Leadership under fire

It has been a season of firsts: Malia Bouattia: first female Muslim president of the National Union of Students; Sadiq Khan: first Muslim mayor of London.

Both have come under fire in their positions of leadership, which have often been linked with their Muslim faith.

So what can we learn from these examples of people of faith and how that impacts leadership in the university sphere?

  1. Leaders bring challenge

Bouattia criticised the British press of demonstrating a bias towards Israel that, in her opinion, was contributing towards unhelpful perceptions.

The phrase she used was ‘Zionist-led’, which is highly-charged language that immediately elicits emotional responses. Some would advocate a more careful use of language publically.

However, Bouattia saw and called out a perceived flaw in the media. Her motivation was for fair, balanced reporting.

As leaders, we need to pick our battles and language carefully – seeking not to offend or mislead. Bouattia is a good example of someone who does not shy away from bringing public challenge in line with her convictions.

  1. Leaders deal with loneliness

Khan has received special criticism as a Muslim in his new role. This has been greatly exacerbated by the negative perception of Islam in current affairs.

Overall, it has left him in a lonely position at the helm of one of the world’s flagship capital cities.

Khan has been accused of extremist ties who has ‘surrounded himself with Islamists and Muslim extremists’.

Interestingly, his rival mayoral candidate, Zac Goldsmith, did not come in for criticism for his Jewish ancestry.

Nevertheless, Khan is now the figurehead of London and must bear that responsibility. As Shakespeare penned, ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’.

  1. Leaders engage with criticism

Bouattia’s career in the NUS has been defined by a barrage of criticism.

She faced an open letter from a phalanx of over 50 leader of Jewish students’ unions about anti-Semitism.

A group of tabloids attacked her amendments to a declaration on Islamic State, which was intended to avoid generalisation about Muslims.

The Union of Jewish Students also made inferences between Bouattia’s election and its relationship with the NUS.

Despite the challenges, Bouattia has consistently tackled racism and discrimination and used her role to engage in dialogue.

Both Bouattia and Khan would have been aware of what they were stepping into. And yet they drew themselves up onto the fire step and chose to engage.

As you reflect on the leadership opportunities and their challenges around you, how can you set your compass on Jesus and lean into him when the fire comes on you?


 Simon is the Communications Director for the Mahabba Network, which helps Christian engage positively with Muslims by facilitating opportunities to pray, learn about Islam and share Jesus with local Muslim communities.

Pippa Elmes

Ministry Training Leader

Pippa supports those in church based student ministry to do their job really well. She loves challenging churches to work with students and equipping them to pioneer new mission opportunities to reach students.                     

Partner with Pippa