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6 June 2011

We will continue to spy on Muslims, says Theresa May

"I don't see anything wrong with identifying people who are vulnerable to being taken down a certain

By Samira Shackle

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has set out some more details of the government’s new counter-terrorism strategy.

Ahead of the publication of the updated Prevent scheme this week, she told the Telegraph that universities are complacent about the threat of radicalisation and criticised the Federation of Student Islamic Societies for not challenging extremism sufficiently.

She also outlined measures to fight extremism online, limiting access to certain websites from public buildings. Details of partnerships with YouTube and AOL will be made public later this week.

I blogged yesterday about the disastrous impact that the Prevent scheme has had. Not only has it had no discernable impact on radicalisation, but in classing the entire Muslim population of the UK as a suspect community, it has been seriously detrimental. Every area with more than 2,000 Muslims has received funding, irrespective of other factors: it is assumed that the whole population needs to be targeted.

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Moreover, Prevent’s failure to separate community cohesion work from intelligence gathering means that it is largely viewed as a way to spy on Muslims. In some areas, Prevent funding is seen as dirty money; buying Muslims to work against Muslims. When the Telegraph put this to May, her response was:

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I don’t see anything wrong with identifying people who are vulnerable to being taken down a certain route, who could become a threat to members of the public.

We need to encourage people to be willing to identify vulnerable individuals. Most people recognise the value of using all the tools available to prevent terrorist activity and encourage people to actively talk to the police.

Everyone who has an interest in being part of British society should recognise that we are all in this together.

So spying on mainly innocent Muslims will continue unabated and to question this practice means that you do not have an interest in British society. This is hugely problematic. At present, the Prevent “schools toolkit” essentially establishes thought crime, where students named can be passed to police on the basis of extreme opinions – which is not the same as advocating terrorism. The Channel programme specifically targets young people through schools and other agencies.

Spooked, a report on the Prevent scheme by the Institute for Race Relations, criticises this:

Teachers and social, youth and cultural workers must have the integrity of their professional norms protected against the expectation that they become the eyes and ears of counter-terrorist policing. To turn public services into instruments of surveillance only serves to alienate young people from institutional settings that would otherwise be well-placed to give them a sense of trust and belonging.

The whole scheme is predicated on the idea that every Muslim is engaged in a battle for their souls between extremist and moderate forces. This is hugely overstated: the vast majority of ordinary Muslims go about their lives in the same moral universe as the rest of the population. A better idea would be to return to the pre-9/11 era of community cohesion work – integrating communities to foster a sense of belonging in the UK, rather than entrenching divisions along religious lines.

According to the Telegraph piece, the government’s new strategy will also attempt to incorporate David Cameron’s “big society”, by trying to mobilise this “silent majority” of Muslims. But how exactly will it do this while simultaneously tarring this majority with the same brush as the extremists who make up a tiny proportion of the community? Until the misguided thinking behind domestic counter-terrorism strategy is changed, it is doomed to failure.