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Pro-Palestinian Advocacy on Campus: The Silencing of Muslim Student Leaders and How to Push Back

“As Muslims, we must remember that our worship is not restricted to our prayers, our charity, our fasts, or our worship. Neither is it restricted to the home or the masjid. Worship is how we engage in civic life – voting when we are invited to vote, and engaging with our MPs and representatives.”

“As Muslims, we must remember that our worship is not restricted to our prayers, our charity, our fasts, or our worship. Neither is it restricted to the home or the masjid. Worship is how we engage in civic life – voting when we are invited to vote, and engaging with our MPs and representatives.”

In the last 3 months, the world has witnessed the most unfathomable and catastrophic scenes in Gaza.

Over 30,000 Palestinians have been mercilessly killed since October 7, 70% women and children (EMHRM, 2023), with reports that more than 10 children a day are losing one or more of their limbs. Tens and hundreds of thousands of homes have been partially or wholly destroyed, and over 1.92 million have been displaced (EMHRM, 2023). Schools, universities, hospitals, media offices, shops, and bakeries have been flattened, and doctors, nurses, journalists, teachers, and academics have been targeted and killed.  

Many have sought condemnation from their representatives and institutions, and some universities have come under public fire for their hypocrisy and silence. Whilst some academics will accept this from their university, who are under stricter and heavier regulation by their regulator, the Office for Students, Student Unions, and their elected Sabbatical Officers, as political representatives, have a unique and influential position to challenge. So, why don’t they?  

As a former sabbatical officer in a Student Union during May 2021, and now a doctoral researcher looking at Islamophobia and Muslim engagement in Higher Education, this has been an issue I’ve closely been exploring.

In this brief article, I will explore the impact of higher education instruments such as the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism which, coupled with the Prevent Duty (although I will not touch on this here), has had damaging effects on free speech in Higher Education, leading to the depoliticization of Muslims on campus and their decline in engaging with university student voice mechanisms. 

In the context of Palestine, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism has played a critical role in the silencing of pro-Palestinian advocates (ELSC, 2022). 

The definition is highly contentious; a non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism, which has been heavily criticised for its conflation of criticism of Israel with antisemitism. Despite this, it has been adopted across over 1000 organisations internationally (JP, 2023),   

By its nature, a definition should provide clarity and objectivity, however, it has instead created further confusion on what antisemitism is, and how it manifests, often prompting unnecessary investigations (ELSC 2022; 2023; McGreal, 2023). 

The instrument begins with a short definition, which on the face of it, is not at all problematic: 

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” (IHRA Definition of Antisemitism) 

However, coupled with its 11 ‘examples’, it has been challenged for being a tool to silence critique of Israel, where it proposes that describing Israel as a ‘racist endeavour’ or comparing contemporary Israeli policy with that of the Nazis as antisemitic. Through these examples, the definition brings under fire Jews opposing Israel themselves.  

Despite the author of the definition himself expressing concerns about its unintended impact on free speech and academic freedom (Stern, 2019; Gould, 2021; 2022), over 220 Office for Students’ regulated universities, colleges, and education institutions have adopted it (Ofs, 2022), after the then Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, in 2019, put pressure on Vice Chancellors to adopt it (Sherwood, 2021). Since then, a growing number of Student Unions have too. 

In my own anecdotal experiences with union staff and university leaders, most, if not all times, I find they are ignorant to its political baggage, unaware of the consequences to the Palestinian discourse. 

It is this level of ignorance that pro-Israel groups exploit to manipulate them into adopting it. Of course, if you see a definition titled ‘International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance…’, who would you be as a non-Jewish person, to reject it?  

This could explain why this definition is so widespread.  

Its adoption has led to increased scrutiny and pressure on pro-Palestinian activists, where this definition is repeatedly weaponised to silence their critique. Many pro-Palestine student leaders feel they are under a climate of censorship in their role (ELSC, 2023). 

This was reflected in a piece of research I conducted on Muslim sabbaticals in 2023, where current and former Student Union officers spoke about self-censorship and feeling uncomfortable to speak on Palestine or Israeli apartheid for fear of being targeted or accused of antisemitism (Tamea, 2024). 

We can see this in the experience of Shaima Dallali, who, in November 2022 was the first National Union of Students (NUS) President to be dismissed. Prior to her election, she was President at City University of London, where she was active and vocal in her Palestine solidarity.

Her Presidential election concerned the Union of Jewish Students, a national student advocacy group that strongly advocates for Israel and against the Palestinian-led BDS movement. They led an intense smear campaign pushing for an investigation into her and the NUS’ conduct for antisemitism, citing her involvement in pro-Palestinian advocacy and social media comments over 10 years prior, which she had apologised for. 

The Government and university regulator, the Office for Students, fuelled this pressure on the NUS and refused to engage with them until they had proceeded with an investigation into these complaints (Gov, 2023).  

After what was likely an already agonising process and investigation, Dallali was to find out of her dismissal via Twitter (Dallali, 2022), after an insider of NUS had allegedly leaked it to the Jewish Chronicle – the largest Jewish community newspaper in the UK. Dallali was then accused by reporters of lying about not having known earlier. Dallali has since legally challenged this and had this rectified (Dallali, 2023), where the Jewish Chronicle has since corrected the article. Dallali has confirmed she is legally challenging the National of Union Students for this decision, with the case ongoing.  

