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Britain's Student Union Votes Against Condemning the Islamic State — Because That Would Be Islamophobic

It hasn't gone down well. VICE News speaks to a member of the union's national executive about why he opposed the motion and the backlash that has followed.
Image via Anadolu Agency/Getty

Britain's National Union of Students is at the center of a furor after rejecting a motion to condemn the Islamic State on the grounds that it was "Islamophobic," a decision that has angered pretty much everyone from the Jewish community to the English Defense League.

The motion, partly written by a Kurdish student and proposed by Daniel Cooper, Clifford Fleming, and Shreya Paudel, the international students' officer, called on members to "support Iraqi, Syrian and other international students in the UK affected by this situation," to "condemn the IS and support the Kurdish forces fighting against it, while expressing no confidence or trust in the US military intervention," and to "encourage students to boycott anyone found to be funding the IS or supplying them with goods, training, travel or soldiers."


It was rejected by a majority led by Malia Bouattia, the black students' officer, according to website The Tab. They quote her as saying: "The condemnation of ISIS appears to have become a justification for war and blatant Islamophobia. This rhetoric exacerbates the issue at hand and in essence is a further attack on those we aim to defend."

London's Evening Standard quoted Cooper as saying: "I have looked again and again at the contents of the motion, yet I cannot track any Islamophobia or racism… There is a stranglehold of 'identity politics' on the student movement."

Fleming, who seconded the motion, disagreed, saying that he while he supported it and believed it was "well-intentioned," he could understand how "concerns around certain issues were valid and needed addressing."

Bouattia has since received abuse and threats from various sources, giving rise to the Twitter hashtag: #StopAttackingMalia.

VICE News spoke to Aaron Kiely of the NUS National Executive, one of those who voted to oppose the motion.

VICE News: Why did you vote against this motion?

Aaron Kiely: The motion was voted down by the overwhelming majority of the National Executive, and what's going to happen is that there'll be a new motion which will be very clear in opposition to ISIS. Obviously we've seen here is that there's been a very malicious move towards people who voted against the motion saying that we actually do support what is a pretty brutal organisation, so that is totally false and just outrageous. And the new motion will come back and be very clearly opposed to ISIS, opposed to the war, and the reason why we want that in there too is because a majority of the NEC actually believe that a British and American bombing of Iraq will actually only strengthen terrorist groups.


So you just think that it's the wording that was wrong?

I don't think the wording was clear enough in opposing Western intervention.

One of the reasons that the motion to condemn IS was dismissed was the fear that it would be perceived as being Islamophobic. Critics have in turn suggested that that argument essentially equates the Islamic State with the Muslim world — and in itself is Islamophobic. What would you say to that?

I am not aware that Muslims have a specific problem with condemning terrorist groups and on the contrary I note widespread condemnation of terrorism from all the main Muslim organisations. I don't think anyone would equate ISIS with the Muslim world, apart from those people on the extreme right who try to demonise Muslims.I voted against the motion because I oppose the current bombing campaign. I am also concerned about the rise of Islamophobia that has been whipped up in society. Just to be clear again, I am totally opposed to ISIS and I believe that the bombing campaign will only serve to strengthen terrorism in the region, as Western intervention has to date.

Did you feel that the motion was Islamophobic?

I imagine the motion that will come will be very clear on what it says on the situation in the Middle East. But the smear that people support ISIS is just beyond belief, especially that all of us pretty much oppose all of these wars because we're against the breeding of terrorism and actually seeing anti-war students called that is just really malicious.


If there's, as you say, terrorism breeding, and a lot of it is presumably among young people, do you think the NUS has a responsibility to clearly set out where they stand on this?

I just think that obviously NUS, which represents millions of students across the country, has obviously taken many different positions over many years, whether opposing apartheid, or opposing previous wars such as the war in Iraq — the last one in 2003. And now I think it's right that the NUS does come out strongly and makes it clear that we're anti-war, because of the destruction it will cause, also because it's counter-productive because it will strengthen terrorism which will impact on populations across the world.

You say you're against war. Would you not say ISIS are engaging in war?

Oh absolutely, they're a barbaric terrorist organisation that have committed many atrocities, but I don't think the way to stop them is by a bombing campaign from Britain and the United States. I think it will actually strengthen things for them, and unfortunately they would grow from it, something we've seen from nearly every experience of previous wars.

One of the things that it said clearly in the motion that was proposed that it didn't want to express "confidence or trust in the US military intervention." Nothing in it seems to actively support any sort of intervention whatsoever. You feel that that didn't go far enough?


I don't think it was clear enough actually in its composition. I think that we need to be very, very clear. They might bomb Iraq again and it needs to be very clear that we oppose that, and we want to campaign to stop that.

You've run a lot of motions on a lot of different issues. One of these was on boycotting Israel. If you're going to say you can't condemn ISIS because that's Islamophobia…?

I never said that.

There's a statement on Malia Bouattia's Facebook to which you are a signatory that suggests that this motion "pander(s) to Western imperialistic intervention (and) the demonisation of Muslim peoples." If this motion is demonising Muslims, how is boycotting Israel not demonising Jewish people?

Well first of all since the War on Terror there has been a rise in Islamophobia and attacks on Muslims across the world and obviously in Britain. I don't think that's to do specifically with the motion. I mean on the issue of boycotting companies that engage in the illegal occupation of Palestine, which is the position of the National Union of Students, it's actually about challenging the justice that there is, which has widespread trade union movements, and it's not a very controversial decision, and I think it would be wrong to say that it's a boycott of Jews, I think that that totally misrepresents the discussion.

And why do you think the Scottish arm of the NUS voted differently?

I wasn't present so I can't say.


What was the reaction at the National Executive meeting when the motion failed?

There wasn't particularly anything out of the normal because it was stated very clearly at the discussion that a new motion would be presented on this issue at the next meeting. To me this has been whipped up by people who are determined to unfortunately support the war and determined to spear anti-war students in the NEC and that's what it's really about. They're putting out mistruths about what this is about, and misrepresenting our position.

I saw that Malia Bouattia has received some personal backlash. What happened there?

As a result of this campaign that has been whipped up there have been some horrific tweets, messages. I can't dwell, I've only seen some of the things that have been on Twitter and they're absolutely disgusting: threats of rape, of violence, things that would just turn your stomach are being alleged at someone and people are going around saying what her opinion is and it couldn't be further from the truth. To be absolutely clear Malia has never and will never support ISIS, and that's what's being put around, and that is absolutely shocking, and that's what is instigating all of this abuse, and people need to stop spreading lies.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd