risk. It was not its role “to judge whether a given event or speaker is extremist in nature or not, but to check that institutions have effective policies and procedures in place as required by the Prevent duty,” the HEFCE said in a statement.