Segregated Seating at University College London Debate Between Islam and Atheism Sparks Controversy

11 March 2013


A debate held on the campus of University College London (UCL) and hosted by the Islamic Education and Research Academy (iERA) between Professor Lawrence Krauss, a leading atheist, and Hamza Andreas Tzortzis, a lecturer on Islam, sparked controversy when event organizers instituted a gender-segregated seating policy, though the specifics of this policy are contested. The debate was held on 9 March and was entitled, “Islam or Atheism: Which Makes More Sense?”


Reports indicate that Professor Krauss, upon seeing women directed toward the back of the auditorium and three men being removed from the women’s section, threatened to walk out of the debate. This apparently prompted event organizers to abandon the seating policy and the event was held as scheduled.


Accounts differ as to the nature of the seating policy, with one member of the iERA claiming that women attendees merely had the option to sit in a women’s only section and were not forced to do so. The arrangement was instituted to respect those Muslim women who desired to “adhere to orthodox Islamic principles” by sitting in their own section. The member further emphasized that the seating arrangement, consisting of one all-male section, one all-female section, and one mixed section, was approved by UCL representatives prior to the debate.


For its part, UCL has launched an investigation into the issue to determine whether any university policies had been violated.

Muslim Medical Students Boycott Lectures on Evolution

An increasing number of Muslim biology and medical students as well as trainee doctors at the University College London (UCL) are boycotting lectures on evolution, claiming they clash with ideas established in the Quran. As the Daily Mail reports, similar to the beliefs expressed by fundamentalist Christians, Muslim opponents to Darwinism maintain that Allah created the world, mankind, and all known species. Yet, Professors at UCL are increasingly concerned about the students’ boycott of lectures, as Darwinist theory forms an important part of the syllabus.

UK Universities Asked to Report “Vulnerable” Muslim Students


As part of the government’s revamped Prevent strategy, British universities have been ordered to inform the police about Muslim students who may be vulnerable to radicalisation due to feelings of depression or isolation. According to the new guidance for countering Islamist radicalism, students reported at being “at risk” will then be monitored and Scotland Yard will assess any terrorist threat. However, the students will not be made aware of this investigation. The backdrop to this new focus on universities is the realisation that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallabhad, who has come to be known as the “underpants bomber” of Christmas 2009, had studied at the University College London.

The new guidance has resulted in discomfort amongst both lecturers and student unions who are concerned about the infringement of students’ civil liberties. As the Guardian reports, the National Union of Students, for instance, instructed their officers to not provide the police with details about students unless they presented a warrant. Similarly, James Haywood, president of Goldsmiths college student union, said he was appalled to be asked to spy on Muslim students. The University and College Union criticised the new strategy for risking to damage the relationship between staff and students. Similarly, Ted Cantle warned of the risk to stigmatise Muslims. Despite these criticisms, however, the Home Office defended the new strategy and expressed the expectation on universities to play their role in achieving its objectives.

Abdulmutallab’s struggles highlight line between piety and extremism

Before Abdulmutallab traveled to Yemen to train with al-Qaida and wrote off his family, tensions existed with his father over his alleged “immoral, un-Islamic ” choices to become a wealthy banker. This is apparently a common struggle in Kaduna, Nigeria, where Abdulmutallab was raised. He also spent a lot of time unsupervised, a common issue in wealthy Nigerian families, and was exposed to the radical ideas that circulate the region.

Researchers also note his loneliness and isolation as a factor in his radicalization. “He is a total teetotaler,” said Adulmutallab’s uncle. “He doesn’t do what his peers used to do. He is always indoors reading his Quran.”

By the time he reached University College London, the transformation to radical Islam had occurred. “He had changed; he was saying ‘Islam, Islam, Islam;’ Aminu Baba-Ahmed says.

Yemen claims Abdulmutallab recruited for al-Qaida while in London

While Britain has confirmed Abdulmutallab had contact with Islamist radicals during his time at University College London, authorities deny he was recruited into al-Qaida from the UK. The Yemeni government claim otherwise.

Abdulmutallab in contact with jihadists since 2007, fostered worldwide network of contacts while in London

British police are focusing on Abdulmutallab’s time at University College London (UCL). In an examination of emails and texts, they have found him to be in contact with jihadists across the globe since 2007.

Abdulmutallab’s examined emails fantasized about jihad:

“I won’t go into too much details about me [sic] fantasy but basically they are jihad fantasies, I imagine how the great jihad will take place, how the Muslims will win,God willing, and rule the whole world and establish the greatest empire once again!”

The Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre may have flagged UCL in 2008 as one of about 12 colleges harboring an extremism problem.

Extremist information is being disseminated in London. DVDs of Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaida-tied cleric in Yemen who may have inspired Abdulmutallab, can be purchased through bookstores and websites in the UK. Experts say his influence on locals is growing.

The US and the UK are working together on Yemeni and Somali terrorism issues.

Who is Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab?

23-year old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to bomb a Northwest Airlines Flight en route from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day.

Abdulmutallab was educated at an international British school in Lagos as a youth, and received a degree in engineering and business finance from University College London from 2005-08. His father was a banker and government official in Nigeria.

Abdulmutallab’s father reported him to authorities after he showed interest in radical Islam, cut ties with his family and disappeared. His recent past includes two trips to Yemen and moves to both Egypt and Dubai.

His 2005 posts to the Islamic Forum ( reveal a lonely young man desperate for a better social life, love life, success on standardized tests, someone to “consult” with, and respite from depression. “I have no one to speak to. No one to support me, no one to consult, and I feel depressed and lonely. I do not know what to do. And then I think this loneliness leads me to other problems.” He was also conflicted about eating meat not slaughtered by Muslims with his parents, and experienced difficulty in finding a balance between working to understand the Koran, and relaxing without becoming too listless.

He also wrote about a 2005 trip to Yemen to study Arabic, where he seemed to be having a happy experience. He described how many American and British people were in Sanaa, and excitement over the availability of Pizza Hut and KFC.

Abdulmutallab had 287 Facebook friends; pictures posted to his profile show him smiling with friends.

A fellow student of his at University College London said he showed no signs of radicalization, but described him as quiet and reserved, and frequently prayed.

Did time in London radicalize Abdulmutallab?

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab spent 2005-08 living in a 3-bedroom apartment in London’s West End as an engineering and business finance student at University College London. Experts wonder whether those years, characterized by anger over the Iraq War and the 2005 London subway/bus bombing, could have played a role in radicalizing Abdulmutallab.

While London is an exciting city for Muslims from other countries with its higher education options, jobs, and distance from family home, it is also described by Mamoun Fandy, International Institute for Strategic Studies as “a mecca of jihad.” The years Abdulmutallab spent there saw a spike in the spread of radical Islamic ideas.

Today, Muslims still have access to many different interpretations of Islam in London, including “intense Koranic views.”

“I’ve felt for a long time that if radical Sharia law comes to the rest of the world it will start on the streets of London,” says a Pakistani expert on militant Islam. “Too many clerics today, even moderate ones, don’t talk on Muslim life in a secular state. Young Muslims are smart, raised as British citizens. If they come from abroad, many have great hope and are often disillusioned. They live between worlds, in the cracks. When they go home to their families they are often more radical than their friends.”

“There remains in London a problem of assimilation for outsiders. The society is closed. The city is open, but the people are not,” Fandy said.

At this point in the investigation, his background and path to violent jihad is still unclear. One source claims he was recruited to militant Islam while living in London. Another claims he was already espousing radical views while still in boarding school in West Africa, before he ever went to college. But the US is now questioning whether Britain is posing a major threat to national security.