Genuine equality issues are taking a back seat to accommodating religious intolerance in student politics.
Last week two motions passed by university student unions at different ends of the country have gone a long way towards convincing me that many of these institutions are no longer fit for purpose when it comes to challenging religious intolerance on campus.
The first, voted through on Tuesday at University College London (UCL), ostensibly called on the union to support a campaign called ‘Real Student Rights, but in reality attacked my organisation Student Rights for investigating campus extremism.
It insinuated that our work showed support for far-right politics and claimed that we deliberately fuel Islamophobia and encourage fascist groups like the English Defence League.
Of course none of this is remotely true, but it shows how warped the priorities of some student unions have become when those challenging bigotry are the ones attacked before those propagating it.
When a similar motion passed at LSE before Christmas one student society there lamented it as “an attempt to silence the group that has worked the hardest to call out fascists at British universities”.
Worse still though, is the fact that the motion mandated the UCL Union to back ‘Real Student Rights’, despite the fact that it has sought support from extremists, including one whose organisation is actually barred from operating at UCL.
In addition to this, the ‘Real Student Rights’ group has also approached Moazzam Begg, stripped of his passport in December 2013 after he was assessed to have been involved in terrorist activity in Syria.
That a student union should pass a motion which condemns a group working to challenge intolerance and supports those who ally themselves with extremists is disappointing enough.
However, following this the student union at the University of Edinburgh went further, and voted down a motion calling on the institution to “commit to disallowing imposed or directed segregation”.
Proposed by the Humanist Society, the motion was attacked by students in a number of speeches “which either stated or implied that the society’s motivations were racist and Islamophobic”.
That students should choose to place the rights of religious bigots above those of women by refusing to pass this motion is simply astonishing, as is the fact that they should compound doing so by smearing students fighting for equality as anti-Muslim.
However, given recent quotes from other student union officials supporting the imposition of segregation, including from a Goldsmiths College ‘Welfare and Diversity Officer’, who claimed banning segregation would “deny right to assembly for certain campus groups”, this outcome should perhaps not be a surprise.
Its grim inevitability does not, however, make the result any less disgraceful, and in tandem with the motion passed at UCL it highlights the challenges faced by those who would oppose religious intolerance on campus.
Despite the 300 miles and 48 hours that separated the two motion debates, the final votes show the same thing: that genuine equality issues are now increasingly taking a back seat to accommodating religious intolerance in student politics.
Hume and Bentham, the two universities’ most famous sons, would be disgusted.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.
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