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'Attacks on Black & Muslim students are nothing new — the smearing of Shaima Dallali is just the latest’

5/4/2022 1:22 PM
Students march from Downing Street towards the Embassy of Israel as they call for Justice for Palestine on June 12, 2021

Student activist Ayo Olatunji looks at the recent attacks on the incoming president of the NUS Shaima Dallali and explains that Black and Muslim students who raise awareness of Palestine have always faced ruthless smear campaigns. 

University signifies a time for self-discovery, growth and maturity that greatly influences the direction of the lives of students. During this time, students often become deeply sensitised to local and global struggles and develop a deep sense for justice for those who are suffering. 

My longing for justice led me to take up various leadership roles in the student politics over the past six years — most notably as the ethnic minorities officer at my students’ union, a council member of the National Union of Students (NUS) and the Vice President of Student Islamic Societies, dealing with Muslim Student Affairs.

As a Black Muslim, white supremacy, colonialism, racism and Islamophobia were often at the heart of issues I saw on campus, around the country and around the world. Amongst those issues that strongly resonated with me was the plight of the Palestinians, due to its striking similarities to the cause of Black people, especially Black South Africans.

The oppression Palestinians face is a struggle known throughout the world. It’s one that students regularly mobilise on, especially those from Black, Brown and Muslim backgrounds — as the student movement has always been on the front lines against racism. Palestinian societies around the country work hard to coordinate protests, hold events and pass policies in solidarity with Palestinian suffering from the violence of the illegal Israeli occupation. 

However, student activists and student officers who seek to raise awareness of the oppression Palestinians face, find themselves on the end of ruthless smear campaigns that are often led by the Union of Jewish  Students (UJS), in tandem with other Zionist organisations such as UK lawyers for Israel and anonymous social media accounts. Students are put through unjust gruelling disciplinary processes and have their right to protest curtailed. 

Social media posts from when students were children or teenagers are dug up and used against them, ignoring the fact that most of us grow and mature politically as our knowledge widens. 

Even when an individual has done wrong and they apologise, the apology is never accepted unless they completely disavow and distance themselves from the Palestinian cause. Growth, development and learning are not sought; instead, it’s silence and neutrality in the face of injustice.

In the last few weeks, these attacks have focused on a Black Muslim woman, Shaima Dallali, who was recently elected as the President of the NUS. Shaima has been smeared by right-wing media outlets who accused her of antisemitism, which has resulted in her being subjected to Islamophobic abuse online. Shaima has a strong political record fighting for mental health service provision, free and fair education but she also stands against racism, Islamophobia and Israeli apartheid. This record has made her a target.

Often, like Shaima, these students tend to be Black, Brown and Muslim — they’re painted as being inherently hateful towards Jewish people. They can even be painted as violent terrorists, criminals and genocidal thugs. These coordinated attacks have traumatised several students who live with the irreparable harm that is caused by these dangerous racist and Islamophobic characterisations. These students are attacked, intimidated and bullied in the name of fighting antisemitism and racism itself. During my time in various student leadership roles, I have seen so many of these cases that I can only conclude that it’s a depressing and strenuous right of passage for any student who wishes to stand up for Palestinian rights. 

In the case of Shaima, the UJS published an open letter expressing its concerns about her. The signatories included names of people who did not sign the letter, which called into question the validity and legitimacy of the letter. But on the back of this, the NUS said it would cover all public allegations made about the NUS and its president-elect, Shaima. 

The UJS claims its goal is to “fight prejudice and inspire education and action” when, in fact, it seems to me that they do the opposite. The current President Nina Freedman proudly spoke about how UJS is on the front lines against anti-zionism and Boycott Divestment & Sanctions campaigns - which support the rights of Palestinians. She boasts that UJS has alumni in the Israeli government, which sanctions the expansion of the violent settler-colonial project. She also boasts that UJS has alumni in the IDF — the same brutal military force that has killed, arrested, bombed and devastated countless generations of Palestinians. 

A group of Jewish students has expressed similar concerns about UJS in their own open letter about how UJS chooses to focus on Israel rather than antisemitism and reduces Jewish students’ concerns to a political football. It highlighted the fact that Jewish students aren’t a monolith and UJS isn’t as representative as it claims to be. 

The NUS said it will consult UJS to appoint those who undertake the independent investigation. As journalist Rivkah Brown says, this is extremely concerning as they are hardly impartial.

Still, it’s vital to not give a free pass to antisemitism. I have seen conferences on my own campus that hosted neo-Nazis talking about “answering the Jewish question.” My university also housed the racist pseudoscience that Hitler used to ideologically support the extermination of Jews during the holocaust. So antisemitism is embedded in our society in subtle and explicit ways. 

However, racism and Islamophobia are prevalent in our society and within discourses on antisemitism - and this too must be acknowledged. Ex-NUS President recently expressed their concerns in an open letter over antisemitism in the NUS. But in positioning themselves as a moral authority, they fail to look within their own ranks. 

Some of the signatories included people who have been accused of making Islamophobic comments - for example, disgraced former Immigration Minister Phil Woolas and broadcaster Trevor Phillips. Meanwhile, Phillips’ friend David Aaronovitch wrote an article about Shaima and attributed false quotes to the Quran. 

If the NUS takes all forms of racism and discrimination seriously, will it commission investigations and reports simultaneously into Islamophobia and racism, particularly anti-Black and anti-Palestinian racism as these are firmly embedded in the education sector?

An open letter has been signed by over 440 student activists, officers and wider community organisers. The letter details how racist and Islamophobic attacks from politicians, journalists and Zionist organisations will not be tolerated and that the election of the new Muslim President-elect of the NUS, Shaima Dallali, should be respected. 

Solidarity, courage and justice are needed. This cannot be done by creating hierarchies of oppression, where the racism and oppression of one group trumps that of another.

Anti-racism requires actively standing against white supremacy, settler-colonialism and apartheid. It is important to affirm that any anti-racist who does not do this is lacking and defunct.

Anyone who attacks, maligns and demonises those who stand for those anti-racist principles must know that they facilitate and enable racism. Despite this, we will not be deterred. 

Ayo Olatunji is a doctor, community worker and writer with words in TRT world, Middle East Monitor and the Guardian.

Opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Islam Channel or its editorial policy.

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