The Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS), the umbrella organisation for student UK Islamic Societies, has been singled out on a number of occassions as an organisation which "are training the violent extremists of tomorrow."
I have previously argued that groups like FOSIS play a major role in fighting extremism through its engagement and empowerment of Muslim students.
So what exactly happens at an annual FOSIS conference? Does it involve a line-up of events and activities which promote extremism and radicalise British Muslim youths? Or is it merely a platform for Muslim students to unite and discuss issues affecting them?
I attended the FOSIS 2007 conference as a student hoping to learn more about Islam and how I could engage with Muslim students at my university Islamic Society. This time around, I attended not only with the hope of increasing my knowledge through the line-up of speakers and events that were scheduled to take place, but also, having now studied British counter-terrorism policy, to observe and try to understand if this organisation was really radicalising the next generation of British Muslims.
Becoming the Change
Themed, 'Becoming the Change,' the 49th annual FOSIS conference was held at the University of Manchester from the 29 June-1 July. An estimated 400 people were set to walk through the doors over the three day period which promised lectures, workshops, activities and FOSIS council sessions. An entry fee between £15 and £30 granted entrants accommodation and food for the full three days with limited free tickets for college students.
I attended the first half of the conference. It began with Friday payers in the University of Manchester Students Union. The Friday sermon preached the preciousness of life and how family values and giving back to community were a responsibility of every Muslim individual.
Shadow Justice Secretary and Shadow Lord Chancellor, Sadiq Khan, opened the conference with an empowering and inspiring speech on the significance of Muslim students to be politically active. He thanked Muslims students for their contribution to British society and emphasised that engaging with local communities, whether Muslim or non-Muslim to promote community development was part of Islamic principles and one could do so without comprising their faith.
He added that his party had taken the Muslim vote for granted and praised FOSIS as an organisation "helping Muslim students fulfil their potential so they can make positive contributions to society."
The rest of the Friday involved lectures from leading Islamic Scholars and community activists discussing topics ranging from Muslims contributions to society to the importance of family values and helping the needy in local communities. Question and Answer sessions followed every activity in order to open a platform of discussions on the issues being addressed. A FOSIS council session was also held where the audience could grill the FOSIS committee on any actions or issues that were encountered throughout the year.
However, it was International Rounders Player and Olympic torch bearer, Dana Abdulkarim, who really stole the day for me with an inspiring talk on how Muslim students can strive to become whatever they want to be without comprising their religious beliefs. Mixed with humour and motivation, Dana gave an account of the challenges and hurdles she faced in becoming the first British Muslim women, wearing the Hijab, to become a sports phenomenon. She spoke of the racism and ignorance she faced by non-Muslims in achieving her dreams but urged Muslim students that sports and Islam can be easily merged. Judging from the overwhelming applause she received, she was truly an inspiration for the audience, particularly the females.
Day Two at FOSIS
Saturday began with an 'Arab Spring hour' where individuals with experiences and connections in Syria and Egypt described their accounts of the struggle for freedom and liberty in those countries. A discussion then took place on the importance of getting involved in initiatives to assist such causes. The point was raised that while issues affecting Muslim countries were important, playing a part in British society should take priority over international issues.
The rest of the day involved more lectures and a series of Fringe sessions, some of which included Arabic lessons, an Islamic sign language workshop and discussions on Palestine, British Identity and Medical ethics. There was also a lunchtime exhibition where organisations ranging from businesses promoting graduate schemes to charities promoting causes could set up stalls. Included among these organisations were Ernest and Young, Teach First, Islamic Relief and Empower. The Conservative Party also had a stall to persuade Muslim students to join their party.
Empowered or Radicalised?
I left Saturday evening but the second half of the conference promised more exciting lectures, workshops, competitions and addidtional FOSIS council sessions.
During my time at the conference, I met many Muslim students from diverse backgrounds. Did I leave feeling radicalised or wanting to learn more about how Muslims were against the British government?
Not even close. I left empowered and inspired to get involved more in local community initiatives and play a part in civil society. Did any one of those 400 people leave with ideas of extremism? Judging from the speakers, workshops and activities, one could only have been empowered to go home and utilise their skills and abilities to make a difference in their local community.
And this is exactly what British counter-terrorism policy has always preached. The Prevent policy clearly outlines the significance of empowering Muslim communities to drive them away from extremism. That's precisely what the FOSIS 2012 conference did.
I would far from say how I spent my my weekend to be a threat to British National Security. I would rather emphasise the FOSIS 2012 conference to be a contribution to British society.