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'A safe space to talk about Islam'

Anthea Lipsett previews a new website aimed at Muslim students who want to discuss the religion and its place in university life in a balanced way

Wednesday May 7, 2008,,2278354,00.html

What would you do if a colleague you had recruited was accused of leading a terrorist cell? It's an unlikely scenario, but one that Professor Gwen Griffith-Dickson faced as head of department at Birkbeck College in 2003.

"One morning, while I was on sabbatical but still head of department, there was an article accusing a colleague of being a leader of a Palestinian organisation Islamic Jihad, which was terrifying and he was threatened with extradition. It was in the run up to the Iraq war and it was very scary then," she explains.

The colleague concerned, an Egyptian-born British academic, appeared - entirely falsely as it turned out - on a list of eight "terrorism suspects" drawn up by the US authorities.

"It's a situation where you most need guidance and none existed. I handled it as well as I could but I let the college issue a statement [defending him] in my name and I will forever be connected with this incident with little concern for the truth. I haven't suffered for it, but it's there [on the internet] forever," she says.

Guidance on how to deal with this and several other potentially difficult situations feature on a new website - Campusalam - that launches today.

The online portal has been developed by the Lokahi Foundation in close consultation with scholars and experts in the Muslim community as well as Muslim students, students of other faiths and university staff to ensure that content is factual, balanced and relevant.

"It's for anyone who wants to find out anything about Islam, as much geared for staff and their questions as students and the feel is not conventional," says Griffith-Dickson, speaking to ahead of the website's launch at a debate at University College London tonight.

"We want to encourage students to run their own events. I regard Jeremy Paxman very highly but a lot of us get really frustrated with the type of interview that is very aggressive and emotive. People stop listening within seconds and it doesn't allow them to open up.

"We want to give students a safe space to talk about Islam. It's quite a complex art to tackle people's emotions while keeping their rational faculties engaged.

"Whatever your stance [Islam] is the only thing that really brings people out in a rash, which is why it's particularly vital here to get people to relax, calm down and listen and ask sensible questions so they can get to the bottom of what it is they're trying to say."

The website is, however, aimed mainly at Muslim students. It aims to help them organise their own debates, talks or discussion groups with an emphasis on listening to others rather than trying to provoke a superficial and deliberately aggressive argument.

It offers advice and guidance on managing events on campus well. This is imperative, says Griffith-Dickson, since events can be targeted by extremists, either to shout and have their views heard, or in a more sinister way, to indoctrinate and recruit students.

But the idea is not to neuter all campus events, she explains. "If you can't be controversial when you're 20, when can you be? But there are guidelines on taking risks and thinking laterally and creatively about who they get to speak, rather than having the same old faces."

The approach is on building good relations to create a positive, supportive atmosphere on campus between staff and students, she says.

This is as opposed to government calls last year to monitor students and treat them as the problem, since rescinded, and those made by the recently launched Quilliam Foundation, set up by former Hizb ut-Tahrir extremists.

The website stems from discussions between the police's national community tensions team and the Lokahi foundation, which Griffith-Dickson directs, about Israeli-Palestinian issues on campus and conflict between Jewish and Muslim students.

It is partly government funded but remains "rigorously independent", according to Griffith-Dickson, who insists the organisation would not change any message it puts out to suit ministers.

"It's not about pushing a moderate message or anti-extremist propaganda. It's about opening up debate not trying to shut down certain points of view."

In time, she hopes to run Campusalam events, possibly alongside students, and tap into social networking sites such as Facebook to organise them and spark debate, avoiding the "blaming and nastiness" of some blogs.

"We want to avoid the hate-filled rhetoric and don't want to become known for that kind of discourse. We're not trying to fuel that kind of comment. We're almost coaching people through continuing to engage in what can be a difficult area."

Depending on funding, there is also potential for linked sites for different religions. "Jewish students are definitely next on the list. They do feel increasing anti-Semitism on campus from different directions. Israel is their hot topic and something that would really benefit from calm and reasoned information," says Griffith-Dickson.

Islamic studies is still a key issue for higher education. Ministers issued new guidance to universities on how to handle extremism on campus in February. And the English funding council, Hefce, is still deciding how to allocate the £1m earmarked by government to improve Islamic studies in universities.

The universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh also announced plans today to create two new research centres for Islamic studies with £16m from Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, chairman of the Kingdom Foundation.

The new centres will aim to carry out both research and public engagement designed to enhance understanding between the Muslim world and the west. 

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