Last Monday, the University of East London (UEL) hosted an event entitled ‘After Paris Horror…Don’t let the Racists Divide Us. No to Islamophobia. Defend Civil Liberties’.
It is important that universities remain spaces in which students can both raise awareness of anti-Muslim hatred and freely discuss and criticise government policies.
Unfortunately, the event was instead used as another opportunity to spread misinformation about government counter-radicalisation policy.
Malia Bouattia, the National Union of Students (NUS) Black Students Officer, started her speech by describing the Prevent strategy as “state sponsored Islamophobia and racism”.
She went on to claim that Prevent:“…is shutting down universities as places of critical inquiry because anything a little subversive or challenging to the status quo runs the risk of being branded extremist”.
According to Bouattia, this means that anti-cuts campaigners are under threat, a point reiterated by fellow panellist Weyman Bennett who said:“If you question David Cameron you could be viewed as a non-violent extremist, if you are against fracking you could be viewed as a non-violent extremist”.
The idea that Prevent is designed to suppress all opposition to the Government seriously misleads students.
Instead, it is a criticism which risks scaring students into believing they will be targeted by Prevent for engaging in peaceful democratic activism, and undermining the policy’s effectiveness.
During the Q&A, Bouattia defended CAGE from what she described as attempts to “delegitimise” and “demonise” the organisation.
This is despite the fact that such criticism has even come from her own president, Megan Dunn, who promised to break links with CAGE in October.
At the time, Ms Dunn said:“Working with Cage would not be compatible with the NUS’s policies on ‘anti-racism, anti-fascism and how we define anti-Semitism’”.
However, it was not just Begg’s presence beside Bouattia that raised concerns, with MEND’s Sufyan Ismail also appearing on the platform.
Ismail argued earlier this year that if Muslims became more involved in politics it could stop those travelling to fight in Syria being criminalised.
He has also claimed that British law “allowed violence against Muslims while protecting other groups” and that British society hates Muslims.
The fact that NUS officers like Bouattia continue to work with individuals like Begg and Ismail, and to regurgitate extremist narratives about Prevent, highlights the extent to which they and their organisation remain part of the problem.