Described as a “toxic brand” by none other than a former police chief, the government’s £40 million anti-terrorism strategy Prevent has recently come under fire for unfairly targeting Britain’s Muslims. Not only is this a violation of British citizens’ right to freedom from discrimination, but the viability of the programme is also doubtful.
Prevent duty, introduced this June, legally obliges schools, universities and other institutions to tackle radicalisation by effectively informing on students and colleagues.
Birmingham illustrates the absurdity of the Prevent surveillance agenda, where 27 CCTV cameras, funded by counter-terrorism resources, were put up in Muslim communities. The almost Orwellian atmosphere that cases like this create has led to claims that “keeping an eye” on Muslim colleagues, neighbours and students has become something like a patriotic duty. Yet surely singling out an entire community, even if indirectly, contradicts supposed British values of inclusivity and equality.
Individual cases of what could be deemed racist paranoia have in the last month been coming to light. In North London, a 14 year old Muslim pupil was taken for questioning about ISIS after he mentioned ecoterrorism in a French class. He has since dropped French. Similarly, a Muslim postgrad of counter-terrorism was questioned after an official saw him reading a Terrorism Studies book in the library. He has since left the course. These cases would be laughable if not for the sad reality of the situation.
Aside from looking at Prevent from a human rights point of view, is the scheme actually effective? In all fairness, some aspects of the strategy have met success, such as the Channel programme, which uses one-to-one mentoring of vulnerable people. Yet a large proportion of those travelling to Syria were previously unknown to authorities, suggesting there is still a way to go.
The question is: is this system of surveillance and informing entirely the wrong approach?
The mother of the 14 year old North London student may have been on the right track when she said “if [the Bethnal Green girls] had said in class: ‘my dream is to marry a jihadi’, their peer group would probably have slapped them down”. Classrooms and campuses must be a platform for reasonable debate and discussion about radicalisation. If growing mistrust between teachers and students leads to young Muslims feeling unable to talk about extremism for fear of being suspected, the influence of the internet and online radicalisation will only increase.
It is when the internet is the only source of information that a young person is more likely to be radicalised, especially if they feel alienated from normal society.Although such isolation clearly does not excuse terrorism in any way, it at least goes some way to explaining why a susceptible young person might be persuaded to, for example, go to Syria.
Perhaps the problem with Prevent duty is that it treats the vulnerable like criminals rather than victims. If someone commits an act of terror they must be punished accordingly. However, to treat young, innocent Muslims as though they are already suspected of such a serious crime just because of their religion is not only unjust, but may even be adding to the problem of growing radicalisation.