When anyone is elected to a position of power by a democratic process you can expect a degree of trepidation. One of the most crucial aspects of democracy and freedom of speech is that by allowing people to speak their mind you shine a light on the darkest corners; exposing and examining their character in exchange for the power they need to exact change. That, in theory, is the crux of democratic accountability and the reason why, for the most part, extremists don't get much traction in the UK. That is, unfortunately, not what is happening to Malia Bouattia, the newly elected President of the National Union of Students'.
I had the good fortune of meeting Malia whilst our paths crossed at the University of Birmingham - we shared a platform on many important issues as we both campaigned against the introduction of tuition fees and highlighting the plight of Palestinians in accessing quality education without fear of harassment. These issues remain vitally important to the heart of the NUS and what it strives to achieve - the NUS explicitly claims that it will fight barriers to education and empower students to shape the world around them. Historically the NUS has never shied away from international politics - playing a crucial role in the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa over fifty years ago.
Malia is the victim of a smear campaign which is designed entirely to defame her character and weaken her position as the democratic leader of student unions and the student body as a whole. It is absolutely right that we should expect a degree of examination for anyone democratically elected - but such a campaign is designed to dethrone Malia by virtue of her appearance and her religion. The fact that the NUS have elected their first black President - who also happens to be a Muslim - should be celebrated by the student body across this country. It's a milestone in itself given that every article I've read on Malia's election refers to former NUS Presidents - and proceeds to list a dozen white men who have gone on to become influential political thinkers and Members of Parliament. Malia's election is clearly an indication that the student body is becoming more inclusive and more representative which is testament to campaigners like herself.
The elephant in the room are the accusations of anti-Semitism against Malia. Having shared a platform with her before and having been on the committee of the Friends of Palestine Society at the University of Birmingham I was exposed to similar accusations and smears. There is nothing more abhorrent than racism and anti-Semitism - but baseless accusations devalue and deface the tireless work which anti-racism and anti-fascists campaigners have done for years. Fortunately it is only a minority of students who would use anti-Semitism as a sword to beat down critical thought and dissenting opinion - but often these stories gain traction because of their emotional rhetoric. It is reassuring that Malia has met with the Union of Jewish Students - it is only through collaboration that anti-Semitism can be stamped out and it is only through discussion and education can people become aware that criticising the political motivations of the state of Israel is not equivalent to criticising Jewish people or their Jewishness - in the same way that tearing apart fundamentalist Islamism isn't akin to dismissing the thoughts and actions of millions of Muslims around the world who want to live in peace.
It is disappointing that Malia's election has been met with such fierce criticism, despite it being a milestone achievement. It is ironic that her legitimacy as a candidate is questioned at the end of a democratic process - it's a bitter pill to swallow for many, but democracy does not serve to opine the will of everyone. The reality is that the student movement has always stood up against injustice - and the NUS of late has become dogged down with an obsessive, almost narcissistic, report-culture that has caused it to become out of step with the student body as a whole. The NUS must remember and embrace its history as a campaigning organisation that unites democratic student unions in the United Kingdom with a common goal of liberating education for as many people as possible. Malia is a campaigner who represents the beating heart of the NUS - a strong union, driven by democratic campaigns that will challenge the rhetoric started by the Browne review; that educational institutions can be coerced in to making education a commodity to be bought and sold and not a universal right for all people. She has outlined her priorities as NUS President - and was elected on a platform by NUS delegates from all over the country. If that does not give her the democratic mandate to carry out her manifesto then I don't know what does.