If ever there was an example of shooting the messenger, I feel that is what’s happened to me in the past few weeks, writes Ibtihal Bsis.
I’ve spent months trying to expose a pernicious government policy that I don’t think will do anything to deter ‘terrorism’ and have now been hounded for it. But that’s strengthens my resolve to persevere with this work.
After reading bundles and bundles of papers including the Prevent Strategy, the Channel Programme, the explanatory notes to the Bill, the Bill (now the Act) itself, and making several calls to interested parties including other lawyers, Department of Education, teachers, governors, mosques, independent schools and writing to my own MP, I was left with no choice.
I had no idea that the CTS workshops would last for 6 months and I was completely unprepared for what I would hear from the women that attended, to my surprise, in their hundreds up and down the UK. On some days I was doing 3 workshops in a day. The community’s need to understand where all of this had come from, what it was and how can they secure their rights, was my motivation to keep going, and finally, to chronicle the important aspects of this tour.
The tour began in a humble setting with around 20 women in a local community in London. The demand for knowledge would invariably lead me to deliver it in the form of a workshop, all the while refining and updating the slides based on what I had learned and seen. Prevent was targeting those “vulnerable” to radicalisation and terrorism; that meant children. The mothers of those children would therefore be affected in the main. My assumption was correct.
The first few workshops set the scene. The women in the audience included social workers, probation officers, teachers, head teachers, students and other professionals, including lawyers, medics, and councilors, and even Magistrates. My hosts included Islamic institutions, Mosques, Independent Schools and women active in the community. Many of these had already had a visit from Prevent that left them feeling very intimidated.
I remember one in particular in which young women were consistently visited by Prevent at the time of their activity. On each occasion the organisers politely explained that it was not appropriate for the male officers to attend and thanked them. Finally the officers took it upon themselves to storm into the venue and take pictures of all those that attended. The force by which the door had been opened had pushed one of the organisers back as she was standing by the door.
Other incidents included Prevent Officers asking permission to come and speak to young children and after some time, the leadership team received intimidating calls during which they were told “we will be coming!” Prevent Officers had on many occasions not even announced their intention to attend private classes that had been running for years teaching the correct recitation of the Qur’an. Their questions would seek a list of names of the teachers, and even whether these teachers wore niqab! These examples are only the tip of a very large worrying iceberg.
Who does the CTS Act target?
I would always ask my audience that question and why they have that perception. The answers were consistent- Muslims and Islam. This was not distant from the truth. The Prevent Strategy notes that the biggest challenge comes from groups that carry the “Islamist” ideology and further:
“3.10 We remain absolutely committed to protecting freedom of speech in this country. But preventing terrorism will mean challenging extremist (and non-violent) ideas that are also part of a terrorist ideology. Prevent will also mean intervening to stop people moving from extremist groups or from extremism into terrorist-related activity.
Prevent provides no empirical evidence of its proposition that extremism moves people into terrorist related activity. If there was a place to present that evidence, the Strategy document would have been the place to do it. The lines have been blurred by a policy that has a “statutory footing” in the CTS Act and is considered to be one of the most draconian pieces of legislation ever seen by Parliament, not least by Muslims.
“The result is a counter-terrorism strategy that reduces the complexity and diversity of the Muslim community into a homogeneous group of potential extremists,” writes Maria W Norris a PHD candidate and teacher and LSE.
“The true danger resides in the extremist and anti-democratic values of Theresa May and her deluded advisers, and in politicians’ self-interested fear of being cast as supporting terrorist,” also writes Karma Nabulsi, a fellow in Politics at the University of Oxford.
The proof is in the pudding. After hearing countless accounts that many ordinary citizens find incredulous believing that this can only happen under dictatorships, my summary of Prevent amounts to one sentence: “It is a means of silencing the open and public propagation of basic Islamic beliefs”.
What is really being prevented?
Children as young as two have been reported for relaying “worrying dreams” to their teachers. Others have been tipped off for using “inappropriate language” such as “Alhamdulillah” (praise be to God). Four teachers cross-examined a child in a room for half an hour for asking for a Friday prayer facility on behalf of himself and other students in a Secondary school.
A teacher was suspended for bidding his Muslim students in the morning with the Islamic greeting: “Asaalam Alaykum”. Parents were visited by police when the school raised concerns that Muslim boys were wearing trousers above their ankle.
Another 3 year old was reported for play fighting with a boy and saying “I am going to kill you” as he was holding a water pistol. A three year old girl was considered a concern when she said that she did not want to play with boys.
There are many more examples I would like to cite that indicate the dangerous narrative that the likes of Theresa May are pedaling, all the while accusing those that expose such dangers as “scaremongers.”
Who are the extremists?
The term itself has no legal definition and is not contained within the CTS Act, it can be found at the back of the prevent Strategy and amounts to a contradictory statement:
“Vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of n law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also include in our definition of extremism calls for the death of members of our armed forces, whether in this country or overseas.”
Individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of other faiths were received with ironic laughter at most, if not all, the workshops. The absence of a legal definition means that those considered so called extremists are denied an opportunity to formally challenge such a charge. It licenses Government to use loose loaded wording against an entire community but refuses to tolerate their faith as evidenced above by some of the examples that women had reported. When signs of extremism extend to the following according to a Tower Hamlets hand-out entitled “keeping children and young people safe against radicalisation and extremism”:
“As part of some forms of radicalisation parents may feel their child’s behaviour seems to be improving: children may become quieter and more serious about their studies; they may dress more modestly and mix with a group of people that seem to be better behaved than previous friends;” and when teachers have reported that their Prevent training noted that signs amounted to a boy growing facial hair and a girl suddenly wearing hijab, and both genders carrying a copy of the Qur’an, the seerah and a book entitled “Islam as a way of life”; it begs the question- who are the actual extremists?
Radicalisers or experts?
Various experts have made the following comments about Prevent:
“Essentially, Islam and mainstream Islamic practices are now being viewed through the lens of radicalisation and a pathway to terrorism. This proposition has made students feel fearful of voicing opinions openly. Their mothers fear that their children may manifest their values and identity through dress, words or views that are now considered a form of non-violent extremism. This has the effect of silencing an entire community, further entrenching distrust in society, and sends a clear message that opinions that differ to those held by Government are intolerable and can be affiliated with terrorist groups such as Al Qaida.”
“How do we stop young Muslims becoming radicalised?” is the question we now continually ask. But it’s a deeply misleading question because it points us in the wrong direction. Why? Because it contains a hidden assumption that it is radical ideas, specifically Islamic theological ideas that are the root cause of turning a young lad from West Yorkshire into an Isis suicide bomber in Iraq. According to the radicalisation hypothesis, it’s conservative Islam and the dangerous ideas contained in the Qur’an that motivate murderous behaviour.”
“A teacher’s position depends on trust as well as respect. Both could be undermined if teachers are transformed into de facto adjuncts of the police. Pupils could be left feeling they are under even more suspicion than they already are – worse, that they are being spied on. Discussions related to extremism, radicalisation and terrorism could be shut down.”
The first is one of my quotes, the second written by Giles Fraser in the Guardian and the third by Owen Jones also in the Guardian. My own recent unsavoury experience has left me wandering, who is considered to have a legitimate view against prevent and who is not. It is not students alone that are spied on and words taken out of context. It extends to those who have had a rarely equalled access to the community, who have the trust of that community and has the expertise and know-how of the laws that are stacked up against the Muslim community in order to intimidate her into reforming or removing her Islamic identity. The “shut down” that Owen Jones refers to above also contextually applies to the shutting down of women as they fear explaining what is Islam and what it means to their children.
Ibtihal Bsis is a Barrister by profession. She is currently preparing a research paper on Prevent and its effects on the Muslim Community.