Muslim students have lashed out at claims in a study that extremists are segregating and denigrating women, saying they are being "increasingly demonised", while the NUS has condemned it as a "witch hunt".
The study by Student Rights, which links extremism with gender segregation on campus calling it a "serious issue", has been slammed by one anti-racism student officer.
Mohamed Harrath, a student union executive at the London School of Economics, told Huffington Post UK the pressure group was trying to "ramp up" the effects of Islamophobia on Muslim students.
"Organisations such as Student Rights, supposedly a "non-partisan" group, have continuously sought to ramp up fears of 'extremism' having a detrimental impact on the welfare of Muslim students. [The groups] feed into a pernicious campaign which increasingly demonises [Muslim Students], contributing to a climate of fear and suspicion of Britain's 100,000 Muslim students who work tirelessly to build more inclusive and respectful campuses.
"There is only one voice that is speaking about extremism on campus and is completely distorts everything. Other voices must be heard."
Harrath highlighted the need for a "legitimate voice" for Islamic students, "rather than keeping silent and being demonised by someone else".
The second year government and economics student criticised the idea university campuses are "hotbeds of Islamic extremism".
"Trying to focus all the attention on universities is not right. Muslim students have become defined by extremism and terrorism and it's not fair. Extremism exists no more in universities than it does elsewhere. This idea that universities are a "breeding ground" is just not true.
"Muslim students are just normal students."
Pete Mercer, vice-president welfare officer for the National Union of Students dubbed the report a "witch hunt".
“We would welcome an open and balanced discussion about gender issues and religion but it’s important that contributions aren’t hysterical and that the word ‘extremism’ isn’t thrown around without justification," he said.
"Unfortunately this report appears to conflate events organised for women to meet separately with those where genders are forced to sit separately.
"When events are open to the general public or student population forced segregation is entirely unacceptable, however where the event is closed and all those present have agreed to segregate, they should have the freedom to make that choice.
"A witch hunt which makes sweeping judgments about student Islamic societies without knowing the details denies the women involved the very equality it claims to wish for them."
Mercer added the NUS was not aware of any complaints made by students to universities or student unions about gender segregation.
Earlier this year Harrath helped organise a recent conference on campus extremism, which was held at LSE and featured experts on 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," Harrath says.
Raheem Kassam, director of Student Rights, told the Times: "I am distraught that, in the 21st century, British university campuses can be used to segregate and denigrate women. The acceptance of segregation on campuses is a far more serious issue than previously thought."
The report lists events which have segregated men and women and says they are "not ‘isolated incidents’ but rather form a part of a "wider, discriminatory trend on UK university campuses".
"Student Rights has shown that in recent years this kind of forced segregation is not an isolated phenomenon. 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."
Reyhana Patel, a journalist and researcher specialising in Muslim communities, told HuffPost UK: "This latest accusation is just another attempt by Student Rights to bash the Muslim community and create the fear that Islam is not compatible with western society.
"As a Muslim woman, I’ve attended numerous events where there have been the optional segregation seating and where I’ve chosen to sit in the female-only section and other times where I’ve chosen to sit in a group of males and females together. Have I ever felt denigrated or discriminated? No, in fact the complete opposite, it is actually empowering to be able to have the choice.
"It is also imperative to point out that segregated seating is not only practiced and encouraged in the Islamic faith, but also in various other faiths, such as Judaism," Patel continues. "Student Rights has a long track record of trying to ‘expose’ student Islamic societies. It is groups like Student Rights which use every opportunity they can to create fear and anxiety amongst the British public towards Islam and Muslims."
The pressure group, which describes itself as "dedicated to supporting equality, democracy and freedom from extremism on university campuses" also urges universities to monitor Islamic society events.
Harrath rubbished insinuations made by the Student Rights report extremism and gender segregation were linked.
"Some members of the Muslim community, due to their religious convictions, wish to sit in a gender- segregated manner at events while others do not feel this is a necessity," he says. "Thus, Islamic societies endeavour to ensure that all services are accessible to their members irrespective of their religious or social inclinations and that each member has an equal opportunity to partake in events without disadvantage."
"Islamic Societies often reserve one side of the room (such as the left side) for men and the other side for women. Depending on the anticipated audience, there is often also an area in the middle for those who do not wish to segregate, or for families."
Kassam is a former director of communications for the Henry Jackson society, whose associate director is Douglas Murray. Several of Murray's neoconservative policies have been adopted by UKIP, including opposing multiculturalism, according to UKIP party group Friends of Israel.
In a speech delivered in 2006, Murray said: "Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board: Europe must look like a less attractive proposition. We in Europe owe – after all – no special dues to Islam. We owe them no religious holidays, special rights or privileges.
"From long before we were first attacked it should have been made plain that people who come into Europe are here under our rules and not theirs.. If.. some Muslims don't have a mosque to go to, then they'll just have to realise that they aren't owed one."
A student paper voiced its concerns about the links between the society and Student Rights - who also questioned the banning of the BNP from LSE's student union in 2009.
Nicola Dandrige, chief executive of Universities UK, has previously said there is no evidence to link Muslim "student radicals" with violent extremism.
"You cannot draw the conclusion that because wild things are said at university that automatically equates to radicalisation," Dandridge told the Daily Telegraph in 2011. "We have to be really careful about what we are saying about cause and effect.
"I don’t think there has been any evidence suggesting that speakers who are offensive to many people cause violent extremism in the student audience."
Dandridge added she had been advised by MI5 and police who say there is not necessarily a link between open debate at university and violent extremism.
Her view has been reinforced by the Home Affairs committee report on "Roots of Violent Radicalisation", which stated: "Too much focus in the Prevent Strategy is placed on public institutions such as universities, and that it may be more accurate, and less inflammatory, to describe them as places where radicalisation 'may best be identified'.
"We consider that the emphasis on the role of universities by government departments is now disproportionate.”
Dandridge added: "Things do get said that are completely repulsive and you utterly disagree with them nonetheless I think that is part of what universities are about and that’s not a bad thing."
The Student Rights "unequal opportunities" report cites an incident at Leicester University as part of the issue. Although the report quotes Leicester's equal opportunities policy, it does not include the university's comment.
At the time, a spokesperson from the university explained: "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."
Harrath adds: "This, in essence, best captures the appropriate balance that students’ unions and universities ought to keep on this issue and is the approach Islamic Societies have taken for decades.
"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."
A spokesperson for Student Rights told HuffPost UK the claims it is attempting to "demonise" Muslim students are "simply not true" and encouraged student union executives to investigate the report's findings.
Raheem Kassam, director of Student Rights, added: "As a Muslim student at Westminster University, my colleagues and I were frustrated and despondent about the continual harassment towards us from extremists of all kinds. It is on the basis of this that I founded Student Rights in 2009 to protect all students.
"This report neither aims to, nor does it, demonise Muslim students, it seeks to protect them from extremism, in this case in the form of segregation, and we have had countless testimonies from Muslim students thanking us for our work”.
"We are committed to exposing all forms of extremism on the UK’s campuses, including that from the far-right and Christian groups, and are keen to work with Muslim students who are targeted by these groups."