Another students union has officially condemned the 'anti-extremism' organisation 'Student Rights'. On Thursday Kingston university became the fifth campus (following motions at LSE, Birkbeck, Goldsmiths, and UCL) to join the counter-campaign called 'Real Student Rights' which continues to grow on the back of coverage in the national press. Ever since it was set up in 2009 by the right wing Henry Jackson Society think tank, the ironically named Student Rights group has consistently undermined rather than empowered students. But in response to the growing success of the student fightback against it, the organisation's activities have reached new lows in recent months and its anti-student attacks make plain once and for all its real - antagonistic - relationship with students.
The credibility of Student Rights has been challenged on three main counts: first, its lack of transparency about its links to the right wing think tank the Henry Jackson Society; second its lack of legitimacy given its track record of generating hostile press coverage about students as opposed to defending their rights; and third, the way this negative attention has focused overwhelmingly on Muslims.
On the first charge, Student Rights denies that it ever hid the fact it is a project of the Henry Jackson Society. Its staff Raheem Kassam and Rupert Sutton wrote in their latest HuffPost blog - which they appear to have paid to promote on Facebook - that those who accuse them of a lack of transparency have a 'conspiratorial mind-set' because Student Rights has 'never denied' the link. This is pretty rich. In fact it has misleadingly described itself as 'independent' and nowhere on Student Rights website is it mentioned that it is a project of the Henry Jackson Society. Nor does the Henry Jackson Society website list Student Rights among its projects. How forgetful of them! I will leave it to readers to judge for themselves how transparent they feel this is. In my view, their consistent failure to mention who they really represent is, at best, evidence of a lack of openness, at worst, lying by omission.
As far as the second key point of contention goes, Student Rights claims that it works with 'many students'. But when I emailed Student Rights to ask how many student members it has I was told that this information was 'commercially sensitive'. This too seems unconvincing. The truth is that the organisation has next to no student links, certainly no working relationship with any students union or part of the NUS, and is neither listening to nor engaging with the vast majority of students. Instead of defending students' rights, director Raheem Kassam has demonstrated a deep disdain towards them and has sought to exploit them as unpaid interns. While Student Rights quote the words of a single LSE student supporter, they neglect to mention that over 300 students at the same university voted to condemn their activities! The Real Student Rights counter-campaign, consisting exclusively of actual students only serves to highlight their conspicuous legitimacy deficit.
The third and most serious charge against Student Rights is about Islamophobia, a form of racism currently on the rise in Britain and beyond. It's clear that Student Rights has been a significant source for the perennial media stories painting university campuses - on the back of little evidence - as 'hotbeds of extremism' and 'terrorist breeding grounds', stories which unfairly cast a cloud of stigma on all of Britain's more than 100,000 Muslim students. While the organisation claims it produces 'serious evidence-based research', my strong scepticism about the quality of its work is shared by at least some university staff, as emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show. But while the press must take much of the blame for taking dodgy research seriously Student Rights cannot disown its own role in whipping up Islamophobia.
Aside from attempting to deflect accusations of Islamophobia by drawing attention to a few tokenistic blog posts and a couple of 'briefings' on issues unrelated to Islamic societies, it's clear that the majority of its media coverage has been based on the basic formula 'Muslim equals threat'. And in fact Student Rights has itself admitted (while seeking to justify) disproportionately scrutinising Islamic societies, saying - and note the wording - that it: 'focuses more frequently on the activities of Muslim speakers because these incidents occur on a more frequent basis than those involving the fascist far-right'. Was this sentence badly worded or does Student Rights regard the mere presence of a Muslim speaker as an 'incident'? If nothing else, this is a telling example of how interchangeably Student Rights uses the terms 'Muslim', 'Islamist' and 'extremist'. (The attempt to present other groups as equivalent to fascists, it should also be noted, is an aspect of overarching 'counter-extremism' paradigms that has been thoroughly critiqued.)
More importantly, Student Rights claims about frequency/levels of 'extremism' are always going to be debatable since it is one of those slippery relative terms whose definition ultimately depends on political judgement. Student Rights clearly subscribes to the government's 'Prevent' agenda for countering extremism, which it quotes as justification for its approach, citing 'vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values' as a marker of the type of 'extremists' who 'should expect to face challenge on our campuses'. Here again, however, we are on hotly contested terrain. Since many would argue that tolerance is a 'fundamental British value', by this logic, Douglas Murray - who once stated that 'conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board' could well be called an 'extremist'. But because Murray happens to be Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society, the parent think tank of Student Rights, he is instead described as an 'expert', frequently quoted and - far from opposing his presence on campus - Student Rights hosted him as a speaker.
This apparent hypocrisy speaks to the fact that - since Student Rights has never published its definition of 'extremism' - simply being Muslim seems to makes you more likely to be labelled with this term. It encapsulates the way Student Rights approach reproduces the key problem with the Prevent strategy; namely, that it problematises Muslims while narrowing space for political dissent. While it persists with this approach, its hopes of working with Muslim students, not to mention its declared plans to document students' grievances about Prevent are unlikely to materialise any time soon. But it shows no signs of changing course. Indeed, quite incredibly given that its director has elsewhere published articles explicitly promoting counterjihad style propaganda and far right racist European politicians, Student Rights instead suggests that it is its critics who 'do more harm than good to the anti-racism cause' by 'smearing' what it calls 'criticism of a handful of Islamist speakers' as Islamophobic.
However, from its efforts to undermine Palestine solidarity activism on campus to its attempts to have a week-long series of events critiquing the 'war on terror' cancelled on the grounds of 'fuelling grievances against the west', Student Rights has long gone way beyond 'criticism of a handful of Islamist speakers'. That it treats Muslim students with automatic suspicion, in the same vein as Prevent, is clear from both its language (eg. references to the 'stealthy' organisation of events) and its activities (eg. attempts to get universities to pass on details of speakers). It even suspects Muslim students when they raise funds for charity. Since the definition of extremism is so subjective, it's not unreasonable to suspect that rather than monitoring extremism leading to a focus on Muslims, Student Rights starts by focusing on Muslims and worries about defining who is an 'extremist' later. It is this element of racial profiling then, and not only its surveillance attitude, which is deeply troubling. Though Student Rights would have us believe that its monitoring of Islamic societies is ultimately necessary and can be justified on security grounds, the Real Student Rights campaign shows that many students strongly disagree.