Student Rights, a two-man group with a history of pressuring British universities to prevent certain individuals that it deems to be ‘extremists’ – frequently Muslims – from speaking to students on campus, has issued a statement in response to widespread criticism of its activities, including its most recent report on gender segregation. It contains several easily refutable arguments.
First, Student Rights claims that the fact that their study manufactured an impressive-sounding 25% figure by selecting a biased sample is ”rendered irrelevant by the fact that we made no attempt to extrapolate our data”. This is simply not true, as the conclusion to their report clearly asserts: “The fact that such a large percentage of the events logged by Student Rights during this time period either explicitly advertised events as segregated by gender or implied that this would be the case underlines claims that events highlighted are not ‘isolated incidents’ but rather form a part of a wider, discriminatory trend on UK university campuses” (p.17). If that’s not an attempt to extrapolate, what is?
Secondly, Student Rights makes the frankly bizarre claim that “at no point do we conflate the two issues” of gender segregation and extremism, elsewhere repeating this by saying “gender segregation and violent extremism are not something that we would link”. Strange, then, that when the Huffington Post asked Raheem Kassam, the director of Student Rights, how he responded to concerns that the group’s activities served only to demonise Muslim students, he said: “This report neither aims to, nor does it, demonise Muslim students, it seeks to protect them from extremism, in this case in the form of segregation.” Which sounds a lot like drawing a link between segregation and extremism, doesn’t it?
And stranger still the fact that each of the numerous media outlets who featured the reportdid so in stories with the word ‘extremists’ in the headline (except The Sun which went for ‘radical’ but nonetheless focused on the fact that supposedly ‘extremist speakers’ had spoken at universities). Because of its erroneous claim that it does not conflate segregation and extremism, Student Rights has been forced to blame the media for the coverage resulting from its report which the organisation admits contained “mistakes” and “inaccurate headlines”. They attempt to absolve themselves of responsibility though, saying: “those…who have an issue with inaccurate headlines should remember that for many media outlets the temptation to round up to the nearest exaggeration is often difficult to resist. This is not the fault of Student Rights”.
Firstly, excuse our pedantry. Perhaps we should lighten up. Student Rights clearly does not “have an issue” with inaccuracy since instead of seeking corrections or clarifications, they instead simply posted on their website about how much media coverage they had receivedand even their subsequent statement again brags about the report featuring on the front page of The Times. Secondly, it beggars belief that the conflation of this ‘research’ on segregation with the narrative of ‘extremism on campus’ was not invited by Student Rights. The sample for their study was 180 events featuring “speakers with a history of extreme or intolerant views, as well as those events which explicitly promote gender segregation” – an inexplicable choice unless some connection is being implied. Based on the relatively minor role that the segregation issue plays in much of the ‘extremism’-focused press coverage, and on Kassam’s clear characterisation of segregation as a ‘form of extremism’, belying the organisation’s denial that it conflates the two issues, it seems reasonable to ask whether the segregation report was in fact explicitly pitched as an ‘extremism story’.
This is not, however, to absolve the media outlets who ran these stories of their share of the blame. Nico Hines, the journalist who penned the front page story in The Times (‘Extremists preaching to students in Britain’, Monday 13 May 2013) to his credit at least responded to requests to comment via Twitter. However, initially he claimed that The Times did not misinterpret the report. This is not what Student Rights’ new statement implies. And, quite apart from the conflation of segregation and extremism, the second paragraph of Hines’ original article did falsely state: “Segregated seating for male and female students is understood to have been implemented for at least a quarter of the public meetings held by the Islamic societies at 21 universities.”
When this was pointed out, Hines acknowledged the error and said it had been “a typo” that was corrected in the second edition of the paper. The main correction appears to have been replacing the word ‘the’ with ‘those’ – arguably still open to misinterpretation. Sadly, Hines declined to say that the paper would print a correction or clarification, despite the fact that the error in the first edition will have grossly misled thousands on this highly sensitive issue and even though the second edition still lends that ‘one quarter’ figure a meaning and significance it does not deserve given the methodological flaws previously exposed. One wonders whether, without the “typo” in the original version, the story would have been front page news at all.
Finally, it is interesting to note that Student Rights say in their statement that they ‘have no problem with students choosing to self-segregate’. There was of course, no mention of this in their report which, critically, made no attempt to ascertain how many of the events they counted were in fact voluntarily segregated due to the mutually held religious convictions of all those present. They cite the wording of one Islamic society that apparently says it practices “a strict policy of segregated seating between males and females” and say that here “the issue of choice appears moot”. But a number of the other events in their report are said to have promised that “segregation will be provided to the best of our abilities”, implying that there may be a demand for this practice from members.
The point is that with the vast majority of these events we just do not know either way and Student Rights’ report did not bother to find out by asking students themselves – it simply condemned the practice outright. NUS Vice President for Welfare, Pete Mercer, has told the BBC that the National Union of Students is not aware of a single complaint made by a student to a university or students’ unions about gender segregation. So aside from the one anonymous quote Student Rights gives, it appears they may have manufactured a problem where none exists. Justifying their approach by reference to “rules that may not be codified but exist due to social pressure” is paternalistic in the extreme and denies that the women whose rights the group presents itself as defending can make up their own minds.
The real story here is that a right wing pressure group – a side-project of the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society - has found a ready market in the mainstream media for trumped up stories contributing to a climate of fear and suspicion concerning the UK’s 100,000 Muslim students. And the real story of students needing protection from extremism is buried in a passing mention on page 16 of Student Rights’ report, namely, the fact that some student Islamic societies have had to call off events for their own safety after “threats from far-right activists”. As the Institute of Race Relations has noted, the racist street movement Casuals United have picked up on some of Student Rights alerts about ‘extremist’ speakers and threatened to ‘disrupt’ student events at the universities of Exeter, Nottingham and Reading, causing events to be cancelled. At Reading, members of the English Defence League even came onto campus. Kassam’s organisation did at least issue a clear statement condemning the threat of violence from the far right. Nonetheless, it seems likely that many students would, ironically, celebrate to see ‘Student Rights’ throw in the towel while few would shed a tear to see them gone.