Three-D Issue 26: Prevent, civil liberty and the assault on learning

Milly WilliamsonMilly Williamson
University of Brunel

Prevent Violent Extremism (PVE) was first introduced in 2006 by the Blair government, which, after having plunged the UK into an illegal war in Iraq in 2003, dealt with what some members of the Home Office considered to be the likely consequences of that disastrous invasion, by developing a policy of ‘challenging extremism’ through PVE. In its initial phase following the 2005 terrorist attacks on the London transport system, the government developed the Prevent strategy which targeted Muslim communities by allocating counter-extremism funds to local councils on the basis of the size of the Muslim population. Muslims were targeted as a ‘suspect community’, aided and abetted by the rightwing news media; all Muslims were branded as potential terrorists, with Islam represented by many politicians and the media as susceptible to extremism.

The 2015 Counter Terrorism and Security Act made Prevent a mandatory duty for the first time. Public sector workers such as teachers, doctors, university and college lecturers all now have a legal duty to ‘have due regard to the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism’. A growing number of critics of Prevent have voiced alarm at the breakdown of trust that this duty demands, with far-reaching consequences for the health and well being of the young people who have predominantly been targeted since the act was passed. We are now in the absurd situation where a four year old boy, who mispronounced ‘cucumber’ was reported to the police by his teacher who interpreted his utterance as ‘cooker bomb’; or the secondary school boy who was reported to the police for saying the phrase eco-terrorism in French in a French class discussing that topic, or the university student who was reported by a librarian for ordering books on terrorism and counter terrorism that were part of the reading list for his course.

These are some of the most high profile cases, but the real scale of the surveillance of Muslims extends much further. Since 2012, 4000 people have been referred under PVE, over half of them under the age of 18 and the youngest a toddler of three. Now teachers and lecturers are expected to act as agents of the state rather than educators, and are expected to spy on children and young people rather than provide them with the space to explore ideas and develop healthy scepticism and critical thinking skills. Indeed, in a 2015 leaflet outlining signs of radicalisation, Camden council’s advice to teachers was that one sign of radicalisation was ‘questioning the media’. In a letter to the Chair of Camden Council’s Safe Guarding Children Board, MeCCSA responded by pointing out that ‘inquiry into the inevitable partiality or construction of news items in the mainstream media is a healthy aspect of any civilised education for citizenship’ – and pointed out that its opposite is a characteristic of totalitarian societies.

The problems with PVE are many – it is based on a flawed view that it is ideology that causes extremism, and from the outset it did not, and still does not, define extremism, apart from subjective woolly claims about the British Way of Life – itself left ill-defined, and it is counterproductive. It is also an unprecedented attack on civil liberties. While Muslims are at the sharp end of this policy, the curbs on freedoms can and will be used against dissent emanating from any section of the population and in fact already has – from closing theatrical productions, to stopping the activities of anti-Fracking campaigners, to putting members of the Green Party under surveillance as ‘extremists’. Counter terrorism legislation and the discourses of extremism are being used to repress all kinds of opposition and to silence resistance.

Some have suggested that Prevent is akin to the ‘thought police’ because it criminalises the ideas that people hold in their heads – this is particularly worrying in the context of higher education where a tradition of autonomous scholarship and research is essential. Recently, we have already seen a number of instances where conferences and symposia involving ‘controversial’ topics have lead to last minute cancellations by university management (usually on topics involving Prevent itself, or anti-Muslim racism, or Palestine/Israel). Higher education must retain its ability to probe contentious topics and ask difficult questions, but the 2015 Counter Terrorism and Security Act legislation is undermining that core value.

The present government intends to extend the limits on our civil liberties even further. The Counter Extremism and Safeguarding Bill (2016) introduced in last month’s Queen’s speech, set out plans to give government power to ban ‘extremist’ organisations, gag individuals and close down premises used to ‘promote hate’. Once again the Bill fails to provide a clear definition of ‘extremism’. The Bill also intends to introduce a new Extremism Disruption Order (rather like an ASBO, but for being ‘radical’ rather than being ‘anti-social’). This provision of the Bill will put power directly in the hands of politicians to decide who to muzzle without any recourse to the institutions of the law. Legal experts explain that  ‘the bill will act to further limit the free speech of Muslims and other dissenting voices, meaning that many will be inevitably fearful of expressing their opinions and views. In essence, the bill not only attacks the rights and civil liberties of the Muslim community, it also denies them any sense of agency at all’ . Once again, Muslims will bear the brunt of this bill, and it is important for us to oppose it on those grounds also, but it is important to remember that these attacks on civil liberties will have a detrimental impact on any oppositional voices and are attacks on all of our civil rights.

But the opposition to Prevent is growing. The National Union of Students has in place a policy of boycotting Prevent and in March 2016 the congress of the National Union of Teachers passed a unanimous motion to scrap Prevent. The University College Union followed in June 2016. Prominent voices in public life have also called for Prevent to be scrapped. In June 2016 shadow home secretary Andy Burnham labelled prevent a ‘toxic brand’ that cannot be reformed. University heads, including a former director for public prosecutions, have also voiced their opposition to the detrimental impact Prevent is having on academic freedom. Early in June the first national conference organising opposition to prevent was held at Goldsmiths College and was sponsored by civil rights organisations, unions, law firms, charities, and professional academic organisations, including MeCCSA. The conference was opened by NUS president elect Malia Boutattia, who called for the abolition of Prevent, and was addressed by key human rights lawyers such as Gareth Pierce who described in heart-rending detail the disastrous effects that Prevent is having on young British Muslims. The conference was also addressed by Jahan Mahmood, former Home Office Advisor on counter-terrorism who was well placed to describe the damage caused by Prevent – it was his remit at the Home Office. Mahmood told the conference that Prevent must be scrapped – ‘it cannot be reformed’.

If you would like to join the campaign to abolish Prevent and get involved with our future events please contact Milly Williamson:

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