Malia Bouattia: “Condemnation of Isis appears to have become a justification for war and blatant Islamophobia.”
Anti-Jewish Riots and Killing in Constantine 1934.
Malia Bouattia, new President of the NUS, stood on a radical grassroots platform and made headlines last year after opposing a motion to condemn Isis reports the Guardian.
The new president is a controversial figure among many students, coming to prominence in the national press after speaking against an NUS motion “to condemn the IS and support Kurdish forces fighting against it, while expressing no confidence or trust in the US military intervention”.
The motion failed to pass and Bouattia said she had objected to the wording, issuing her own statement expressing solidarity with the Kurds against Islamic State and condemning the group’s “brutal actions”.
“We recognise that condemnation of Isis appears to have become a justification for war and blatant Islamophobia,” she said at the time. “This rhetoric exacerbates the issue at hand and in essence is a further attack on those we aim to defend.”
Obviously this issue interests an audience on the left far wider than the student movement.
A particularly ridiculous response is offered by Lindsey German of Counterfire, who simply ignores the subject of the Kurdish fight and ISIS and states this,
Her most recent profile has been round a series of meetings opposing the government’s Prevent strategy. Her background as someone of Algerian descent gives her a first-hand knowledge of imperialism and racism. That means she understands the concerns of many of the students she will be representing.
The backlash against her has begun on day one. She will need all the support and solidarity that she can get. But today marks a victory for those who oppose war and racism. And a defeat for those who don’t.
We note that anybody from an Algerian background, which saw a civil war in 1991 break out between the repressive Algiers state and violent Islamism (MIA, GIA, GSPC and the still active, Al–Qaïda au Maghreb islamique, AQMI) should express a position not just on imperialism and racism, and not only the blood-drenched Algerian military, but on a very specific type of racism and persecution: that embodied in various forms of Islamism (Guerre civile algérienne).
This is what she says,
….describing how her family had been forced to flee civil war in Algeria when she was child .
“I know too well the price of terrorism, the consequences of racism and oppression,” said Ms Bouattia, a leading figure in the Students Not Suspects campaign against the Prevent anti-terrorism agenda.
“I saw a country ripped apart by terror and was forced into exile,” she explained, adding: “I know too well the damage done by racism and persecution.”
She explained how her university lecturer father was almost killed by a bomb and her school had been attacked by gun-wielding militia, causing her family to flee.
“I know many of you will have seen my name dragged through the mud by rightwing media, and might think I am a terrorist and my politics driven by hate,” she said, adding: “How wrong that is.”
Bouattia comes from Constantine, Algeria.
The city is also infamous for the French far-right Parti Social Français, PSF, and their successful efforts to incite Muslims against Algerian Jews that led to the antisemitic pogrom of 1936 (link gives another version of the causes) in which 25-34 Jews were killed and some 200 stores were pillaged. There is a long history of anti-Semitic activity in Algeria (by both pieds-noirs and Muslims) and the Vichy regime instituted official anti Jewish legislation.
In the present example 1941 around 18 to 20% of the City’s population were Jewish.
There have been no Jewish community in Constantine since the end of the Algerian war of Independence.
We would be interested to hear her views on this and more details about her – horrific – experiences in Algeria.
Indeed we would be curious to know how the Algerian civil war was a creation of ‘imperialism’.
But it is about a contemporary Islamist movement, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria that the present controversy has erupted.
Here is the background: Report on that Motion (2014) by Daniel Lemberger Cooper
Two motions debated at NUS NEC
The meeting then turned to motions submitted by NEC members. Unfortunately this part of the meeting was no feast of reason. There are two motions I want to focus on: Iraqi solidarity and Israel/Palestine. I urge you to read the motions before continuing.
The “Iraqi solidarity” motion had been worked on with Roza Salih, a Strathclyde university student of Kurdish descent (she submitted an almost identical motion to the Scottish equivalent of the executive, the Scottish Executive Council, which I will post later, which, incidentally, did pass! One must ask Scottish executive members why vote for a motion in Scotland, but not in England?!).
The motion was opposed by Malia Bouattia, the NUS Black Students’ Officer, for astonishing and bewildering reasons. Bouattia argued that the motion was “Islamophobic” and “pro USA intervention” – (see Aaron Kiely, a fellow NUS NEC member’s, tweet during the meeting as reflective of the position). The motion then fell as large numbers of NEC members either abstained or voted against (including the bulk of the political Left on NEC). I think this says a lot about the current state of the student movement.
(I must also put on record that after only a single round of speeches, Toni Pearce moved the debate on. This was wrong: there was no opportunity to respond to Bouattia’s allegations. I had my hand up to speak in response, but was not called.)
Let us look at Bouattia’s arguments: is the motion anti-Muslim or pro US intervention?
The motion was partly written by a Kurdish student activist, and presented by the International students’ officer, Shreya Paudel. I have looked again and again at the contents of the motion, yet I cannot track any Islamophobia or racism.
The US occupation, and its aftermath, has been an utter disaster for the people of Iraq. Resulting governments, led by Nouri Al-Maliki, have been authoritarian and carried out virulent Shia sectarianism. A civil war in the mid 2000s killed 34,000 civilians. Today there are 1.6 million refugees.
