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Muslim and LGBTQ Students Unite Against 'Student Rights' in Run Up to NUS Conference

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It's sometimes said that attack is the best form of defence. Some of those think tanks and agitators who seem intent on marginalising Muslims appear to have worked out that the reverse is also true: while some right wingers are happy to go along with direct demonization campaigns, in order to get liberals to jump on the bandwagon of an Islamophobic campaign, defense is often the best form of attack.

For example, this fact has been grasped by Student Rights, an organisation set up by the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society think tank to monitor British universities, which has fed many sensationalist stories about supposed 'Islamic extremism' on campus to the media. It explains why they are increasingly trying to frame their attacks on Muslim students as being about defending the rights of women or LGBTQ students.

But Student Rights attempt to portray itself as representing or protecting these students began to unravel last week when the Islamic Society and LGBT Network at the University of Nottingham united to reject the organisation's divisive tactics. As the university's student newspaper, Impact, reported the two groups issued a joint statement which rejected Student Rights' attempts to manufacture antagonism and asserted that 'both groups have actively coexisted for years without conflict and will continue to do so'.

The condemnation was sparked by an incident in which student journalists from the Nottingham Tab sought comment from two Muslim speakers about their views on homosexuality. Neither individual was there to lecture on gender or sexuality; they had been invited as part of 'Discover Islam Week'. Though nothing related to homosexuality was mentioned, according to Impact, the Islamic Society accused reporters of asking questions that seem to have been designed to "provoke certain responses".

It should be acknowledged that both individuals had previously made comments expressing hostility to homosexuality, based on their interpretation of their religion. However, as any LGBTQ student will tell you, homophobic attitudes are sadly very widespread, perhaps especially but by no means exclusively in religious circles.

This would not be the first time Student Rights' actions have sewn discord on campus. In November 2012, for instance, the organisation sent a story to LGBTQ website Pink News about a speaker being hosted by the Islamic Society at Brunel University in West London. Jade Doswell, then a member of the LGBTQ Society, says that the group felt obliged to organise a protest and were encouraged to do so by Student Rights, contrary to the advice of NUS LGBT Officer Sky Yarlett and despite the Islamic Society's claims that comments attributed to the speaker in question were fallacious as well as its attempts to facilitate dialogue. Doswell says she ended up feeling that Student Rights actions were designed 'to stir up hatred against Brunel's Muslim students, by pitting one minority against another'.

Student Rights commitment to LGBTQ rights and women's rights is wholly questionable given that its director Raheem Kassam has published homophobic and deeply sexist articles on other websites he runs. Its all-male staff and advisory board also give some indication of its woeful feminist credentials. And, as one student commented, if they really care about women's rights, where were they last March when NUS released 'That's What She Said', a major report on campus sexism?

As I recently discussed with the Artist Taxi Driver, looking beyond the validity of individual cases that Student Rights highlights - which can in themselves often be defended as 'legitimate criticism' - and combined with an examination of all the cases it ignores, a clear structural pattern emerges on a cumulative level. Frankly, put in context, the selectivity of the organisation's work stinks of Islamophobia.

In order to really combat sexism, homophobia, transphobia and all other forms of oppression, we need to understand and analyse these problems in their totality and to challenge them effectively, consistently and - critically - in a way that does not to contribute to any other form of discrimination.

This is why it is so depressing when campaigners like Peter Tatchell - who recently spoke for Student Rights' parent group, the Henry Jackson Society - facilitate a particularly insidious strain of Islamophobia that uses the liberal language of rights to further marginalise an already oppressed group. This is why racism within the queer community (as seen at Stockholm Pride, for instance) feeds the crude cultural racism of the likes of Pat Condell and Pamela Geller, who portrays sexism and homophobia as endemic or inherent to the 'non-Western' world.

Interventions against this narrow Manichean outlook are the way forward - for instance Mehdi Hasan's article about struggling to reconcile his religious beliefs with his opposition to homophobic discrimination, which was nuanced and honest. In the same vein, Palestinians are challenging the Israeli government's 'pinkwashing' campaigns which actually feed homophobia while seeking to normalise occupation.

Similarly, the joint statement from Nottingham students is encouraging and important. It does not gloss over the fact that tensions can arise but it commits to working together respectfully and constructively towards a cohesive and inclusive campus. In the process, it sends a clear signal that LGBTQ students are willing to stand up and say 'not in our name', when groups like Student Rights try to fuel Islamophobia, just as many Muslims have pledged to stand against LGBTQ hate.

This display of mutual tolerance, solidarity and unity profoundly irritated some of Student Rights' allies and put Student Rights itself in its place, namely, alienated from students and in the bizarre position of claiming to support people who do not support it. It will be a massive boost to the student counter-campaign Real Student Rights in the run up to a motion going forward at the NUS conference next month which seeks to have the national student body officially condemn Student Rights' divisive politics.