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Counter Terrorism Strategy

Most students in British universities support Prevent

The Prevent programme, by far the most controversial component of the UK’s domestic counter terrorist strategy, aims to stop people from becoming, or supporting, terrorists. It does so by countering relevant ideologies and challenging those who promote them (‘counter-radicalisation’), assisting cooperative individuals considered particularly vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism (‘de-radicalisation’), and working with sectors and institutions where the risk of radicalisation in this sense is deemed high. Several key institutions, including the NHS, schools and universities, are also under a legal obligation to ‘have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’ (the ‘Prevent duty’).

An independent review of Prevent is currently stalled until a suitable chair is found. Proposals about its future have, nevertheless, been well-rehearsed in a public debate which has already spanned over a decade. Some advocate enhanced transparency, legal clarity and accountability, plus the instigation of regular independent reviews. Others – including the University and College Union (the trade union for university staff) and the National Union of Students – support a boycott until the programme is scrapped. In their view, Prevent is driven by official racism and Islamophobia which subjects harmless, law-abiding Muslims to intelligence-gathering and spying, systematically criminalises, victimises, and stigmatises them, turns them into a ‘securitised/suspect community’, and blames them for the jihadi threat. These critics also allege that it legitimises Islamophobia in society at large, violates human rights, chills public debate, seriously threatens academic freedom, stifles campus activism, requires university staff to engage in racial profiling, and undermines safe and supportive learning environments.

New insights
Until recently there has been no reliable information about how representative the ‘rejectionist’ view is on campus. However, a survey of student opinion about a wide range of issues relating to Islam and Muslims in UK universities – funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council, and soon to published as a monograph by Oxford University Press – now provides some surprising insights (Guest, M., Scott-Baumann, A., Cheruvallil-Contractor, S., Naguib, S., Phoenix, A., Lee, Y. and Al Baghal, T., Islam and Muslims on UK University Campuses: Perceptions and Challenges, July 2020).

The authors found, for example, that 59 per cent of respondents had never heard of Prevent. However, 40 per cent of those with no prior knowledge were, nevertheless, willing to express an opinion about it. Of those who said they had heard of it, a total of 75 per cent agreed that it is either ‘essential to protecting the security of our universities and combatting terrorism’ (30.1 per cent), or that it ‘can be helpful in tackling these issues but can be damaging to universities if not implemented sensitively’ (44.9 per cent). (But who could seriously advocate insensitive implementation?) Less than 10 per cent of those surveyed – and less than 15 per cent of Muslim respondents, who the study also found are more likely to have heard about Prevent than their non-Muslim peers – unequivocally condemned the programme. Sixteen per cent of all respondents were ‘don’t knows’.

Although more professionally conducted than is common in the anti-Prevent field, the study, nevertheless, suffers from a number of serious flaws which fall into three main categories. Some of these may be addressed in the forthcoming monograph. But it is difficult to see how this will be convincingly achieved without either additional evidence, which could and should have been included in the report, or a major retreat from the more contentious assertions.

One problem is that the executive summary includes several highly speculative claims which are either unsupported by any data in the report at all, or by none that is statistically significant. Two underlying and interconnected core issues in this respect are the failure to distinguish more sharply, on the one hand, between cause and effect, and, on the other, between perceptions about how Prevent works and hard evidence about how it in fact operates.

The report also shares a flaw common to all research hostile to Prevent: ‘negative effects’ are uncritically blamed on the programme rather than on other factors, including the mythology which surrounds it. This is particularly true of the claim, which the authors repeat several times, that ‘anxieties about the Prevent strategy have had a chilling effect on campus life, especially among Muslim students, some of whom have consciously modified their engagement with higher education in order to avoid being labelled an extremist and subjected to unfair discrimination’. There is no evidence either to sustain the hypothesis that Prevent ‘appears’ to be ‘discouraging free speech’ and compromising academic freedom. While the report recognises that a correlation between support for Prevent on campus and negative attitudes about Muslims does not establish a causal link either way, this insight is not universally adhered to throughout. No evidence is presented, for example, that government policies addressing radicalisation have ‘reinforced’ racial and religious discrimination in the UK. Nor is there any for the claim that Prevent has undermined the mechanisms universities have for subjecting negative stereotypes to critical scrutiny.

Other tendentious suppositions, unsupported by any evidence whatever, include the following: Prevent has ‘arguably helped to embed a form of institutionalised and state-sponsored Islamophobia’ in UK tertiary education, and ‘the strategy is vulnerable to hasty, ill-informed or prejudiced accusations, leading to wasted police time and the stigmatisation of misunderstood minorities’.

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