It is important to recognise the role that Prevent has played in UK institutions since 2006 and the impact this has had on Muslim communities across the UK, particularly in a context of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq which have been waged and justified on the false dichotomy of ‘Islam v West’ and/or ‘us v them’.
Since 2006 Prevent has further institutionalized a division in our health care and education providers, fuelled by Islamophobia where upon every Muslim is a potential suspect - somebody whose opinions, conduct and ideas should be scrutinized and reported to state authorities, even in an environment such as a place of learning; where everybody should be encouraged to share ideas and analysis of the world around them.
We also need to be clear about the context in which Prevent will continue to operate in. Hate crimes against Muslims in London have already risen by 70% in the past year, that’s according to Met Police statistics of just ‘reported crimes’. On Monday this week research was published that Muslim men are 76% less likely to be employed than their Christian counterparts. Rather than our government and local authorities having an interest in tackling this, Prevent directly benefits from the rise of Islamophobia and people growing increasingly hostile to Islam, and Prevent fuels it. Prevent relies on ordinary workers within schools, colleges, universities, health services and youth charities, noticing the actions and conduct of Muslims beyond anybody else and then reporting on them.
Concerns have been repeatedly raised over the running and practical impact Prevent has had on Muslim communities, particularly since 2009. Instead of the government acknowledging these, it has created a statutory obligation to force people to comply with Prevent.
In 2009, before the creation of this statutory duty The Guardian obtained documents which evidenced the Prevent programme was being used to gather intelligence about innocent people who were not even suspected of involvement in terrorism or criminal offences. Documents showed the information the authorities were trying to find out and it included: political and religious views, information on mental health, sexual activity and associates, as well as other sensitive information. It also became clear that information could be stored until the people concerned reach the age of 100.
The biggest knock to Prevent was in 2010 when it emerged that CCTV cameras in deemed Muslim areas of Birmingham - 72 of them hidden - were partly funded by Home Office counter-terrorism money. The loss of trust and confidence as a consequence was enormous.
In response to this backlash? As of July 2015, all staff working in local authorities, educational institutions – including youth services and mentoring, health care providers – GP practices and counselling, in addition to the police and prisons, have a legal duty to, “when exercising its functions, have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”.
Prevent’s strategy since 2011 has been to deal with “all forms of terrorism and non violent extremism”. The government has based Prevent on the notion that if individuals are expressing what they define as “extremist” views then this is a basis upon which that certain individual may be drawn to terrorism. As a consequence that person should be carefully observed, recorded and reported to the appropriate authority.
So, what is extremism? The government has defined this as: “Vocal or active opposition to fundamental British Values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”
It is my position that this government has repeatedly acted in direct opposition to the rule of law, particularly when considering the government’s interference with the criminal justice system and cuts to legal aid, as well as the policing which takes place in our communities and during political activity, not to mention the vast amounts of anti terrorism legislation introduced in the last decade.
What has the rule of law meant to millions of Muslims in the UK over the last decade or more? The ‘rule of law’ is meant to prevent arbitrary decision-making such as the British state placing restrictions on alleged ‘terror suspects’ movements, finances and living arrangements without producing any evidence of why such restrictions can be imposed. This government and those before has, when it has suited, totally disregarded this concept.
In addition, umbrella organization, Netpol has raised the vague and openness to interpretation of the term ‘democracy’. They cited the example of the Daily Mail accusing protesters who took to London’s streets in May 2015 as “enemies of democracy” for rejecting “the democratic voice of those who voted” in the general election. Yet, to many, the current electoral system and means by which decisions are made at a political level, which impact upon millions of ordinary people, are undemocratic.
If we vocally oppose the government’s selective interpretations of the rule of law and democracy, are we all to be deemed extremists?
Worryingly, this has already been answered with an affirmative “yes”.
Last month more than 100 teachers from several schools were given advice during a Prevent training session in West Yorkshire, where they were warned by a police officer about extreme anti-capitalist groups.
The officer went on to refer to the behaviour of Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, who was arrested for her part in blocking a road at an anti-fracking demonstration in 2013, as an example of extremism.
We are deeply concerned about the continued use of Prevent and its growing expansion of focus, especially in our places of learning, which prior to it even carrying a legal duty has resulted in young Muslims placed on “deradicalisation” programmes simply for attending a demonstration or political meeting.
Our schools, colleges and universities must be maintained as places of open learning where students can raise ideas and analysis of how they may wish to change the world around them.
Ultimately what the Prevent Programme does is similar to the impact of section 28 (which was the prohibition of promoting homosexuality by teaching): Teachers will steer clear of discussing important topics which particularly affect their students, in case they compromise themselves or worse, their students. This is very, very authoritarian.
The principle of academic freedom is enshrined in the Education (No 2) Act 1986, which places a duty on universities and colleges to “ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers”. The joint committee on human rights has already raised concerns of how this prevent legal duty should work alongside existing requirements to ensure freedom of speech and so far – prevent training does not adequately address this and I think this needs to be scrutinised further.
So there is an important opportunity as well as a responsibility to put into practice the widespread opposition to Prevent on universities campuses and the strong national policies of opposition voted for by members of the NUS and UCU. How we do this is the subject of the current Students not Suspects tour co-organised DtRtP, NUS, NUS Black Students, Fosis and the UCU.
We hope you can come and join this discussion; but also set up a meeting or workshop at your university, college, school or workplace so we can begin coordinating our efforts to scrutinise and hold to account those imposing the Prevent Program in our spaces of learning and beyond. We also encourage people to sign up to the Together Against Prevent statement.
This must be just the beginning of building a broad opposition in our universities, workplaces and communities that makes Prevent unworkable and leads to the repeal of this draconian legislation.
By Rachel Harger Defend the Right to Protest & trainee solicitor