With the rise of ‘Jihad Tourism’ in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, we are told in the UK that the majority of the resources of MI5 is now spent on tracking British Jihadists. Whilst it is alarming to see masked young men with British accents calling for others to join them, I haven’t seen many intelligent reflections on what is attracting them. What are the underlying causes? Sadly sectarian hatred between Sunni and Shia Muslims is out of our hands. However close behind is a hatred of ‘the West’. Some of the disillusionment is justified, most of it isn’t. Perhaps our culture excludes more that it includes – with a jaded consumerism, a morally bankrupt celebrity culture and a pornography addled internet with an increasingly toxic and angry social media. Secularists seem to be in denial of all of this and the public debate about faith becomes shriller, with religion being marginalised and often portrayed as being problematic.
As well as some mosques there seem to be three places were radicalisation often occurs, prisons, the internet and universities. A brief look at the history of university education in this country may be in order at this point. Up until the middle ages the universities in these isles were places of theological formation – often run by monastic orders. Of the seven ancient universities (founded before 1600), three of them were founded by papal bulls (Glasgow, St Andrews, Aberdeen) the rest by royal charters (Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Dublin). After Henry VIII’s schism, Catholics were banned from attending many of these universities, and they became exclusive to Anglican students. In the 19th Century, the new generation of ‘redbrick’ universities, based in the growing industrial cities saw it as their civic duty to accept any students without reference to religious belief, and so were proudly secular.
The universities in Manchester fall into this category and because of this secular background they have an uneasy relationship with religion and its presence on campus. It is time for them to rethink this. It maybe that things are changing as they realise how chaplaincy services provide valuable student support and can be at a basic level be a useful addition to student welfare provision. Generally in universities with huge populations of students, (In Manchester 40,000+) – this support for students welfare is inadequate. More importantly universities need to realise that their most effective weapon against radicalisation is well-funded and supported chaplaincy provision. Most young people who are serious about faith will adopt a more conservative/traditional religious identity in order to distinguish themselves in a secular and sometimes hostile culture. A good chaplain can bring experience and wisdom to smooth of some of the harder edges…. universities don’s seem to realise that, students unions often put chaplains in backwaters in freshers week, or their offices in out-of-the-way, hard to find places. Chaplains often complain of institutional apathy, or obstruction and tokenism from the institutions. This needs to change.