Research psychologist Amar Alam explains the mental trauma the UK Government’s Prevent and Channel programme has caused Muslim children.
Over the last year, the government’s controversial Prevent strategy has led to concerns pertaining to the long-term social and psychological impact of counter-extremism policies on Muslim children across Britain.
Following the implementation of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill in 2015, the Prevent statutory duty was enforced in schools in an attempt to prevent young people from being drawn into acts of terrorism. However, the decision left the entire education sector embroiled in controversy after the government was accused of implementing policies in schools that were not only being disproportionately used against Muslim children, but were being enforced heavy handedly.
During one incident in North London, a Muslim pupil was referred to a child protection officer for using the term “eco-terrorism” in a classroom discussion about environmental activism. It was later reported that the student was singled out and accused of terrorist affiliations for expressing ideas that would have been commended had they been expressed by non-Muslim children.
In other cases, Muslim children have been referred for deradicalisation through the government’s Channel programme for espousing political views widely held in Britain and for exhibiting characteristics typical of youngsters growing up in the West. More recently, Muslim children have been referred for deradicalisation simply for expressing normative Islamic ideas and uttering Islamic terminology. This week, news also emerged of a schoolboy who was questioned by police under the government’s counter-terrorism legislation after he wore a “free Palestine” badge to school.
The hysteria surrounding Muslim children in the context of counter extremism policies was further stoked by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who called for Muslim children to be taken into care because “radicalised” parents were teaching them “crazy stuff”. Such actions have led to an atmosphere of fear and anxiety, whereby Muslim pupils are being warned by their parents not to express any form of political or religious beliefs in school in case they are referred to Channel.
The concerns surrounding the disproportionate targeting of Muslim children under counter terrorism policies were again exemplified when six primary schools in Walthamstow, East London were accused of religiously profiling Muslim year 5 students using a “counter extremism” questionnaire under the council’s “Building Resilience through Integration and Trust” (BRIT) scheme.
Fears about the profiling of Muslim pupils and singling them out for “counter radicalisation” programmes were highlighted by Melanie Newman of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. She reported that black and ethnic minority pupils in three schools in Barnsley were being singled out for signs of radicalisation using the “Radicalisation and Extremism Risk Assessment”. She uncovered white children were exempt from the schools’ counter radicalisation assessments, as it was assumed they were at low risk of radicalisation “due to their skin colour”, despite all three schools being based in an area with a history of far-right activism.
The unhealthy focus on the actions of Muslim children has led to a toxic atmosphere in schools whereby Muslim children have become targets of regular racist and Islamophobic bullying. An annual report published by the NSPCC in 2014 reported a significant increase in the number of children being given counseling for racist abuse in schools. The report also documented a 69% increase in racist bullying in educational institutions while the common theme was for young people to be labeled as “terrorist” or “bomber”. Recently published research by academics from the universities of Newcastle, St Andrew’s and Edinburgh also found that a majority of Muslim pupils in Scottish schools have experienced Islamophobia with children routinely being called “terrorists” and “p***s”. Last year, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers reported Muslim children were regularly being taunted with jibes such as “terrorists” in schools, with similar acts of bullying linked to a stunt in the psychological development of Muslim children.
In America, a program similar to Prevent was stopped before its launch in light of concerns that it would increase bullying of Muslim children while doing nothing to counter radicalisation. Naureen Shah, a director of Amnesty International, pointed out “programs designed to identify potentially radicalised children in schools would almost certainly increase bullying.”
Such incidents, along with McCarthyist policies implemented in schools have led to an atmosphere of anxiety and mistrust among Muslim students, who now fear being labeled as extremists or treated as such if they express themselves freely during classroom discussions. Within this climate of fear, Muslim students feel they have to “tread carefully” as they are being monitored by teachers who may misunderstand or misinterpret their convictions. A secondary school teacher also highlighted how Muslim children he taught felt they held devalued positions in society and they did not speak out about their treatment for fear of being “a burden on society”.
While there is very little data at the present time about the long-term impact of labeling and the demonisation of young people within the context of counter extremism policies, studies have found negative labeling can damage children’s self-perceptions by lowering their self-worth, which could predispose them to mental health issues such as depression.
The impact of referrals through the Prevent strategy is also a major concern. Especially in light of findings that only 1 in 5 people referred to Channel’s deradicalisation programme between 2006-2013 required “supportive intervention”. That means 80% of people were referred to Channel for the wrong reasons. This has far reaching consequences for children and families wrongly referred to the programme because the stigma and shame placed on them by their communities as a result of being singled out as potential extremists could alienate them within society. Crucially, while a referral from Channel can easily be dismissed, the subsequent stigma placed on a child and their family cannot so easily be removed.
Similar fears were expressed in Bradford two weeks ago during a meeting between 70 young people and politicians from the Home Affairs Select Committee. It was disclosed by young Muslims that an “unhealthy focus” was being placed on them by counter-extremism policies and coupled with the anti-Muslim bias in the media, they were left feeling stigmatised. These concerns were also conveyed to the Home Affairs Select Committee last week by David Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism laws, and expert witnesses who warned about the stigmatising impact of the Prevent duty on children, especially since stigma can lead to long-term identity and self-esteem issues in children.
Such developments are deeply worrying. At a time when the government have spent millions trying to prevent young people from being drawn into violent extremism, academic research on their own website suggests their own policies and bias media reporting against Muslims could be creating an environment that potentially pushes them on to the path of radicalisation.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of his employer.