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Sparks fly at AMM as Bristol Islamic Society criticise SU for ‘failing’ to support Muslim students

Sparks flew at Bristol Student Union’s most recent Annual Members Meeting as students clashed with full-time officers over recent attempts to raise awareness of racism and Islamophobia.

By Ellie Brown, News Subeditor

Sparks flew at Bristol Student Union’s most recent Annual Members Meeting as students from Bristol Islamic Society clashed with SU officers

The events at the AMM came following a report by Epigram on a post released on Facebook, on 22 February, in which Bristol’s Islamic Society declared a ‘complete lack of confidence’ in the SU ‘or its officers to ensure the safety of Muslim students.’

During the AMM, members of the Islamic Society criticised SU Equality and Liberation Officer, Jason Palmer, for his perceived lack of support for BAME and Muslim students.

One student claimed ‘we only had one officer come to any of our events’ during Islamophobia awareness month. Another argued that the campaign had not been funded by the SU, and officers were  criticised for not supporting a motion on the APPG definition of Islamophobia, leaving one student having ‘to meet with the University to push and push [it] forward.’

Students questioned the sabbatical officers at the event | Epigram/Ellie Brown

‘How can the officer claim to be working for Muslim students when he hasn’t contacted ISoc about these things?’ the student asked, before stating that it was ‘really affecting [their] wellbeing.’

Additionally, questions were raised about the SU’s recent Open Letter on Racism to the University.

Omar Choudhury, Chair of the BME Network, stated that ‘there was no consultation from the SU, including the entire officer team, with me on this open letter,’ arguing that ‘the letter is racist, because the letter does not represent BME students, because the letter was not done in consultation with the representative of BME students.’

He also criticised the SU’s perceived lack of support over the presence of ‘offensive’ speakers on campus, stating that because of this ‘they have shown with that that they are incapable of representing Muslim students, and frankly - in my opinion - any minority students.’

Responding to the comments, Jason said he was ‘happy to personally apologise that I did not give as much support as I should have [to Islamophobia awareness month] ’ which ‘came down to my own personal issues at the time.’

He stressed that he was ‘really keen to figure out how in future years Islamophobia awareness month is supported to a standard that students are happy with’ though noted that ‘organisationally there was some support for Islamophobia awareness month, that came in the form of redesigning the materials [...] also getting social media support at the same level as other monthly campaigns we run.’

SU officer Jason Palmer responded to criticisms at the event | The Tab/Ben Bloch

Referring to criticisms over the SU’s handling of the Col Kemp speech, he stated ‘there are natural limitations to what we as a Union can do [...] we can’t shut down events, no matter how much personally we or students themselves take offence.’

He admitted that ‘mistakes sometimes are made, but that doesn’t mean that there’s a lack of willingness or courage for us to go ahead and support Muslim students in the future.’

One student claimed ‘we only had one officer come to any of our events’ during Islamophobia awareness month.

The Officers also publicly apologised over not adequately consulting with BME students over the Open Letter.

Speaking on behalf of the team, International Students’ Officer Julius Ogayo said: ‘we decided as a team to publish the letter. We agree and we accept that we did not do adequate consultation [...] I want to assure you that the University is committed to eradicating racism in this institution.’

However, the officers defended the letter, with Jason explaining that ‘the open letter itself is a tactic for change to take place. The impact of that letter is a commitment from the University to develop a joint strategy to tackle racism and islamophobia on campus, which students will be able to feed into.’

Additionally, Union Affairs Officer Julio Mkok, said ‘one thing I'm not going to categorically apologise for is calling out racism in the University, especially as a BME student.

‘Did we make a mistake in not consulting the relevant parties? Yes. Are we going to apologise for calling out racism at the University? No.’

Julio also apologised to Muslim students for not giving ‘the APPG motion [...] adequate attention’, stating that the officers ‘will work closely with Muslim students and the BME network to make sure this does not happen again.’

Students protested the Colonel Kemp event earlier this month | Epigram/Ellie Brown

Speaking after the event, Khadija Meghrawi, on behalf of Bristol Islamic Society, said: ‘We only decided to make public statements like this after almost two years of trying to work productively with the SU.

‘We repeatedly gave them action points to work on and advocate for us. Though we understand the limits of what the SU can control especially due to free speech, we clearly laid out how in spite of this they could work to make Muslim students feel safe and welcome.

‘The only meetings have been reactive, and even then these had to be initiated by students, with still no clear statements of support released afterwards. Islamophobia Awareness Month was initiated and supported entirely by the BME network chair – only a part time role.

‘The objectives with the university have relied on students once again to organise meetings and work on. I am a student I should not have to keep reminding an organisation and officers whose job it is to advocate for me.’

Responding to the criticisms, a spokesperson for the SU said:

‘We are deeply concerned by the points raised by our Islamic Society in their recent statement.

‘In each of the cases raised, we have worked to engage student leaders, in collaboration with the Bristol SU BME Network, and are working to ensure that their interests are effectively represented. In general through regular interactions and meetings, we are working with all parties to give them the best opportunity we can to shape our actions on racism and Islamophobia at the University.

‘However, we acknowledge that this has not been perfect, and we take responsibility for those actions that have left our students feeling this way. All forms of racial discrimination including Islamophobia, on campus or anywhere else, are unacceptable.

‘Over the last few years Bristol SU has worked passionately to improve support for marginalised students at Bristol. We have published leading research on the BME Attainment gap in Higher Education, and we compiled the first ever Bristol BME Power List to celebrate the city’s BME community, working with our BME student representatives.

‘We are now engaged in a full review of the effectiveness of our democratic structures for students from minority or liberation groups, consulting with their student representatives.

‘Our officer team have secured a commitment from the University to create a joint action plan to tackle racism. As we seek to confirm the details of this action plan, we will be liaising with all representatives of students affected by racism at Bristol.

'We will be reaching out to the Islamic Society to further understand and address their specific concerns as a matter of urgency.’

Featured image: Epigram/Ellie Brown

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