The NUS And Islamic State: Why Islamophobia And Imperialism Shouldn’t Mean Pacifism.
The National Union of Students (NUS) won’t condemn Islamic State (IS), because it would be Islamophobic to do so, despite the proposal being tendered by a student of Kurdish descent. This tells us quite a bit about ‘Islamophobia,’ and the associated post-colonial rhetoric that stifles discourse on these issues, ultimately forcing people to be tolerant of the intolerant… lest they be branded intolerant. It also tells us that gross generalisations occur on both sides of an argument even by those claiming to be addressing them.
Personally I think that the NUS should probably focus on education and student support rather than get involved in these matters. No amount of condemnation will make IS drop their butchers knives, but the symbolism of such a stance is important. When students in a liberal democracy won’t exercise their right to freedom of expression to condemn this group for fear of being Islamophobic or ‘imperialist’, society really has a problem. Their lack of backbone, and apparent moral relativism is predictable however, as this isn’t the first time the NUS have sided with religious conservatives.
I’m now a psychology postgraduate researcher at university, and after a career in the Armed Forces, and as a communications liaison for a short time in Pakistan, I was staggered to see that recently the NUS undermined principles of gender equality and education that I served to protect. They did this by backing guidelines from Universities UK (UUK), which allowed for the segregation by gender, of any talks on campus if the speaker’s religious proclivity required it. Happily, after a well led campaign, these guidelines were overturned, and the puppets that would have seen them become the norm, had their views condemned by no less than the Prime Minister. The mantra was the same here though, to criticise anything claimed as Islamic would be Islamophobic, so by default we shouldn’t challenge it.
Let’s be clear, opposing distasteful, inequality promoting, and dangerous pieces of scripture, and the barbarism that they inspire isn’t a phobia. It is completely rational, especially when you see people act them out. We know all too well what happens when this narrative is used: Death threats and fatwas against Salman Rushdie for a book, Danish ambassadors and editors threatened because of cartoons, and death threats for a t-shirt or tweet depicting Muhammed (or the giant egg in the case of Channel 4 news) become almost accepted as the norm, and that’s only in the West. We definitely shouldn’t forget the people protesting, sometimes even murderously, because they feel offended by a film made by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Theo Van Gogh, bloggers in Bangladesh, or the ‘blasphemy’ of Asia Bibi.
There is a problem in the world with this type of victimhood mentality, refusal to accept criticism, and denial of a basic link between beliefs and behaviour. A problem, that only reformist Muslims like Maajid Nawaz, and even Ex-Muslims like Ali A Rizvi, and Muhammad Syed and Sarah Haider have a chance to address. Indeed, even Muslims like the former Iraqi MP Ayad Jamal Al-Din and Qanta Ahmed are attacked by people who really should listen when they speak out about problems in the Islamic world. Qanta Ahmed particularly challenges Islamism as having nothing to do with Islam, and is harassed by student groups such as Students for the Justice of Palestine just for challenging ideas and pointing out hard truths. Such reformers need support. They are brave enough to admit there is a problem. They also risk their lives by doing so, and are paradoxically called Islamophobes and denounced as traitors to Islam (just like IS are), but for trying to bring about a positive and non-violent change of ideas and a counter narrative.
The other meaning of the term Islamophobia seems to be tantamount to an accusation of racism, and I’m frustrated by the need to say this, but criticising ideas isn’t racist or bigoted, no matter how many people hold them. Although it is widely believed now that race could include religion and various other aspects of identity that we use to form schemas, it doesn’t mean commenting on beliefs is racist by default. It does seem to be expedient to claim such religious identity is a racial feature, especially when you want to deter criticism though. Many who discuss these issues take great pains to make it obvious they’re not criticising an entire group of people, but ideas, as was the case in the by now infamous clip with Ben Affleck, Bill Maher, and Sam Harris, which of course people like Reza Aslan tried to rebuke using his charming demeanor, and misinformation. Many people slam Christianity and have never been called Christianophobic, and some the worst ideas in history are contained in the pages of the Bible, Armageddon being one of them. In fact, I’d argue that vast swathes of the world are Atheiophobic, in that there are plenty of countries where just being an atheist gets you executed, and others where it’s actually illegal! It’s also worth pointing out that the NUS also seem to be guilty of Islamophobia, and the racism of lower expectations by asserting that condemnation of ISIS would offend Muslims, as if they’re somehow a homogenous group who all have the same view of their religion as IS, which is of course not true – No True Scotsman comes to mind.
