Jennie Bristow unpicks the attitude of the National Union of Students to 'extremist' Muslim fundamentalists. On Monday July 22, the Runnymede Trust, the independent thinktank on race relations, launched its Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia. Chaired by Gordon Conway, vice chancellor of the University of Sussex, the commission apparently aims to address the increasing number of "negative images" of Muslims promoted today, especially in the media.
Its concern is that Muslims are too often viewed as fundamentalists and extremists, without any acknowledgement of the diverse forms of Islam. The findings of the commission's inquiry will make recommendations to the media and political parties about how best to promote more positive images and opportunities for British Muslims.
The widespread intolerance of Islam within British society is a very real problem. The commission could learn something from looking at anti-Islam prejudice within universities, and the role of the National Union of Students in creating and in attempting to challenge it.
I first became concerned about the problem within British universities about three years ago, when I attended the NUS annual conference for the first time. Discussion was dominated by a motion to ban a "fundamentalist" Muslim group called Hizb-ut Tahrir. Charged with promoting "extremist" anti-Semitic, anti-women and anti-gay views, the group was soon prevented from organising in most colleges.
At the time I was horrified that NUS, which prides itself on representing the views of students from all different backgrounds and religions, could ban a group because it was seen to promote the "wrong" ideas. I was convinced that the ban would not go through, and that universities, places which exist precisely to provide a forum for clashes of opinion, would not support the censorship of a group of students because of their religious beliefs. Not only did the ban stay, universities supported it overwhelmingly.
The campaign against Hizb-ut Tahrir has been reinforced by every subsequent NUS conference. Many other Muslims commonly find themselves viewed with suspicion and mistrust. At NUS conference 1994, following a scuffle between Hizb-ut Tahrir and the organisers, other Muslim delegates were hassled by police as they walked to the conference. Muslim students attempting to set up union societies are often presumed to have a connection with Hizb-ut Tahrir, and find their activities closely monitored.
The effect on religious freedom, and freedom of speech in general, within colleges has been detrimental. With the ban on Hizb-ut Tahrir, NUS has set a precedent that some religious beliefs and activities are unacceptable. Islam, perceived as having negative views towards women, homosexuals, and Jewish people, is seen as unacceptable to NUS, which prides itself on its support for oppressed groups.
However NUS has, over recent months, become aware of the effect of the anti-Hizb-ut Tahrir campaign in intensifying the amount of prejudice against Muslims generally. In the face of charges of racism, it has sharpened the distinction between "extremist" Islamic fundamentalists and other Muslims. At its last conference, it stressed that there was nothing wrong with Islam itself, but that there was a problem with how some people interpreted and used aspects of the religion.
Creating a distinction between "acceptable" and "unacceptable" forms of Islam has done nothing to lessen anti-Muslim prejudice, and everything to intensify it. Now religious freedom within colleges has become conditional on what that particular religion preaches, and it is acceptable for NUS to impose rules on Muslim groups, dictating what they should say and how they should organise. The campaign against Hizb-ut Tahrir, meanwhile, has managed to escape charges of being anti-Muslim, and is posed instead as part of an attempt to challenge "extremism in general".
A potential problem with the Runnymede Trust's inquiry into "Islamophobia" is that it appears to have a similar character to NUS's campaign against "extreme" forms of Islam. By posing the "fundamentalist caricature" as the major problem facing British Muslims, the commission reinforces a distinction between "good", moderate Muslims, and "bad", fundamentalist extremists.
It will also lead to more media regulation. If the problem, as stated by Professor Conway, is the amount of anti-Muslim sentiment in the media, then the proposed solution will be to dictate more to the media about the views it puts forward. This will fail to tackle the prejudice at source, and keep it more effectively hidden.
As the Hizb-ut Tahrir experience indicates, one of the key causes of anti-Islam prejudice is the perceived need to regulate certain ideas. Surely the first step in tackling prejudice against Islam is to challenge the notion that only particular forms of Islam are acceptable. Without the freedom for all Muslims, and all religions, to air their opinions openly, and the freedom of others to challenge these opinions, prejudice will never be tackled.
Jennie Bristow is a student at the University of Sussex.