On Monday the 14th, the Prevent debate will take place at our Student’s Union. Hannah Williams spoke to Malia Bouattia, NUS President, and asked her a few questions about Prevent.
- Why do you think people support Prevent?
To look at why people support Prevent, we have to go back and look at why and how it was created – hastily, and formulated as a policy in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings in 2005. The government at the time wanted to combat what it called domestic violent extremism. Some people supported it as it seemed to be needed in a time of great difficulty, and others saw its’ community cohesion framework and accepted its’ funds. Since then, it has been reshaped, most notably in 2011 under the coalition government, with its’ remit widened to tackle far right groups, which is also why some lend their support to the strategy. Realistically, however, organisations that support Prevent tend to be right wing neoconservative groups like the Henry Jackson Society, for whom Prevent validates and furthers a political agenda.
- Why do you think people do not support Prevent?
There have been many documented critiques of Prevent, again going back to its earliest days. When counter extremism was coupled to a community cohesion outlook, it was a devastating blow to Muslims, demonstrating that the only way the government was prepared to engage with Muslim communities was through the lens of counter extremism. In a 2009 academic report, it was noted that Prevent funding amounts given to an area directly correlated to the number of Muslims in an area. Further confidence was lost when it was uncovered that CCTV cameras in Birmingham (Project Champion, 2011) that were partly hidden, were funded through counter-terrorism money and directed solely in largely Muslim areas of the city. After the reshaping of the strategy to include “non-violent extremism” by the coalition government, criticisms have only grown, with Prevent being called a “toxic brand” by a senior police officer. The gap of trust between Muslims and the state has only widened since it became a statutory duty upon public bodies (such as universities and colleges) in 2015. It is criticised for its vagueness and ill-defined terms such as radicalisation and non-violent extremism, for the fact that it compromises the relationships between students and staff, counselling and other services, for the way it limits freedom of speech and infringes upon academic freedom, for the fear it instils in Muslims who access public services and for the racist and Islamophobic implementation by people who aren’t adequately trained.
- Do you think Prevent has a large effect on Muslim communities in Universities?
Yes it does. For Muslim students organising in Islamic societies, the policing of everything includes topics they are allowed to discuss at events, the speakers they invite and the pressure to invite opposing views to “balance” panels. This has even happened on events about Islamophobia! Should Muslim students now be expected to invite the far right to debate the positives of Islamophobia? Further to this, some Muslim students report feeling too nervous to express political opinions in lecturers, for fear of being labelled extreme. Case studies include a Staffordshire student who was questioned for reading a core module textbook on terrorism, simply because he was Muslim-looking. This happened before the duty was even in place – such is the hysteria being whipped up in educational institutions.
- How much of an invasion of privacy is Prevent for University students affected by the strategy?
Prevent is a huge invasion of privacy – Muslim students are already feeling spied on and this is what launched our campaign “Students Not Suspects.” Now that lecturers are offered Prevent training, students are reluctant to discuss issues that they might normally bring up, in case they tick any of the arbitrary signs given in the training. The Prevent guidance for institutions details that risk in events should be handled specifically, it highlights the management of faith spaces such as Muslim prayer rooms and proposes web-filtering for students. In response to this, we’ve seen cases such as the University of Westminster installing cameras in it’s Muslim prayer rooms. Countless universities have left Muslim students struggling to organise events by placing bureaucratic barriers that turn them away.
- Does the Prevent Strategy have some benefits?
I don’t believe the Prevent strategy has quantifiable, evidenced benefits which qualify it to be a statutory duty upon public bodies.
- Couldn’t it be true that some students are suspects of terrorism?
The 2010 Caldicott inquiry and subsequent report responds to this very question in the case of UCL student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. There is no evidence to suggest that he was radicalised whilst at university. In fact, there has been no evidence presented by the government to suggest that students are radicalised at university, or that there is any specific route towards terrorism. Whitehall reports have debunked the conveyor belt theory, yet the Prevent guidance is still based on the assumption that “non-violent extremism” leads to violent acts of terrorism. If students are suspected of “terrorism”, i.e there is reason to believe they are planning to commit an act of terrorism and break the law, there are clear procedures in place that deal with this. This is not the remit of Prevent.
- How else could the government tackle this?
This is a broad question that requires many groups across society coming together to discuss what is a complicated subject. However the first responsibility of the government is to listen to the criticisms levelled at Prevent and not label groups as “extreme” for disagreeing with the strategy. The second would be to meaningfully engage with Muslim communities – i.e. establish a dialogue, not a one way conversation. Currently, counter extremism is the only lens that we are viewed through, and if Muslim groups express opinions outside a narrowly defined acceptable range, they are labelled extremists. Anyone who accepts the government narrative is favoured. This needs to change. Thirdly, there has to be a robust effort made to confront Islamophobia, both in terms of hate crime as well as institutional Islamophobia as seen within government departments, the media and across society. Alongside this, there needs to be an acceptance of the fact that the “British Muslim” identity is convoluted – imposing tolerance, rule of law and equality as uniquely “British” values is condescending and ignores the tradition in which these values were fought for and won; they were grassroots campaigns led by marginalised groups against the government of the time. Many Muslims in the UK are first, second or third generation immigrants with attachments to countries of origin, meaning foreign policy is always on the agenda. Instead of shying away from this, the UK government must accept how it’s role in the rest of the world has contributed to devastation, refugee crises and the creation of worldwide terror, not respond with hypocrisy. Ultimately – the best counter extremism strategy is to have a confident, politically educated, articulate population in a country where freedom of speech is protected, and ideas and opinions are openly debated. It is concerning that the current government seems to favour the opposite.
- What would be the best thing to move on with the Prevent Strategy?
The best thing would be to carry out an independent review of the strategy, and an equality impact assessment of how it has affected the Muslim community at large, and then to scrap it in favour of a credible alternative that doesn’t infringe upon the civil liberties of minorities.
Join us with Malia Bouattia and Adam Deen, Managing Director of Quilliam a counter-extremism organization, as they debate whether the UK should continue with the Prevent Agenda. It should be an interesting evening!
14th of November 18:00-20:00.
You can reserve your free place here: https://www.thestudentsunion.co.uk/representation/campaigns/prevent/
By Hannah Williams