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Student Rights: Exposing extremism or targeting Muslim students?

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Student Rights is a “non-partisan group dedicated to supporting equality, democracy and freedom from extremism on university campuses.” So why has the NUS condemned it and seven student unions banned it for its links to a neoconservative think tank?

Yesterday, the NUS Executive Council unanimously voted to condemn Student Rights' presence on university campuses. This followed seven student unions – LSE, Birkbeck, Goldsmiths, UCL, Kingston, Queen Mary and King’s College – who condemned the organisation.

The NUS was unequivocal in its condemnation of the group, with NUS Black Students’ Officer Aaron Kiely calling them an “insidious organisation” with a “total lack of transparency.”

“They are totally discredited and the NUS condemning them will hopefully put an end to this toxic organisation,” added Kiely.

Ostensibly an organisation aimed at tackling political extremism on campus, Student Rights has faced criticism over its links to the right-wing Henry Jackson Society, with which it shares an office and has previously received funding from. Members of the Henry Jackson Society include Associate Director Douglas Murray, columnist at the Spectator and author of a book called Neoconservatism: Why We Need It and Raheem Kassam, Associate Fellow at the Society and director of Student Rights.

These links, its critics have claimed, have led to Student Rights unfairly targeting Muslim students on campus. Indeed, its report last year on gender segregation at universities in the UK was criticised by former NUS vice-president Pete Mercer as a “witch-hunt” and a way of “demonising” Muslim students.

Hilary Aked is an organiser at counter group Real Student Rights, which has campaigned to have Student Rights condemned by universities.

“We feel that they single out Muslim students and in effect their activities seek to make universities treat Islamic Societies restrictively and with automatic suspicion. They are fear mongering amongst the student body itself and presenting sexism/homophobia as ‘Muslim problems’, when actually heteronormativity is widespread in society.

“The sum of their activities serves to sow discord and ultimately impinges on freedom of speech,” she argues.

According to Aked, Student Rights also has an “anti-democratic approach”, having called for Special Branch officers to be allowed onto university campuses to monitor extremism, while director Kassam has previously supported police officers attempting to recruit Cambridge students as informants.

Above all, Student Rights’ lack of connection to actual students – the organisation lists student activists as part of its membership, but not on its advisory board – means it shouldn’t be used as a representative of the student body, argues Aked.

So does Student Rights unfairly target Muslim minorities at universities for extremism? A quick look at its latest blog posts show five posts dealing with Islamic extremism on campus, two with neo-Nazis, one with LBGT rights and one on a Muslim prayer room being defaced. However, the organisation's media appearance overwhelmingly deals with Islamic extremism, with articles in the Telegraph, Evening Standard, Daily Mail, Independent and Spectator all focusing on Islamic extremism among the student body.

Unsurprisingly, Student Rights feels it is being unfairly targeted as Islamophobic.

“I think we are targeted as Islamophobic as it is an easy way to shut down debate and to avoid having to address the issues that we raise,” says Rupert Sutton, a researcher at Student Rights.

“We cover extreme or intolerant speakers who are invited onto campuses regardless of religion and have no interest or agenda in attacking Muslim students. We cover extremists of all types on our website, and have frequently challenged ‘Real Student Rights’ to provide evidence of extremists that we have ignored yet they have been unable to do so.”

He adds: “We have regularly documented extreme material including videos featuring convicted terrorists and Al-Qaeda linked preachers being shared with and by students. Cases like Roshonara Choudhry, a promising student at King’s College who decided to carry out an attack after watching videos of Al-Qaeda cleric al-Awlaki on YouTube, or Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the fourth former President of a university Islamic Society to be charged with a terrorist offence, show that such concerns are valid ones.”

On the issue of being condemned by student unions, Sutton suggests that only a “small number of politically motivated individuals making false claims” are involved in the motions, who don’t speak for the student body as a whole.

“Only a tiny number of students vote in these debates, and it is clear that most of those who do have clearly been misinformed by these defamatory motions.”

“As well as this, several of these motions have been proposed by students after they were caught trying to invite extremists onto campus, suggesting that our success has been one of the reasons why we are now being targeted,” added Sutton.

Despite the condemnation of the NUS, Sutton suggests that Student Rights will continue to expose extremist speakers on campus.

“We do not seek to speak on behalf of students, we simply highlight where we find extreme/intolerant speakers targeting students. To claim that only students can address these issues is a way of avoiding having to respond to our work,” he says.

But for Aked, the NUS vote is a victory:

"This decisively proves that 'Student Rights' has no right to give itself that name as it neither defends nor represents students. Now that the national student body has condemned the group we hope its days of stigmatising and silencing Muslim students are over.”

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