This decision by NUS to suspend its President has had a domino, trickle-down effect on NUS’ membership. In recent weeks, little has been said on the oppression of the Palestinians from Student Unions and their leaders, and this only speaks to the lasting and chilling effects of the smear campaign on Dallali. No one wishes to be next. 

Undoubtedly, some Officers will have tried, but faced push-back internally. Others will be terrified to make the suggestion, particularly when they are outnumbered by student officers who are not fluent on the issue.  

In December 2023, we saw 3 of the 5 Kings College London Student Union Sabbatical Officers were suspended from their positions for their statement on Gaza (Middle East Eye, 2023), which spoke to the challenges they had faced on their organisations’ silence and hypocrisy. The officers shared that KCLSU responded by asking them to take it down or face suspension, which they refused, honouring their students’ requests. Indeed, we can see how NUS’ decision emboldened other Student Unions to adopt the same discipline and punishment on their own elected leaders. 

But it is not just elected student leaders who confront these barriers. 

Pro-Palestinian academics, too, face such if not even more heightened levels of repression. However, unlike elected student leaders, they are governed by their university policies and employment contracts, which undoubtedly limit their freedom to publicly confront politically contentious topics, where they fear termination of their contract and damage to their academic careers (Shwaikh and Gould, 2019). 

The case of Dr. Shahd Abusalama, a Palestinian and former academic at Sheffield Hallam, who faced an online smear campaign for her criticism of Israel online is a notable example of the pacifying nature of the definition but also the incompetence of the institutions that adopt it (Charrett, 2022). 

In 2022, following her new appointment to Sheffield Hallam, Pro-Israel media targeted Abusalama. Instead of shielding her, her university proceeded to investigate her, where, just weeks after starting, she was suspended, and later reinstated.

All of these cases speak to the incompetence of these institutions when interpreting or understanding the definition, and the political and legal context surrounding it.  

It also shows the undignified treatment of Muslims in these positions, where they operate a hierarchy of racism whereby perceived antisemitism is prioritised and Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism ignored.  

With the weight of such, we see that mere accusations of antisemitism are seen as true – guilty until proven innocent – but even where unfounded, they can have intense and lasting consequences on an individual’s reputation and mental health (Shwaikh and Gould, 2019). 

So what does this mean for Muslims in higher education? 

In a recent chapter I wrote on the Rise and Decline of Sabbatical Officers in SUs, I argue that the intense scrutiny of Muslim leaders, and the unprecedented suspension of a NUS President, has caused a ripple effect on Muslim engagement with SUs and the NUS (Tamea, 2024). 

This was highlighted by one of the participants in the research – a former sabbatical and now deputy CEO at a London-based SU, who has been active in SU spaces since 2014 and spoke about the rise and decline of Muslims engaging in leadership roles over the years. Reflecting on Dallali’s treatment at NUS, he said:  

“It’s not as attractive as a role [being a student officer] unfortunately. There’s no one going ‘hey, you should replicate my experience.’ They don’t have a national body to kind of give them the advice and support on how to navigate that. That’s a huge shame.” 

Students no longer see the NUS, nor their Student Unions and University as credible or ethical organisations who place equal focus on all forms of racism and prejudice, despite their claims. Universities and Student Unions’ reactions to the Russian occupation of Ukraine provided an opportunity to demonstrate equal solidarity for all occupied groups, but this has not materialised.  

It is a sad state of affairs, but one we have been accustomed to. Their silence on the oppression of Palestinians in Gaza, and the silencing of those speak on it forces them to confront the reality that they have always known – that their voices never mattered, that they will never be equal.  

What can we do?

The NUS, the SU, and the University are accountable to you [as students], to organise with other Muslim students on campus to challenge their positions.  

Protest, write to them, write about them, share, and platform your experiences. Collective solidarity is fundamental to the cause. 

As Muslims, we must remember that our worship is not restricted to our prayers, our charity, our fasts, or our worship. Neither is it restricted to the home or the masjid. Worship is how we engage in civic life – voting when we are invited to vote, and engaging with our MPs and representatives. 

Whilst we must recognise how instruments like IHRA and Prevent collectively depoliticise us and withhold us from engaging in free political debate, we find ways to resist them. We must educate ourselves on our rights, and arm ourselves with the right support networks.

Finally, and on that note, I strongly encourage supporting and engaging with the European Legal Support Center (ELSC) – a free legal advice service based in Europe, supporting and advising those who face repression for their pro-Palestinian advocacy.


Charrett, C.C. (2022). How a Palestinian academic defeated a campaign to silence her. [online] www.aljazeera.com. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2022/2/10/how-a-palestinian-academic-defeated-a-campaign-to-silence-her [Accessed 20 Jun. 2023]. 

Dallali, S. (2022). NUS President Dismissed via Twitter. [online] Twitter. Available at: https://twitter.com/ShaimaDallali/status/1587498159357427712?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1587498159357427712%7Ctwgr%5E4c684944c07db9b360a3eacfb54580088be640e5%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.lbc.co.uk%2Fnews%2Fshaima-dallali-nus-sacked-anti-semitism-investigation%2F [Accessed 10 Mar. 2023].  

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