Prevent will discourage the very students who can help fight extremism


Source: The Guardian


It’s the stuff of farce. A Muslim postgraduate student of counter-terrorism, spotted reading a textbook entitled Terrorism Studies in the library, isaccused by his own university of being a terrorist; while a 14-year-old Muslim schoolboy, having taken part in a French class discussion on environmental activism – l’ecoterrorisme – is asked whether he was is “affiliated” with Islamic State.

Welcome to the world of Prevent duty, the latest government initiative – in force since June – ostensibly aimed at stopping pupils from becoming extremists of all stripes; but which many see as another ill-thought-out addition to the litany of miscalculation and distrust between official Britain and its beleaguered Muslim community.

Of course it’s tempting to read such incidents through the lens of individual experience, of quirky anecdote, but the damage is much bigger in scale. In practical terms, beyond the euphemistic spin of press releases, Prevent seems to amount to little more than an effort to enlist every teacher, doctor and government worker into a vast nexus of surveillance of an entire community. Keeping an eye on Muslim pupils, co-workers and neighbours – just in case – is now everyone’s patriotic duty. Those who think this is hyperbole should remember that large-scale surveillance of Muslim communities is already happening in this country. Since 2012, there have already been 4,000 such referrals under Prevent, one involving a three-year-old child.

It seems bizarre the need to point out that the Prevent strategy is an astonishing breach of the civic covenant tying the national tapestry together; the one that asserts that all citizens are equal stakeholders and custodians of the nation’s identity and values, regardless of race or gender or background. Instead, we’ve seen an ever-deepening entrenchment of the notion that one community is now an island within the island, condemned to accept that its membership of the wider community is perpetually in question, must be constantly asserted and proven, on pain of excommunication.

David Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of the government’s terrorism legislation, has warned that Prevent is stoking resentment among the Muslim community. I think its impact is likely to be far more corrosive, particularly on our schools and universities, as the very people who can contribute the most to the fight against extremism are discouraged from engaging with the topic for fear of coming under suspicion themselves. (Unsurprisingly, Mohammed Umar Farooq, the Staffordshire University postgraduate, has since left his course; while the schoolboy has given up French). More worryingly, the strategy is unlikely to make us any safer. Students who may find themselves interested in exploring these ideas will have no outlets to do so in a safe and supportive environment for fear of suffering stigma or worse, and instead seek the dark, but comforting waters of online echo chambers and solitary browsing.

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