On Monday we were treated to another batch of media headlines purportedly revealing evidence of 'extremism' at British universities. The Telegraph claimed that 'More than a quarter of those public talks held by Islamic societies in the year until March are thought to have had segregated seating for male and female students', while The Sun suggested that "Gender segregation was reported at a quarter of speaking events organised by Islamic societies at 21 universities'.
On Tuesday, FOSIS - the Federation of Student Islamic Societies - expressed anger at being 'demonised' by these reports. But what was the source of these headlines? And where does this one quarter figure come from? They are from a report called 'Unequal Opportunity: Gender Segregation on UK University Campuses' authored by Raheem Kassam and Rupert Sutton, from a group calling itself 'Student Rights'. No, they are not students and no, their report should not be taken seriously.
The methodology of the group's 'briefing' (and it is brief - at under 5,000 words, despite claiming to offer 'in-depth analysis') is utterly flawed. It is based on '180 events logged in the period March 2012 to March 2013' which took place on UK campuses and finds that '46 of these events (25.5%) at 21 separate institutions were found to have either explicitly promoted segregation by gender or implied that this would be the case'.
Well, that's interesting, but surely more than 180 events took place on UK campuses in a year? Oh, hang on, there's more: "This list is not exhaustive, as Student Rights only logs events which feature speakers with a history of extreme or intolerant views, as well as those events which explicitly promote gender segregation."
So, what we are being told is that that 25.5% (a quarter) of the events that Student Rights chose to monitor because it suspected they would practice gender segregation or host 'extreme' speakers did indeed practice gender segregation. And anyone with even a basic grasp of social science knows that there's a name for that: a biased sample.
Thus the 25 per cent figure is quite patently meaningless. The research is either shoddy or dishonest. It renders their conclusion - in which they declare "The fact that such a large percentage of the events logged by Student Rights during this time period either explicitly advertised events as segregated by gender or implied that this would be the case underlines claims that events highlighted are not "isolated incidents" but rather form a part of a wider, discriminatory trend on UK university campuses" - a demonstrable falsehood.
By selecting a biased sample at the start, they arrive, in the end, at a figure that grossly misrepresents reality. But who cares about the truth when you can make the headlines by distorting it? The media love a good 'Muslim student extremism' story and didn't stop to ask questions about the reliability of the report or what the scare-stats were actually measuring - and instead picking up on the vague, general message that Islamic societies are a problem.
The Times went to town in not just one but two news articles, including a front page splash, followed by a nasty opinion piece by David Aaronovitch the following day. The Daily Express covered the 'story' as did the BBC, The Independent and The Week. Most worryingly - and most damagingly - a number of them, as noted in The Telegraph and The Sun, reported the study as if it showed that 25% of all events held by all Islamic societies in the UK were segregated. It is worth noting that Student Rights has posted proudly about all this media coverage on its website but does not seem to have attempted to correct this false representation.
Even if it were the case that at a quarter of all Islamic society events men and women sat separately, the media fear mongering rests on an extremely tenuous attempt to connect the practice of segregation to the handful of cases in which Muslim students have gone on to commit acts of violence. In The Express, for instance, Professor Anthony Glees offers this non sequitur: "We can and should stop radicalisation on campus by extremists who believe in segregation, or more students will embrace terror."
And, crucially, Student Rights are glossing over questions of choice, agency and power. Where such seating policies are not 'enforced', in cases where all students wish to sit separately based on their religious beliefs, how can the group claim to be acting in students' interests to 'protect them from extremism' by attempting to intervene? (Kassam also claims that Student Rights has "countless testimonies from Muslim students thanking us for our work" - well, we'd all be interested to hear these countless testimonies.) It strikes me that such paternalism bears some resemblance to the group Femen whose notion that they were magnanimously campaigning to liberate 'oppressed' Muslim women was taken issue with by many Muslim women.
Student Rights has got form at least. The group's previous dubious activities include having fed to the BBC false allegations about anti-Semitism at a pro-Palestinian event at SOAS, University of London. Kassam has even been accused of writing his own Wikipedia page - since deleted. And while his group feeds the press stories about speakers with 'a history of extreme or intolerant views', it is interesting to note that Kassam himself is associated with the hard right Young Britons' Foundation and also tried to instigate a 'British tea party' movement. As executive editor of The Commentator website, he has published articles like this one which unambiguously denigrates Muslims. And the neoconservative think tank Henry Jackson Society, which established Student Rights (and provides at least some if not all of the funds for the group - we don't know as it is not transparent about its donors), has been criticised for its anti-Muslim agenda by one of its own former staff members. We must ask the question who is really spreading hate and intolerance here?
Kassam told The Times that he is 'distraught that, in the 21st Century, British university campuses can be used to segregate and denigrate women.' Framing the issue as one of 'modernity' (versus implicit medieval backwardness), his appeal to liberal values also appears to be disingenuous as Student Rights have shown little interest in women's rights (or LGBT rights for that matter) except where the offending party is Muslim.
Student Rights is seeking to police, not 'protect' students and its activities should be seen as part of the 'Cold War on British Muslims'. Its activities feed into an increasingly entrenched discourse of Islamophobia endorsed by much of the government and mainstream media. Universities should be wary of its lobbying efforts, the media should interrogate its misleading research and FOSIS should be commended for standing up to its bullying.
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