The Times featured a piece yesterday headlined 'Extremists preaching to students in Britain' yet oddly the article focuses on the supposed prevalence of segregated seating for male and female students at students' union Islamic society events. This conflation of extremism with increased religiosity and religious observance is indicative of just how muddled and confused the debate around campus extremism has become. To suggest that the religious observance of a devout Catholic, Orthodox Jew, Muslim, or any other religion for that matter, equates to extremism is not only an incredibly patronising sentiment - it's also untrue.
The question of gender segregated seating is one of balancing the freedom to choose where one sits and the religious freedom of devout and religiously conservative students to sit in a manner which is in line with their religious convictions.
Recently, following a packed public lecture organised by the University of Leicester Students' Union Islamic Society as part of their annual Islamic Awareness Week, where segregated seating was offered, a university spokesperson explained: "[We] will not interfere with people's right to choose where to sit. If some people choose to sit in a segregated manner because of their religious convictions, then they are free to do so. By the same token, if people attending do not wish to sit in a segregated manner, they are free to do so. To our knowledge, no one was forced to sit in any particular seat. If there is evidence of enforced segregation, that would be a matter the university and students' union would investigate."
This, in essence, best captures the appropriate balance that students' unions and universities ought to keep and is the approach Islamic Societies have taken for decades.
Geoffrey Alderman, writing in the Jewish Chronicle recently, explains "no sensible person would argue (surely?) that the provision of separate public toilets for women and men is a breach of 'equal opportunities'. In our public hospitals, the wards are generally - and by public demand - segregated by gender. Public pools frequently offer women-only sessions. Gender segregation in sport is of course widespread."
In a free society, male and female students should be free to sit separately if they wish to do so and we ought not to cave in to pressure to enforce mixed seating against the wishes of students seeking reasonable adjustment based on their religious convictions. What is important, however, is that by the same token, nobody is compelled to sit in a segregated arrangement involuntarily. Islamic Societies have recognised this for years and in the vast majority of cases have taken a consistently commendable approach to what can be a sensitive issue.
At a recent conference on campus extremism at the LSE, featuring experts on the issues of extremism, freedom and security, there was a consensus view amongst the speakers that the debate on campus extremism has been exaggerated and distorted creating a climate where Muslim students are increasingly demonised. Indeed, Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of Universities UK, has consistently sought to redress this distortion by explaining that there is no evidence for a link between "student radicals" and violent extremism, a view endorsed by the Home Affairs select committee report on 'The Roots of Violent Radicalisation'. So why all the hysteria?
In his book, The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims, Nathan Lean argues that "the tide of Islamophobia that is sweeping through Europe and the United States is not a naturally occurring phenomenon", he insists it is the "design" of a network of anti-Muslim bloggers, politicians, pundits and religious leaders who have been all too successful in whipping up anti-Muslim sentiment with all its devastating consequences.
The role of organisations such as Student Rights, supposedly a 'non-partisan' group, with its inextricable links to the hard-right Henry Jackson Society, an organisation who's senior staff features Douglas "conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder" Murray, has continuously sought to ramp up fears of campus extremism. A process which has had a detrimental impact on the welfare of Muslim students by feeding into a pernicious campaign which increasingly demonises them, contributing to a climate of fear and suspicion of Britain's 100,000 Muslim students who work tirelessly to build more inclusive and accepting campuses.
Liam Burns, President of the National Union of Students, was right to express his concerns about Student Rights and condemn the organisation's tactics in seeking to divide students at a recent meeting in the House of Lords, a sentiment I know is shared by many students' union leaders up and down the country.
If Student Rights wants to play a positive role in contributing to more inclusive and cohesive campuses, they ought to have a radical rethink of their approach to questions on faith, the Public Square and campus life.
Muslim student contribution
Muslim students contribute immensely to their campuses and are an integral part of our national fabric. The annual 'charity week' - seven days of fierce rivalry between Islamic Societies up and down the country - has raised a total of £2.4m since its inception in 2004. Not bad for a bunch of students living on shoestring budgets, or the Islamic Society at Oxford University which organised the ground breaking 'Rethinking Islamic Reform' conference in 2010 demonstrating the leadership of Muslim students in grappling with the big questions of faith, politics, identity and citizenship. And even on the question of campus extremism, the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) held a conference with leading experts and stakeholders in 2011 and supported another one organised by the LSE Students' Union this year. Who's to say then that Muslim students haven't been at the forefront in enriching university life and building inclusive campuses?
Demonising Muslim students will only serve to alienate and isolate students who belong to a faith group which is increasingly targeted by hatred from far-right extremists. Met with an often indifferent and silent mainstream, the problem is only exacerbated. The increase in anti-Muslim sentiment in Britain has had disastrous consequences for the inclusion of Muslim students in civic society. It's time we took a stand against hate and bigotry and put an end to the demonisation of Muslims.
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