How did mistrust of mainstream media become a sign of violent extremism?

The UK Government’s Prevent strategy has led to official claims that mistrust of mainstream media and anger about government policies can be symptomatic of violent extremism.

Julian Petley
16 December 2015
Counter terror police on duty London May 2015

Counter terror police on duty London May 2015. ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock.com. All rights reserved.

The Safeguarding Children Board of the London Borough of Camden recently published a booklet entitled Keeping Children and Young People Safe from Radicalisation and Extremism: Advice for Parents and Carers. Its stated aim is to “help parents and carers recognise when their children may be at risk from radicalisation”, and to this end it sets out a list of signs which “may mean the young person is being radicalised”. These include “showing a mistrust of mainstream media reports and belief in conspiracy theories”, “appearing angry about government policies, especially foreign policy”, and “secretive behaviour and switching screens when you come near”.

This quite remarkable document is a product of the government’s Preventing Violent Extremism strategy (usually shortened to simply Prevent). It doesn’t actually mention this by name, but the give-away is that it states that parents can turn to advice to the Police Prevent Engagement Officer and Camden’s Prevent Co-ordinator, and helpfully provides their phone numbers.

Prevent in its present form was introduced in 2011, and has repeatedly been criticised for demonising Muslim communities, provoking the very radicalisation which it seeks to prevent, introducing a form of thought-crime, and posing serious threats to freedom of expression.  The present government, like its predecessor, has habitually dismissed such criticisms as paranoid, but the Camden booklet shows all too clearly where Prevent is leading, particularly in the educational arena.   

Prevent is part of the government’s overall counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST. Its stated aim is to ‘reduce the threat to the UK from terrorism by stopping people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism’.  It has three specific objectives: “to respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism and the threat faced from those who promote it”; “to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure that they are given appropriate advice and support”; and to work with sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalisation”. The government has also explained that Prevent is designed to “deal with all forms of terrorism and with non-violent extremism, which can create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism and can popularise views which terrorists then exploit”. It 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”.

Those thought to be at risk from radicalisation are liable to find themselves referred under the Act to the Channel programme, which, according to the government, “focuses on providing support at an early stage to people who are identified as being vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism. The programme uses a multi-agency approach to protect vulnerable people by: (a) identifying individuals at risk; (b) assessing the nature and extent of that risk; and (c) developing the most appropriate support plan for the individuals concerned”. Since 2012, when Channel was first rolled out, some 4,000 people have been referred to it, half of them under eighteen, and the youngest a mere three years old. In this respect it’s surely significant that, in an interview with the Guardian, 24 May 2015, Scotland Yard commander Mak Chishty, Britain’s most senior Muslim police officer, stated that children as young as five had voiced opposition to marking Christmas, branding it as ‘haram’ (forbidden to Muslims), and that boycotting Marks and Spencer, in the mistaken belief that it is Jewish owned, might be a sign of radicalisation. In his view: “We have to be less precious about the private space. This is not about us invading private thoughts, but acknowledging that it is in these private spaces where this [extremism] first germinates. The purpose of private-space intervention is to engage, explore, explain, educate or eradicate. Hate and extremism is not acceptable in our society, and if people cannot be educated, then hate and harmful extremism must be eradicated through all lawful means”.

The inclusion of ‘non-violent extremism’ in Prevent makes it clear that the strategy is concerned not only with violent activity but with any ideas which are used to legitimise terrorism or are shared by terrorist groups. And the strategy also means intervening to stop people moving from groups which are regarded as extremist by the authorities (even though they are legal) into terrorist-related activity.

It needs to be borne in mind that the legal definition of terrorism itself is already alarmingly broad. Thus Section 1 of the Terrorism Act 2006 makes it an offence to publish a statement which is “likely to be understood by some or all of the members of the public to whom it is published as a direct or indirect encouragement or other inducement to them to the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism”. Indirectly encouraging the commission or preparation of such acts includes any statement which “glorifies the commission or preparation (whether in the past, in the future or generally) of such acts or offences; and (b) is a statement from which those members of the public could reasonably be expected to infer that what is being glorified is being glorified as conduct that should be emulated by them in existing circumstances”.

Section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 places a duty on “specified authorities” (which include schools and universities) to “have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. Thus in the Higher Education sector, in which I work, universities are now legally required to:

- assess how their students might be at risk of being drawn into terrorism, including non-violent extremism;

  • - demonstrate a willingness to undertake Prevent awareness training and other training that could help the relevant staff prevent people from being drawn into terrorism and challenge extremist ideas;

- have robust procedures for sharing information both internally and externally about vulnerable individuals;

- have policies relating to the use of university IT equipment which contain specific reference to the Prevent duty and which enable the university to identify and address issues where online materials are accessed for non-research purposes;

- have clear policies and procedures for students and staff working on sensitive or extremism-related research.

