The UK's Department for Education (DfE) failed to consult a single Muslim organization during its development of the government's flagship anti-radicalization website, VICE News has learned.
A Freedom of Information (FOI) response shows that the government consulted 29 organizations including government departments, faith-based groups, various teaching associations, and charities over the content of the Educate Against Hate website — but none representing Britain's Muslim community.
The website, which provides advice to parents, teachers, and school leaders on protecting children from radicalization was launched by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan in January 2016 at Bethnal Green Academy in east London — a secondary school which has seen four of its students leave for Syria to join the Islamic State. The FOI request revealed more than £41,000 ($59,000) was spent promoting it, as an online portal for the government's counter-terrorism strategy Prevent.
Designed to protect children from the "spell of twisted ideologies," the Educate Against Hate website provides a list of warning signs that can indicate radicalization, from "possessing or accessing other forms of extremist literature" and "being in contact with extremist recruiters," to exhibiting "argumentativeness or aggression" and "excessive time spent online." It overtly states that today's greatest challenge comes in the form of the "rise of Islamist extremism."
Yet when VICE News asked the DfE which organizations and companies were consulted about the website's content during its development, the list that was eventually provided was entirely absent of any group representing Britain's Muslim community. The DfE later claimed to have shown the finished website to representatives of the Association of Muslim Schools before it went live — but the association's chairman told us no such consultation had taken place.
The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), an umbrella body with other 500 affiliated organizations, mosques, charities, and schools, said it was concerned by the fact there was no representation from Muslim communities on the list, "especially given a significant proportion of those children referred to Prevent teams [formed of police and local officials] in schools are Muslim." In order to tackle radicalization, it was important that all communities were engaged, the MCB spokesman said.
Dr. Rizwaan Sabir, a lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University who specializes in counter-terrorism and insurgency, said the website consultation appeared to have taken place in an "echo chamber."
"The organizations that have been consulted seem to overwhelmingly comprise of government institutions, charities, and not-for-profit organizations who have accepted the government's line around 'radicalization' and 'extremism' and are already proactively involved in implementing Prevent in educational settings, especially schools," he said.
The lack of discussion with any families directly impacted by relatives travelling to Iraq and Syria was "a significant oversight that brings the foundation of the initiative into question" he added.
The government's Prevent strategy was launched in the aftermath of the suicide bombings on London transport that killed 52 people in July 2005, with the aim of stopping people being drawn into terrorism in the UK and overseas. Since its inception the initiative has been much criticized, accused of being counter-productive, discriminatory and ineffective — especially as stories have emerged of children being questioned by police alone for misdemeanors such as misspelling "terraced house" as "terrorist house," and wearing Free Palestine badges at school.
Under the act, schools must have "due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism" — otherwise known as the Prevent duty. The Educate Against Hate website hosts a variety of resources for teachers and school leaders aimed at helping them fulfil the obligation.
Hundreds of academics, activists, and representatives of teaching and student unions wrote an open letter to the government last year warning that Prevent stoked Islamophobia and would have a "chilling effect" on free speech and political dissent. "Prevent reinforces an 'us' and 'them' view of the world, divides communities, and sows mistrust of Muslims.... it makes us less safe," they wrote.
Last month the National Union of Teachers (NUT) — which also does not feature on the list of consultants for the Educate Against Hate website — called for the Prevent strategy to be removed from schools, warning it shut down open debate and created "suspicion and confusion." The government independent reviewer of terrorism laws, David Anderson QC, also recently called for a review of the strategy, warning its "lack of transparency... encourages rumor and mistrust to spread and to fester."
The DfE did ask various religious organizations about the website's content — the list includes the Church of England and the Catholic Education Service, which represents over 2,000 schools and academies in England on national education policies — but no consultations with Muslim ones are in the records provided to VICE News.
The closest the DfE came to Britain's Muslim community as it designed this anti-radicalization content, according to the FOI response, was its consultation with one interfaith organization — the Maimonides Interfaith Foundation, which says it promotes dialogue between the world's major religions.
The list did not contain "a single organization on that list has any traction with the Muslim community," said Tasnime Akunjee, a lawyer for the families of three of the Bethnal Green Academy schoolgirls that fled to Syria, who added his clients had also not been consulted by the DfE for the website.
"Despite all the families of the four girls involved having sought support and advice from the East London Mosque, our government has chosen once again to consult anyone other than those with relevant, credible, and current knowledge," he said.
Shadow education secretary Lucy Powell MP told VICE News that failing to consult any Muslim organizations was an "own goal" by Morgan.
"Rather than taking strong action to give communities confidence to tackle this issue her department has failed to consult with Muslim organizations," she said. "It's important with initiatives such as this that all communities feel supported and empowered to tackle radicalization."
Others that were consulted by the DfE over the content of the site were focus groups of parents and teachers, a network of local Prevent coordinators, and the DfE's Counter Extremism Reference Group, which according to the FOI response, "provides advice, expertise and intelligence" on the effectiveness of policies and communications.
In response to the FOI disclosure, a DfE spokesperson claimed that some Muslim representatives had been shown the finished website before it went live, including the Association of Muslim Schools (AMSUK). "A number of individuals, organizations, and groups representing a variety of faiths and beliefs were consulted prior to the launch of the site. These include school leaders who represent Muslim faith schools and representatives of AMSUK, with whom we tested the content of the resources," he said.
However when contacted by VICE News, the chairman of AMSUK — which does not appear on the DfE's list of organizations consulted — said no such dialogue had happened. The organization was not contacted by the DfE about the website, said Ashfaque Chowdhury, apart from to receive an invite to its launch of Educate Against Hate.
According to the FOI disclosure, the Educate Against Hate website currently has a total budget of £102,000 ($147,000), with over £16,000 ($23,000) spent on its development and over £41,000 ($59,000) on its promotion.
The day before the launch of the Educate Against Hate website, UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced a £20 million ($29 million) fund to help Muslim women learn English. Speaking on the BBC Radio 4's Today program, Cameron said: "If you're not able to speak English, you're not able to integrate, you may find, therefore, that you have challenges understanding what your identity is and you could be more susceptible to the extremist message that comes from Daesh [Islamic State]."
Akunjee, the lawyer who represented the families of the girls who left London to join IS, said: "Of particular note is that the website is available only in the English language. This runs counter to the logic espoused only the day before its launch, by David Cameron where he publicly opined that a contributing factor to the loss of our young people to ISIS was that 22 percent of 'Muslim' women don't speak English.
"Clearly the government have felt that the material in the website is of no value to the 22 percent identified by David Cameron. Having looked at the website myself, I would go further and suggest it is of little value to 100 percent of all people anywhere."