What is PREVENT really preventing?
This September, the government passed ‘the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act’: a strategy designed to ensure that teachers, professors, and academics now have a statutory duty to notice and report signs of so-called ‘non-violent extremism’. But is this simply an attempt to “protect impressionable young minds” and stamp out early signs of radicalism or is it more of a thinly veiled attempt to monitor and patrol Muslim expression? The Gryphon explores the causes and effects that this potentially Orwellian strategy may have.
After watching Hunted on a Thursday night, many have been horrified to discover quite how easily watched we are as a nation: between facial recognition software and phone-tracking systems, nothing we do anymore is really, truly private. Cameras are everywhere and officials can watch your every move – that much is evident. But how would you feel if I told you that we were being watched on a more personal basis?
In August 2014, based upon international intelligence, MI5 increased the national threat level to ‘severe’ for the UK as a whole – indicating that a terrorist attack is highly likely. The government has responded by pouring £140 million into the ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’ strategy, which forms one strand of a four-stage government policy named CONTEST, a counter-terrorism act designed to address both the “immediate threat of attacks” and the “longer term factors which enable terrorist groups to grow and flourish” (www.gov.co.uk). Entering its fifth year of existence, PREVENT itself is pretty self-explanatory – the idea is that it will counteract terrorism by policing students and young persons in schools, local authorities, prisons, and NHS trusts. Anything suspect can and will be reported – under recent revisions of the bill, people working in these institutions now have a legal obligation to do so. In the wake of whole families heading to Syria to join ISIS and the Islamic State, the government argues that PREVENT could play a vital role in stopping the grooming-like radicalisation process, before it reaches this stage.
Universities are classed by the PREVENT scheme as a ‘radicalising location’, that is to say, an unsupervised venue in which radicalisation can take place. According to government statistics, thirty percent of convicted Al Qa’ida-associated terrorists are known to have attended university and many others have been corrupted and recruited by terrorist ideals and groups throughout their academic careers. As such, governments are expecting university personnel to report any suspicious or abnormal behaviour – be that checking a book out of the library or the questioning typically ‘British’ values – under the principle of providing a duty of care and safeguarding “impressionable, young minds”. But does this really act as a preventative, protectionist measure or does it simply lead to yet further alienation of whole communities?
Despite being issued as a universal clause, the strategy has an unspoken target: the Islamic community. According to a Freedom of Information inquest carried out by the National Police Chiefs’ Council in 2013 to 2014, fifty-five percent of 1252 referrals were Muslim; the remaining referrals are made up of followers of seven other faith and belief systems. The question arises as to where lines are drawn: when one young Muslim boy enquired about the making of bombs during a class on nuclear fission in school, he was referred; when non-Muslim students asked the same relevant questions however, they were not. The same applies to Mohammed Umar Farooq, a counter-terrorism student at Staffordshire University who was falsely accused of terrorist intent in March after he was spotted reading a library book on his degree subject, entitled Terrorism Studies. He was then questioned as a terrorist, necessitating him to justify his beliefs and values; he was left feeling so alienated that he felt unable to return to his course. We are left to question whether the same three-month long saga would have occurred had it been a white middle-class male seen reading the same book.
On a more global scale, people worldwide took to social media to express their outrage after fourteen-year old Ahmed Mohamed was arrested for building a clock and bringing it into school, after it was assumed to be a bomb. Whilst this left a nation in shock, many Muslim communities were less surprised, citing that it simply feeds into a fabric of anti-Islamic rhetoric and sentiment, sparked by a number of events and the way in which the media portrays such stories. Arguably, the PREVENT scheme is only going to add fuel to a fire that has already been raging for decades: further ostracising a whole community of people for the actions and the mind-sets of very few.
It is important to note that very few referrals result in any kind of ‘success’: the Muslim Council of Britain found that as few as twenty percent of cases led to any serious need for intervention. As it stands, the Muslim Council was able to provide David Anderson, an independent reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, with a plethora of examples of cases in which the accused were entirely innocent for his report on The Terrorism Acts in 2014. Naturally, the very personal nature of PREVENT can have devastating effects on a person’s confidence and happiness, leaving them feeling distrustful of the very people they are surrounded by. In fact, this can actually render the measure as counterproductive – leading to further divisions in society and even encouraging feelings of resentment from an already marginalised group.
Aside from the potential demonisation of whole faith communities, the PREVENT scheme poses a very real threat to the freedom of speech. Something that has been fiercely preserved in British institutions for generations, universities have a statutory duty to protect free speech. But this entirely contrasts with the new government policy, which requires speakers on campus to have been “centrally-monitored” and expression to be policed. The Bill looks to establish a whole new kind of ‘thought-crime’, under which merely speaking out against traditionally ‘British’ values could land you in trouble, no matter what your intentions. This brings about concerns over implications of censorship: how can speech ever truly be free if we are terrified of being condemned for our own opinions?
NUS has been very vocal in its lack of support for the policy, labelling it a “radicalised, Islamophobic witch-hunt” and student unions across the country are also declaring their dissent. In April, over 280 academics and public figures signed a letter against the impending act, under concerns over the division of communities and the effects on freedom of speech. However, it amounted to little with governments warning the NUS and other oppositionists to abandon their efforts, fearing that such a disturbance could cause unnecessary division over a very serious issue.
As it stands, the policy seems to be quite a large step back for a generation that is often characterised as ‘liberal’. Under this act, thousands of children and adults alike are being stigmatised as likely extremists; the youngest referral is currently a three-year old from London. Terrorism is, without a doubt, a huge security risk and a high-priority problem, which needs to be treated as such. But when did security become synonymous with espionage – not to mention blatant Islamophobia? In a time when so many other stigmas are being overturned, why should this one be the one that sticks?
Images: Hustvedt; hacklog.mu; holyrood.com