Recent weeks have seen Muslim university groups being scrutinised and challenged for allegedly segregating between genders at on-campus events. Here, Matthew Francis argues that these accusations have too often conflated extreme views and violent action, and have usually been based on an erroneous ‘conveyor belt’ thesis that sees the former as invariably leading to the latter.
A recent report by an anti-extremist group called ‘Student Rights’ highlighted cases of gender segregation by Islamic groups at a number of university campuses around the country. This report was picked up in media reports which made an explicit link between segregation and extremism. The reaction has been furious, and rightly so as the methodology in the original report is clearly biased and barely supports the claim of wide-spread gender segregation, let alone extremism. The report’s authors have been moved to explain that they never made the link between gender segregation and extremism (though they still link to all the media stories from their website and, indeed, state their mission to be highlighting extremism on campuses).
For whatever other reasons that the link was made, gender segregation is seen, by some, as evidence of Islamic extremism. This needs some examination. Gender segregation is not unique to Islam, is not always a problem and where it is practiced religiously need not be evidence of extremism. Education in this country is still, in many places, segregated prior to university level and can still be found within Christianity and Judaism and there is no suggestion that this leads to extremist thought in these cases. In fact, gender segregation, whilst certainly odious and emblematic of power imbalances in some cases, has simply not been shown to lead to extremism.
But what do mean by ‘extremism’? Extreme views about homosexuality, gender equality and the position of former and/or non-believers are all cited as evidence of problematic Islamic views. Of course, examples of the former two can be found in the UK amongst even fairly prominent Christians, but while those views are challenged they are not assumed to lead to potential violence.
And this is where we have to make the distinction. Are we worried about extreme views, or the kind of violence which we have all been shocked to see in Woolwich in the last few weeks? Clearly it is the violence which we should be concerned about, but too often Islamic extreme views and violence are seen at worse as synonymous and at best as necessarily related. The idea of a conveyor belt to radicalisation has been rightly challenged and while ideology plays a role this can equally be found in secular as religious beliefs – amongst a host of other factors.
I think that a little religious literacy could help us all out here. Too often religions (predominantly Islam, but also others) are cast solely in a negative light. Because an awful action is claimed in the name of Allah, Islam is seen as guilty by association. In reality, there is no carbon-copy of Islam that is found inside every Muslim. Beliefs and practices vary from believer to believer in all religions and Islam is no exception. Yet too often people argue from the exceptions and in the process forget the thousands of Muslims who make a positive contribution to campus life right across the country. One programme (disclaimer: I used to work there) encouraged universities to focus on the positive aspects of religion in universities. In doing so it encouraged a better understanding of religion that can engender a much more positive approach to religious difference on campus than the unhelpful scare-tactics found in reports like that from Student Rights. A positive understanding and engagement can help us stop seeing extremism where there is none, and constructively challenge it where there is.
Matthew Francis is a Senior Research Associate on an RCUK Global Uncertainties-funded project investigating ideology, decision-making and uncertainty, based at Lancaster University. He formerly worked at the Religious Literacy Leadership in Higher Education Programme, and is the founding editor of RadicalisationResearch.org, an AHRC-ESRC funded website promoting high-quality academic research about radicalisation and extremism.