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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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.