Politics | Campaign launched against ‘witch-hunt’ of Muslim students by ‘Student Rights’ group
New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Saturday, November 30, 2013 19:34 - 23 Comments
By Hilary Aked
Students have launched a campaign against the pressure group ‘Student Rights’, which appears to have little or no connection to actual students – but does appear to be connected to a right wing think tank. In the wake of the severe rise in anti-Muslim bigotry this year and with the second annual Islamophobia Awareness Month falling this November, the new counter-campaign, ‘Real Student Rights’, aims to challenge the dog whistle politics of Student Rights, which serves only to fuel the ever-more entrenched Islamophobia in Britain today.
Although only a two-man operation, Student Rights has been instrumental in feeding sensationalist stories of alleged ‘extremism on campus’ to the mainstream media. Its most recent report ‘Unequal Opportunity: gender segregation on UK campuses’, focused exclusively on Islamic Societies – plus one externally organised event which constituted the report’s completely non-representative ‘case study’ – and described the practice of seating men and women separately as ‘discriminatory’.
Though Student Rights has since claimed to ‘have no problem with students choosing to self-segregate’, in the vast majority of cases its report paid no attention to whether women were making their own choices in the matter. And the organisation last week attacked new guidance from Universities UK, accusing it of excusing gender discrimination. In fact, what it did was to note the issues, noting that provided one group are not subject to ‘less favourable treatment’, segregation of the audience by gender does not necessarily amount to discrimination or contravene the Equality Act 2010.
Student Rights’ report was amateurish and inflammatory by contrast. Yet the media lapped it up and it gave rise to a string of headlines conflating gender segregation with extremism. Understandably this caused anger amongst students, and as a result of the report and its longer track record, Student Rights was accused of ‘demonising’ Muslim students. Meanwhile Pete Mercer, then NUS Welfare Officer, described the report as evidence of ‘a witch hunt’ and noted that its ‘sweeping judgments about student Islamic societies without knowing the details denies the women involved the very equality it claims to wish for them’.
The ‘Real Student Rights’ campaign – an independent grassroots network of students across UK universities – grew out of intense frustration with the approach of the ironically-named Student Rights group, which is seemingly intent on grabbing scaremongering headlines regardless of the impact this has on campus cohesion or the welfare of actual students.
One problem is that allegations it has made to the press have in the past proved to be inaccurate, in one case leading to the BBC re-writing an entire news story and admitting that the original had been based on highly questionable claims. More recently, The Times had to apologise for and correct a grossly misleading claim in its front page story – based on Student Rights gender segregation report – which had made the astonishing and untrue assertion that a quarter of all Islamic Society events were segregated, when in fact a small pre-selected sample of events had produced the significant-sounding 25 per cent segregation figure.
In the past it has been referred to inaccurately in the press as a ‘student anti-racism’ campaign group – though whether this is due to misrepresentation by Student Rights or misinterpretation by journalists is not clear. It seems the confusion persists to this day however, as last week a BBC article made reference to ‘a student group’ supposedly claiming ‘that segregation at talks given by people it described as radical Islamists had become widespread’ – almost certainly a reference to Student Rights. The group has responded to criticism by blaming the media for ‘mistakes’ but never seems to have made an effort to correct them. It is perhaps understandable that journalists assume that ‘Student Rights’ is a student group and its choice of name may well have been a deliberate attempt to manufacture a façade of legitimacy.
Student Rights’ record of calling for a host of – mostly Muslim – speakers that it regards as extremists to be prevented from speaking on campuses, seems inconsistent in light of the fact that it has previously expressed opposition to student unions having a ‘no-platform’ policy regarding the BNP, even though part of the rationale for such policies is student welfare. Interestingly, Student Rights now appears to have removed this article from its website, perhaps because it is aware that this stance makes them seem somewhat hypocritical, and their claim to oppose ‘all forms of extremism’ very doubtful. (In this case however, Student Rights didn’t do as good a job as Tory HQ, and the article in question can still be viewed via the Web Archive here.)
Even more worryingly, as the Institute of Race Relations has noted, Student Rights’ alarmist material about events organised by Muslim students has been picked up by far right groups, including Casuals United and the English Defence League, to further their own efforts. In one incident, apparently alerted to the event by Student Rights literature, members of the EDL came on to campus at Reading University, which was forced to cancel an event due to credible threats of violence and fears for students’ safety. A similar situation occurred at Essex University, when an event that Student Rights had attacked again saw far right activity pose a threat to student safety and resulted in its cancellation.
