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Beyond Seasonal Festivities: Islamophobia Awareness Month

By Lily Gordon Brown

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Halloween season is upon us and bonfire night is closing in, with seasonal festivities and plenty of pyrotechnics just around the corner. Yet despite Guy Fawkes’s notoriety, the tenth and eleventh months of the year to commemorate and celebrate far more than just his attempts to assassinate King James I.

October is Black History Month. An annual commemoration and acknowledgment of black history, arts and culture nationwide, this year’s theme was announced by Croydon Council as ‘R.I.D (representation, identity and diversity) the stigma’, focusing on negative representations of young people in the community. October also lends itself to Breast Cancer Awareness Month, hoping to underline the importance of awareness, education and research and raise funds for life-changing support.

As we move into November, a campaign to look out for that has not quite yet reached the mainstream is Islamophobia Awareness Month (IAM). First established in 2012 by MEND (Muslim Engagement and Development), IAM takes place every November and aims to work alongside the police, local councils, the media, educational institutions and communities to ‘raise the awareness of the threat of Islamophobia and encourage better reporting of incidents to the police’. It also looks to breakdown what Islamophobia actually is and how this violent, global rhetoric leaves Muslim communities at risk, often the target of hate crimes.

University is one of many environments that has witnessed an increase in hostility against those practicing the faith of Islam. This has particularly advanced under the government’s ‘Prevent’ strategy, which aims to inject counter-terrorism policy into our everyday institutions such as the workplace, school and, most significantly for students, the university. Speaking to the Liberation Coordinator for BAME students in the Leeds University Union, Safyan Rahman, I learnt of the ‘insidious, and quite frankly racist nature’ of Prevent. In its most basic sense, Prevent, initially installed in 2003 and widened in 2011, allows institutions and people within them to report any sign of perceived radicalisation of their peers.

Although this may seem trivial on the surface, particularly to non-Muslim students, its implications have been enormous on the well-being of Muslim students within the university. Safyan went on to review the ways that this has developed into a policing tool against the Muslim community, creating a sense of alienation and penetrating ‘every aspect of your thinking as a student’.

Such anxieties even affect seemingly straightforward, everyday tasks such as choosing university modules. Initially interested in taking a module in Political Islam, Safyan spoke of the concerns of how it may be perceived, a ‘brown Muslim kid’ taking an interest in this subject area. Such feelings were also voiced in an article in The Guardian by Ilyas Nagdee. Nagdee, formerly of the National Union of Students, worked with Saffa Mir of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies and women’s officer Hareem Ghani, and found that one-in-three Muslim students felt negatively affected by the strategy.

‘Students admitted to me that they avoided picking modules where they would have to engage in topics such as human rights and counter-terrorism, out of fear of being reported to prevent,’ wrote Nagdee.

It is imperative to understand your agency as a student within academic spaces. As Safyan noted, we seem to have lost sight of what a students’ union is and what is there for. Although it functions as a coordinator for events and societies, it can also be used as a tool for more meaningful discussion. At Leeds we have a system in place called ‘Better Forum’, whereby any student can propose a policy motion to the union which will then be discussed and voted on by a random selection of students. If you therefore feel the university is not taking a strong enough stance on Islamophobia, to use one example, you can then use your power as a student to confront this and potentially contribute to the formation of more direct and inclusive union policies.

In attempting to debunk the narrative that has developed around the supposedly ‘radicalised’ Muslim community within universities and indeed the wider public, Islamophobia Awareness Month holds significance. Working alongside ISOC (the university’s Islamic Society), there will be events held throughout the month of November to increase awareness within the university setting. This will include Islamophobia training within society committees, as well as Safyan’s panel show event part-way through the month, discussing the consequences of ‘Prevent’ and its inherent ties to Islamophobia. He hopes the university can work towards more positive and progressive ways of achieving their goals. Look out on the university union website for further occasions taking place and engage with them as and when you can.

Further discussion around the discriminatory nature of academic spaces is important. BAME students, says Safyan, are disenfranchised from day one in the education system. Their success rates are inhibited by the decreased likelihood of entrance into secondary school and later into university, ‘equality of opportunity’ seemingly lost in the wilderness. In looking more specifically at the university, the ‘Decolonize the Curriculum’ campaign has generated the very necessary discussion surrounding the whiteness within academia and its deep-rooted structural inequalities. The campaign calls for a broadening of subject matters and assigned literature within them as well as greater diversity within teaching departments. The campaign began in educational surroundings and has now moved into a national debate.

Whilst our country is currently being led by an overt Islamophobe, reliance on smaller institutional spaces to incite awareness, unity and change is ever-increasing. Campaigns like Islamophobia Awareness Month achieve just this and as fellow students, it is our job to show support and participate in events throughout the coming weeks.

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