LONDON -- How much free speech is good for young people? Does exposure to extremist views enlighten young people or radicalize them?
Here in the U.K., where I live, there are two competing answers to this question.
On one hand, you have Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who recently employed quite aggressive rhetoric on the topic of Islamic extremism. In a much talked-about speech in Berlin, he denounced Britain's long-held tradition of multi-culturalism as a "failure,"
calling for a more "active, muscular" approach to the issue. Cameron's view is that the U.K. has for too long allowed Islamic youth to live in what are effectively separate communities, and it is precisely this "passive tolerance" that has allowed home-grown terror groups to flourish.
As a result, the British government is now cutting funding to programs that had reached out to young Muslims considered at risk of being drawn into terrorist networks
. Tougher criteria will henceforth be applied, with hundreds of thousands of pounds withdrawn from groups deemed too soft on extremism. In a similar vein, the British government recently banned anti-Islamist Pastor Terry Jones from entering the U.K.
on the grounds that his extremist views were not conducive "to the public good."
Contrast this hard-nosed approach with that taken by British universities. In a surprising and highly controversial move, eight university vice chancellors issued a report that rejected demands to ban controversial speakers on campus
, arguing that you need to "engage, not marginalize" extreme political views.
The report came in response to the arrest of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab -- the so-called Christmas Day bomber -- who was charged with attempting to blow up a passenger jet over Detroit in late 2009. Abdulmutallab had been a student at University College London, where he studied engineering and was the head of the Islamic Society. Following his arrest, there was a huge concern here and abroad that universities had become "breeding grounds" for home-grown terrorism
While noting that meetings of student societies must be open to all rather than just one group, the report's authors clearly came down on the side of engagement over censorship. "By being places where ideas and beliefs can be tested without fear of control," they wrote, universities act as a safeguard against ideologies that threaten Britain's open society. "Unless views can be expressed, they cannot also be challenged."
This debate is taking place inside the halls of Westminster and on British campuses, but it is hardly a British problem alone.
The utility and advisability of hate speech codes
on American college campuses has long been debated. And while not about youth per se, the whole "Ground Zero mosque" debate last year was in some ways about whether society should embrace and engage the American Muslim community (even a group that softly supports Hamas
) or ostracize it.
Heaven knows that this issue is relevant to what's taking place on the Arab streets. Each day seems to yield a new revolution, often propelled by young people
. The ideas and political movements that these young people engage with -- which ones are tolerated and which are circumscribed under the emerging political orders in this new Middle East -- will define their future -- and ours -- for years to come.
Let's hope for all of our sakes that we all strike the right balance between disorder and dissent.
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