The Durham Union Society has come under fire over the past couple of days for using an image of ISIS killers to advertise a debate entitled 'This house believes Islam is incompatible with the western liberal democracy'. The image has since been removed and an apology has been made by current president of the society Napat Rungsrithananon however outrage continues amongst students, lecturers and the general public.
As a member of the society and someone who has questioned the taste of certain decisions they have made in the past I feel that a tipping point has been reached. Although 'no malice was intended' according to Rungsrithananon's public apology on the Facebook event page, this clearly highlights a set bias on behalf of the society. Nowhere in the description of the debate is any reference to ISIS made, only one to Islam. Some have noted that this is akin to having a debate on Judaism and representing it with an image of Israeli violence against Palestine, and it is true. The use of this photograph shows that this debate is supposed to be a one based on ISIS. The intention behind it was to discuss the terrorist group, not to discuss Islam at all, but these two things have become the same in the eyes of whoever chose this image. By labelling it a debate on Islam, whether through ignorance or xenophobia, a society many respect is perpetuating a harmful and disgusting stereotype.
Demonising other cultures, races and religions is toxic, especially in an educational environment. Many people trust in their university and the societies within them to provide a legitimate space for open, respectful discussion and debate. By using Islam as a contradiction to 'liberal democracy', a judgement has obviously already been made, a bias has been set. David Cameron named and shamed universities for hosting extremist speakers, specifically Islamist extremists. Is this not just the other end of the spectrum though? A society that equates a whole religion, the second largest in the world, to one extremist group, is this not just as bad and as ugly?
Perhaps this was an individual mistake, but if an apology is to be accepted then change must to be evident. However I don't believe that we will see this. This isn't the first time an action has underlined the racism and discrimination that lurks within some parts of the society and it won't be the last. I have seen debates where race jokes, sexual consent jokes and rape jokes have been used. The Durham Union Society must prove that it can do better than this. It must work hard to be an inclusive community. It cannot do this while it continues to invite speakers intending to offend.
Debate can be controversial, sometimes the best ones are, but use experts in their fields to create this intellectual discussion. Don't invite someone back, Godfrey Bloom is set to return for a second year running, having attended the Union on multiple occasions in the past, just to cause controversy for controversy's sake. It serves no point and it proves that you are not serious about deep, relevant and non-discriminatory debate. By inviting the same person over and over again you are not providing members with new, interesting speakers, you are giving a platform to the same set of ideas over and over again. In addition to Godfrey Bloom, it has come to light that the extreme far-right Former EDL leader Tommy Robinson will also be joining the roster of speakers. This does not help the stereotype being created around this society and it furthers the opinion that this right-wing bias is common place within the Union.
I love debate but this toxic culture must be stopped. Common sense and taste seem to have gone amiss and this will continue until enough noise is made. As I said before this is not just one mistake, this is not one person. Already advertised in the uncontested President-Elect Emily Beighton's manifesto, is a debate on the right to anonymity for alleged criminals. Yes it is controversial and yes I think it is a genuine debate worth having. However I don't believe it is legitimate or in any way appropriate to have this debate when ex-Durham Union Society Secretary Louis Richardson will be facing trial this January for one charge of rape and three of sexual assault. It is too soon, too close and too sensitive for someone to think that this may not have harmful effects on individuals at the university. Could this not be viewed as an attempt to litigate his trial in public using the Union as a platform? Is it not quite simply inappropriate?
I may be pessimistic, I may be wrong but the Durham Union Society should be shamed for what has happened. They must reflect on their past decisions and reconsider their future ones if they to be viewed as a respected debating society and not as group who wish merely to offend. If change is not met then perhaps it is time for a new way of running the society, perhaps we cannot trust a President to run it in an acceptable manner on the members' behalf.