Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy must command the confidence of the communities it seeks to protect, writes Emma Lange of the Labour Campaign for Human Rights
Following the horrifying spate of terrorist attacks in the last few months the prime minister has pledged to double down on counter-extremism measures, telling us that terrorism ‘will only be defeated when we turn people’s minds away from this violence and make them understand that our values – pluralistic British values – are superior to anything offered by the preachers and supporters of hate.’
But the government’s strategy has already been discredited as counter-productive and based on flawed assumptions. Expanding it will not make us any safer.
For one thing, there is no proven link between extremism and violence. It is perfectly possible for someone to hold controversial opinions but not be tempted by violent methods, as academics have argued. Equating the two may be causing us to cast the net too wide, instead of allowing us to focus on the people who really are a physical threat.
The government’s existing ideology-focused counter-extremism programme, Prevent, is already having counter-productive effects, and even putting the British values that Theresa May is trying to champion at risk.
A 2015 investigation by Rights Watch UK revealed that students across the United Kingdom are being wrongly identified as ‘radicalised’ based on the clothing they wear, what they choose to study, and even their mispronunciation of words.
Legislation under the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015 placed a statutory duty on teachers, amongst a range of public authorities, to report suspected students to the government’s deradicalisation programme, known as Channel. Inadequate training for this role – typically delivered over a few hours by way of videos and online tutorials—has resulted in an alarmingly high rate of misguided referrals.
Increased pressure from Ofsted for schools to comply with the government’s anti-radicalisation programme has made teachers hyper-vigilant, leading to over-referrals. While the implications of not referring are clearly illustrated in the school’s overall rating, the impacts of misguided referrals must be emphasised.
In the well-publicised ‘cucumber’ case, a four year old was referred to Prevent Channel after his mispronunciation of cucumber sounded like ‘cooker-bomb’ to a nursery teacher.
In another case, a fourteen-year old Muslim school boy was left ‘scared and nervous‘ after he was questioned by school officials in north London, for using the word ‘éco-terrorism’ in French class. He was interrogated even after explaining that he was referring to extreme environmental protests he had learned about in debate club. His parents say he was ‘visibly distressed’ and confused by the incident.
As this case shows, children’s encounters with Prevent raise serious concerns. Channel uses an extensive multiagency approach to interrogate those referred and assess whether they need to attend deradicalisation sessions. This intrusive process bears negative consequences on the individuals’ behaviour, with many noted as participating less in class and becoming more reclusive as a result.
Two boys in Bedfordshire, aged 5 and 7 were held by police for two hours without parental consent because they brought a toy gun to school. Despite their being British born and of no religious faith, the parents feel the colour of their sons’ skin played a role in them being suspected for extremist activities, implying the referral system’s underlying risk for racism and prejudice. A follow-up investigation by school governors found the teachers ill-equipped to deal with Prevent-related issues and admitted that in this case ‘a degree of racial stereotyping‘ had been demonstrated.
Gary Kaye, a teacher from North Yorkshire, told delegates at a National Union of Teachers conference that training on the Prevent Strategy ‘has been genuinely crude and often involves lazy stereotypes … What the Prevent strategy has so far achieved has been suspicion in the classroom and confusion in the staffroom.’
Prevent duty has inserted itself into an environment where students should feel safe and free to develop, and fostered distrust, discrimination, and has stifled freedom of speech.
A year 10 boy in north London was referred to Channel, without his knowledge, after showing solidarity for Palestine by wearing a Palestinian scarf and handing out leaflets at school. Months later, two Prevent officers showed up at his house unannounced and questioned him about his religious practice and political views. They brought with them a substantial folder relating to him, which he was told ‘is not active’ but if he did ‘anything similar then it will be brought up again’. The lack of clarity surrounding how this information about referees is gathered, used and how long it is stored, raises serious concerns about our right to privacy.
Do to the high number of referrals, there is unease and uncertainty as to what can be discussed and debated in school, leading secondary and university students to lock themselves out of discussions. When non-violent extremist ideas are discouraged from being discussed and debated in a safe environment, dialogue is pushed underground. This is counterproductive and dangerous as it sends individuals to explore ideas on the internet, where views are more narrow and less likely to be challenged in a productive way.
And last, it is difficult to ignore the inherent racism and alienating effects of the Prevent strategy. While it applies to all, it clearly disproportionately affects Muslims. The most recent statistics on referrals provided by the Association of Chief Police Officers show that between 2012-2013, 57.4 per cent were Muslim, which is a striking figure when Muslims make up only 4.8 per cent of the UK population (2016 Consensus).
Placing this group under continuous suspicion has both inward and outward facing impacts on community cohesion – an integral means of countering extremism that Prevent champions. Muslim communities are feeling unjustly targeted and unwelcomed, while it is being indicated to non-Muslims, from a very early age, that this group is associated with terrorism.
Instead of expanding the current counter-extremism programmes, we need to start thinking about possible alternatives that will be more effective. Programmes that are more rooted in the community, and less focused on ideology and more on threats of violence would be more effective than simply continuing the current course.
Emma Lange is a campaign volunteer for the Labour Campaign for Human Rights.
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