The case of the Nottingham University postgraduate student Rizwaan Sabir, who was arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000 and held for seven days after downloading the so-called al-Qaida Training Manual as part of his research, shows exactly where this kind of approach can lead. In spite of the fact that he was released without charge, and the Nottinghamshire police were forced to pay £20,000 and Sabir’s legal fees after his legal team brought proceedings against them for false imprisonment and breaches of the Race Relations Act 1976, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Data Protection Act 1998, the catch-all qualities of Prevent and the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act make an increase in such occurrences almost inevitable in the future.

Indeed, such is the jumpiness and hyper-sensitivity induced by Prevent that, in March 2015, even before the Act had passed into law, Mohammad Umar Farooq, a student on the Terrorism, Crime and Global Security MA programme at Staffordshire University was questioned about his attitudes to homosexuality, Isis and al-Qaida after an official spotted him in the library reading a textbook entitled Terrorism Studies. Not satisfied with the answers he received, the official then summoned the security guards. Significantly, when the university was forced to apologise, it actually cited the problems posed by the government’s anti-radicalisation policies, arguing that it was responding to a “very broad duty … to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’ and that the duty was ‘underpinned by guidance … [that] contains insufficient detail to provide clear practical direction in an environment such as the university’s”. It also pointed out that making a distinction between the “intellectual pursuit of radical ideas and radicalisation itself” was a significant challenge.

Similarly, in May 2015, a few days after he had mentioned the term eco-terrorism in a French lesson, a fourteen-year-old Muslim schoolboy was taken out of his class at the Central Foundation school in Islington. He was then taken to an Orwellian-sounding ‘inclusion centre’ in the school, where amongst the questions posed to him by two adults, one sitting behind him and the other in front, was whether he was ‘affiliated’ with Isis. One of the adults turned out to be a child protection officer who had been summoned by the school, and who told the boy that there had been ‘a safety concern raised’.     

At its 2015 Congress, the University and College Union, of which I am a member, passed a policy which objected to the Prevent duty now imposed on universities This argued that:

  • - it seriously threatens academic freedom and freedom of speech;
  • - its broad definition of terrorism will stifle campus activism;
  • - it forces members to spy on students and label them in a racist fashion;
  • - it is discriminatory towards Muslims, and legitimises Islamophobia and xenophobia, encouraging racist views to be normalised within society;
  • - the monitoring of Muslim students will destroy the trust needed for a safe and supportive learning environment and encourage discrimination against BME and Muslim staff and students.

These points were also raised in a letter (to which I was a signatory) from 280 academics, lawyers and public figures to the Independent, 10 July 2015 . This also pointed out that Prevent is based on the faulty assumption that religious ideology is the primary driver of terrorism, whereas the evidence suggests that ideology becomes appealing only when social, economic and political grievances (of which Muslims in the UK have a great many) give it legitimacy. It is these factors which need to be addressed if the ideology is to be taken on effectively, whereas Prevent actually adds to the list of grievances by making Muslims feel stigmatised and demonised as potential or actual terrorists.

The letter also pointed out that the authorities, faced with a chorus of opposition to Prevent, have tried to give it a veneer of legitimacy by cloaking it in the language of ‘safeguarding’. But, in a UK context, this is another apparently benign notion, like preventing terrorism, with an unpleasantly authoritarian streak in its history. This is thanks to absurdly over-assiduous enforcement of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, when speakers visiting schools, parents taking their children’s friends to school, and volunteers of one kind or another suddenly found themselves faced with demands to submit to mass vetting in the form of Criminal Records Bureau checks. The result was a huge waste of scarce resources, many people no longer willing to undertake voluntary activities (thus disadvantaging the very people that the measure was supposed to safeguard), and, perhaps worst of all, the creation of an atmosphere of vague but nonetheless corrosive mistrust around those working with children, as if, in the eyes of officialdom, they were all potential paedophiles. Meanwhile, child abuse continued at a frightening level, much of it committed by people with CRB checks.

In the eyes of its critics, Prevent is equally counter-productive and ill-conceived, and indeed far more overt in its suspicion of certain groups – in this case Muslims. The ‘safeguarding’ (another seemingly benign word) which it offers looks suspiciously like snooping and spying, followed by snitching, and culminating in measures which are only vaguely specified but seem to amount to some kind of ‘re-education’ process. Beyond the reassuring fluff about helping the vulnerable and protecting the susceptible, there’s something really rather chilling about the language of the Channel Guidance document, with its talk of  ‘referrals’, ‘screening and information gathering’, ‘vulnerability assessment frameworks’ and ‘information sharing’.  This isn’t exactly the language of Orwell’s Ministry of Love, but the fact that it’s less overtly authoritarian actually makes it rather more insidious.  

It is, of course, absolutely no coincidence that the document mentioned at the start of this article emanates from Camden’s Safeguarding Children Board, but the broader question is a variation on quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Namely, from whom do we most need to be safeguarded?       

There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData