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Imam to prevent wars of religion

Rifat Malik reports on one college's response to the rising tide of religious intolerance on the campus. One of Britain's largest further education colleges has launched a spiritual guidance service for Muslims in the wake of Islamic extremist infiltration of colleges and universities.

Burnley College in Lancashire has started up an imam service - believed to be the first of its kind - which will also provide cultural support for its Muslim students.

The service aims to give all its students the multi-faith support of a college chaplain and imam. Both will back up work of the existing secular counselling service.

College principal John Smith believes the move is both logical and constructive."The idea came from a review of the external support agencies available for students, but is also a corrective to the national hysteria over religions like Islam.

"We are adopting a rational and sensible approach, which doesn't mean inviting the chaplain and imam to make converts, or pursue particular religious themes, but to act as a resource for advice, guidance and support - of course the religious dimension will be important," he says.

The National Union of Students has sent Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard a dossier listing allegations of physical and verbal abuse which students have suffered at the hands of fascist groups, Islamic extremists and religious cults.

Campus Watch - set up by the NUS last October - reported that the activities of Hitz-ut-Tahrir, a Muslim extremist group, dominated its calls. More than 100 callers complained that offensive materials had been distributed by the group.

The overwhelming numbers of complaints were from universities, where lonely students in residence were said to be soft targets. But the group's presence has been increasingly reported in FE colleges, most recently in Newham, east London.

At least 15 per cent of the 7,000 students at Burnley College are from an ethnic minority background - three times higher than the percentage of ethnic minorities in the community as a whole.

After consulting the ecumenical groups in Lancashire, the colleges decided, at first, on a multi-denominational chaplaincy, says assistant principal Julian Clissold.

"But we realised it was unfair to ignore a significant, non-Christian minority and approached the moderate and representative Lancashire Council of Mosques, commissioning a suitable candidate from them. We have had a thriving Islamic society and for the last three years have allocated a prayer room for Muslim students."

The imam, Sabir Khan, is a former student of the college where he now teaches religious studies. He is also the co-founder of the college's Islamic Society and believes that some Muslim parents will be encouraged to send their children to Burnley College if they believe that the environment offers appropriate spiritual and cultural support.

"We've also tried to be progressive, so for instance our last two presidents have been women, which has helped to challenge people's stereotypical views about the undervalued position of women in Islam," he says.

The approach of this Islamic Society is very different from others in some universities and colleges where the small but vocal Hitz-ut-Tahrir has surfaced. The NUS believes the results justify asking the Home Secretary and the Department for Education and Employment to ban the group.

The group has described the NUS as "nazis" and, in a leaflet - put out at the union's press conference on the Campus Watch survey - it accused the Union of Jewish Students of orchestrating the campaign.

Mr Khan says: "Our students have always felt it was imperative that we had a more objective, intellectual and conciliatory approach to our religion and culture - discussion rather than discrimination is our philosophy. Inter-faith dialogue with the Christian Union is something we hope to develop."

Jim Murphy, the NUS president, rejects the claims and defends his union's action. "The union is criticised by some whose knee-jerk reaction is that we should not publicly condemn Muslims for fear of creating a backlash. Our concern is that students of all faiths have the right to study free from fear of this odious campaign."

Muslim students have cautioned the NUS to be careful in its criticisms. Many feel that no one bothers to distinguish between Islamic schools of thought when it comes to anti-Muslim hysteria, and that the NUS campaign reinforces the view that HE and FE institutions are reserved for the free dissemination of secular ideas alone.

At Burnley College, Muslim students pursue the right to put across their religious perspective, but argue that this is not always easy when most non-Muslim students tend to be uninterested in religion.

Abdul Munim, 18, says: "We have to make white people understand what it means to be a true Muslim and develop our own cultural identity.

"But this must be done in a logical way, through dialogue. As the Koran says, there should be no compulsion in religion. Anyway, bible-bashing only scares people off."

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