Why we need a statutory Prevent strategy in schools

For years British academia has turned a blind eye to Islamist extremism


From July 2015 onwards, the British government’s counter-extremism strategy Prevent became statutory for public bodies, including schools, colleges and universities. This was followed by up a speech at a school in Birmingham by David Cameron that signaled a ramping up of counter-extremism efforts across the board, including in the education sector.

In case some of you are in doubt about the importance of tackling extremism in the education sector, a letter published by the Independent offered all the proof one needs. It made a number of misleading assertions about Prevent whilst calling for it to be scrapped, and was signed by various academics and students from across the UK.

Ironically titled ‘PREVENT will have a chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent’, the letter was also signed by a number of extremists including members of the fascist and theocratic group Hizb ut Tahrir (Reza Pankhurst) that seeks to create a global Islamic state that would murder homosexuals and ex-Muslims, whilst rendering non-Muslims and women second class citizens. It includes notorious hate preachers such as Haitham al Haddad who promotes FGM and believes Jewish people are the descendants of apes and pigs.

It also includes Asim Qureshi of pro-jihadist group CAGE who once said ‘We know that it is incumbent upon all of us, to support the Jihad of our brothers and sisters in these countries when they are facing the oppression of the West.’

In other words, the statement was signed by individuals who have no regard whatsoever for ‘open debate’ and ‘free speech’, and who would meet ‘political dissent’ with capital punishment in their utopia. It is signed by the very extremists the government is right to be concerned about and needs to tackle.

The fact that many British academics were prepared to co-sign a statement with such organizations and individuals illustrates the extent of the problem in British academia. For years British academia has turned a blind eye to Islamist extremism and viewed it as a new and exciting form of anti-establishment dissent with an ethnic twist. It has also been far from consistent in that far-right hate preaching is robustly challenged whilst Islamist extremism is practically celebrated.

The statement itself is littered with errors and factual inaccuracies that one would have expected academics to notice if they weren’t too busy being blinded by their political biases. It states:

The way that PREVENT conceptualises ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ is based on the unsubstantiated view that religious ideology is the primary driving factor for terrorism. Academic research suggests that social, economic and political factors, as well as social exclusion, play a more central role in driving political violence than ideology.

Indeed, ideology only becomes appealing when social, economic and political grievances give it legitimacy. Therefore, addressing these issues would lessen the appeal of ideology.

In truth, research shows that radicalisation is complex and can vary from individual to individual and over time. What is agreed is that many structural factors can contribute towards creating a climate in which certain ideologies gain appeal. The Prevent strategy documents do not suggest otherwise either. In fact, the strategy document states:

“We judge that radicalisation is driven by an ideology which sanctions the use of violence; by propagandists for that ideology here and overseas; and by personal vulnerabilities and specific local factors which, for a range of reasons, make that ideology seem both attractive and compelling.”

The personal vulnerabilities and specific local factors referenced in the document are the structural factors the letter is referring to, it is just a different choice of words. So in essence the letter constructs a straw man since no-one is suggesting ideology exists in a vacuum or operates independently of a social context.

However, the crucial point that signatories of the letter seem to omit is that when challenging extremism directly with individuals that are influenced by it one must focus on the ideology. Many people live in a social context that is conducive to certain forms of extremism and yet do not become extremists because they don’t find the ideology that seeks to construe reality through a narrow prism appealing.

So the difference between extremist and non-extremists is not always circumstances and structural factors, but attraction to an ideological narrative. That is why the challenge must start there.

Addressing structural factors is also important and, contrary to what the letter suggests, the government is cognisant of their importance. That is precisely why Cameron spoke about the importance of integration, social housing, education and other structural factors in his speech. These are, however, much more long-term challenges.

The statement goes on to say:

However, PREVENT remains fixated on ideology as the primary driver of terrorism. Inevitably, this has meant a focus on religious interaction and Islamic symbolism to assess radicalisation. For example, growing a beard, wearing a hijab or mixing with those who believe Islam has a comprehensive political philosophy are key markers used to identify ‘potential’ terrorism.

This serves to reinforce a prejudicial worldview that perceives Islam to be a retrograde and oppressive religion that threatens the West. PREVENT reinforces an ‘us’ and ‘them’ view of the world, divides communities, and sows mistrust of Muslims.

Indeed, those that view Islam as a comprehensive political philosophy, such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda, ISIS and Hizb ut Tahrir are the problem. Any attempt to build a theocratic state that imposes medieval shariah on people against their will through the threat of violence is extreme, yet we have British academics defending the idea alongside those that advocate it.

The letter is signed by individuals that genuinely believe in creating a ‘them vs us’, and have done so successfully for many years, now falsely complaining about the government doing the same.

Furthermore, the term ‘ideology’ does not necessarily translate to ‘religious interaction and Islamic symbolism’ – it is both dishonest and naïve to claim that it does. Ideologies such as Islamism are theo-political but primarily totalitarian political projects. Hence, religious symbolism by itself is not an indicator of extremism and, yet again, no-one has suggested it is. There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest Prevent is focusing on those that display religious symbolism.

It gets worse:

While much of the PREVENT policy is aimed at those suspected of ‘Islamist extremism’ and far-right activity, there is genuine concern that other groups will also be affected by such policies, such as anti-austerity and environmental campaigners – largely those engaged in political dissent.

Again, there is absolutely no evidence of this happening. It is not exactly academically accurate to rely on ‘genuine concern’ since that could practically mean anything. Genuine concern from whom and based on what? The letter itself is an example of political dissent; has it been criminalized? Have the signatories been arrested? Or are they still free to complain about the oppressive state?

I could go on pointing out factual errors and inaccuracies in the statement but I think my point has been made. I doubt a single academic that signed the letter did any basic research on their extremist co-signatories or the content of the letter. They simply thought ‘this is anti-government and defending a minority so I must sign it’. This confused thinking is exactly why we need a statutory Prevent for the education sector.

Amjad Khan is a Muslim writer and commentator

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