September 2015 was an extremely busy news month at home and abroad. Domestically, the PREVENT counter terrorism agenda continued to target Muslim students and abroad a stampede at the hajj caused at least hundreds of deaths.
In September, a postgraduate student of counter-terrorism was falsely accused of being a terrorist after an official at Staffordshire University spotted him reading a textbook entitled “Terrorism Studies” in the library.
Mohammed Umar Farooq, who was enrolled in the terrorism, crime and global security master’s programme, told the Guardian that he was questioned about attitudes to homosexuality, Islamic State (Isis) and al-Qaida.
His replies, Farooq said, were largely academic but he stressed his personal opposition to extremist views. However, the conversation in the library was reported by the official to security guards, because it had raised “too many red flags.”
“I could not believe it. I was reading an academic textbook and minding my own business. At first I thought I’d just laugh it off as a joke,” said Farooq, who then instructed a lawyer to help him challenge and rebut the claims.
The university, based in Stoke-on-Trent, subsequently apologised to Farooq, and admitted that the accusation that he was a potential terrorist had exposed the difficulties in implementing the government’s new anti-radicalisation policy. Groups representing universities and students said the episode represented infringements on academic freedom.
NUS PREVENT boycott
Meanwhile, the National Union of Students called for a boycott of the government’s counter-radicalisation strategy to monitor students and launched a national tour in five cities to oppose it.
The “Students not Suspects” tour – which took place in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Swansea – was backed by the University and College Union (UCU), the largest trade union for lecturers and academics in further and higher education.
The UCU expressed concern over what it described as the “chilling effect” that Section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 has had on academic freedom and debate, as well as its “vague and not achievable” legal duty on institutions and staff.
It has issued guidance to members, saying it will support boycotts of the legislation.
The legal duties the act heaped on public bodies, including higher education establishments, include recognising, sharing information about and reporting students suspected of being “at risk of being drawn into terrorism”, according to guidance published on 16 July.
Shelly Asquith, NUS vice-president, said that although the legislative changes apply to universities and not student unions they have created a “level of expectation that student unions will sign up to whatever colleges or universities say”.
Asquith said Prevent – the government’s flagship anti-radicalisation strategy – has had a negative impact on freedom of expression on campuses. NUS members have reported being asked by police to get training so they can spot students at risk of radicalisation, and being asked for names of members of Islamic societies, she said.
Asquith said she feared racial profiling and Islamophobia would get worse under the new rules.
Universities “named and shamed”
In related news, the government “named and shamed” universities who’ve hosted so-called extremist speakers as well as the alleged extremists themselves.
In a statement on its website the government said that Queen Mary, King’s College, SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies) and Kingston – all universities in London – were the worst offenders.
It also named Shaikh Haitham Al-Haddad, Dr Uthman Lateef, Alomgir Ali, Imran Ibn Mansur (aka “Dawah Man”), Hamza Tzortis and Dr Salman Butt as speakers who are “on record as expressing views contrary to British values.”
The statement came as universities and colleges in the UK become legally required to put in place policies to stop “extremists” radicalising students on campuses, to tackle gender segregation at events and to support students at risk of radicalisation, as part of the government’s plans to counter extremism.
Prime Minister David Cameron said: “I said in July that tackling extremism will be the struggle of our generation, one which we will defeat if we work together.
“All public institutions have a role to play in rooting out and challenging extremism. It is not about oppressing free speech or stifling academic freedom, it is about making sure that radical views and ideas are not given the oxygen they need to flourish.
“Schools, universities and colleges, more than anywhere else, have a duty to protect impressionable young minds and ensure that our young people are given every opportunity to reach their potential. That is what our one nation government is focused on delivering.”
Asghar Bukhari quits Britain
Also in September, prominent and outspoken Muslim activist Asghar Bukhari left the UK for the UAE, disillusioned by a Muslim community which he says isn’t willing to do what it takes to defend itself.
Over the past decade or more Bukhari has appeared on countless media platforms denouncing Islamophobia and Zionists, but he has also urged British Muslims to become more politically active.
In doing so he has often attracted the venom of the right-wing media, but he has also divided opinion within the Muslim community itself.
In a Facebook post titled; “I AM LEAVING THE UK & HANGING UP THE GLOVES” the fomer MPACUK spokesman said: “I am leaving the UK for a few years. I thought about it long and hard. Some Muslims are waking up, but most are still unwilling to help those defending them – in any real tangible way.”
Bukhari said that while the Islamophobia industry is huge and well-funded British Muslims are unwilling to finance their own institutions to counter this onslaught.
“MPACUK is probably the most strategic, smartest organisation Muslims have in the UK – and we run on £700 a month,” he said. “We can’t pay one full time staff member, get an office with that – we work when we get home after a full day, or we simply go part time and earn less so that we can fight for our people – I gave up my career to fight the cause for nothing – free.
“I realised that you can’t fight for a people who won’t fight for themselves. You can only fight WITH people. Many of my brothers and sisters would give our lives, go to prison for our Muslim brothers if that’s what it took – but personally – I’m not going to fight for a people who don’t have it in them to want to live as equal citizens – Muslims like to moan, but do nothing.”
