Socialists and anti-racists must counter the Tories' Prevent strategy and the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act.
In 2005 Tony Blair’s New Labour government launched a counter-terrorism strategy called Contest. This was set up after the London bombings of July 2005 and Prevent was a key part of it. Contest was widely criticised as being Islamophobic and fuelling suspicion towards Muslim communities. This was the same government that had led us into a bloody war in Iraq, costing the lives of millions of innocent Iraqi people. Innocent people in Britain also suffered the consequences of the government’s war when it made us a target in the London bombings. It was obvious that what was being touted as a counter-terrorism strategy was actually just another justification for war in the Middle East and a way of making it easier to divide people at home.
In 2011 the government built on the strategy and presented three specific stated objectives: “respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism and the threat faced from those who promote it”, “prevent people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure that they are given appropriate advice and support” and “work with sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalisation”. When the Conservative government came into power it adopted the strategy, revising the Prevent strand, and has recently enshrined it in law. So whereas previously Prevent was only a recommended programme in the public sector, as of July 2015 (October 2015 for educational institutions) it has become mandatory.
The government claims it is necessary in order to prevent people from becoming extremists and terrorists.
The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, which complements the Prevent strategy, reasserts this, stating that certain public bodies have a duty to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. This is known as the “Prevent duty”. So since 1 July 2015 Prevent officers have been working with institutions including universities, schools, hospitals and local councils to target anyone who challenges “fundamental British values”. Teachers, lecturers and other public sector workers are being placed into training so that they know how to implement the Prevent duty.
In addition to Prevent there is the government programme Channel, which identifies and singles out people “at risk of radicalisation”. Even though those referred to Channel are not considered criminals, it is the police force which is responsible for monitoring these individuals and organising programmes to “de-radicalise” them. Often the people targetted by Channel are children. Over the last three years some 912 children have been referred to Channel, including children as young as three years old. Since Prevent first came into existence there has been no decrease in terrorism or the threat of terrorism in the UK. It fails to identify the real roots of terrorism or what it is exactly that causes people to become vulnerable to “radicalisation”. How can we trust a programme which claims to counter something it cannot explain?
All the Prevent strategy has done so far is stoke up Islamophobia and target the Muslim community. The thinking behind Prevent implies that it is the Islamic belief system which somehow encourages terrorism and extremism, and that therefore Muslims are the people we should be spying on. The government has been using all avenues to try and purposefully push this argument in order to whip up racism and stop people questioning the government’s actions in the Middle East. Prevent and the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act are being used to legitimise and further propel the pro-war agenda and the scapegoating of Muslims at home and abroad.
This is obvious when we see that Muslims made up 90 percent of those referred to Channel between 2007 and 2010, even though Muslims comprise only 5 percent of the population. On top of this, CCTV is being placed in prayer rooms in schools, colleges, universities and other institutions — rooms which are predominantly used by Muslims. The Prevent guidance states that it considers groups in Syria and Iraq and those associated with al-Qaida as a greater threat than far right terrorism. That being said, the strategy still manages to ignore the links between war, racism and terrorism.
The same government which is implementing Prevent as a counter-terrorist strategy is currently engaged in a bombing campaign over Syria; presumably this is because bombing the Middle East has been so effective over the past 14 years… ISIS did not exist before the destruction caused by the Iraq war. Although David Cameron claims anti-war campaigners are “terrorist sympathisers” it is his government which is creating the conditions in which terrorism can grow by waging war after war.
The government isn’t interested in tackling terrorism and extremism. The Tories claim to oppose extremists in the form of ISIS, who behead people and oppress women, but Britain is allied with Saudi Arabian dictators who do the same and are allowed to do so by law. The definition of extremism that the government is using to blacklist people in Britain includes, “The vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”
The definition is very worrying and vague, to say the least, and it is racist in its assumption that the values listed are exclusively British. It aims to open up the space for our government to stir up Islamophobia and create a culture of fear.
The Counter-Terrorism Act is designed to solidify divisions which are rapidly forming between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. It claims to stop people from being “drawn into terrorism”, but the undemocratic and racist nature of the act isolates Muslims and lays the foundations for them to feel as if they don’t belong in our society. In the course of 2015 in London alone, Islamophobic attacks went up by 70 percent. Following the killings in Paris last November Islamophobic attacks shot up by a further 300 percent. The majority of these attacks have been carried out on Muslim women.
In October 2015 the Home Office revealed that religious hate crime had increased by 43 percent over the year and that it would start recording Islamophobic attacks in a separate category, as is already the case with anti-Semitic attacks. From disgusting, misleading headlines in The Sun claiming that British Muslims sympathise with Jihadis, to the government putting forward arguments for more war in Muslim countries, to the Prevent strategy, almost all the major institutions in our society are being mobilised to demonise, criminalise, ostracise and murder Muslims.
The Prevent strategy is being used as the most legitimate tactic, providing training for teachers and nurses and offering “advice and support” to people who may potentially become radicalised.
