Since 2001, the ‘war on terror’ has seen a ratcheting up of powers available to police and intelligence agencies and a series of new Terrorism Acts. Counter-terrorism budgets have ballooned while other sectors have been devastated by austerity. The extraordinary nature of these measures means that they often bypass the standard legal principles of the regular criminal justice system.
Alongside the overtly coercive side of counter-terrorism activity, the pre-criminal Prevent programme has focused on social engineering and political manipulation. In force for over 15 years, it has stretched into every sphere of public life – from universities to hospitals, nurseries to libraries – with ever expanding definitions of extremism and radicalisation.
Prevent has had a devastating impact on civil society and public life with Muslims paying the heaviest price. A key moment was when the New Labour government sidelined the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) over its opposition to the Iraq war and as part of a wider attack on political multiculturalism. Prevent funding was also allocated to local authorities on the basis of the proportion of Muslims in the local population. While so-called ‘capacity building’ initiatives were focused on empowering what the government perceived to be marginal – and by its crude logic potentially more government-friendly – voices within Muslim communities, such as women and young people, there was also a direct attempt to influence the direction of religious thinking and practice through roadshows, training programmes and interventions from the Charity Commission.
Following the appointment of William Shawcross – formerly a director of the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society think tank – as chairman of the Commission in 2012, investigations of charities under the new extremism and radicalisation code markedly increased and Muslim charities were disproportionately targeted.
From 2012, the coalition government made further shifts in its approach to Muslim civil society by covertly funding its campaigns. In one example, the Home Office propaganda arm – the Research Information and Communication Unit (RICU) – used a PR firm to create social media accounts and hashtag campaigns to promote pro-government counterextremism messaging with no acknowledgement of the source of their funding.
Alongside this shady side of political manipulation, from 2015 the government introduced the ‘Prevent duty’, putting it on a statutory footing. Public institutions had to pay ‘due regard’ to preventing people from being drawn into terrorism. Soon enough the number of referrals to Channel, the government’s ‘pre-criminal diversionary programme’, increased. The latest Home Office figures show that in 2018/19 a total of 5,738 (equivalent to 15 people a day) were referred to the programme. The majority were aged 20 and under and the youngest was just three years old.
Schools have been particularly affected, with Prevent now part of the Ofsted framework and teaching ‘fundamental British values’ on the National Curriculum. In 2018, a nursery in Brighton had its Ofsted rating downgraded for not doing enough to prevent radicalisation and extremism.
At universities, Prevent has undermined academic freedom and freedom of speech. Many now have registers for ‘security sensitive’ or terrorism-related research, meaning we can no longer guarantee the confidentiality of our research subjects and data. New rules that regulate speakers and events taking place on campus restrict the possibilities for a healthy democratic space of political participation and debate so central to the public function of higher education.
Yet while Prevent has led to the restriction of public spaces for some forms of political activity, it has created a host of opportunities for counter-terrorism or counter-extremism think tanks and NGOs to gain prominence. Organisations such as the Henry Jackson Society produce regular reports purporting to show that Muslim activists and organisations are extremist. These have been used by the government as the evidential basis for alleged extremism, resulting in pushing Muslims out of public life. This tactic captures what sociologist Myra Ferree Marx calls ‘soft repression’ – the mobilisation of ‘nonviolent means of silencing’ oppositional ideas through stigmatisation and smearing.
We are in an unprecedented public health emergency, which has required an extraordinary set of measures globally. In the UK, the speedily passed Coronavirus Act 2020 has introduced a range of sweeping measures that extend powers of arrest and detention, enable the prevention of mass gatherings and lift restrictions on digital surveillance.
For example, Schedule 21 of the Act allows police, immigration or public health officers to detain anyone who they have ‘reasonable grounds to suspect … is potentially infectious’ for up to 14 days without charge. What constitutes ‘reasonable grounds’ is not adequately defined.
These measures will likely disproportionately target minority groups. A report from Amnesty International found that the Metropolitan Police registered a 22 per cent rise in stop-and-searches in London between March and April 2020 (the period of exceptional measures to counter the Covid-19 pandemic). In March 2020, 7.2 out of 1,000 black people were subjected to stop and search, rising in April to 9.3 out of 1,000. An investigation by Liberty also found that people of colour were up to seven times more likely to be fined than white people under the new powers. Moreover, the power given to stop mass gatherings places serious restrictions on the right to protest. It is certainly the case that the global pandemic may require a certain loss of liberty as a means of ensuring social distancing measures but the lack of scrutiny and safeguards here risks a permanent state of emergency.
Meanwhile, counterextremism and neoconservative lobby groups continue to target Muslims, but have also begun to foster fearmongering about how hostile foreign powers or terrorist groups are exploiting the pandemic.
We should look to the lessons learned from the erosion of civil liberties and human rights in the ‘war on terror’ period and be warned. The Students not Suspects campaign run by the National Union of Students was a key element in making Prevent such a toxic brand that it had to be reviewed. The likely best route for opposing the current attacks on human rights is through popular mobilisations involving those most targeted by state abuses. The most obvious example of this at present is the Black Lives Matter movement.
Now is not the time to be complacent about either the hard and coercive powers of the state or the ‘soft repression’ of the smear and fearmongers.
Narzanin Massoumi is a lecturer at the University of Exeter. This article originally appeared in issue #229 ‘No Return to Normal’. Subscribe today to get your copy and support fearless, independent media.
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