Now to the point of imperialism, which is intensely central to Islamic extremist propaganda, as it strangely seems to be a reason for the NUS to reject the motion. If rejection of the motion was anti-interventionism then fine, we should definitely have an awareness of the imperialist actions of our predecessors. But it shouldn’t be cited reflexively almost like a script in every instance and drive people to be complete pacifists. Even Mehdi Hasan isn’t a pacifist that discounts all forms of intervention and he has a pretty critical view of the west in general. The word Imperialist, like Islamophobia, intentionally clouds the issue. For those who have only recently become aware of Kurdistan in light of the rise of IS, there are many complex problems within the region that wouldn’t be solved by a military campaign, definitely not one led by western powers, but very few of them are down to Islamophobia. Why wouldn’t other sovereign nations intervene when a beleaguered population actually ask for help? Especially when many of the nations participating are regional powers themselves – although I wouldn’t want to call Saudi Arabia an ally, considering they’ve probably beheaded more people than IS and their petrodollars fund many other groups. Risk to further destabilise the region is perhaps one valid reason, or because foreign intervention supposedly created IS, by which many people mean the removal of Sadaam and training of a militia caused it. Perhaps it’s because we can never be sure that those we fund won’t use the same tactics as IS, again, a legitimate concern, but these things are never easy, easy to comment on when you’re not at risk yourself – the irony isn’t lost on me -, but never simple to solve. Or maybe it’s actually because people are concerned that our government’s actions might be interpreted as imperialist and this could reflect badly on us? It’s usually the case today that the placards only seem to come out in opposition to the west, especially in the context of Isreal and Hamas of course, which the NUS is happy to weigh in on despite the leadership on both side being despicable. It’s almost like beheadings, the trading of women as sexual slaves, the training of children as jihadis, and sectarian violence just isn’t our problem. As long as it’s in that part of the world, and vague statements about imperialism keep our hands clean and negate our responsibility to other humans.
Sectarianism is important here though. I’m not advocating that religion is the sole driver for conflict as some research contests this point. Rather, it’s a justification, with scriptural authority to malign the out-group, which you must admit makes it a lot easier to kill them. After all, genocide of the out-group is as much a part of God’s teaching as morality in the Bible. Indeed, it could be argued that at least in George Bush’s mind, the reason the USA went to war in Iraq was a religious crusade, although that might be stretching it. It would, however, be a monumental blunder to excuse religion as playing a huge part in violence and persecution in the Middle East, both past and present. When such events and their perpetrators scream religious motivation, and divine commandment at every opportunity we should listen, but not brand all Muslims as the same – Islamic sectarian violence existing long before anyone else got involved in the region.
It seems to be the case, that even in our universities, we’re so hobbled by religious identity politics and our own colonial past that we can’t criticise violent aspects of ideology, or their perpetrators, for fear of offending entire communities. Even when we set out that such criticism isn’t directed at all adherents to the faith, that this particular motion isn’t pro-intervention, doesn’t demonise all Muslims, and that many Islamic communities rightly condemn them anyway. It’s a troubling truth, but IS is Islamic, to deny this is intellectual bankruptcy. Their views: A literal reading of parts of scripture, permanent self-victimisation (I’d wager many believe there’s also an unbroken chain of conflict from the crusades onwards), and hatred of anyone that doesn’t subscribe to their ideology, is thankfully only one of many attitudes across the spectrum of the followers of Islam – It’s worrying that so many liberals buy the anti-western narrative though. Whilst distancing Islam for IS seems to be good for community cohesion, it is potentially disastrous. Calling them non-Muslim, and conducting apologia for all problems in the Muslim world, could be counterproductive at best, and a handwringing denial that there is an ideological and scriptural problem to own and change at worst. Inflexibility does seem to be what you get when you claim ideas are perfect, divinely authored, and need no change though. This is why education, criticism, and secularism are so very important.
And where are the Muslim and Non-Muslim Kurds who are actually affected in all of this? Whilst some students sit on the political correctness fence and peacock their ‘liberal’ credentials of offence avoidance, the men and women of Kurdistan are literally fighting for their lives. They’re stuck between a force of fanatics that shows no mercy whatever your demographic, and the Turkish leadership that shows only begrudging sympathy. To say that condemnation of IS is Islamophobic or imperialist, is to betray the Kurds and belittle a human crisis, as well as abdicate the responsibility to stand up for liberal principles. Those same principles, that whilst such students take advantage of them, seem more concerned with political obscurantism and not feeling responsible themselves, than defending those people who are having their basic human rights erased.