The Blog

Setting the Record Straight on Student Rights

With the issue of gender segregation in the media, attacks on those opposing this practice have been epitomised on this website by Hilary Aked, who ignores the broad mass of public opinion that refused to accept guidance excusing discrimination.

With the issue of gender segregation in the media, attacks on those opposing this practice have been epitomised on this website by Hilary Aked, who ignores the broad mass of public opinion that refused to accept guidance excusing discrimination.

Aked is the founder of a bizarre blog that claims to be a campaign named "Real Student Rights" (RSR). Its raison d'etre seems to be smearing the work of Student Rights, and risibly claims responsibility for 'exposing' Student Rights' links to the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), a well-respected Westminster think-tank with cross-party parliamentary support. Given that we have never denied affiliation with HJS, co-publishing reports with the organisation, and inviting Channel 4 into our shared offices last week, it is hard to see how this constitutes "exposure".

This is just a glimpse into the conspiratorial mindset of our critics, who ask the question why we would monitor campuses, and describe our motivations as "shady". Aked's own doctoral project investigates the influence of the "Israel lobby" on British politics, and her regular false claim that Student Rights was formed in response to pro-Palestinian protests suggests that she believes we try to disrupt such activity. In reality, this is classic anti-Israel conspiracy theory, and while our director has never been shy about his feelings on the subject matter, this is not an institutional policy.

The inconvenient truth for the likes of "Real Student Rights" is that Student Rights takes no issue with peaceful pro-Palestinian activism (or peaceful activism of any kind). The only times we have ever raised pro-Palestinian activism issues is when protests have been violent or intolerant, disrupted educational proceedings, or when an extremist speaker is invited.

Instead, our work focuses on the invitation of extreme or intolerant speakers, with the government's recent task force report, which wrote that "extremist preachers use some higher education institutions as a platform for spreading their messages", showing that this is an issue which cannot be ignored.

In November 2011 the President of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies called for "serious evidence-based research on this issue", yet when we carry out this work - to a high enough standard to be taken seriously by government and the media - it is described as a 'witch-hunt' against Muslim students - an abhorrent cheap shot which seeks to utilise religion to divide students.

As we have stated before, we have no interest in attacking Britain's Muslim students, or demonising Islam. We seek to work with Muslim students and have done so in the past, being thanked for highlighting the extreme views of an invited speaker who had not been properly vetted. Anyone who thinks otherwise is welcome to come and meet with us to discuss their concerns, including Ms Aked.

However, this does not mean that we will shy away from highlighting the invitation of speakers with extreme views, or providing information enabling universities to make informed decisions when assessing risk. We do not call for balanced debates to be cancelled, and usually recommend universities encourage balance and ensure oversight, rather than cancel or ban events. We believe this approach to be fair and prioritise free speech and debate.

Despite this, we do oppose the presence of individuals with extreme or intolerant views when they are given unchallenged platforms. Any speakers who have a history of "vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values" should expect to face challenge on our campuses and the students inviting them should expect scrutiny, and be able to defend their decisions.

To suggest that this is 'Islamophobic' is not just a gross slur, but completely undermines "Islamophobia" as an effective term in representing anti-Muslim bigotry. Our critics do more harm than good to the anti-racism cause in smearing criticism of a handful of Islamist speakers as "anti-Islam". We reject this entirely, with our work only focusing more frequently on the activities of Muslim speakers because these incidents occur on a more frequent basis than those involving the fascist far-right.

Of course critics also conveniently ignore our work highlighting the invitation of these latter individuals. (See here, here, and here). If anyone genuinely believes that we ignore these incidents, then they should report them on our website using our contact form.

Critics have also attacked us for not discussing gender issues unless they relate to Islam, which makes no mention of our work highlighting the aggressive tactics of on-campus anti-abortion campaigners, the misogyny of Christian Unions, and the invitation of speakers who excuse marital rape. As any interested party can see, the smear campaign against Student Rights simply does not stand up to scrutiny.

What is striking is that those organising the "Real Student Rights" campaign are not campaigning positively on any issue. Indeed Aked has publicly stated that she personally supports the provision of segregated seating areas on campus - a disturbing endorsement for any progressive campaigner. There are also serious concerns surrounding "Real Student Rights" outreach to extremists, including Hamza Tzortzis who has publicly declared of apostates: "if someone's going to fight against the community they should be killed", and that "we as Muslims reject the idea of freedom of speech, and even the idea of freedom".

Tzortzis's organisation, IERA, was barred from operating at UCL in March after attempting to enforce segregation, and other members have excused domestic violence and supported the return of execution for fornication.

"Real Student Rights" has also approached Yvonne Ridley, who claims to have broken UN sanctions by financing the terrorist group Hamas, and told Muslims they should "boycott the police and refuse to co-operate with them", and Moazzam Begg, described by the former head of Amnesty International's Gender Unit, as "Britain's most famous supporter of the Taliban".

This should raise real questions about how progressive and inclusive this "Real Students Rights" campaign actually is, and suggests that it does not in fact have the interests of the majority of Britain's students at heart. We will continue our work to report extremism regardless of its provenance, and will not be put off by (in the words of students at London School of Economics) "an attempt to silence the group that has worked the hardest to call out fascists at British universities".

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