The UK government’s anti-radicalisation strategy, ‘Prevent’, has been accused of sowing mistrust and fear in Muslim communities by both the National Union of Teachers and senior University academics.
Officially known as the “Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015,” the ‘Prevent’ strategy was created by the Home Office in order to “respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism and the threat from those who promote it” according to Home Secretary, Theresa May.
The legislation’s stated purpose is to “‘Prevent’ people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure that they are given appropriate advice and support,” said Ms May.
However, ‘‘Prevent’’ is seen by many leaders of academia, educators, and students alike as harmful government interference with free speech, thought and expression.
Now the National Union of Teachers (NUT), the largest teachers’ union in the United Kingdom with nearly 400,000 members, voted at their 2016 Annual Conference this month to pass a motion calling on the government to withdraw the legislation schools and colleges.
The motion, passed by delegates representing teachers from across England, Wales, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man, condemns the legislation which “places a statutory duty on schools, colleges and local authorities to have due regard to the need to ‘Prevent’ people from being ‘drawn into terrorism.’”
Delegates at the conference said the legal requirement to report extremist speech jeopardizes the freedom of students to discuss ideas and current world events. The NUT motion stated that “No student or pupil should fear that the expression of opinion or exploration of ideas…will incur suspicion, reporting or sanction.”
Former Principal of the University of St Andrews and current Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, Professor Louise Richardson, addressed the strategy in an interview with The Daily Telegraph shortly after making the move to her new role at Oxford in January.
Professor Richardson asserted that “universities should be places where students confront views they find ‘objectionable’ and learn to argue down opposing views rather than ban them.”
“We need to expose our students to ideas that make them uncomfortable so that they can think about why it is that they feel uncomfortable about and what it is about those ideas that they object to,” Richardson told The Telegraph.
She continued: “I think universities, if you like, are the best places in which to hear objectionable speech because you can counter it. If you allow reasonable counter arguments to those views you will delegitimise [them] and that’s what a university should do,” said Richardson.
‘Prevent’ has also drawn ire for targeting Muslim people “disproportionately” according to delegates at the 2016 NUT Conference.
Their motion condemning ‘Prevent’ states that “This strategy is being implemented against a background of increased attacks on the Muslim community and risks being used to target young Muslim people.”
In an open letter written by Professor Baroness Ruth Lister of Loughborough University, ‘Prevent’ is criticised for the way it “conceptualises ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’” as “based on the unsubstantiated view that religious ideology is the primary driving factor for terrorism.”
The letter, co-signed by nearly 300 professors, educators, activists, and student leaders from across the country, lambasts the new policy which they claim “reinforces an ‘us’ and ‘them’ view of the world, divides communities, and sows mistrust of Muslims.”
President of the St Andrews Islamic Society, Khadeeja Khalid, also has concerns about ‘Prevent’ and urges reforms to the government’s anti-extremism legislation, telling The Saint, “I see ‘Prevent’ as a misguided attempt to tackle extremism, it turns students into suspects, thus alienating young people, especially Muslim students.”
“I believe that ‘Prevent’ must be reformed by consulting academics, security experts, and Muslim leaders, rather than being scared into acting because of adherence to the conveyor belt theory,” she said.
In a petition to the Scottish Government last year put forth by the University Students’ Association, the Association described the guidance the Scottish Government issued concerning the “duty” clause of ‘Prevent’ as “[having] the potential to create a toxic atmosphere that is not only harmful to our university community but actually undermines its security by compromising current relationships and avenues for information exchange.”
The Association’s petition warned against the guidance’s “significant threats to academic freedom” and stated that the Union “[opposes] this climate of scepticism, in which peers are turned against one another and leaders forced to report on the communities they serve.”
President of the Students’ Association, Pat Mathewson, said that “this legislation threatens to undermine the very features of university communities that make us safe.”
“Successful anti-radicalisation measures require an environment of trust and open dialogue,” Adding, “to trade this for a culture of suspicion and fear will deprive the authorities of vital information when they need it most.”
Professor Baroness Lister and the co-signers of her open letter assert that “‘Prevent’ will have a chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent. It will create an environment in which political change can no longer be discussed openly, and will withdraw to unsupervised spaces.”