By Kyle Hoekstra
The National Union of Students is urging a boycott of the government’s counter-radicalisation strategy following new guidance which makes colleges and universities legally obliged to monitor students who may be at risk of “violent extremism”.
The Students not Suspects tour, which will take place this October in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Swansea, will challenge the new guidance. It is organised by NUS, Black Students’ Campaign, Fosis and Defend the Right to Protest.
The NUS is backed by the University and College Union (UCU) which represents more than 120,000 academic staff. The UCU has published guidance supporting boycotts of the legislation.
In an open letter published in The Independent on 10 July, hundreds of academics warned that the extension of Prevent – one of four pillars in the government’s counter-terrorism strategy CONTEST – would have a “chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent”.
Prevent was first developed by the Home Office in 2003 and now has an annual budget of £40m with the stated aims to respond “to the ideological challenge we face from terrorism and aspects of extremism, and the threat we face from those who promote these views”.
New guidelines in Section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, due to be ratified in parliament in early October, includes legal duties for public bodies such as colleges and universities to identify and share information concerning individuals “at risk” of extremism.
In response to the new legislation, NUS vice-president Shelly Asquith expressed concern, saying “this is a recipe for ‘extremism’, not a solution.” The strategy recommends monitoring students who appear ‘withdrawn’ or who are seeking ‘political change’.
“Black and Muslim students are bearing the brunt of a reactionary, racist agenda while freedom of speech across the board is curtailed.”
While studying terrorist tactics at the University of Nottingham in 2008, Dr Rizwaan Sabir was held for seven days without charge, accused of downloading Al-Qaeda literature for terrorist purposes. He was awarded £20,000 after it emerged officers had fabricated evidence against him.
Sabir said the act encourages self-censorship and warns that innocent people may be seen as terrorists. “The problems with the Prevent strategy are endless and any campaign to raise awareness of these problems in a democratic way is important.”
Addressing concerns in a speech at a Birmingham school in July, Prime Minister David Cameron said that critics of counter-terrorism policies were paranoid.
“The world is not conspiring against Islam; the security services aren’t behind terrorist attacks; our new Prevent duty for schools is not about criminalising or spying on Muslim children. This is paranoia in the extreme.”
His speech came after Parliament’s inquiry into the ‘Trojan Horse’ school allegations concluded that Education Minister Michael Gove had severely overreached.
“One incident apart, no evidence of extremism or radicalisation was found by any of the inquiries in any of the schools involved. Neither was there any evidence of a sustained plot, nor of significant problems in other parts of the country,” said Commons Education Select Committee chairman Graham Stuart.
The NUS is challenging the ‘repressive’ presence of Prevent Officers on campuses and its tour will offer “skills-based workshops for tackling surveillance culture on campuses”.
In July a schoolboy was questioned by police for distributing leaflets promoting the boycott movement against Israel. The schoolboy told Al-Jazeera that the officer “said these are terrorist-like beliefs that you have” and that “he explicitly said you cannot speak about this conflict at school with your friends.”
Shelly Asquith said the new guidance has created a “level of expectation that student unions will sign up to whatever colleges or universities say”. In 2010 it emerged that the student union at UCL had given information regarding Islamic society members to detectives investigating a former student later found guilty of planning a terrorist plot in the US.
“It is not, nor should it be within the ability of a student or lecturer to report on extremism or people showing signs of it,” said Yusuf Hassan, the vice-president of student affairs at the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (Fosis).
The Home Office says there are now Prevent programmes in place in all key sectors, including local government, health, education, prisons, immigration and charities. 75,000 pieces of “unlawful terrorist material” have been removed from the internet since 2011 and the number of UK suspects which have come to the attention of police and security services through Prevent is in the thousands.
But Aminul Hoque, lecturer at the University of London, contends that despite the basic protection of British citizens, Prevent has not worked: “The irony is that it has become counter-productive… what has happened is that it has widened the schism between the ‘Muslim’ us and the British ‘other’”.
Charles Farr, Director General of the Home Office’s Office for Security and Counter Terrorism contradicted the Prime Minister’s comments at Birmingham that the “root cause” of terrorism is “extremist ideology”: “The background of broken families, lack of integration into what we might call mainstream society, some level of criminality, sometimes family conflict, are all more than normally apparent.”
He said that by implying that some Muslim societies “quietly condone” extremism, as Cameron had in an earlier speech, “we risk labelling Muslim communities as somehow intrinsically extremist, which actually despite an unprecedented wealth of social media propaganda, they have proved not to be.”
The Founder September 2015