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Backlash against Muslim UK student leader 'racist and sexist'

Supporters say Malia Bouattia's election as NUS president is recognition of grassroots activism and they expect her to keep fighting government
Malia Bouattia has spearheaded NUS opposition to the government's Prevent counter-extremism strategy (NUS)

Supporters of new UK student leader Malia Bouattia have hailed her election as National Union of Students (NUS) president as recognition of her work as a grassroots political activist and say they expect her to keep fighting the government.

Bouattia was elected on Wednesday at the NUS’s national conference, becoming the first black Muslim woman to lead the main representative body of students in the UK.

In a speech to the NUS conference following her election, Bouattia spoke of being forced to flee Algeria at the age of seven after her school was raked with gunfire during Algeria's civil war.  

“It wasn’t the bombs and the bullets, it was the fear for our education that drove them to leave everything behind,” she said “They taught me that education is key to liberation, that it would give me the power to change the world.” 

But the result of her election victory has stoked controversy because of Bouattia’s past record of political activism in her previous role as the NUS’s black students’ officer and allegations of anti-Semitism.

Bouattia has denied being anti-Semitic, but considers herself an opponent of “Zionist politics” and has criticised “mainstream Zionist-led media outlets”.

Reports in The Times newspaper and on the BBC on Friday said that students at Oxford and Cambridge universities were campaigning to cut ties with the NUS over Bouattia’s appointment.

Jack May, the leader of a Cambridge campaign to disaffiliate from the NUS, told The Times that the election sent a “horrifying message to Jewish students” and said Cambridge students “should be given a chance to decide whether or not to remain part of the increasingly toxic culture and management of the NUS”.

Harry Samuels, an NUS delegate from the University of Oxford, told the BBC: "It's not just about Malia in particular. Obviously her election enshrines the fact that NUS no longer represents all students, but there are other grievances we have with the rest of the organisation, there are other reasons we think that the organisation is no longer reformable. It's the mixture of those reasons why we're campaigning to leave."

But supporters of Bouattia, who has spearheaded student opposition to the implementation of the government’s Prevent counter-extremism strategy in universities, said she had re-energised campus politics.

“Malia's election marks a turning point in the history of NUS,” Noha Abu Majd, a PhD student at Bristol University, told Middle East Eye.

“Her win is testament to the way she has transformed the NUS Black Students' campaign. She has empowered grassroots activists on campuses across the country.”

Zarah Sultana, an NUS delegate from the Birmingham Guild of Students, told MEE there was “no question” that Bouattia would continue to oppose the government on issues of concern to students.

“She has never been afraid to take on the government or afraid to fight for what students believe in,” she said.

But some expressed concern that attacks on Bouattia would prove to be a continuing distraction throughout her presidency. 

During the four-month campaign, Bouattia told MEE she has experienced racist and Islamophobic attacks, including online abuse calling her "communist scum" and a "vile disgusting jihadist". She said she has also received death and rape threats.

In an open letter released last week, more than 50 heads of UK Jewish student societies and more than 200 other signatories also questioned whether Bouattia would be supportive of their societies on campus.

In a response posted to Twitter, Bouattia said: "I want to be clear that for me to take issue with Zionist politics is not me taking issue with being Jewish."

'Racist, Islamophobic and inherently sexist'

"Malia has been labeled a ‘racist’, an ‘extremist’ and a ‘radical’ throughout the election period, but much of the negative discourse surrounding Malia has been racist, Islamophobic and inherently sexist,” said Hareem Ghani, a student at King’s College London and the NUS’s women’s officer-elect.

“Malia has made history as the first ever Muslim woman of colour president of the NUS. However, we should not forget that it is precisely her identity that has caused so much outrage thus far.

“I believe the main issue that Malia will face throughout her presidency will be convincing others to see her actions and achievements as separate from her role as president. In spite of calls by the left and the right to embrace free speech, she will inevitably be expected to censor herself.”

The NUS has already drawn fierce criticism from the government over its campaign against Prevent and for inviting speakers including Moazzam Begg from the civil liberties campaign group CAGE to address events on its "Students Not Suspects" campus tour.

In a speech last July, British Prime Minister David Cameron said that it "shamed" the NUS and its "noble history of campaigning for justice" to ally itself with CAGE. 

Vonnie Sandlan, the president of NUS Scotland who campaigned against Bouattia's presidency, said Bouattia had been singled out for criticism in the media over her alleged opposition to a conference motion condemning the Islamic State (IS) group in 2014.

Bouattia said at the time that her criticism of the motion concerned its wording and what it mandated the NUS to do, rather than the principle behind it.

“I was in the room when the motion about ISIS was first presented and in fact I voted with Malia as did the vast majority of the 40-odd national executive committee members, and yet only Malia was singled out for attack,” said Sandlan.

“Only Malia has had this line that she ‘voted against condemning ISIS’ trotted out over and over again by people seeking to undermine her credibility.”

Angus Miller, an NUS delegate from Brunel University, said that calls for disaffiliation from the union were “reactionary”.

“It is deeply problematic that people are already judging Malia before she has started the role. Selective outrage is at play once again," he said.

"Students are facing some of the biggest attacks from this government, and it is now more important than ever before we stand united behind Malia’s presidency and respect the mandate she has been given.”

In her conference speech Bouattia said she wanted the NUS to go beyond student issues and spoke of the refugee crisis and government cuts, saying: "This conference is not about NUS. This conference has to be about society and the role of our movement within it."

Bouattia has not given any interviews to the media since her election on Wednesday.

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