Raheem Kassam

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hum. should most of this go in the Henry Jackson Society page?

Student Rights

... If support for Israel and the ‘War on Terror’, together with anti-Islamic tendencies, were becoming the keystones of the Henry Jackson Society’s activities, an organisation called Student Rights, set up in mid-2009, married these two interests neatly and focused on a very specific target: British universities. Similar to Just Journalism, Alan Mendoza also serves on Student Rights’ advisory board (229) and the precise nature of its relationship to the HJS was, for a long time, obscure. It was known to have received funding from HJS and continues to be based at its London office.230 Describing itself as ‘dedicated to supporting equality, democracy and freedom from extremism on university campuses,’231 Student Rights’ chief activity involves publishing reports and blogs – and feeding the media stories – about alleged ‘extremism’ on British campuses. In the same way that HJS members insist the thank tank’s politics represent a broad political spectrum, Student Rights denies it is right wing.232 However, in practice, its activities were for a long time essentially an expression of the politics of its founder and former director, Raheem Kassam, who – typical of Mendoza’s new recruits – came from a distinctly conservative tradition. Boasting connections to Conservative Future, the Bow Group and the Young Britons' Foundation,233 which has been called a ‘Tory madrasa’ by its co-founder Donal Blaney,234 Kassam described himself in the Evening Standard as ‘a Michael Gove Conservative’ but also cited Margaret Thatcher and, perhaps more interestingly, former US Republican senator Barry Goldwater as key influences.235 He would later work briefly for the right-wing American news and opinion website Breitbart.com,236 before abandoning the Conservatives and joining the populist UK Independence Party (UKIP), just as HJS Political Council member Douglas Carswell MP had done a few months earlier.237 Kassam is currently the senior advisor to UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage.238

Kassam’s idol Barry Goldwater’s ‘most famous maxim' was: 'Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice,' and 'moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.’239 Arguably, this is an apt description of the activities of Student Rights and increasingly the HJS, which promote a world-view that conceptualises, Western civilisation as being threatened by Islamist extremism. This perspective was legitimised by the Prevent Agenda, the counter-radicalisation strand of the government's counter-terrorism strategy, and became particularly powerful in the UK after the July 2007 bomb attacks in London stoked fears about ‘home grown terrorists’.240 The idea that an exceptional threat justifies what many think are dubious means in pursuit of ends deemed righteous is characteristic of the ‘War on Terror’ thinking. Ironically, therefore, despite its ‘anti-extremism’ rhetoric and positioning of itself as the moderate arbiter of acceptable speech, under Kassam’s watch, Student Rights hints at its own extremism.

Despite claiming to monitor and oppose a range of extremists – ‘fascist groups, extreme political parties and Islamist elements on campus’241 – in November 2009 Student Rights opposed a ‘no platform for fascists’ policy passed by students at the London School of Economics (LSE). Though it would later reverse its position, at the time it argued that the far-right British National Party was ‘a legitimate political party that has won two seats in the European Election, has around 60 councillors in the UK and just under one million people voted for them across the UK,’242 and thus should be allowed to speak on campus. However, its commitment to free speech was uneven, even though it was not arbitrary. Student Rights took a distinctly illiberal approach predominantly to a range of Muslim preachers that it regarded as ‘extremist’, lobbying universities not to allow them to speak. Although it later characterised this work as merely ‘criticism of a handful of Islamist speakers’,243 its activities extended well beyond this. In one instance, Students Rights suggested that a university cancel a whole week’s worth of events critical of the ‘War on Terror’ because it saw this as ‘fuelling grievances against the West’, despite never suggesting that any law would be broken.244 Notably, Student Rights also worked ‘closely’ with the Quilliam Foundation, according to an article that Kassam wrote in September 2010.245 In addition, Quilliam’s Ghaffar Hussain later served on Student Rights’ advisory board.246 The significance of this collaboration is in highlighting how attuned Student Rights’ practices were with those condoned by the state; Quilliam received millions in government funding, pushing a very similar narrative.247 While there is no evidence to suggest that it was state-funded, Student Rights’ approach replicated Prevent’s focus on Islam;248 further entrenching the government’s racialised surveillance regime.

It sought to do this by capitalising on fear. A case in point was its reaction to the attempted attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab. A Nigerian national, Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear on board a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009; he was convicted of the attempted murder of 289 people and is serving a life sentence in the US. The fact that he had been a student at University College London (UCL) and served as president of its student Islamic Society was seized on by the press and Student Rights itself soon published an article on its website calling the incident ‘a reminder of why we exist’, claiming: ‘It's clear that complacency on campuses will lead to more abhorrent occurrences of this nature, and that action must be taken.’249 Student Rights dismissed UCL’s Caldicott Inquiry as a ‘whitewash’250 after it found no evidence to suggest that the former student’s experiences at the university had radicalised him, and later released a report called Extremism On Campus: A Lesson in Denial.251 This was perhaps unsurprising given that the a priori assumption of a problem of radicalisation on campuses was the self-declared ‘raison d’etre’ of the organisation.252 This deeply ideological approach and apparent disregard for evidence-based policy was best illustrated when it used a weak and arbitrary correlation as a proxy for causation in claiming that since ‘Abdulmuttalab was the sixth member of a UK Islamic Society to be arrested for suspected terrorism charges...[this is] evidence in itself to show that radicalisation and extremism are taking place on campuses’.253

But allegedly extreme or Islamist activity was not all Student Rights took an interest in. It also attacked those in academia who criticised – or advocated a boycott of – Israel. It produced a briefing on two LSE staff members who were active in BRICUP (the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine),254 and claimed that a Zionist Federation activist had been subject to anti- Semitic jeering at a BRICUP event. Student Rights fed this allegation to the BBC, which reported the claim, only to swiftly alter it and ultimately issue a correction.255 Student Rights even implicitly labelled students from Brunel University in West London who protested against a visiting Israeli diplomat as anti-Semitic.256

In 2010, Kassam confirmed to the London Student newspaper that a reference to ‘increasing political extremism’ in Student Rights’ own explanation of its founding meant Palestine solidarity activism,259showing that it stretched its self-appointed counter-extremism mandate to smear and thus inhibit all sorts of radical political activism. As well as pressuring universities to impose restrictive measures on Muslim students that would, in effect, institutionalise Islamophobia, its work also sought to narrow the space for all radical political dissent on campus.

This focus on the alleged problem of radicalisation on campus is also where Students Rights found it could gain most purchase in the media, perhaps building on the experiences of Douglas Murray’s Centre for Social Cohesion, which had produced widely covered reports on Islam on Campus (2008) and Radical Islam on UK Campuses (2010).


Articles

  • Jan.28.2018: Raheem Kassam - U OK Hun? Kassam’s overbearing arrogance got the better of him. Twitter decided they could do without the dubious benefit of his outpourings for a week. Zelo Street, Tim Fenton
  • Jan.24.2018: Breitbart London editor Raheem Kassam goes shopping [1], Matthew Scott
  • Jan.21.2018: Anti-Corbyn video: YouTube.