A protester moves a balloon with David Cameron's likeness at the recent G7 summit. Photo: Getty Images
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Government policy has long seen British Muslims as bystanders at best, suspects at worst. Today is just more of the same

David Cameron’s call this morning for “Muslims” to be vigilant about terror in their midst did not come from a clear blue sky. 

David Cameron’s call this morning for “Muslims” to be vigilant about terror in their midst did not come from a clear blue sky. Government policy towards British Muslim has long treated those communities as at best passive and at worse complicit.

The new Extremism Bill, announced during the Queen’s Speech, comes from a similar place. It includes banning orders, closure orders and the introduction of employment checks. Significantly, the new bill also includes the creation of extremism disruption orders, which would give the police powers to apply to the high court to limit the “harmful activities” of an extremist individual, where harm includes risk of public disorder, harassment, alarm, distress or creating “a threat to the functioning of democracy”. These powers, dubbed extremism ASBOs by some, were first proposed last March, but were vetoed by the Liberal Democrats.

Just a few days before the bill was announced, Scotland Yard commander Mak Chishty said that countering the Jihadi threat required a move to the ‘private space’ of Muslims in order to catch non-western sentiment early and stop radicalisation. This move to the private place includes the need to monitor subtle changes in behaviour, such as refusing to shop at Marks & Spencer and sudden negative attitudes towards alcohol and western clothing. The new Extremism bill and Chishty’s comments did not happen in a vacuum. They in fact represent the logical next step in the ever-expanding Prevent programme.

The Prevent programme is the branch of UK counter-terrorism concerned with stopping people from becoming terrorists. It has grown from a modest proposal in 2006 to effectively becoming law in 2015. For years, Prevent has framed Muslim communities as being, at best, passive about, and at worst, complicit with extremism. This has resulted in an increased logic of intervention disproportionately affecting the Muslim community.

For example, until 2011, Prevent funding was distributed local authorities in priority areas to help them fight extremism. But these priority areas were decided based on demographics. Local Authorities with a Muslim population of at least 8% was automatically given Prevent funding. Figures from the 2001 census put the UK Muslim population at 2.97%. This means priority areas were those where there was almost triple the national average Muslim population. Several of the priority areas produced reports released under the Freedom of Information Act claiming that there was no evidence of extremism in their area, even though they automatically received Prevent funding. As such, British Muslims were considered targets of counter-terrorism strategy whether or not there was evidence of extremism. The rationale of Prevent was set: Muslims were the new suspect community.

Consequently, a sense of scepticism and doubt has been cast on the Muslim community as a whole, affecting projects unconnected with Prevent. For example, in 2010, 150 ANPR cameras were installed in two predominantly Muslim areas of Birmingham, three times the number of cameras used to monitor Birmingham’s city centre. Named Project Champion, the cameras were purchased with a £3 million grant from the Terrorism and Allied Matters (TAM) fund. TAM is a government fund administered by the Association of Chief Police offices and not associated with Prevent. However, Project Champion followed the Prevent rationale: Muslims must be monitored and controlled. The council argued that the cameras were to be used to monitor general criminal activities and anti-social behaviour, but the funding criteria for TAM states that the police force must prove a project will deter, prevent or help to prosecute terrorist activity. Following public outcry, Project Champion ceased within a few weeks and the cameras were removed after never being switched on.

Prevent was reviewed in 2011, and the demographic-based funding was abolished. Information on Prevent implementation after 2011 has been difficult to come by. In August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to the 30 local authorities in priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. The requests were denied on the grounds of national security. Prevent is now surrounded in secrecy, but its effect can be felt everywhere.

It was the 2009 version of Prevent that first introduced the language of shared values to UK counter-terrorism which is now commonplace. After all, the new Extremism Bill was introduced with the explicit aim of stopping extremists promoting views and behaviour that undermine British values. Moreover, the 2011 Prevent review directly connected extremism with identity, arguing that terrorism is caused by a failure to fully belong in British society. This is the sentiment echoed in David Cameron’s famous Munich Speech of 2011, when he said that many Muslims are drawn to terrorism due to a failure in their identity. But explaining terrorism through identity is problematic. Not only does it exclude historical and geopolitical factors from the equation, but it makes everyone who shares the ‘failed’ identity a potential threat.

And that is precisely what Chishty’s comments and the Extremism Bill represent: new powers to intervene and control the Muslim community based on a rationale of automatic suspicion. More so now than ever, since Prevent has been brought into statutory footing in the Counter-terrorism and Security Act 2015. This has resulted in the requirement that specified authorities, including nursery schools, have the duty to stop people from being drawn into terrorism. This is a sentiment echoed by Chishty when he suggested children as young as five need to be watched for signs of extremism. Moreover, just this month, a ‘counter-extremism’ questionnaire’ was distributed to children as young as nine in a school in East London. With the age of criminal responsibility at ten years of age in England and Wales, this arrangement sees children being monitored before they can even be held criminally accountable for their own actions. They are monitored with a view to crimes that they are seen as having a predisposition to commit in the future.

Ironically, these terrorism measures are likely to increase alienation and division, furthering the identity problems considered to be at the root of terrorism. Extremism ASBOs, employment checks and monitoring children are just the next logical step when terrorism is considered to be solely about religion and identity. It is then not surprising that Islamophic attacks on the Muslim community continue to rise. By consistently and continuously associating the Muslim community as a whole with terrorism and extremism, Prevent has ensured that this connection is engraved in the public and political psyche. These new developments in the UK counter-terrorism program are thus simply the next steps of the Prevent strategy, and just as likely to continue the controversial and problematic legacy of the last decade. 

Maria Norris is in the final stages of completing her doctorate at the LSE. She tweets as @MariaWNorris

Dr Maria Norris is a political scientist researching terrorism and national security. She is a Fellow at the  London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.


The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.