Last week delegates at the National Union of Students annual conference elected Malia Bouattia to serve as their president for the next year. These elections usually go off without anyone paying much attention. Even most current students would struggle to place Bouattia's recent predecessors, yet the media attention she has received suggests this won't be a problem she faces. Sadly, it's for all the wrong reasons.
If initial reports of Bouattia's election were to be believed, she is a radical who refused to condemn the Islamic State and hates Jewish students. News outlets of all stripes, from the BBC to the Daily Mail, the Telegraph and the Guardian all led with allegations that she once spoke against a motion that would condemn Isis and its activities. That story was from 2014 when it had been revealed that Bouattia had spoken against the motion because of worries that it cast its net too far and risked attacking Muslims beyond those carrying out atrocities in the name of Islam. She had supported and spoke as the proposer of a new motion condemning Isis soon after, but that was ignored in favour of sensationalist and racist headlines.
The onslaught of media demonisation Bouattia faced is nothing new. Back in 2014 The Sun led in the first round of suggestions that she had sympathies with the Islamic State. Earlier this year the Daily Mail profiled her alongside other students campaigning against the government's Prevent agenda with the headline "Extremists tell students to sabotage government anti-terror drive". At the beginning of this month the Telegraph described her as being "known for supporting extremist groups such as Cage".
Bouattia is being dismissed and portrayed as no different to those responsible for heinous terrorist attacks because she's a Muslim woman who actively campaigns against Islamophobia, even where the government is responsible for perpetuating it. It turns out that as far as some of the press is concerned that's all you can be as a Muslim in public life.
In spreading popular Islamophobia, the reporting of Bouttia's victory chose not to highlight the significance of her election. Not since 1969, when Jack Straw defeated Trevor Fisk, has an incumbent been defeated in an NUS presidential election. But last Wednesday the current president Megan Dunn was unseated in an historic vote that saw the NUS elect its first Muslim and woman of colour to the leadership position.
Bouattia herself sought refuge in the UK after civil war broke out in her home country of Algeria. Her family had to flee when she was only seven years old. She spoke in her election speech of how she "saw a country ripped apart by terror".
"I know many of you will have seen my name dragged through the mud in the right wing media. You'll have read that I am a terrorist, that my politics are driven by hate […] I know too well the damage done by racism and persecution. I've faced it every day since I arrived in this country, every day in office, and I will continue to fight it in all its forms, whoever it targets."
None of this was reported; presumably because it doesn't lend itself well to smear.
Stories about Bouattia have also focussed heavily on allegations that she is anti-Semitic. She has a long record for campaigning in support of the Palestinian people and proudly describes herself as anti-Zionist. In the past she has criticised Zionist politics on a number of occasions. Since being elected she has gone to some effort to separate her criticisms of this ideology from attacks and conspiracy theories about Jewish people. She wrote in the Guardian that "There is no place for anti-Semitism in the student movement, or in society. If any of my previous discourse has been interpreted otherwise, such as comments I once made about Zionism within the media, I will revise it to ensure there is no room for confusion."
Criticisms of the language Bouattia used seemed to go hand in hand in many reports with racist stereotypes based on her religious identity as a Muslim. On the one hand she was a terrorist and on the other she hated Jews. In its original article the BBC mentioned in a few short sentences that she has refused to condemn IS, supported Palestinian "resistance" (their scare quotes, not mine) and sees Birmingham University as "something of a Zionist outpost".
It is hard to imagine in any other context, without the heavy assumptions about what a "radical" Algerian woman must really think, that all of these disparate examples would come to be linked together. Much of what Bouattia said seemed to be misconstrued to fit a certain media image of her. Rather than hold her to account democratically, attacks in the press undermined her ability to continue interfaith dialogue and campaigning with the Jewish students and groups that she now represents.
Rather than being presented on her record of solid campaigning work or the importance of the personal history she brings to the NUS presidency for the first time, most news outlets chose to give readers a thinly veiled racist character assassination.
Bouattia has already established herself through creating "Why Is My Curriculum White?" campaigns, arguing against the government's widely criticised Prevent agenda in front of UN representatives, exploring the race attainment gap in higher education and promoting Black Lives Matter in communities and student groups throughout the country. If she hadn't, the first woman of colour to be NUS president may have been stopped before she even started.
The media demonisation that she faced is exactly the sort of prejudice and oppression that Malia Bouattia has dedicated herself to fighting against and that is the platform on which she was elected. Treating her the way they did only proves how necessary her work will be.
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