Max Leak argues that socialists should back Malia Bouattia in her bid for re-election as President of the National Union of Students.
This week’s conference of the National Union of Students will be a quiet litmus test for British radical politics. The main focus will be the NUS presidential election, which will pit the incumbent Malia Bouattia – a veteran campaigner on free education and liberation issues, as well as a committed anti-imperialist and pro-Palestine activist – against Shakira Martin, the current Vice President for Further Education. Though Martin has supported Left-wing positions in the past, she will be running against Bouattia as the standard-bearer of the Blairite Right.
If Bouattia is unseated, it will be due to sustained national media attention on an array of ugly accusations of antisemitism and terrorist sympathising that have been made against her. The accusations originated around the time of Bouattia’s initial election, when the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) – a group which organises free trips to Israel for select students and has received financial backing from the Israeli embassy – organised an open letter accusing her of “creating an element of suspicion towards Jewish students on campus.” These claims have had a powerful impact on NUS politics, disheartening and disorientating many Left-leaning students who might have otherwise have supported Bouattia’s radical message.
On even a cursory inspection, however, the claims fall apart.
The notion that Bouattia is an anti-Semite rests on a number of separate contentions. In particular, it has been publicised that Bouattia described Birmingham University campus as a “Zionist outpost” and noted simultaneously that it has a large Jewish Society. She has also referred to “Zionist-led media outlets” and “Zionist lobby” groups. These points featured prominently in the UJS’s open letter, and have been repeated on numerous occasions since.
Many of these allegations are flatly untrue, and all of them have been presented to the public stripped of critical contextual information.
For example, it is true that Bouattia did once use the phrase “Zionist outpost”, and subsequently noted that “[Birmingham University] also has the largest JSoc in the country whose leadership is dominated by Zionist activists.” The second clause has been curiously omitted from most accounts. The “Zionist activists” in question had, at that time, recently led an aggressive campaign to suppress the university’s Friends of Palestine society, going as far as to physically harass pro-Palestinian students. In this context, it is fairly clear that the version of events given in the UJS open letter (which asked Bouattia, faux-innocently, “why do you see a large Jewish Society as a problem?”) was disingenuous in the extreme.
As to Bouattia’s use of terms such as “Zionist-led media outlets” and “Zionist and neo-con lobby”, context is, once again, crucial. It is clear from a fuller reading of her statements that she was not using these terms to refer to some fictitious Jewish conspiracy or cabal, but rather in reference to simple press bias in favour of Israel, and to neoconservative foreign policy think tanks which back the UK government’s Islamophobic domestic surveillance programmes. Bouattia was rightly joining the dots between a mentality that brutalises Palestinians abroad and one which demonizes Muslims at home.
Another odious line of attack on Bouattia is the utterly baseless and nakedly Islamophobic claim that she has “supported” – or at least, refused to condemn – Islamic State. This particular slander appeared in 2014 after Bouattia requested and achieved a rewording of an NUS motion condemning the terror group; she happily supported the amended motion, which made clearer the organization’s un-Islamic character. This incident has sometimes been elided with Bouattia’s statements offering qualified support to Palestinian armed resistance. The comparison could hardly be more groundless or offensive: while ISIS is a sadistic death cult, Palestinian armed resistance to occupation is quite literally a human right.
As has also been pointed out, the widespread hatred and suspicion of Bouattia has been fuelled substantially by her identity as a Muslim. The accusation of generalised Muslim antisemitism has long been one of the most dehumanizing tropes in the discursive armoury of Western Islamophobes. It is a stealth libel, providing liberal Westerners with a license to hate and fear Muslims by seeing them as a threat to, rather than a component of, the progressive multicultural ideal. The Islamophobic nature of baseless accusations of support for ISIS, meanwhile, scarcely requires any further comment.
But we must also be aware that the offensive against the NUS leadership is one incidence of a much broader attack on the resurgent radical Left in political spaces that have traditionally been controlled by the Blairite pseudo-Left establishment. Although this backlash has counted on the support of pro-Israel groups such as the UJS and, within Labour, the Jewish Labour Movement (which, like the UJS, poses as a disinterested cultural collective whilst in fact pursuing a highly politicised pro-Israel agenda), its ultimate authorship and motivations are much broader than the defence of Israel.
Socialists must unequivocally back Bouattia and her politics, not only because she is in the right, but because those attacking her are ultimately hostile to the entirety of our movement. As demonstrated by the long and crippling campaign of smears directed against Jeremy Corbyn and the Left within the Labour Party, the Right and its media allies will engage in ruthless and poisonous mud-slinging against any and all progressive candidates. If we can fight through this defamation – or, better yet, expose it for the cynical and dishonest ploy it is – we will be in a better position to advance a message of hope, both on campus and across the country.