The UK government’s Prevent, anti-radicalisation measure is here to stay, but an academic at the University of Aberdeen says it “potentially undermines the very thing is proposes to do”.
Part of the Westminster’s Contest ‘counter-terrorism strategy,’ developed under Labour, and reviewed under the coalition and Conservative governments, the Prevent strategy aims to “prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.”
Westminster’s Prevent strategy 2011 states it will “respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism and the threat we face from those who promote it; prevent people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure that they are given appropriate advice and support; and work with sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalisation which we need to address.”
Section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 (the Act) stipulates that: “A specified authority must, in the exercise of its functions, have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.”
These ‘specified authorities’ are listed in Schedule 6 of the Act, and include city councils, as nurseries, schools, colleges and universities, police authorities, and health and social care authorities such as the NHS.
However, the UK government’s guidance for Scotland, states that Prevent does not confer new functions authorities, but instead means they must place “an appropriate amount of weight on the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism”.
Dr Samantha May, University of Aberdeen Leverhulme Early Careers Research Fellow, specialises in Islamism, co-ordinating several undergraduate and post-graduate courses. Her research “focuses on the inter-relations between religion and politics,” potentially relating it to Prevent policy.
She said: “My personal views on the Prevent Strategy as it currently stands is that it potentially undermines the very thing it proposes to do as it is based on non-empirical assumptions which threaten to further stigmatise and alienate wide sections of British communities even if this is not the intention of the strategy.”
The Home Office statistic that 30% of ‘radicalised’ individuals attended University makes little sense when you consider EU directives stipulate 50% of young people should attend University.
“While I acknowledge the government (and society at large) has a duty to try to prevent violent action the current strategy in my view is not the correct path. Criticisms of the Prevent strategy come from a wide range of individuals, institutions and organisations both faith based and secular.”
Furthermore, Dr May disputes evidence used to support the new 2015 Act. She argues that the Home Office statistic that 30% of ‘radicalised’ individuals attended University makes little sense when you consider EU directives stipulate 50% of young people should attend University. As such she says Universities actually act as centres of “de-radicalisation.”
She said: “To show any correlation (let alone causation) well over 50 per cent of individuals designated as ‘radicals’ would have had to attend University. Anyone with basic understanding of statistics can work this out.”
The Gaudie contacted Ashley Powell, the University’s Prevent Officer for comment.
In response, Joanne Milne, a university Communications Officer, answered questions on the policy at Aberdeen. She pointed to the University’s website, where the policy is laid out and stressed that “all Schools and Departments were involved in the formation of the Prevent Policy” and that the University Management Group approved the documents hosted online.
She said: “The policy documents on our webpages fully set out our institutional response to these requirements. These were developed in consultation with Schools and Directorates, and take into account our existing commitments to staff and student welfare and safety and to academic freedom. As we implement the various measures we will monitor whether and how they impact on those commitments, and, if necessary, amend our approach accordingly.”
“The measures set out in our Prevent Implementation Plan aim to protect academic freedom. The intention behind the measures is not to prevent specific types of academic activity but to ensure that all academic activity undertaken by students and staff is legal and safe. [The Act] created a number of new offences in relation to terrorism activities, groups and materials and we wish to ensure that researchers, teachers and students are fully aware of the legislative framework when engaging in studies that may fall under the terms of the 2015 Act.”
The Gaudie understands that the Aberdeen University Student Association maintain a boycott of Prevent policy.
Ms Milne indicated that senior AUSA representatives were present at a range of committee and advisory groups, including the Advisory Group on Business Continuity and Resilience, where the Student President is a designated representative. However, none of the sitting sabbatical officers have participated in Prevent training.
Liam Fuller, AUSA’s sabbatical officer in charge of Education, said that the Student President had many committee positions and that it was the Environment and Ethics President who took lead on Prevent issues last year.
Ms Milne described “a standard training package” featuring Workshop to Raise Awareness of Prevent (WRAP) training in conjunction with Police Scotland. She added that where needed a bespoke solution would be developed. Meanwhile, the Education officer commented that “putting students in to the training will inherently create an environment of suspicion across our student population based on the agenda of Prevent.”
According to Fuller, AUSA has yet to implemented legislation regarding Prevent, but pointed to headway made in changing the title of the officer responsible for Prevent implementation from Prevent Champion to Prevent Co-ordinator. He also indicated that AUSA intended to refer the matter of Prevent to the student council again.
He said: “There was no formal legislation put through last year based on the fact the former Student President simply asked the student body through Council its opinion on whether we should engage and challenge or disengage and challenge.
“It is something we will likely bring to Council again.” Mr Fuller operates an “engage and
challenge approach”. He stresses that, while Prevent in Aberdeen was not as “intense as the rest of the UK” he worries that the justifications used for the policy are unhelpful in countering extremism.
He said: “I believe that the Government’s legislation on Prevent has unreasonable foundations. It is intended to ‘prevent’ vulnerable individuals from extremism and other forms of destructive activities but the implementation is so far off course, it’s essentially an anti-Muslim. The reliance on this rhetoric to stimulate support, especially in England, renders the whole thing Islamophobic and therefore wrong.”
He added: “Here at Aberdeen as with Scotland more widely, the legislation
is not as intense as the rest of the UK areas. The University has done what it is legally required to and we are critical of the fact they have accepted the procedures so quickly and without question. We understand the legal obligation but we also understand the respect deserved of our students. Students should not be treated as suspects. Students should not have to prepare letters on their desktops to ensure if anyone ‘finds out’ that they’re studying a contentious subject, academically, they don’t get reported to the police under the Prevent legislation.
Prevent strategy defines extremism as: “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also include in our definition of extremism calls for the death of members of our armed forces”.
However, while this definition may seem sensible in abstract, Safe Campus Communities, which offers guidance for the implementation of Prevent in higher education, has advised
that British universities “manage” Palestinian activism in order to comply with the counter-extremism strategy.
“Contentious topics” listed on the website include: “Vocal support for Palestine,” “Opposition to Israeli settlements in Gaza,” and “Criticism of wars in the Middle East”. What is troubling is that these are positions that would hardly be considered problematic in social science seminars across the UK.
Last year 26 organisations and prominent figures, including the National Union of Students, Index on Censorship, and the Muslim Council of Britain, alongside senior police personnel, joined in condemning Prevent.
A statement directed at then Prime Minister David Cameron said: “We are a cross-section of British society who believe in the necessity of keeping our nation safe and secure. As such, we are gravely concerned that the proposed counter-extremism and safeguarding bill will feed the very commodity that the terrorists thrive on: fear.”
Altogether, it would appear that, while the university have approached the policy with all due consideration for academic freedom, there are still avenues for improvement. Furthermore, there is room for development of a more united front against Prevents widely criticised approach to extremism on the part of the students’ association. Finally, with the news that Prevent measures will only be tightened, the duty of resistance falls on authorities and the bodies they oversee. Students and faculty members need to be informed of how the policy affects them and how they can be involved in its implementation.
AUSA offer support relating to Prevent and the NUS operate a helpline.
Originally published as a print feature under the title ‘Prevent policy trouble on UoA campus’ in The Gaudie Student Newspaper 01.03.17, p. 6.
Photo by Alistair Swan.
Originally published March 1, 2017.