The dynamics in 2014 are complex. ISIS, who have grown out of Al-Qaeda, have seized huge swathes of the country; there is a new, shaky, shia-sectarian government; and a Kurdish regional government, whose self determination I believe we should support.
The ultra-Islamist group ISIS is a threat to all the people of Iraq. It is repressing and persecuting minorities, including Christians, Yazidis, Kurds, and Sunni Muslim Arabs. On the 29th June it declared a “caliphate” (a religious dictatorship). It has carried out rape and other forms of sexual violence are being used as weapons against women in IS-occupied areas.
These developments have been exacerbated and driven by US policy deliberately fostering sectarianism.
The situation is desperate.
In this situation, it is fundamental that the political Left, trade union and student organisations, like NUS, show our solidarity with the Iraqi people, in particular the hard-pressed student, workers and women’s organisations, and those fighting for democracy and equality.
It is unclear whether Western forces (which congregated in Paris the day before the NEC meeting, on the 15th of September, to announce a “game plan” to defeat ISIS) will send boots onto the ground in Iraq. We know already that French aircrafts have begun reconnaissance flights over Iraq; and that US aid has assisted the Kurds and Yazidis. However it is unlikely they will want a re-run of a war that even they believe to have been a colossal failure. It may be more likely that the USA assists established forces from afar to defeat ISIS.
However, the motion cannot be clearer in saying that such forces cannot be relied upon to deliver democratic change in Iraq: “no confidence or trust in the US military intervention.” If one were to believe it is not sufficiently clear or that the motion is not worded strongly enough, fine: make an amendment to the motion; or seek to take parts to remove or strengthen a particular aspect. Instead, the whole motion – which calls for solidarity with oppressed forces in Iraq – was argued as wrong. This is a grave shame!
It is also true – and Left-wingers should think this over – that the Kurds and Yazidi’s thus far would not have been able to survive if it had not been for aid from the Americans. Calling simply for an end to this intervention is the same as calling for the defeat of the Peshmerga forces by ISIS. The policy is based on a negative criteria – opposing the US and UK – instead of positive criteria – solidarity with the oppressed.
Perhaps this is what Bouattia meant when saying that the motion is pro-intervention? Such a suggestion is arrived at only when one’s “analysis” becomes an issue of principle: that even within limited parameters, that to suggest that imperialism is not the only problem is somehow to “support” imperialism. This is the basis of “Stalinist” politics on international questions: that one considers forces that oppose the US as either progressive or, at worst, not the real issue -no matter how barbaric and reactionary and fascistic that force is. This is not a useful or effective way of looking at the world
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty published a short time afterwards some important qualifications about this report: Fact and fiction about the Kurdistan row in NUS.
Daniel Cooper: I objected to Malia opposing the motion on Iraq proposed by me, Shreya Paudel and Clifford Fleming, and responded to her claims that it was Islamophobic and pro-imperialist. Some people have claimed I misrepresented Malia. The only justification I have heard for this is, firstly, that I did not state that Malia condemned ISIS. That is because it was so blindingly obvious: before the right-wing attacks on Malia, the idea that anyone on NUS NEC would not condemn ISIS had not even occurred to me. And, secondly, that I failed to report that Malia offered to support a different motion on Kurdistan at the next NEC if it fitted with her politics. Whether or not I should have reported this or not, it is hardly decisive! Does anyone seriously believe that if I had stated either of these things it would have prevented right wingers distorting and making use of what I wrote?
The AWL now comment,
The controversy surrounding Bouattia’s attitudes to Islamism and to anti-semitism over the last two weeks is not simply a matter of interpreting this or that comment at a meeting, or exchange on the internet. It has deeper political roots, which we are precisely attempting to sketch out here
Last year, Bouattia denounced a left-wing motion to NUS NEC in support of the Kurdish national liberation struggle as “racist” and “imperialist” and helped get it voted down. This sparked wide criticism from Kurdish and left-wing students, but when some right wingers including in the press noticed this and tried to whip up a storm against her by absurdly and shamefully portraying her as a supporter of Daesh, she responded by whipping up a storm against the proposer of the motion, Workers’ Liberty comrade Daniel Cooper.
We remind the movement of this because we believe that Bouattia behaved like a petty and unprincipled factionalist, putting her resentment at her bad luck, her prestige and the chance to attack a political grouping she doesn’t like above the massive issue of the Kurdish struggle. Although the NEC eventually, two months later, passed a motion about Kurdistan, NUS circles spent far more time and energy on the row than on supporting the Kurds. So much for anti-imperialism!
We have little confidence that an NUS led by Malia Bouattia would be more habitable for political minorities and dissenters, more democratic or more serious about political debate and discussion than one led by Megan Dunn.
There remain a host of other issues about the new NUS President, not least the fact that some on this left backed her.
That is a matter for students.
The Gerry Downing-Socialist Fight style anti-imperialism of fools which led, and justified a rejection do support for the Kurdish people in their hour of need signals a broader problem.
The central question for a wider activist public is: what is Bouattia’s stand on Islamism?
How does she qualify, judge and assess the different Islamist movements?
If she does not support the misguided state ‘Prevent’ strategy does she offer any other way of combatting and fighting these anti-working class, anti-liberal, anti-feminist, anti-left, and violent groups?