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We’re students, not suspects

Malia Bouattia argues that the government’s counter‑extremism strategy adds up to surveillance of the Muslim community

October 1, 2015
4 min read

The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act has faced a barrage of criticism since its rapid passage from the bill published in November 2014 into law in February 2015. It was condemned at the National Union of Teachers’ conference as turning teachers into ‘front-line storm troopers’ to spy on pupils, and denounced for having ‘a chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent’ in an open letter signed by more than 350 academics and activists.

The Act grants the state and its agencies a wide array of new, deeply intrusive powers in the name of counter-terrorism. One such power puts the government’s ‘Prevent’ counter-extremist strategy on a statutory basis for the first time since its introduction in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Specified authorities, including schools, universities, prisons and the NHS, now have a legal duty to implement the strategy to stop people ‘being drawn into terrorism’.

Prevent forms part of the UK’s ‘Contest’ strategy, introduced by the Labour government in 2003 and revised a number of times since. Each revision has brought in new powers, steadily eating away at civil liberties in the name of combatting the ‘imminent threat’ from Islamist extremists.

Prevent has consigned more actions, thoughts and beliefs to the murky realm of ‘extremism’, legitimised racist and Islamophobic profiling, and criminalised dissent. It has dealt almost exclusively with Muslims (until the 2011 iteration, non-Muslim ‘extremism’ was excluded from the strategy), imposing a responsibility on mosques, madrassas, communities and university Islamic societies to identify the ‘extremists’ in their midst.

For the most part ignoring the influence of UK foreign policy and western intervention in Muslim countries in cultivating terrorism, the state has invested millions in public funds and departmental resources into coaxing the Muslim community to, essentially, save themselves from themselves.

Stories built up over the years paint a disturbing picture: from Muslim university students being reported by lecturers for being too political, to primary school students being handed counter-extremism tests; from Muslim charities having assets frozen on the accusation of ‘financing terrorism’, to the identification of hijabs or beards as markers of possible radicalisation.

Prevent has made being Muslim in Britain a conditional freedom. It has made Muslims’ presence a source of fear in many sections of society and has stripped them of the ability to articulate the oppression they face – both within and outside their community. How can a people challenge the state for targeting them, when in doing so they run the risk of being targeted as ‘extremists’? And how can a people challenge their own, when their words can so easily be co-opted by the state and used against their community?

Each version of Prevent has arrived with a far-reaching raft of sister legislation, securitising public policy and embedding Prevent and counter-terrorism into all aspects of public, private and civil life. A matrix of surveillance has been formed to identify ‘radicals’ in society who, for the most part, don’t exist.

The 2011 revision of the strategy included the totalitarian aim of having ‘no ungoverned spaces’ where Prevent isn’t active, bringing it into universities and other new territory. Since then swathes of teachers, lecturers and college staff have been trained in how to ‘spot a radical’.

The comparatively ‘soft-touch’ approach of early Prevent made way for the strong-arming of the state. Under the coalition and Conservative governments, the old ‘community cohesion’ agenda made way for a more confrontational approach, demanding assimilation from the Muslim community and blaming it for ‘allowing extremism to flourish’. The 2011 version reflected the right-wing view that ‘multiculturalism has failed’ and had to be replaced by ‘muscular liberalism’ and the increasingly hostile gospel of ‘British values’.

At its heart, Prevent utilises the classic colonial tradition of divide-and-rule, planting informants in Muslim communities, pitting Muslims against each other and policing the boundaries of the ‘acceptable Muslim’: not too angry, not too political, not too Muslim.

The NUS Black Students’ Campaign is co‑hosting a ‘Students Not Suspects’ tour in October, bringing together family justice campaigns with activists and legal experts to discuss the Prevent agenda alongside wider anti-racist struggles such as black deaths in custody. For more details see the NUS Black Students’ Campaign Facebook page.