Luke McManus, BA Arabic and Social Anthropology
I quite like the idea of a Students’ Union. Knowing that I can have a say in the affairs of my university makes me feel included, valued and proud of what we are – a fantastically diverse body of students that can democratically achieve great things. But last week, a couple of things happened that left me at a loss with an otherwise brilliant idea.
My first cause for alarm, was news that the National Union of Students had rejected a motion which condemned the actions of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Black Students Officer, Malia Bouattia, swayed the vote with her speech on the matter, citing that the condemnation in its proposed form was Islamophobic and it would advocate “Western imperialistic intervention or the demonisation of Muslim peoples.”
This was confusing, not least because the motion made clear the need to express no confidence in the very type of “imperialistic intervention” Bouattia was against. Her reasoning was based on a concern for the wider Muslim community, that they not be “demonised.” But in refusing to initially condemn ISIS and effectively set them apart from other Muslims, Bouattia arguably drew the Muslim community and ISIS closer together, under guise of avoiding Islamophobic sentiment. This undid the work of activists earlier in the month, when a number of people – mostly Muslims – adopted the hashtag on Twitter #Notinmyname, to counter associations drawn between ISIS and and their faith.
Of course, in the current context of Black History Month, what I really think Bouattia was getting at was the fact that nothing good comes of a colonial, Orientalist West – and this is often very true. But if we – as the West – subdue any genuine desire to help those at risk in other countries, then I’d feel equally as responsible for their suffering as the colonialist argument purports the origins of such suffering to be.
With that in mind, it was then only to be expected that the spectre of colonialism would make another appearance in the forums of student debate. It was just a day later, in fact, at Goldsmiths University, where students voted against a motion that outlined a desire for the university to take part in the globally recognised Holocaust memorial day next month. The university’s Education Officer, Sarah El-alfy, was the motion’s most outspoken critic, explaining that such a thing was “Eurocentric” and “colonialist,” alluding to the fact that there are many other genocides and heinous moments in history that demand equal representation.
Here, El-alfy has a point. Of course it shouldn’t be just the Holocaust that gets a memorial day. But attacking people on principle who wish to remember such a thing isn’t right; the Holocaust is notable because the lives of 6 million people were extinguished, not because it just so happened to take place in Europe. The pursuit of maintaining a politically correct stance, by effectively arguing that no genocide is more genocidal than the other, is a futile thing and distorts the understanding of the facts.
Both motions mentioned here will be rewritten to encompass the wider student sentiment, and will be revisited in their respective assemblies. This is a good thing. But ultimately the damage has been done; whether the sensationalism surrounding these stories is overblown or not, it has certainly sent out the message that student bodies are hyper-sensitive to certain political issues and take somewhat extreme views. I’d hazard a guess that things like this aren’t good for the reputation of student politics, nor their unions. Maybe it’s time for us to think sensibly – whatever that might be.