Very serious questions should also be asked about why Student Rights thought it was appropriate to re-blog a story from ‘Atlas Shrugs’, the Islamophobic hate-site of U.S. based fanatic Pamela Geller. Geller, who was a major inspiration of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, and even tried to justify his actions, was banned from entering the UK this year where she was due to address an EDL rally. Despite this, Student Rights has directed readers to her website without any warnings or disclaimers about the hateful nature of the content – in fact, given the context, apparently offering implicit approval of the site.
However, perhaps more damaging then even this is the simple fact that Student Rights maintained a deafening silence when a group of Muslim students were violently attacked in London. The City University students had just left campus when a gang set upon them, hurling racist abuse, wielding metal bricks and metal sticks and stabbing three people. It was a serious Islamophobic hate crime and the most severe infringement of students’ basic right to safety imaginable – and yet ‘Student Rights’ had nothing to say, a failure to speak which is arguably sadly telling.
Although Student Rights condemned the threat of violence at Reading university and disassociated itself from the far-right, the group has never disputed repeated reports – dating back as far as 2010 – that it receives funding from the Henry Jackson Society, a right wing think tank accused of having an ‘anti-Muslim tinge’. Its associate director, Douglas Murray, has made comments that some interpret as ‘defending the EDL’, he is apparently something of a hero to that group’s former leader Tommy Robinson, and is notorious for having said that ‘conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board’.
We don’t know whether the Henry Jackson Society is the sole funder of Student Rights or one of several, but the fact that Student Rights website domain is registered to the address of the Henry Jackson Society office (43-49 Parker Street, London, WC2B 5PS) lends support to suspicions that it is a ‘side-project’ – or, to phrase it less generously, a front group – for the neoconservative think tank.
The fact that Student Rights is not transparent about its funding and connection to the Henry Jackson Society severely limits its legitimacy. What little it had took a further blow when Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake resigned from the advisory board of both the Henry Jackson Society – following criticism from a former staff member there – and of Student Rights, following criticism from students.
Bizarrely, Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick, who initially said he too would resign from the Student Rights board in light of the ‘developments’, has since changed his mind and refused to offer and explanation for the U-turn. It is especially strange that he chooses to remain affiliated with a group that is seen as whipping up Islamophobia when his own constituency, Poplar and Limehouse in east London, has a significant Muslim population.
Dog whistle politics
Perhaps Fitzpatrick will reconsider his position as it becomes clear that Student Rights has no legitimacy on campus, as Real Student Rights is supporting students in universities across the country who want to propose motions publically rejecting the organisation’s divisive, marginalising and counter-productive tactics.
Real Student Rights is also asking students and others to sign and circulate its petition which already has over 1000 signatories. It calls for an end to the ‘witch-hunt’ of Muslim students and pro-Palestine student activists, another group who have been on the receiving end of Student Rights attacks (unsurprisingly so, since the Henry Jackson Society is staunchly pro-Israel.)
Supporters of Real Students Rights include: NUS Black Students Officer Aaron Kiely; NUS VP Welfare Officer 2011-13 Peter Mercer; his successor this year, Colum McGuire; Omar Ali, the President of FOSIS (the Federation of Student Islamic Societies); Michael Chessum, the president of ULU (University of London Union); Maham Hashmi-Khan, ULU Black Students Officer; Shabina Raja of the NUS Black Students National Committee; Kaled Mimouni, Westminster University SU President, Malia Bouattia, NUS National Executive Councillor (Black Students’ Campaign) & Black Women’s Forum UK; Samayya Afzal, Bradford United 4 Palestine President and many more.
We feel that the campaign’s transparency and openness stands in stark contrast to the modus operandi of Student Rights, whose approach has always been deeply paternalistic and arguably anti-democratic, frequently bypassing students themselves in favour of lobbying SUs or university administration, whilst disregarding the fact that both abide by pre-existing regulations prohibiting hate speech on campus.
Real Student Rights supports genuine attempts to oppose discrimination in all its forms, including sexism, homophobia and racism but is founded on the premise that those problems – which exist in all sectors of society – are not challenged by disproportionately and unfairly attacking an already-targeted minority group increasingly affected by discrimination itself
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