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MEND has been incredibly active on student campuses in recent weeks, most notably through its leadership of a series of events held across the country, which collectively comprise the ‘Islamophobia Awareness Month’ (IAM) campaign. Despite this title, there are now signs that these efforts leave behind them an ugly trail of extremism.
For instance, the IAM events at the University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol were organised by Zain Choudhry, President of the UWE Students’ Union. On 25 November 2017, the Students’ Union hosted MEND representative Sahar al-Faifi at their ‘Islamophobia Conference’. Faifi has posted anti-Semitic tweets on social media, expressed disdain for Shia and secular Muslims, and promoted conspiracy theories with regard to terrorism. Choudhry promoted this event as well as a ‘Resilience and Reporting’ workshop that also featured Faifi. Earlier this year, he was also advertised as speaking alongside Faifi and Moazzam Begg from CAGE at a ‘Stand Up To Racism’ event. The UWE Islamic Society also hosted Faifi at an event whilst Choudhry was serving as their Vice-President.
Choudhry ridiculed criticism of MEND’s ties to extremism on Twitter. However, in recent days, the President himself has been under scrutiny, condemned by fellow students for describing a rival candidate for a student election as a “very Zionist type [of] person”. The election, which was due to take place last week, was for the democratic procedures committee (DPC) of the Students’ Union.
Choudhry sent a message to a WhatsApp group, in which he described one of the students running for office, William Bates, as “a very Zionist type person who pushes for Israel flags to be put up outside of the SU [Students’ Union] and wants to end the BDS campaign”. He added that “William is currently the most likely to win, and we cannot tolerate his type of behaviour.”
In an interview with The Jewish Chronicle, William Bates said that Choudhry’s comments were “an obvious breach of the election rules and the position I was running for had nothing to do with Israel, and so it seems to me that it could be questioned what ‘very zionist type of person’ means to him here”.
The rules of the Students’ Union do not allow serving officers to campaign for or against candidates running in an election. Accordingly, following these revelations, the Students’ Union issued a statement stating that as a result of Choudhry’s actions, they have “taken the decision to end the current election period” with nominations due to reopen in December.
Choudhry has since made a public statement, in which he offered his “sincere apology to anyone who may have been offended”, stressed his inter-faith work, and commits himself to reaching out to the Union of Jewish Students (UJS).
This incident underscores the dangers of allowing groups such as MEND to engage in de facto campaigning activity on campus, and to do so without challenge. By permitting such outreach, which almost always takes the form of unbalanced events, extremist groups poison the minds of young people, including those who have been entrusted with representing their student body as a whole.
Update 11/01/2018: The UWE Students’ Union announced that following an internal investigation and disciplinary process, it found that “there was a breach of its internal rules and regulations by Zain Choudhry, The Students’ Union President” and that he “will undergo one month’s suspension, as well as undertaking additional training”.