The government must engage with Muslim students

Islamic student societies are challenging extremism.

Prime Minister Cameron claimed in his Munich speech that not only had multiculturalism failed, but that certain parts of British society (Muslims mainly) had been divisive in their influence rather than integrating properly into the fabric of "British values", the lack of which leads to extremism and radicalisation, or so the cloudy logic goes.

The question of integration is particularly problematic. British Muslim communities are characterised by low educational attainment and poverty, yet many bright lights have broken barriers in contributing positively to British society. Take the example of Usman Ali, the first-ever Muslim Vice President of the National Union of Students (NUS) from the humble neighbourhood of Longsight in Manchester, an inspiring tale and, most encouragingly not an isolated example.

Bright lights aside, there is a need to promote this sort of aspiration and contribution on a wider scale and in light of this the national Muslim student body, the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS), has sought to establish a British civic responsibility amongst British Muslim students. From artistic to political leadership events, inclusive of both Labour and Conservative representatives, we have arranged career events with city firms, technology giants, and media outlets - a good attempt in associating Muslim students to opportunities that make a beneficial difference to Britain.

This summer, FOSIS worked closely with the Civil Service in connecting its wider membership to the corridors of government,engaging with students in Cardiff. This is integration by exactly its narrowest definition; providing for aspiring young Muslims from difficult backgrounds with access to work for the betterment of the people of their country through political engagement.

However, just days ahead of another joint FOSIS-Civil Service careers engagement in London on Tuesday, the event was cancelled from the darker corners of government. As reported by former Tory MP Paul Goodman on ConservativeHome, this happened on account of the "fury" of the Home Secretary, Theresa May. He detailed two reasons for her reaction; FOSIS' "insufficient willingness to tackle extremism", and its support of a human rights campaign.

On the accusation of cultivating extremism by neglect, umentioned is any recognition of the consistent steps taken by FOSIS to engage with key stakeholders, including government, on the issue of radicalisation on campus, an example being the widely acclaimed conference organised by FOSIS on countering extremism, the first of its kind and graced by government, security experts and university leaders alike.Also on record is FOSIS' half-century of fostering engagement between Muslim students and students' unions, universities and students of other faiths; of supporting a spirit of discussion and dialogue and intellectual integrity within Muslim groups. The allegation isslanderous, implying as it does that FOSIS fosters and promotes extremist elements. The absence of evidence is deafening.

The Babar Ahmad issue is even more contentious. Here is a man, a citizen of this very land, held without charge for seven years in high security prisons on evidence deemed unworthy in British courts, fighting extradition to kangaroo courts in the US who will probably incarcerate him to Supermaxfacilities for the rest of his natural life. FOSIS, together with a host of British organisations, is simply supporting his right to due legal process, that he be tried in a court in this country. Indeed,"British values" signify social justice, to protect the rights of individuals and of society, and our very democracy in the hands of citizens gives the right to force the government, our elected representatives, to debate the extradition of this man in parliament.

The government continues to up its rhetoric on integration and extremism, making frivolous claims whilst laying the blame at the doorstep of FOSIS and other Muslims organizations, yet its deeds in policy formation and in cancelling events such as the above are counterproductive to any notion of integration. The Home Secretary's decision to ignore an invitation to meet Muslim students in June is also restatement to this. It is time the government stopped demagoguery and started engaging; organisations like our own and students at large will continue championing British contribution, with or without them.The disconnect between the political elite and its citizens continues apace.

Nabil Ahmed is the president of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.