The Prevent agenda is trying to appeal to the majority of people by appearing to be an organised and effective government programme with no intention of causing conflict; it is all about protection and safeguarding. But a glance at who Prevent has targeted so far and the impact of the actions taken reveals a very different picture. We have seen the suspension of three women students at New Vic College who raised concerns about Islamophobia; a conference on Islamophobia at Birkbeck College, University of London, shut down amid “security fears”; and the suspension of the Islamic Society at Queen Mary University of London over unfounded and unexplained allegations of misconduct.
We have also seen a Muslim student on a counter-terrorism course at Staffordshire University referred to Prevent on the basis that he was reading a book on counter-terrorism in the university library. He was questioned about his attitude towards homosexuality, ISIS and al-Qaida. These are just a few of many cases in which Prevent has taken action and found no threat of terrorism. In fact, all that came out of the actions taken was that the people referred felt nervous and uneasy about what they can and can’t say or do.
This conclusion is exactly what the creators of this racist Prevent agenda and Counter Terrorism Act want. The suspicion and racial profiling that comes with having to spy on students and workers ties in with the overall ideological attack on Muslims that our government is trying to perpetrate. Not only that, but other activists may face Prevent officers. For example, many pro-Palestine activists have been questioned by police. The agenda is being and will continue to be used as a way of silencing Muslims who are oppressed and in turn silencing anti-war and anti-racist protesters who sympathise with those Muslims and challenge the government.
It is important to look at the reaction to Prevent and the Counter-Terrorism Act. There has been widespread opposition from both trade unions and student unions, including the Trade Union Congress, the National Union of Teachers, the National Union of Students and University and College Union. The NUS in particular has been campaigning non-stop to expose the racism behind the Prevent strategy. It has even come under fire for this, with Conservative Party politician Jo Johnson pressuring it to drop its opposition to Prevent.
So what can we do? Central to taking on the Prevent agenda is taking on racism. We can argue for presentations on Islamophobia, putting forward the case that the rise in attacks threatens the safety of Muslims and increases divisions and a sense of fear within the workplace or classroom. We can resist external trainers — they are not compulsory. At one college campaigners managed to keep away trainers from the Quilliam Foundation, the “anti-extremism” think tank that the media always run to when it wants Muslims to apologise for any act of terrorism, and which sought to rehabilitate Tommy Robinson, former leader of the racist English Defence League.
We have to continue campaigning through our trade unions and student unions, as well as on the streets as part of organisations such as Stand Up To Racism and the Stop the War Coalition. Collectively we have to protest, organise, pass motions and policies, educate people on Prevent and be persistent in challenging it.
It is clear that the Prevent agenda and the Counter Terrorism Act will do nothing but increase a sense of fear and paranoia within our society. We are already seeing racism divide people with Muslims fearing attacks from non-Muslims and non-Muslims fearing attacks from Muslims. We must continue to vocalise with the utmost clarity that Prevent has a racist agenda. It is an ideological attack created to place the blame for the government’s failures on Muslims and to justify wars. Division breeds the mentality of “them and us” which is exactly what terrorist groups like ISIS are hoping to promote. The government’s attempts to isolate Muslims through racist strategies such as Prevent will do nothing but fuel this mentality.
Ordinary people, students and workers, Muslims and non-Muslims, have to campaign together to fight for an end to war and inequality. We have to look at what we have in common in order to come together and fight back against a system which pits us against one another.
Saba Shiraz is Black Students Officer at Birkbeck College, University of London. She writes in a personal capacity.
A Higher Education worker speaks out
We were recently visited in our workplace by a representative of the government’s Prevent strategy. The spokesperson who undertook the training session maintained that Prevent was a central part of safeguarding vulnerable adults and that this was necessary because radicals from far right organisations and jihadist groups were targetting vulnerable people as possible recruits.
What followed was possibly the most unconvincing analysis of why people are drawn to organisations that encourage acts of individual terrorism that you are ever likely to hear. The focus of the presentation was almost exclusively about Muslims, with the odd reference to racist organisations such as the EDL for ‘balance’.
In the current period it can be very difficult to challenge these views in the workplace, not least when politicians and the media provide an almost daily diatribe of Islamophobia and moral panics about potential acts of terrorism. In our workplace we were in a strong position to challenge the Prevent representative on the day as a result of the excellent work that socialists had undertaken in our union UCU to publish a document critiquing the Prevent strategy.
We circulated the document to our local UCU branch and argued with our management in advance of the training session that we would challenge the rationale of Prevent on the day. We were given time on the day to provide an alternative explanation to our colleagues that challenged the racism behind the Prevent strategy. We also argued that targeting Muslims as potential terrorists was racist and was completely counter to the values of trade unionism and our workplace.
We suspect that we won’t be receiving any follow up training on Prevent, but we will ensure that everyone in our workplace is respected and treated with dignity. The only way to prevent racism is with anti-racism.
Useful resources for Higher Education workers:
Newham Stand Up to Racism statement: