Condemning ISIS is, according to the National Union of Students, ‘Islamophobic’. Which, one can only presume, comes as news to the British Imams who have spoken out against ISIS and who have stated “they don’t represent the religion and are not qualified to represent the religion”. It must, too, be a bit of a shock for the thousands of Muslims who have taken to Twitter as part of the #NotInMyName campaign to denounce the ideas and ideology of ISIS. All those Muslims might have felt like they were in quite a good position to judge the merits of ISIS’s claims to Islamic truth but they were, sadly, wrong. Because NUS Black Students Officer Malia Bouattia knows better than leading Muslim theologians and religious leaders. And she has decided that “condemnation of ISIS appears to have become a justification for war and blatant Islamaphobia”.
Bouattia is very concerned about events in the Middle East though, so don’t make the mistake of thinking that her blocking of a motion condemning ISIS at the NUS’s Executive Council meeting means she doesn’t care about the fate of millions of Syrian, Iraqi, Kurdish, Yazidi and Christian refugees. She is so worried, in fact, that she plans to draft a replacement motion which will, she promises, “in no way pander to Western imperialistic intervention or the demonisation of Muslim peoples”. So that must be a comfort.
Let’s get this in perspective. The National Union of Students declaring an opinion on ISIS – any opinion – is far from central to the West’s strategy for defeating the medieval army surging through the Middle East. I doubt, somehow, that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was following the debate on his organisation at the NUS’s Executive Council meeting with frenzied concern. And student politics has always been just that – young people playing at democracy and playing with ideas (many of them silly) in the process. They have no power – except for the occasional chance to inspire middle class teenagers to riot in the streets about the costs of three years growing-up time – and they are of no consequence. One day they’ll all grow up and most of them will, as they marry, buy houses, have children etc, grow out of their flirtations with mad, bad and ugly ideas. So perhaps we should leave Malia Bouattia and her posturing where it belongs – in the blessed obscurity of the undergraduate ideologue.
Except, I can’t help but think that the sheer daftness of this particular crime-against-logic tells us something rather interesting. Bouattia could not, on her own, have prevented the NUS from passing their motion of condemnation – she had to persuade members to back her assertion that the motion was in some way prejudicial towards Muslims. Clearly a skilled politico, Bouattia was successful in that endeavor. Why?
I mean, her fellow NUS leaders are presumably not sympathisers with ISIS. They are also, presumably, generally against things like decapitation, kidnapping, rape and genocide. The NUS may be a hotbed of hokum but it is not, to the best of my knowledge, driven by a burning desire to establish Sharia law in the UK or see the black flag of Jihad flutter over Downing Street. So why, when Malia Bouattia stood up and told them that denouncing ISIS was Islamophobic didn’t they tell her – politely of course – to pipe down?
Could it be that they were afraid to? Is it possible that in a world that worships ‘direct experience’ we find it very difficult indeed to tell a person of colour that something isn’t racist, a gay person that a word is not homophobic, a woman that they are not the victim of the patriarchy? A few years ago Diane Abbott – not a woman with whom I tend to have much sympathy – gave a speech on ‘the crisis of masculinity’. It wasn’t terribly good and her idea of ‘masculinity’ was perverse, but the reaction to it was insane. People I like, respect and admire responded not to her argument but to her. What right, they asked, did a middle-aged black woman have to be talking about young white men?
Every right. Every right in the world. To quote Lord Freud (in one of his less controversial off-the-cuff remarks) “you don’t have to be dead to attend a funeral”. Quite right. And you don’t have to be a white working class boy to empathise with them. As Christians we know that empathy is central to a full life. We know that because Christ’s death is the ultimate expression of that calling – he gave his life for us – and because we understand that love for our neighbours makes us whole. But our culture increasingly derides this idea in favour of a different view of humanity – one that, despite being fostered on the Left, is radically individualistic. We cannot feel for others, exercise moral judgement on others, imagine what is best for others – so this theory goes – because we have not shared all of their ‘experiences’. So we must work hard to ensure that all ‘experiences’ find a voice in any debate so as to ensure that the needs of different groups are met. Because it is next-to impossible for a man to empathise and care for a woman. For white people to advance the cause of ethnic minorities. For a black, middle-aged woman from Hackney to fix the problems face by white working class lads.
It is that dogma – of the essentialness of experience – that I would suggest may have played a small hand in helping the NUS Executive to take leave of whatever sense they had. They know ISIS is evil. They know it is not Islamic. They know it should be condemned, loudly and proudly, by all. But it is hard, these days, to tell people who claim the privilege of direct experience the truth if they deny that it can be so. So feel some sympathy for the NUS’ Executives – they look and, I imagine, feel incredibly stupid. But it is the culture of deference that we have shaped which is to blame, not them.
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