The government’s latest counter-terrorism bill is entrenching racism and surreptitiously undermining our civil liberties. Comprehensive new measures build on an existing framework that has been egregiously targeting minority ethnic communities since 2001. It is now permeating nearly all aspects of the public realm.
1. The Prevent strategy aims to make everyone a counter-terrorism agent.
Ostensibly aiming to “reduce the threat to the UK from terrorism by stopping people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism”, the Prevent strategy was originally developed in 2003 as part of CONTEST, the government’s counter-terrorism strategy, and has undergone many revisions since. In 2006 Prevent guidance detailed three causes of radicalisation: a sense of grievance and injustice, a sense of personal alienation or community disadvantage, and exposure to radical ideas”. Prevent has since evolved into a more comprehensive and targeted psychosocial approach to surveilling individuals using public institutions from the NHS to primary schools.
The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, which came into force on 1 July, is essentially a continuation of failed policies that successive governments have pursued since 2003. This latest iteration of Prevent expands the scope of the bill to include non-violent extremism. The Home Office now defines extremism as: “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs” as well as “calls for the death of members of our armed forces”.
Prevent is preemptive, meaning it endows the Home Office and police with unprecedented, sweeping powers to act on the basis of perceived potentialities rather than concrete realities with virtually no judicial oversight or scrutiny. Furthermore, it places a duty on public institutions to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. This effectively allows the state to police an interpretation of an individual’s future based on prevailing norms of ‘Britishness’, and vague definitions with not-so-subtle racist undertones.
2. Prevent specifically scapegoats minority communities.
Recently, David Cameron accused British Muslims of “quietly condoning” extremist ideology while normalising hatred of “British values” despite the fact that 71% of Muslims feel the values taught by Islam are completely compatible with those of Britain.
It should come as no surprise that the Prevent strategy overwhelmingly focuses on Muslims rather than, for example, the far-right. Standard terror narratives are quick to forget the Nazi nail bomber who killed three people and injured more than 100 in 1999, the slew of neo-nazi attacks throughout the 2000s, and most recently the attempted murder of a Sikh man by a far-right white supremacist. Add this to recent evidence that in the US white far-right terror attacks are a larger threat than those of Islamists, and the racist discourse of terrorism becomes clearer. Muslim communities have continued to fall victim to violence, especially since Charlie Hebdo, and this is happening against a backdrop of less visible scapegoating. Responding to recent research on the discrimination against Muslim women in the job market, Dr Nabil Khattab of Bristol University said the UK “[places] Muslims collectively at the lowest stratum within the country’s racial or ethno-cultural system due to growing Islamophobia and hostility against them.”
3. Critics have been systematically ignored for years.
There has been vocal opposition to Prevent since the government first implemented the strategy. Conservatives, including David Cameron, claimed the Prevent strategy actually facilitated extremism and radicalization and have subsequently taken a more hardline approach. This has actually made matters even worse, as they have alienated the communities further. As of 2015, the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) has cut ties with the government while intensifying its campaign against government policies. The IHRC states that the British government has been “uncompromising” in its efforts to “legislate away fundamental freedoms in order to tackle terrorism over the last 18 years.”
Bradford MP Naz Shah recently spoke out against the labeling of pro-Palestine BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) activists and children as potential extremists due to the “blunt hammer” of the Prevent strategy. Former police officers, university professors, unions, NGOs, students, and community members all expressed strong opposition to the passing of the new bill in February this year.
4. It coerces doctors into shopping their patients to the anti-terror task force.
Now all employees of the NHS will be required to surveil their patients and share information with the Home Office. In 2011, safeguarding training suffered due to NHS staff being trained in how to identify and report potential terrorists. According to care services minister Paul Burstow, NHS chiefs are “mandating training” in the Prevent strategy, pushing aside “other areas where mandating training in the NHS is more important, like dementia awareness.”
From 2015, every NHS trust is required to adopt the Prevent strategy and train their staff through the Channel General Awareness module (go ahead, try it). One NHS nurse helpfully documented their training. There were no statistics to back up any of the sensational claims about radicalization or terrorist profiles. The account concludes by stating that they felt “ultimately brainwashed” by the end.
5. It forces schoolteachers to become ‘special constables’.
Islamophobia in schools is unfortunately not new, yet OFSTED has been cracking down on teachers and administrator for failing to inculcate ‘British values’. OFSTED has ‘failed’ many schools that were rated ‘outstanding’ three years ago. OFSTED told staff and parents at a school in Birmingham that they would be reported to police under the Prevent strategy if they questioned whether an alleged new uniform policy excluded the hijab.
Absurdly, the new Prevent strategy will also force nursery staff to report toddlers at risk of becoming terrorists. Even Conservative MP Davis Davis thinks it is ridiculous: “It is hard to see how this can be implemented. It is unworkable.” Unsurprisingly, those who support the bill are avoiding the issue of its Islamophobic implications; when asked to give an example of ‘extremism’ Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, bizarrely brought up homophobia, as if the bill could be pinkwashed.
6. The Act turns university lecturers and staff into the eyes and ears of the government.
Section 114 of the Prevent Duty Guidance makes explicit the government’s expectations that: “Universities will be expected to carry out a risk assessment for their institution which assesses where and how their students might be at risk of being drawn into terrorism.” Furthermore, section 118 states that they expect universities to share student’s information: “the institution [should] have robust procedures both internally and externally for sharing information about vulnerable individuals…”
Many student groups, including the Federation of Islamic Student Societies and the National Union of Students have condemned the anti-terror bill. The NUS said: “The bill proposes a number of new measures that build upon decades of previous ‘anti-extremism’ legislation that has served to legitimise mass surveillance and erode the civil liberties of people in the UK.” The NUT teachers’ and UCU lecturers’ union conferences both passed policies opposing Prevent. UCU delegates actually voted to boycott the government’s initiative, resolving that implementing Prevent will “force our members to spy on learners” and “be involved in the racist labeling of students”.
7. The police admits is toxic for communities, yet Theresa May soldiers on.
Dal Babu, a former chief superintendent with the Metropolitan police, says most Muslims are suspicious of the Prevent strategy and see it as a tool for heightened surveillance and intimidation, and diminished civil liberties. He chastises Prevent for “putting the Muslim community in a separate box when it comes to safeguarding vulnerable young people”.
A recent report concluded that a third of Muslims have felt under greater suspicion the past few years. The Home Secretary pushed the bill through parliament despite the fact that MI5 has debunked most of the government’s claims regarding the causes of terrorism. An MI5 report, based on hundreds of case studies by the security service, says there is no single pathway to violent extremism. This is deeply disconcerting, especially combined with the new investigatory powers proposed by Theresa May’s surveillance bill. CAGE, an independent advocacy organisation, calls the new Prevent strategy a ‘cradle to grave police state’. Given the widespread opposition the Prevent strategy has elicited, and the evidence from the secret services debunking the government’s claims, it is clear that this new legislation is ideologically motivated.