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It’s been over a week since elections concluded and there has been much controversy surrounding it. This blog is my weigh in on the situation and I thought it apt to post it today as it is the release of the findings from the NUS Muslim Students Survey commissioned by the NUS Women’s Officer and the NUS Black Students’ Officer which shows the reality for many Muslim students on campuses across the country.

In the lead up to and following SUUCL elections there has been a lot of critique of certain individuals, both incoming officers and incumbent members of the officer team.
Some of this has related to conduct at councils and general assemblies, behaviour, misogyny and so on – to be clear, where this is the case these undoubtedly need to be taken seriously, dealt with appropriately and should not be tolerated.
However, I have serious problems where accusations have stretched beyond these and into speculation which is often full of inaccuracies, failing to take into account context or the complexity of the issue(s) at hand. Blanket statements being made about certain groups on campus namely the Islamic society (a society who’s membership is not politically uniform and does not always agree!) have been deeply problematic, homogenising and have painted out one of the largest societies on campus as being completely monolithic. This shines a light on the biases of those making the claims without offering meaningful solutions to concerns raised.

Before proceeding further it’s probably worth reiterating what the purpose of any student union is and should be – to defend and represent the interests of students, especially those who are marginalised and campaign around issues that impact them. Neither our university nor our students are isolated from the wider political climate or issues affecting society, so our campaigning cannot end at the borders of our campus. In turn, our student body spans members from across the world, and with UCL trumpeting its tagline as ‘London’s Global University’, I strongly believe that the work of the union should be attentive to the wider global context within which we operate, not just inward-looking.

It is that fundamental point – defending and representing students’ interests – which student unions often fail on, and in the case of SUUCL this has come with grave consequences.

In 2010 the data, addresses, contact details and phone numbers of EVERY single Islamic society and RUMS Isoc member (amounting to 900 students) at UCL between 2005 and 2009 was shared, willingly, with the CIA and intelligence services by the SU and UCL registry without students’ permission after a former Muslim UCL student unsuccessfully attempted an act of terrorism on a flight en route to Detroit, USA. This led to over 50 home visits of former Muslim students by counter-terrorism police, a traumatic and intimidating infringing on their civil, political and human rights. The ex-student was also of Nigerian descent which led to investigation into some Black students and some other cultural societies.

The depth of this betrayal by union reps and the human impact of this episode could have been enough to turn Muslim and/or students of colour off engaging with the union full stop, and withdrawing from campus politics altogether. Yet, these students responded by throwing themselves into the democracy of our union, regularly standing in officer elections and playing a part in the formation the BME officer sabbatical role to ensure the SU protected the rights of the most marginalised on campus.

For these reasons I will always back the mobilisation of Muslim and/or students of colour on campus as it showed that if we do not stand for ourselves, it’s not just an issue of nobody will stand for us, it is very possible that people will stand against us.

With this history, it troubles me deeply that Muslim students engaging with campus politics have come under the level of scrutiny they have recently.
Claims in the recent Pi media article “Does SUUCL represent the student body?” questioning the “diversity” and political agenda of this year’s – majority PoC - officer team are perversely ironic, and skirt dangerously close to dog-whistle politics.
I would like to think that the officer team would be as robustly critiqued if we were standard, white, down-the-road bureaucrats as found in other unions. But somehow I’m not sure, and therein lies the problem. The bias in their rhetoric is especially reinforced by another article they published titled “Get rid of the BME officer”.

Going back to the first article it shows the success rate of candidates endorsed not just by the Islamic society, but Pakistani Society, Friends of Palestine Society, Arab Society, Somali Society and Hip Hop & R’n’B Society. These are all societies that are wholly made up of students of colour, have strong Muslim memberships – but are by no means homogenous, and collectively cover a wide range of UCL students and interests. The relative success of candidates backed by these societies should be taken as a reflection on the graft of their campaigns, without imputing an air of conspiracy theory about Muslim takeovers to explain.

In that same article the Labour society, a predominantly white society which has also had notable success in candidate endorsements - and is arguably more politically uniform than non-political societies - do not receive anywhere near the level of scrutiny. Interesting.

A debating society committee member is quoted as saying “I don’t think it’s Islamophobic to suggest that one society has so much power. If any society had that much power, they should be scrutinised.”
This statement embodies the assumptions built into much of the criticism aired. These are that
a) That Muslim officers only seek to represent Muslims: we do not, and are accountable and can be scrutinised by the student body on the whole through democratic forums, as with any other officer.
b) Muslim officers aren’t open to hearing the perspectives of other students within the student body.

Both a committee member of the debating society and the conservative society treasurer come out to voice their concerns stating how they have not had much success in elections. The students union ultimately brings change to the student body and this is often done through the institution, when we look at the rhetoric and politics of these 2 societies, their political ethos is already very present in the institution and the student body. So then what motivating factor do these societies have for getting more actively involved in mobilisation for elections?

Looking deeper at elections, the debate going round has centred on iPads.
Harassment and bullying in elections is, of course, unacceptable.
A cursory look at UCL’s election history will show that it has been a problem stemming from multiple groups and parties over the years. A passing glance at the state of SU elections across the country will show that harassment is an almost universal problem, even in places where iPads aren’t able to be used.
There is a clear culture within student elections that gives rise to intimidation, and take the form of whatever tactics are available to campaigners. So I find it genuinely bizarre that people think getting rid of iPads and electronic devices for campaigning will stop harassment during elections.
The debate around abolishing iPads has felt performative - we must address the wider culture and social issue of harassment during elections rather than focusing on the myth that electronic devices are the reason that harassment happens.
Practically speaking, the current SUUCL bye-laws state that issues of conduct must be reported within one hour of elections closing. This is frankly ridiculous. It does not take into account logistical aspects of making formal complaints, or the fact that evidence can take time to accrue or that students who have been harassed may not know what constitutes harassment till it’s too late - or may just not know how to report it. This time period must be extended to something more reasonable and tangible, and ensure that those responsible are held to account.

On the topic of this years’ elections - a certain political grouping on campus ran candidates for sabbatical positions and none of them were successful. They were frustrated, understandably. However a current sabbatical officer who is part of this group lost his composure and went and posted this tweet on social media (which they then deleted).

What they outlined in this tweet was categorically untrue and on their recent blog on the SU website they have continued with their false blanket statements about what has happened.
Yes, next academic year all the sabbatical officers will be Muslim. Some individuals among them have received very valid and legitimate criticism. However, the actions of a few are being used to homogenise and blame all of the incoming officers for things they did not do.
Some of the incoming officers are being heavily judged before they have even had a chance to open their mouths, without having been party to any of the issues that have been mentioned.

There is an undeniable echo of the same rhetoric enforced on Muslims in wider society - that if one Muslim makes a mistake then all must be held accountable by association. This narrative has once again has trickled down into the union and now the student body.

Looking at the NUS Muslim students survey stats,  63% of Muslim students would stand as course reps but only 38% would stand as a sabbatical officer for fear of having their identities challenged, making them feel that roles that have little to do with their faith or politics are safer.

We must not shy away from accountability, political critique and seeking fair and proper elections. But at the same time those pursuing the above must do a lot better to check their own prejudice.