Why are UK university students preventing Prevent?

As long as the term "Islamophobia" is bandied about in response to tackling campus extremism, strategies like Prevent will struggle to make an impact

Campus extremism - a real danger?
Rupert Sutton
On 24 July 2012 13:49

Confronting extremism on university campuses without damaging the ability of students and lecturers to carry out research freely is one of the key challenges faced by both government and higher education providers today.  

Whilst studying for my own Masters degree I regularly wrote on and researched many different terrorist groups and the academic freedom that I enjoyed allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of how these groups promote and sell their ideologies.

Today much of the work I do in my current role also includes visiting extremist websites, social media pages and forums as well as watching YouTube videos of militants like Anwar Al-Awlaki.

However, it also requires an appreciation of the ways in which the government attempts to reach out to individuals at risk of being drawn into violent extremism.

One of these is via the Prevent strategy, yet over the past week a number of events have highlighted the grave difficulties that this approach faces when it is applied in the setting of higher education.

The first of these began last Monday when the General Secretary of the London School of Economics (LSE) Student Union shared an update on Twitter stating “Big day with the new sabbs [sic]in office, lots of inductions, and preventing Prevent”.

In response to this, the Education Officer at Swansea University Student Union tweeted back “can you drop me some stuff about preventing Prevent”.

Since then, the LSE Student Union General Secretary has confirmed her view on the matter, tweeting that “Prevent IS Islamophobic” and that it is “a gvmt [sic] strategy to 'prevent extremism on campus' which consists of victimising Muslims”.

Intrigued by the suggestion that Prevent is a racist policy I spoke to a senior figure at the National Union of Students (NUS) about the issue and he told me that “the view that prevent in general is problematically Islamophobic, and that the way the police often handle issues locally is unhelpful, is relatively common”.

With the perception amongst some students that Prevent is deliberately and maliciously targeted at Muslims apparently widespread, the news that an internal inquiry has found that West Midlands Police allegedly fabricated evidence after arresting a student at Nottingham University on suspicion of terrorism offences in May 2008 could only make things worse.

Rizwaan Sabir, at the time an MA student on an International Relations course, downloaded a document detailing terrorist tactics before sending it to a researcher at the university who was helping him with his dissertation.

This resulted in his arrest and detention by Nottinghamshire Police, who held him without charge for six days whilst accusing him of being guilty of “the commission and preparation of an act of terrorism”.

They were then forced to release him and, in September 2011, to pay him £20,000 compensation for wrongful arrest, further damaging the reputation of counter-extremism work on university campuses.  

However, as with many difficult issues the problem is often far from black and white, and whilst Sabir’s case was clearly dealt with very poorly, there have been instances when the perceived Islamophobia that investigating Muslim students invokes has hindered security operations and put people’s safety at risk.

In 2007 Mohammed Atif Siddique, a graduate from Glasgow Metropolitan College, was found guilty of a number of terrorism offences including weapons training and disseminating terrorist publications.

One of the offences he was convicted for also included a breach of peace charge after he showed images of suicide bombers, murders and beheadings to fellow students.

He was alleged to have “threaten[ed] to become a suicide bomber and carry out acts of terrorism in Glasgow” and was arrested after police searched his home and found manuals on constructing explosives.

It later came to light that, whilst a student, Siddique had accessed extremist websites during university classes on three separate occasions, but had not been challenged by senior lecturers as “staff were reluctant to do anything for fear of some accusation of racist conduct”.

These cases highlight both the mistrust and suspicion that hamstrings Prevent and other counter-extremism work on university campuses as well as the fact that the radicalisation of a small number of Muslim students is clearly a potential danger.

Until this perception of racism and victimisation can be successfully challenged, strategies like Prevent will struggle to engage with their target audience. In the end these ideas are about engagement and integration, and at the moment they are failing to achieve that.

Rupert Sutton is a Researcher for the campus watchdog, Student Rights. Follow him on Twitter: @StubbsMaloy

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