He continued: “For Muslims it’s always someone else’s fault, or someone else should do something better (usually blaming me for the ‘way I’m doing things’), never looking at what they themselves need to do to make anything happen.
“And all those who criticise me – look at what they have actually done to defend anyone but themselves. Brave against me – cowards against the enemy…
“Fighters don’t need advice, they need resources – volunteers and money and after fighting for 15 long years – I realise Muslims don’t give either. So my time defending them is over. When and if they are awake enough to want their equality, I might fly back and join them – Allah knows best what the future holds.”
As for the future. Bukhari says he is “going to learn how to be a father again – and close my eyes to nightmare I know is coming to Muslims in the UK – because trust me, I swear by all the sense Allah has given me – something awful is coming.”
Jeremy Corbyn victory
Writing in 5Pillars, Jahangir Mohammed of the Centre for Muslim Affairs argued that while many Muslims will understandably welcome Jeremy Corbyn’s victory, the real challenge is developing a Muslim infrastructure outside of Parliamentary politics.
He said: “Not for the first time there’s a great deal excitement amongst many Muslim activists over the election of the new Labour party leader or Government .I recall similar excitement at the now-despised Tony Blair’s victory in 1997.
“Corbyn I doubt will turn into another Blair. He is, I believe, a man of principles based on his beliefs, and the lure of political office and career have never stopped him from expressing them. That in itself is an achievement in a political system full of self-motivated career seekers, for whom values and principles are a form of commodity to be traded. It is no wonder the majority of the British public have no respect or time for their politicians.
“One of the reasons Jeremy Corbyn won the elections was because he was seen as an honest man who has stuck to his principles and beliefs.
“However, we also need to understand that Parliament and the political system in this country is the great destroyer of principles. Once in Parliament change takes place. In pursuit of career or power, you can no longer be a person of principles, and become a prisoner to the Parliamentary political system, its rules and conventions and the political establishment that surrounds it.”
Russia air strikes
On the intenational scene, Russia launched its first airstrikes against rebel-held targets in Syria, two days after the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, spoke to the UN and called for an “international coalition against terrorism to fight ISIS”.
Strikes targeting “terrorists” reportedly hit near Homs as Vladimir Putin rules out ground forces and US official says the alleged campaign against ISIS is unaffected.
However, there were concerns among rebel groups that Russia was targeting all forces opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, rather than focusing on ISIS.
A spokesman for Russia’s defence ministry confirmed Russia had hit military and communication equipment “belonging to terrorists” in the country this afternoon.
Speaking outside Moscow, Putin said Russia would not “plunge headfirst” into the conflict, but would provide temporary air support for a Syrian army offensive.
At the Pentagon, US officials said the strikes did not appear to be targeting areas held by ISIS, and signalled deep dissatisfaction with Russia, piercing the veneer of cooperation that Barack Obama and Putin sought to establish at the United Nations this week.
Syrian rebels and opposition media outlets claimed that Russian aircraft carried out strikes in the central provinces of Homs and Hama that allegedly killed at least 24 people.
And finally, at least 700 people taking part in the Hajj pilgrimage were killed in a stampede in Mina, officials in Saudi Arabia said.
Another 450 people were injured in the incident, which occurred as two million pilgrims were taking part in the Hajj’s last major rite – the stoning of the devil ritual.
The Saudi civil defence directorate said on Twitter that 4,000 personnel had been sent to the scene of the stampede, along with more than 220 emergency and rescue units. The injured are being taken to four hospitals in the area.
Photos published by the directorate showed rescue workers treating the injured on stretchers and loading them on to ambulances.
It said the victims were of “different nationalities”, without providing details.
Mina, a large valley about 5 km (3 miles) from Mecca, also houses more than 160,000 tents where pilgrims spend the night during the pilgrimage.
The stampede was the deadliest at the Hajj since 2006, when more than 360 pilgrims were killed in the same area.
Writing in 5Pillars, journalist Hafsa Kara-Mustapha argued that the only long-term solution to prevent hajj tragedies, while at the same time maintaining the Islamic character of the holy cities, is to internationalise the administration of Makkah and Madina.
She said: “In the past 25 years we’ve witnessed some six similar tragedies and every time some measures are taken to reduce the risk of a stampede on the one hand while increasing it on the other. How so? By allowing ever growing numbers of pilgrims to perform the hajj every year.
“The reality is that the ancient city of Makkah is no longer able to cater for the handful of pilgrims it hosted up until some 50 years ago. Faster and cheaper forms of transport have meant that what was once a trip available to a fortunate few is now accessible to scores of devout Muslims from across the world.
“As a result, Makkah now has to accommodate as many as 4 million pilgrims every year. Saudi Arabia is of course an oil rich kingdom, but profits generated from the annual hajj swell the state coffers by some $8bn a year.
“In order to cater for these pilgrims, Saudi officials have been frantically building large hotel complexes and shopping malls offering a wide variety of hajj experiences. From the humble tent dwelling to the luxurious 5 star treatment reserved for a privileged few.
“These vast infrastructure projects have been widely and understandably criticised. Many have been built on ancient historical sites and have seen the ancient city slowly but surely stripped of its history and character. Turning the birthplace of Islam and its Prophet (pbuh) into a more flamboyant version of America’s Las Vegas!”