A few months ago, I sat in a magnificent Victorian lecture hall at University College London. It was once one of finest centres of intellectual inquiry in Europe, thanks to the efforts of its founder, the sternly anti-clerical philosopher Jeremy Bentham. It did not take me long to realise that fear of clerical fascism had led Bentham's trembling successors to abandon intellectual inquiry and basic intellectual standards along with it.
I had come along with hundreds of others because, on Christmas Day 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a former UCL student, tried to detonate plastic explosives hidden in his underwear and kill the 278 passengers and crew on Northwest Airlines' flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. After such a narrow escape from mass murder, I thought that no one could deny that the universities needed to confront campus sectarianism. I reckoned without the limitless capacity for self-delusion of British academe.
By the time UCL organised a public debate on the Abdulmutallab affair, reporters had established that the Nigerian student had lost himself in London's political netherworld, where the white far left meets the religious far right. As president of UCL Islamic Society, Abdulmutallab had presided over an "antiterror week", which featured a promotional video of clips of violence, accompanied by hypnotic music. The film-maker had inserted footage of George Galloway saying the west believed Palestinian blood was cheaper than Israeli blood, and Amnesty International's latest pin-up, Moazzam Begg, alleging the Americans tortured him at Guantánamo Bay.