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19 May 2022

Prevent is Islamophobic by design, not accident

As a teacher, I see how Muslimness itself is deemed a risk factor for radicalisation.

By Nadeine Asbali

Muslims in Britain are almost used to being criminalised. Our subjugation is entrenched in law, our marginalisation woven into policy. We are surveilled and policed by every institution: in the nation’s hospitals, airports and schools. The Prevent strategy turns public sector workers — who should be keeping us safe, treating us when we are ill and getting us through exams — into counter-terror spies. Our very Muslimness makes us a threat.

Prevent, which was created in 2007 to safeguard those vulnerable to radicalisation, has long been criticised by Muslims and their allies. In February this year a People’s Review of Prevent — an alternative to the upcoming Shawcross review, a government-commissioned inquiry — was published, concluding that the programme is “discriminatory in its impact on Muslim communities” and potentially “breaches children’s rights and human rights”. Meanwhile, the Shawcross review, although not yet published, has already come under fire, not least due to the opinion of the man in charge of it. William Shawcross, a former chairman of the Charity Commission, has in the past made statements such as “Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future”.

With part of the review being leaked this week, these concerns are already proving valid. Ludicrous though unsurprising, the leak revealed that Shawcross is set to advise the government that it should focus even more on Muslim threats and less on the far-right. This is despite the far-right being a growing danger, accounting for almost half of counter-terror arrests last year. Barely masking the hypocrisy, the review claims that Prevent referrals on the far-right have been too broad, targeting people who are simply expressing conservative views whereas referrals of Muslims have been too narrow and failed to include those who “create an environment conducive to terrorism” while not actually supporting violent extremism. In other words, right-wing extremists need to become card-holding Nazis before they are referred to Prevent but Muslims need only emit a mere whiff of Muslimness.

Yet, particularly in my position as a teacher, the findings on mental health are perhaps the most horrifying. The leak revealed that Prevent is “carrying the weight” of a chronically underfunded mental health service. Money for counter-terror is such a never-ending pot of gold, while funding for mental health is stretched so thinly, that some institutions are referring vulnerable people to Prevent because it will fast-track support, despite them posing no risk of extremism.

This comes as we are in the middle of a mental health epidemic and young people are some of the worst affected with one in six children aged six to sixteen experiencing a mental health condition. Currently about a third of all Prevent referrals come through schools and almost half of those referred are Muslims (despite Muslims making up a mere 5.7 per cent of the national population). So if you are a young Muslim suffering with a mental health condition, your school may access support for you by inventing an extremist threat. Whether maliciously-intended or not, the alarming repercussions of this cannot be understated.

So too the fact that the Prevent policy allows a child to be questioned without the presence of an adult — paradoxically because they are not charged with any crime. We only need to look at the case of Child Q — a 15-year-old girl who was strip-searched at school without teachers present — to learn the dangerous implications of the police meddling in safeguarding in schools. By nature, Prevent seeks to address “pre-radicalisation” and so the way that Muslim referrals to Prevent are treated is unique: Muslimness itself is deemed the risk factor. From being asked to recite the Quran to being questioned on gay marriage, the referral of Muslim children to Prevent invites counter-terror enforcement to surveil and harass them and their families. Not only are these children failing to access the mental health support they need, but they are being marred with a stain on their record and potentially devastating consequences for entire communities.

Prevent makes Muslim children unsafe. It renders schools sites of criminalisation and teachers informants in our classrooms. The proposed review shows that the intrinsic Islamophobia is no accidental byproduct: it is by design. And the problem is only getting worse.

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