About the author
Roshan Muhammed Salih is editor of 5Pillars. He has made several documentaries on the impact of the PREVENT strategy on the British Muslim community. You can follow him on Twitter @RMSalih
2015 was the year when the government’s PREVENT counter-terrorism strategy was called out for the state Islamophobia and racism that it actually is; so let 2016 be the year when British Muslims and non-Muslims unite to consign it to the dustbin of history, writes Roshan Muhammed Salih.
The biggest British Muslim news story of 2015 was undoubtedly the roll-out of the government’s toxic counter-terrorism agenda in public institutions such as schools, universities and health centres.
This led to a number of abuses such as Muslim primary school children being encouraged not to fast during Ramadan, sixth formers being suspended after questioning the principles of PREVENT, and a Muslim academic being reported to the authorities for doing legitimate research.
More significantly, it further entrenched the notion in the public’s minds that Muslims are some sort of “suspect community.”
But there were also signs of a fightback with a host of Muslim organisations and bodies like the National Union of Students saying that they would not cooperate with PREVENT.
So here’s hoping that 2016 will see a mass movement – akin to the great civil rights campaigns of the past – that will completely discredit a strategy that targets and discriminates against Islam and Muslims.
The intellectual underpinnings of PREVENT
In January 2015 the intellectual underpinnings of PREVENT were robustly challenged by the social cohesion think-tank Claystone which called on the government to put an end to its counter-terrorism strategy.
Claystone said the government’s strategy of aggressively promoting “British values” and attempting to ideologically transform Islam was misplaced.
In a report by Professor Arun Kundnani, Claystone said that counter-terror policy is currently far too broad-brush and radical religious ideology doesn’t automatically lead to acts of violence.
Instead, Professor Kundnani argued, counter-terror policy should be much more focused on individuals who can reasonably be suspected of intending to engage in a terrorist plot, finance terrorism or incite it.
Claystone also said that the best way of preventing terrorist violence is by actually widening the range of opinions that can be expressed, not restricting them.
Counter terror measures
During the course of 2014 a raft of new initiatives were announced by government ministers while journalists and commentators placed the issues of radicalisation and extremism firmly on the media agenda.
At the centre of this was the fear that foreign fighters returning from Syria and Iraq might engage in terrorist violence within the UK.
Moreover, in recent years a wide range of controversial domestic counter-terror policies have been introduced.
• Surveillance of the political and religious lives of Muslims to identify indicators of radicalisation, for example through Schedule 7 stops at airports;
• Requiring teachers, youth workers and health workers who work with Muslims to share information on perceived risks with police counter-terrorism units;
• Using powers under anti-terrorist legislation, such as the glorification of terrorism clause in the Terrorism Act 2006, to criminalise individuals for expressing extremist opinions;
• Aggressive removal and denial of entry to foreign nationals thought to be a radicalising influence;
• Funding selected Muslim leaders to promote an ideological message against extremism on behalf of the government;
• Requiring suspected extremist individuals to undergo “de-radicalisation” programmes;
• Removing online content deemed extremist;
• Financial restrictions on Muslim individuals and charities thought to be involved in extremism;
• Public pressure on Muslims to declare their allegiance to British values.
Prime Minister David Cameron has also repeatedly vowed to crack down on “extremists.”
In a speech in October Mr Cameron said: “When I read what some young people born and brought up in this country are doing, it makes me feel sick to my stomach.
“Girls not much older than my eldest daughter, swapping loving family homes and straight-A futures for a life of servitude under ISIL, in a land of violence and oppression. Boys who could do anything they wanted in Britain – who have benefitted from all this country stands for – instead ending up in the desert wielding a knife.
‘This ideology, this diseased view of the world, has become an epidemic – infecting minds from the mosques of Mogadishu to the bedrooms of Birmingham.”
The causes of terrorism
But Claystone rejects the government’s view that terrorism is caused by ideology.
“Advocacy of the official narrative on the causes of terrorism has had a significant polarising effect on public discourse in Britain, contributing to a climate of systematic hostility to Muslims,” its report said.
“This has happened in two main ways: The term ‘extremism’ is used selectively and inconsistently to construct Muslims as a suspect community and to discourage the expression of radical opinions.
“And the debate on multiculturalism is securitised so that a series of distinct issues involving Muslims in public life are interpreted through the lens of clashes over identity that can only be remedied by demands for assimilation.”
Adding weight to Claystone’s report, last July 280 academics, scholars and activists, both Muslim and non-Muslim, issued an open letter condemning the recently passed CTS Act and PREVENT.
They said: “The way that PREVENT conceptualises ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ is based on the unsubstantiated view that religious ideology is the primary driving factor for terrorism. Academic research suggests that social, economic and political factors, as well as social exclusion, play a more central role in driving political violence than ideology.
“Indeed, ideology only becomes appealing when social, economic and political grievances give it legitimacy. Therefore, addressing these issues would lessen the appeal of ideology.
“However, PREVENT remains fixated on ideology as the primary driver of terrorism. Inevitably, this has meant a focus on religious interaction and Islamic symbolism to assess radicalisation. For example, growing a beard, wearing a hijab or mixing with those who believe Islam has a comprehensive political philosophy are key markers used to identify ‘potential’ terrorism.
“This serves to reinforce a prejudicial worldview that perceives Islam to be a retrograde and oppressive religion that threatens the West. PREVENT reinforces an ‘us’ and ‘them’ view of the world, divides communities, and sows mistrust of Muslims.”
