Manchester student newspaper Student Direct was taken over by a member of the Islamic Society and Socialist Workers Party Coalition in the campus elections held during March 2006. Two issues have been published since the start of the current academic year, and have caused a great deal of uproar among the paper’s readership and former editors, many of whom have since been sacked.
Students have taken issue with the drop in journalistic standards and the removal of the sex column. However, it is the one-sidedness of debate within the paper that poses the main cause for concern, as well as the fact that students at Manchester might well have little interest in Middle Eastern news.
A new section called “World Affairs” has been introduced, which features a story entitled “Israel seizes Palestinian funds” in the 25th September issue. The story is accompanied by an apparently unrelated picture with the caption “Palestinian kids wave at a menacing Israeli tank patrolling the grounds of their school.” This sets the tone for the rest of the paper.
An opinion column by Yaseer Khair about the Pope’s speech argues that “It didn’t make any sense to me that a world religious leader would be as insensitive as to what kind of reaction this would bring, especially after the whole Prophet Muhammad cartoon debacle”.
A “contemporary example” of “using religious reasons to justify wars” is then given in which President Bush is quoted as saying “God would tell me, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan’. And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq’. And I did.” However, this quote was known to have been inaccurate since October 2005 as Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian official who reported this statement later admitted the comment was not to be taken literally. Haaretz carried a transcript of this conversation, although Bush’s remark was quite different: “God told me to strike at al Qaida and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East. If you help me I will act, and if not, the elections will come and I will have to focus on them."
Yaseer goes on to condemn the firebombing of two Churches in Nablus following the Pope’s speech as being “an embarrassment to the faith”, before pointing out that “Muslims get disheartened” when “such comments are made”. This is because Muhammed was “a great man” and was known for “influencing many issues such as slavery and women’s rights”. However, his influence in these areas was not always positive, as the Koran openly encourages its readers to “enjoy what you took as booty; the spoils are lawful and good”. As for the status of women, Muhammed is recorded as saying that the testimony of a woman is equal to half that of a man “because of the deficiency of the woman's mind”.
In another article the Islamic Society states its aim of “communicating the true peaceful message of Islam” to people from “all walks of life”. Non-Muslims are encouraged to attend meetings to get to “know more about the Prophet Muhammed”. A feature on the following page promotes the benefits of Ramadan, as “personal hostility is at a minimum during the festival, and in Muslim countries the crime rate decreases”.
Another feature called “Shattered Dreams” is about Ahmed Khaldoom Hankir, a Manchester student who will “now have to work full time to support his family in Lebanon … as a result of the Israeli assault”.
The introduction claims that “The Israeli bombing of Lebanon has taken the lives of 1300 innocent people”. This figure is higher than the combined Lebanese death toll. No mention is made of Israeli casualties and suffering as a result of the war. The firing of 3970 missiles by Hezbollah into Israel is also omitted.
Ahmed also “points out that thousands of Lebanese people are still ‘kidnapped’ and locked up in Israeli jails”. This is factually innacurate, as there were only three Lebanese prisoners held by Israel prior to the war, including convicted child killer Samir Kuntar. Thirteen Hezbollah terrorists were captured during the war.
The article is accompanied by a map showing Israel, Lebanon and Syria (SEE ATTACHED PICTURE). Although an unbroken line is used to illustrate the border between Lebanon and Syria, Israel’s borders are made up of dashes, suggesting they are disputed. This is done despite the fact that the Golan Heights are clearly placed on the Syrian side of the border. Israel gained control over the Golan Heights from Syria during the Six Day War, and its status has not changed since.
Ahmed goes on to ask the question: “Aren’t the blood and tears of Lebanese children precious too?”, when comparing the war’s aftermath to 9/11. He concludes by issuing a warning for the future: “There is little doubt that this collective punishment and humiliation has sown the seeds of hatred for many years ahead”. This is presumably an advance justification for any future violence that is perpetrated from the Lebanese side of the border.
Despite this, Ahmed nevertheless “believes Muslims and Jews can live in peace provided that justice is served”. No futher detail is given as to what this would entail.
These points illustrate how Student Direct is taking a one-sided view of current events that focuses on the suffering of the Lebanese and Palestinians, whilst ignoring the Israeli perspective. The plight of children is highlighted, as they are often seen as innocent victims who are to be pitied. This consideration, however, is not extended to Israeli children.
Israelis are portrayed the imagery of “menacing” tanks, whilst the “peaceful message of Islam” is emphasised in other articles. Elsewhere, Islam is disassociated from events which do not portray it in a good light, such as the firebombing of the Nablus Churches. This subliminally delivers a message to the reader that the Israeli side, associated with Judaism, is the aggressor, and the Palestinian side, associated with Islam, is the victim.
As if it were not enough to merely restrict the scope of debate given by columnists, it has also transpired that a letter to the editor, purportedly sent by a student at Manchester, was lifted from a paper called the Roanoke Times. It was about a soon-to-be released movie about the “assassination of President George W. Bush”, a topic seemingly unrelated to anything covered by Student Direct. The name of the letter writer was changed from “Barbara Newman” to “Sarah Jordan”.
There is a danger that such deliberately restricted debate can easily influence a student population, many of whom are not familiar with both sides of the story, into carrying a distorted view of these issues with them into later life. However, there is already much discontent among students at Manchester over the paper’s content, and it is possible that action will soon be taken to change it.