The Prevent duty: Counter-terrorism in an age of Islamophobia

Conference

The Prevent national conference, featuring the NUS’s Malia Bouattia on the mic. Shouts to the big head crew obscuring the shot.

Recently, I attended a conference in London about the Prevent duty, how it might be Islamophobic and the way in which it could infringe on everyone’s civil liberties.

What is the Prevent duty?

Those of you who work in schools, university and other public services have no doubt heard the word ‘Prevent’ crop up fairly regularly across the past year. But what does Prevent actually mean? The Prevent strategy was initially conceived under Tony Blair’s New Labour as a response to the 7/7 London bombings in 2005. These days, the Prevent duty tends to refer to Section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015. Section 26 states that public sector organisations such as schools, NHS trusts and local authorities¬† are required to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. Specifically, these organisations are required to keep an eye on people using their services and report anyone who they believe might be vulnerable to terrorism.

Why is Prevent problematic?

So far so good, stopping people being drawn into terrorism is a positive thing, right? Well, you may be surprised to hear that Prevent is pretty problematic in its application on the ground. In the first instance, police statistics indicate that 57.4% to 67% of people referred under Prevent come from a Muslim background. So there’s a pretty big issue with religious/racial profiling here. Take Mohammed Umar Farooq, who was a Terrorism, Crime And Global Security MA student at Staffordshire University. Mohammed was seen reading a terrorism studies textbook in his university library and was subsequently questioned by staff about his views towards homosexuality, Isis and al-Qaida. Although he responded reasonably and expressed opposition to extremism, Mohammed was referred to university security officials under Prevent.

Incidentally, Prevent’s loose definition of ‘extremism’ includes the expression of non-violent opposition to political views (e.g. British foreign policy). Schoolboy Rahmaan Mohammadi found this out when a special constable at his school started hassling him for wearing a ‘Free Palestine’ badge. Rahmaan also wanted to raise money for families affected by the 2014 military assualt on Gaza. However, he was told not to use the word ‘Palestine’ on flyers, to use images of olive branches instead of Palestinian children and to use a quote from a Christian poet instead of a Muslim poet. None of which really makes any sense. In fact, this sort of advice simply acts to shut down the sort of charitable fundraising Rahmaan was attempting and, in all honesty, is very discriminatory.

Oh yeah, in case you’re in any doubt, the current police lead for Prevent recently spoke out against Prevent as an undemocratic programme that is creating “thought police”. Nice. Even the lead for Prevent thinks it’s problematic.

So how does Prevent affect me?

If you’re a Muslim, I imagine it’s pretty clear how Prevent affects you. For those who aren’t Muslim, it’s pretty shocking how the government is treating British citizens. Moreover, if you work in the public sector, your government has made it a statutory duty for you to spy on the people using your services. That’s right. If you’re a doctor, then alongside shift work, endless admin and unpaid extra hours, Theresa May also wants you to do a bit of sneaky surveillance on the side.

Even if you don’t work in the public sector, Prevent will ultimately affect you. Prevent is very concerned with anyone displaying political dissent. In fact, Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP, has been identified in Prevent training sessions as an example of an ‘extremist’, presumably on account of her grassroots environmental action around important issues such as climate change. Let’s imagine you’re not very happy with the result of the upcoming EU referendum (aka Brexit) and express some annoyance about this. Under Prevent, you’re an extremist and someone should probably refer you, just in case. Is this really the sort of society we want to build?

Okay, what can I do about Prevent?

If you’re shocked by Prevent (which I hope you are!), there’s a number of ways in which you can do something about this. The NUS already boycotts Prevent and is currently running an excellent campaign. Many trade unions are organising action in this area. In further and higher education, the UCU have this guidance. In other public services, Unison have issued this. And for the teachers among you, the NUT recently backed a motion for Prevent to be scrapped.

Naturally, you might want to take a more hands on role. Groups such as Stand Up to Racism and Muslim Engagement and Development have proven effective in organising local action, so it’s worth looking into who’s active in your area.

Finally, one of the best ways to express your concern is to inform others about Prevent. Have a chat with your colleagues and children. Collective voices carry more weight than individual voices – together we can prevent Prevent!

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