June 2015, which coincided with the beginning of Ramadan, saw the first high-profile cases of how the government’s PREVENT policy was adversely impacting Muslims in the education system.
There was outrage as a primary school in East London banned fasting during Ramadan. Barclay Primary School made the announcement in a letter to parents, although a paragraph at the end of the letter hinted that there may be exceptions to the rule.
After announcing that the school appreciated that this is a “very significant and special time of year for our Muslim community” and saying that the school would be celebrating what Ramadan means in an assembly, the acting head Aaron Wright then proceeded to prohibit fasting during school hours.
Meanwhile, it emerged that final year students Tahyba Ahmed, Sumayyah Ashraf and Humayra Tasnim had been suspended from NewVic college in East London after being accused of “misusing the college communication system.”
The trio had sent an e-mail to all students and staff protesting a college decision to cancel an event about PREVENT. They also expressed disquiet that the senior management were dismissing the concerns of Muslim students about the counter terror strategy.
In the letter sent to students and staff, Ahmed, Ashraf and Tasnim also accused the college principal, Eddie Playfair, of championing PREVENT, of dismissing concerns that students had about it being implemented in the college, and of denying that a lack of trust exists between students and staff.
Then in September, a postgraduate student of counter-terrorism was falsely accused of being a terrorist after an official at Staffordshire University spotted him reading a textbook entitled “Terrorism Studies” in the library.
Mohammed Umar Farooq, who was enrolled in the terrorism, crime and global security master’s programme, told the Guardian that he was questioned about attitudes to homosexuality, Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaida.
His replies, Farooq said, were largely academic but he stressed his personal opposition to extremist views. However, the conversation in the library was reported by the official to security guards, because it had raised “too many red flags” .
The university, based in Stoke-on-Trent, subsequently apologised to Farooq, and admitted that the accusation that he was a potential terrorist had exposed the difficulties in implementing the government’s new anti-radicalisation policy.
Groups representing universities and students said the episode represented infringements on academic freedom.
But there are encouraging signs that the Muslim community – and indeed our non-Muslim allies – are not taking this lying down.
In December, community leaders, imams and activists from the London borough of Newham signed a statement accusing the government’s PREVENT programme of targeting Muslim youth.
They said: “Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism is now an issue that we cannot ignore. Prejudice against the Muslim community has been fuelled by leading politicians and by an incessant stream of negative press reporting.
“Muslims are continually represented as a threat or as holding alien values. We have seen the consequences; 61% of Britons now believe Islam is incompatible with British culture and 45% of Britons think there are too many Muslims in the UK. In Newham Islamophobic attacks have increased by 63% in a year.
“It is with particular concern that we have witnessed the impact of the government’s recent Counter Terrorism Act, and measures taken against so-called ‘non-violent extremism’ under the government strategy ‘PREVENT’.
“Despite claims to the contrary, ‘PREVENT’ almost exclusively targets young Muslims for the views they hold on religion or issues such as government foreign policy. Schools and teachers are cast in the role of spies on our young people. This is leading to increasing division and to a breakdown of trust in schools and colleges.
Similar statements from around the country followed.
For its part, the National Union of Students called for a boycott of the government’s counter-radicalisation strategy and launched a national tour in five cities to oppose it.
The “Students not Suspects” tour – which took place in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Swansea – was backed by the University and College Union (UCU), the largest trade union for lecturers and academics in further and higher education.
The UCU expressed concern over what it described as the “chilling effect” that Section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 has had on academic freedom and debate, as well as its “vague and not achievable” legal duty on institutions and staff.
It issued guidance to members, saying it will support boycotts of the legislation.
Shelly Asquith, NUS vice-president, said PREVENT has had a negative impact on freedom of expression on campuses. NUS members have reported being asked by police to get training so they can spot students at risk of radicalisation, and being asked for names of members of Islamic societies, she said.
Asquith added that she feared racial profiling and Islamophobia would get worse under the new rules.
Govt and press clearly rattled
It’s very clear that the pro PREVENT lobby and the right-wing media have been badly rattled by this fightback.
In November, Sara Khan, the director of the “counter-extremism” and “women’s rights” organisation Inspire, accused CAGE, MEND and 5Pillars of trying to make the government’s counter-extremism strategy a “toxic brand.”
Delivering evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee in Parliament, Khan said that certain organisations were attempting to mislead Muslims about what the PREVENT counter-terrorism strategy is by suggesting that it was about spying on the community.
She said PREVENT has become such a “toxic brand” because of a disinformation campaign.
And this week the right-wing tabloid the Daily Mail launched a huge attack on anti-PREVENT activists including CAGE, MEND and MPACUK.
So looking forward, Muslim activists have to keep doing what we’re doing because this is a historic battle that we are waging against state Islamophobia and racism.
We have to keep hammering home that the PREVENT strategy does not just target those who would do harm to this country (if it did we would all support it because we are British citizens as well). Rather, it is an ideological crusade on our religion itself and potentially affects all of us.
So, at the risk of sounding like George Bush, within the Muslim community clear lines must be drawn between those who are for and against PREVENT. And we must give no quarter (within the bounds of the law of course) to those of us who actively collaborate in the implementation of such discriminatory practices.
And just like the NUS, we must all adopt a “non-cooperation” and even a “civil disobedience” stance when it comes to complying with PREVENT.
This may well end up with many of us being attacked and demonised in the mainstream media; and it may even end up with some of us going to jail for disobeying the law.
But just like the great civil rights figures of the past such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King suffered for a just cause, we must be prepared to suffer too.