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Is the UK Government's Anti-Terror Strategy Damaging School Kids?

Pulling Muslim kids out of class and accusing them of sympathizing with the Islamic State is the quickest way to go about othering an entire generation because of their religion.
April 27, 2016, 7:15pm

Illustration by Ella Strickland de Souza

In the summer of 2015, then 16-year old Rahmaan Mohammadi, a student at the Challney High School for Boys near the town of Luton, England, found himself questioned by police on suspicion of "extremist tendencies."

All Rahmaan had done, he repeatedly contested, was participate in pro-Palestinian activism, before being reprimanded by a senior staff member for wearing a "Free Palestine" badge and wristband, and for attempting to raise money for charities getting clean water to children in the Gaza Strip.

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The conflict—which Rahmaan claims ended in a staff member asking him and a friend if they were "sure the money's not going to ISIS"—led to two police officers showing up at his house. "They came in and interrogated me for a good forty-five minutes," he says. "Asking questions like, 'What do you think about what's going on in Palestine? What do you think of Israel? What do you think of Syria, President Assad, ISIS?' General Middle East questions."

While Bedfordshire police have said they came to the conclusion that Rahmaan was "not at risk" because of his responses to a range of questions, the teenager insists it was one answer in particular that changed their minds:

"It came down to a simple question in the end: 'What sect of Islam are you?' I replied that I'm a Shi'a Muslim, and what [the officer] said was, 'Oh well, we're only looking for certain types of Muslim.' What he obviously means by that is that if you're a Shi'a, then you obviously aren't gonna be a radical, but if you're Sunni, then you're someone to keep an eye on. I thought that was extremely discriminatory to other sects of Islam."

Rahmaan had been questioned under "Prevent," a key pillar of the government's anti-terrorism strategy, and one that's supposed to root out the kinds of extremist political ideas that encourage young people to join groups opposed to "British values," from the Islamic State (ISIS) to anarchist collectives.

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Part of the broader "CONTEST" counter-terrorism strategy, which includes provisions to "Pursue" (detect terrorist plots), "Protect" (strengthen protection against these plots), and "Prepare" (ensure the country can withstand terror attacks), the Prevent strategy is carried out through a complex network of local authorities, grassroots organizations, and dedicated law enforcement bodies. The rules have shifted over time, and since last year, if a teacher or staff member believes that a child is showing signs of extremist behavior, they now have a statutory duty to involve Prevent officers. If the child is deemed at risk, they have to refer them to the Channel de-radicalization program. Failure to do so could put their jobs at risk.

While the other strands of CONTEST are intended to be no-nonsense intelligence-gathering and attack-preventing arms of the state, Prevent is, at least in theory, the carrot to CONTEST's stick.

"It's responding to the reality that young people now are vulnerable to radicalization," says Kalsoom Bashir, co-director of Inspire, a counter-extremist organization that supports the government's efforts. "There are people out there recruiting people for their own terrorist purposes, and this threat is very real."

Three British schoolgirls who fled to join the Islamic State last year. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Police

Whether or not Prevent actually works is another question altogether. Last year, as ISIS saturated the internet with graphic videos of executions and ethnic cleansing, it seemed as though a steady stream of young British Muslims couldn't resist the allure of waging jihad in the war zones of Syria and Iraq.

Prevent was designed to stop this kind of thing from happening in the first place. Devised originally by the Blair government in 2003, the coalition government updated the approach as part of a wider revision of counter-terrorism in 2011.

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"When we produced the policy, nobody involved in it had any idea that ISIL would rise in the way that it has," admits Lord Alex Carlile, one of Britain's leading law experts and an independent reviewer of counter-terrorism strategy between 2001 and 2011, from his office in Gray's Inn. "The scale of the problem has increased—the nature of the problem has increased."

Lord Carlile doesn't think this means Prevent should be ended. If anything, he argues, it strengthens its necessity. But one of the many issues with the policy is that its success is impossible to measure: If it's working, nothing happens. It's hard to track how many people don't travel to Syria to join ISIS.

However, it's hard to ignore the impact the policy is having on the people it's meant to be helping. Prevent Watch is a not-for-profit organization that offers support services to the people negatively affected by the strategy, and since being set up in 2014, it claims to have worked on more than 150 cases of Prevent being misused or applied in a discriminatory or heavy-handed way. Speaking to VICE over the phone, Mohammed Khan, the group's project manager, describes a policy that is discriminatory and draconian.

