11/02/2016 10:30 GMT | Updated 11/02/2017 05:12 GMT

Preventing Prevent: Opposing Islamophobia on Campus

Recent articles in the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph have attempted to paint student opposition to the government's Islamophobic "Prevent" policy as somehow being illegitimate.

Those who campaign against Prevent stand accused of supporting terrorism and sympathy with "extremism". These attacks come as no surprise. The government is out to intimidate organisations involved in Prevent and quash any opposition to the scheme.

One key target has been the recent Students Not Suspects speaking tour. Both newspapers focused on the involvement of campaigners from Cage at these events, and Moazzam Begg's presence in particular. Begg was painted as a terrorist sympathiser who should have no voice in this debate.

The Daily Mail claimed that six universities are under investigation by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) for having allowed these events to take place. But HEFCE says this is untrue. In fact each university, when contacted, said they had no concerns with the events taking place.

The Mail and Telegraph both mentioned Begg's imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay. What they fail to mention is that he was never charged or found guilty of any crime. Begg has been incarcerated, tortured, isolated and persecuted, deprived of his freedom and vilified in the press - all based on trumped-up accusations that came to nothing. The condemnation should not be aimed at him but at those governments, including our own, that were complicit in his torture.

His experiences make him extremely well qualified to discuss the destructive consequences of the "war on terror" and "anti-radicalisation" policies implemented by this government and its predecessors.

Begg was a founder of Cage, an NGO that works to "empower communities impacted by the 'war on terror'." Cage is the only organisation in Britain that supports Muslims targeted by state security services. It has also been instrumental in negotiating the release of British hostages held in the Middle East.

Cage's activity sheds a critical light on the government's anti-radicalisation legislation, raising questions about the way these policies contribute to a wider climate of Islamophobia. This is why it has been smeared by the government and media. The aim of these attacks is to drive Cage's voice out of the public sphere - along with anyone else who speaks out against Prevent.

These witch-hunts are a distraction from the disastrous and dangerous impact that Prevent is having on Muslim students and communities across the country.

Three students at Newham's NewVIC college recently found that their event on Prevent was cancelled over concerns about one of the speakers. They protested against this decision, alongside several other Islamophobic incidents - and promptly found themselves suspended from school.

Meanwhile Mohammad Farooq, a Staffordshire University student, was questioned under Prevent legislation in September for reading a book on terrorism in the library that was part of his coursework.

In case anyone doubts the racialised aspect to this, contrast these cases with that of schools in Barnsley. In a Prevent risk assessment last March they argued that they were not worried about radicalisation - because their "cohort of pupils are white British majority". Nevertheless they assured the authorities that staff would "continue to monitor BME cohort".

The repressive effects of Prevent are not limited to Muslim students - they affect wider civil liberties. In London, a School boy was questioned by police officers for circulating Palestine solidarity leaflets at school. The leaflets, the boy was told, were a sign of his "extremism". A student at the University of Birmingham was targeted under Prevent policy over his role in Living Wage campaigns.

These examples show how Prevent is not about "fighting radicalisation" - it is about stigmatising Muslim communities, reinforcing racist stereotypes, and curtailing civil liberties.

We should also note that levels of personal attacks experienced by British Muslims are at an all time high. In November 2015 the Guardian reported that 60% of respondents to an Islamic Human Rights Centre survey had experienced some form of discrimination.

In these circumstances we should be standing firm against pressure from the right wing media and the government. So it is regrettable that the NUS national president decided to join the attacks against Cage. Her recent statement says she refuses to work with the organisation despite policy, voted on at NUS national conference, to work with Cage.

A detailed rebuttal of the attacks on Cage is available on Open Democracy in an article by Tom Mills, Narzanin Massoumi and David Miller. But it is also worth noting the double standards at work here.

The NUS' president claims that Cage should be judged by the positions expressed by individual members, rather than those of the organisation as a whole. But what about those in the Labour Party who called for rapprochement with supporters of the English Defence League? Or those who voted against equal rights for the LGBTQ community, or who continue to vilify migrants?

All these views contravene basic NUS policy. Yet it would be ludicrous to ostracise the Labour Party, as an organisation, from the union's political work - despite many of the reactionary, racist and oppressive political stances held by key MPs and lay members alike.

Cage, however, finds itself judged differently. This resonates with a much wider double standard applied across society to Muslims and their organisations. They face ingrained assumptions of sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and so on. They are constantly judged to have deviated from "Western values" for one reason or another. And these assumptions are part and parcel of the racist political climate, which Prevent and related policies are whipping up across society.

NUS full time officers have attempted to broker meetings between the NUS president and Cage - but she has continually declined. By refusing to challenge right wing attacks on a leading Muslim organisation, the NUS president is reinforcing the desired outcome of Prevent: dividing our movement and policing who is or is not an "acceptable" voice for Muslims in Britain.

The NUS, and all those involved in the student movement, should categorically refuse to be drawn into the government's attempt to define the limits of "respectability" in the Muslim community and our movement as a whole. These games are aimed at blunting opposition to Islamophobia and curtailing our civil liberties more widely. If we stand by and let Cage get victimised, we will all ultimately suffer.