Blog: #StudentsNotSuspects. Reflections from a former University Islamic Society President

Reflections are great, therefore below, I try to best share my experiences as a former student group leader, in particular, my years as the President of Exeter’s Islamic Society, and why I'm not excited about the government’s latest 'counter-radicalisation' policies that will effect universities from today*, seeking to monitor student group activities.

For some strange reason, many students I encounter throughout my travels find it hard to comprehend that I was an Islamic Society President during my time at university. It must be the way I dress, talk or my (lack of) beardedness. If your name is Mohamed Ahmed Mohamed, like myself, none of the above matters, as you're labelled just another Muslim Student, who apparently, has an inclination to care about issues affecting the welfare of [Muslim] communities. Some translate that to being ‘socially active’, or outwardly expressing your ‘political beliefs’ (or whatever). If you're a Muslim, a student and outwardly expressing your ‘religiosity’ on campus, local authorities will now keep an eye on your activism, as someone who may be at 'risk of being radicalised'. *yawns*

My university students' union (SU) was very chilled. I developed a phenomenal relationship with SU staff and even university staff in a variety of [none] academic departments. I was President of the Islamic Society (2012-2014) during years where student activism was borderline none existent at Exeter (on an institutional level, NUS related campaigns, etc). I was fortunate enough to not face many challenges as President, other than the normal "external speakers" policy that the SU had in place (like every university in the UK), which our student group had to comply with (like every other student group). It was easy: share details of who the speaker is, background, their associated organisation(s), etc. The rest was history. Not once during my years as President did I face any difficulty. The trust built between SU staff and student groups is something local authorities will never understand.

Post-graduation, I recognised (anecdotal social media analysis) Exeter students' becoming more politically active on a student level (than I was previously familiar with), and a great example of this was the recent formation of the Quilliam Society on campus. If any of you are familiar, I had some healthy exchanges via social media with the society founder, and of course, not so healthy exchanges with the popular *cough cough* Maajid Nawaz. The student who's introducing the Quilliam Society at Exeter, has been made to believe that this is a student group worth forming, proof he's out of touch with what's going on on campus. The Quilliam Foundation's relationships with and agenda against Islamic Societies is nothing new, and had this student done some research, they would know that Exeter is far from the extremes they are supposedly looking out for, and that the award winning Islamic Society* is a celebrated student group for all the right reasons, loved and supported by many staff members and student groups on campus.

The Quilliam Society student group leader says he aims to demonstrate the "need to break this cycle of fear and terror", whilst hoping to "promote(s) a liberal narrative - a narrative that champions free speech, human rights, the rule of law, political and religious pluralism, and secularism ", yet the 2015 Counter Terrorism and Security (CTS) Bill, in particular, Section 26, challenges what  the Quilliam Society aims to celebrate. I have previously communicated with the Quilliam Society student leader via the world of social media, and it seems the person has  a sound heart, but it's obvious that the person has  been absorbing the Quilliam Foundation’s obsession with a so called 'ideological battle with extremism',  not backed by an evidence based approach.

Call me all the names you want, but I'm a supporter of the NUS campaign, #StudentsNotSuspects, especially the work of the NUS Black Students Campaign. My experiences as a student group leader at Exeter, followed by my consistent engagement with a variety of Student Groups  at  UK universities keeps me in touch with how new measures will effect students’ free thinking, speech and engagement with innocent democratic political activism. The new CTS measure really does seem to dictate what universities can/can't do (despite already having measures in place to combat hate speech) and insults students’ intellectual ability to challenge and engage with what lecturers or external speakers believe and spout. My studies at university were not limited to the School of Exercise and Health Sciences. I studied some modules outside of my school, one being in the Social Sciences. My then lecturer, Prof. Jonathan Githens-Mazer, encouraged us to challenge opinions, and not just conform to what he taught us. This module was by far the most intellectually stimulating classes I took during my years. Just imagine another lecturer in any department, who may not be so fluid in his teaching, having to report a student who's expressing opinions he translates as extreme? The lecturer will now have a legal duty (under the new CTS bill) to raise concerns of a student and referring their name to local authorities. Sounds crazy to me. Universities should be a hub for students to challenge and engage with intellectual discourse, which will often mean challenging public opinion. I love that, and so do university lecturers and researchers. Their purpose is to foster intellectual discussions, to challenge, and harness the confidence of students to speak on important issues effecting communities. 

We can certainly take lessons from the creative tech wiz that is Ahmed Mohamed, a young 14-year-old Sudanese-American 9th grader, whose own exploration of creativity labelled him a suspect, for bringing in a 'suspicious' looking item (according to school officials), which happened to be a clock that his engineering teacher had already approved of, before it lead to his arrest. On the contrary, cases in Britain (although not as extreme) for example in which  a young Muslim student who appeared to lack a proactive engagement in Music class, lead to his details being passed onto local authorities, without parental consent,  became a new a Prevent indicator of someone who's at 'risk of being radicalised'. This is already the direction Britain is taking when monitoring the activity of students, as well as the monitoring of nursery school children, who are at 'risk of becoming terrorists'.

As a former student group leader and Islamic Society President, the trust I and many student groups built with the SU was sufficient enough for them to not follow our every move, because measures in place regulating hate speech sufficed, and like many students groups, we all complied. But for Muslim student groups, it's not just about complying with current SU measures; it's about feeling alienated and being made to feel like a suspect community, living in a cycle of paranoia and fear, where their every move is being monitored, with measures like this leading institutions to potentially foster Islamophobia.

I'll leave you with this. Being from the UK, I'm reminded that this sort of anti-Muslim prejudice that Ahmed Mohamed from the U.S experienced (among other examples) is not exclusively limited to the American Muslim struggle, nor is living under a monitored police state. My friend's Facebook post sums up my urgent need to write this blog:

"It is so important that we do not think that this is just an 'American problem'. With laws like the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill in the UK, there will be many British Ahmed Mohameds because of a police state that sees young Muslims and their development only through the prism of national security.” – Zarah Sultana (Student and Activist)



*Exeter Students' Guild Awards Student Group of the Year 2013, Exeter RAG Awards Society of the Year 2014, Exeter Students' Guild Awards Highly Commended - Event of the Year 2015.