"Our idea is to essentially document what's going on out there and provide a level of support," he says. "That's across the country, and it was very much a reaction to a need in the community, with a view to evidencing the fact that it was broken."

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Prevent Watch has compiled several instances where, it argues, Prevent has been misused or applied in a discriminatory way. A recent example, Khan says, is an instance in a school where a four-year-old Muslim boy drew a picture of his father chopping cucumbers. When asked by a teacher what he was drawing, the boy, struggling to say the long word, mispronounced it.

"It came out as 'cook-a-bum'," says Khan. "The teacher then repeats to the child 'cooker bomb?', and the child picks up the word 'bomb'… and then this discussion goes off in a completely left-field direction. It's unreal. The teacher refers the mother, the child, and the siblings to Prevent. And she's actually submitted the forms and submitted them to social services."

Another is the now-notorious "eco-warrior" case, where Hackney mom Ifhat Smith found her son questioned by Prevent officers using the term "eco-terrorist" in a classroom discussion about deforestation.

"He had to follow this adult who he didn't know, and he was taken into a inclusion center, which is effectively where they put misbehaved children," says Smith.

At this point, her son was questioned by two senior staff members and told he was being questioned because of his use of the phrase "terrorist."

Smith complained to the school and was told there was nothing to be concerned about, but that they had been obliged to investigate the case under the Prevent strategy. But the damage has been done, Smith argues, and being "interrogated" has had a marked effect on her child.

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"For my son, he's got a mixed array of friends at the school, from different backgrounds and different nationalities," she says. "He felt really, really embedded in that school community; he thought he had a brilliant relationship with all the teachers. He absolutely loved the school, so when that happened, it really shook him to the core. It was the first time he'd felt like an other, or not belonging."

Prevent Watch and the eco-warrior case have not been without controversy themselves, facing a tough backlash from right-wing newspapers keen to support the government's policy. In a provocatively titled piece from the end of January, the Daily Telegraph alleged that Ifhat Smith was "a key figure in the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood" and that Prevent Watch was affiliated with groups, such as the controversial CAGE, that have been accused of sympathizing with terrorists.

Prevent Watch strongly contests this, of course, as does Smith, who says that while she's previously done voluntary work with affiliates of Tunisia's moderate Islamist Ennahda Movement as part of a campaign called Islam Is Peace in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, she has no official connection to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Much of this coverage is a distraction from the very real issues around the policy, and calls for a major reevaluation of Prevent are growing. In 2015, after the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act added statutory obligations to teachers, 360 leading academics and education professionals signed a joint statement condemning it as discriminatory and authoritarian.

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"Prevent will have a chilling effect on open debate, free speech, and political dissent," the report argued. "It will create an environment in which political change can no longer be discussed openly, and will withdraw to unsupervised spaces."

Senior political figures have also expressed real concerns that Prevent is having a damaging effect on social cohesion. In February, the government's independent reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation, David Anderson QC, argued in written evidence to a parliamentary select committee that the policy had become a "significant source of grievance" among British Muslims and that it encouraged "mistrust to spread and to fester" among the communities it was meant to help. The only solution to these endemic issues, he argued, was a full inquiry.

While supporters argue that cases of misuse are the result of a lack of adequate training by education professions and are not symptomatic of the broader policy, some argue that incidents are an inevitable result of a fundamentally Islamophobic approach to counter-terrorism.

"It is not focused on individuals who are suspected of involvement in criminal activity; rather, it targets a much broader group of people—the whole Muslim population—and defines them as a suspect community," argues Arun Kundnani, author of a 2009 report for the Institute of Race Relations on the policy and a professor at NYU. "The assumption behind the program is that cultural values and ideology are the root causes of terrorism and so need to be addressed to protect national security. But this assumption is not backed up."

What's worrying is that Prevent could be feeding exactly the kind of alienated mindsets that push people into terrorism and extremism in the first place. Cases like that of Rahmaan Mohammadi, or the disastrous Project Champion debacle in Birmingham, perpetuate the idea among young Muslims that the state is against them—because it is.

"Prevent is really dangerous, and whatever comes in its place will have the same problem… seeing our children as criminals before they've even done anything wrong," argues Ifhat Smith. "It's easy to see a child as a Muslim, then equate them with terrorism and radicalization."

Follow Oliver Hotham on Twitter.