This article is part of a Public Spirit series on The implications of the counter-extremism agenda.
In July of this year the Government’s Prevent policy became a legal duty upon most public authorities. It means that most sections of the public sector are required to identify and deal with “extremism”, something which remains loosely defined. Although the policies theoretically apply to all forms of extremism, in reality the greatest impact is being felt by Britain’s Muslim community. The duty means that schools, colleges, universities, health providers, local councils, youth and social workers, prison service and others have a duty to look at any Muslims who use their services, or work for them, for “signs” of “radicalisation”.
Thousands of workers up and down the country have received a few hours training on Islam and spotting signs of radicalisation. Armed with this new “expertise”, they are applying it to the Muslim community. The result is increasing evidence that Muslims are being identified as potential “extremists” for expressing everyday religious, political ideas, and beliefs and values.
The Prevent duty may be new, but some authorities have been implementing Prevent since 2007, and the Muslim community are already very aware of its negative impact on them. This experience has so far only been conveyed to wider society in a limited way.
As someone who works with clients and the community in this field there appear to be a number of key areas where Muslim thought and expression are being stifled and criminalised. I highlight only a few areas below.
Once picked out as a potential extremist by a public authority an individual is referred to the Channel Programme, where a multi-disciplinary panel makes an assessment of the person, and puts in place interventions, including “de-radicalisation” programmes. The National Police Chiefs Council reported that since 2007-2014 there have been 3,934 referrals to Channel. Of these 1,450 were of individuals under 18 years of age. It has also been revealed by the Daily Mirror that 918 children have been referred up to April 2015 – including a three year old. It has recently been revealed that 8 people a day are being referred to de-radicalisation schemes.
The whole process is shrouded in mystery, however: nobody knows the reasons all these people are being referred, what happened, the results, what rights parents have, and how one can challenge such labelling. Crucially the nature of the intervention and success rates are unknown.
A further issue which is emerging is, that based on the identification of children as potential extremists, an intervention may lead to parents being considered the source of the children’s views or a threat to the child. In these cases judgements are being made by social services/family courts as to the fitness of a parent to bring up those children. The result is that there are 32 ongoing cases where children are being removed or in the process of being removed from parents for unfitness based on “extremism”, as reported on BBC Newsnight recently.
Since the new duty has come into force, a number of schools have tried to find new ways of identifying children at risk from “extremist” views, and have run into challenge from the community. A school in Waltham Forest decided to conduct a profiling survey which led to parents making the issue public. Recently the private company Impero was criticised for its radicalisation identification software and it issued an apology. There have also been reported cases of singling out of children for comments in relation to support for the Palestinians, halal meat, prayers and other harmless expression and behaviour. More and more cases are coming to light which appear to show identification is about curtailing ideas and thoughts not protection from harm.
The result of the atmosphere that has been created by Prevent in schools is that many Muslim parents see it not as safeguarding but a threat, which can harm both them and their children. Many parents are now telling their children simply not to engage in any political or religious discussion at school, or speak about any religious activities and events they have attended, or to use the internet at school.
Public Speaking and Expression
Public speaking events have been central to the growth of the Muslim charity and third sector over the last half century. They are vital for fundraising. The Muslim speaking circuit in the UK has hosted some great personalities, and some have become leaders of Muslim countries. Some may have been controversial, but that is part and parcel of public life for any community. Prevent policy has attempted to eliminate anyone who is not just controversial but who chooses to express or exhibit political and religious ideas that differ/oppose the dominant narrative of Government, and its supporters, from public life.
In my own work, I have seen how in the last few years booking a venue for an event has become a logistical nightmare for Muslim organisations. Many simply have given up inviting anybody who could be regarded as even slightly risky. Based on reports in the media and complaints from the public, Muslim charities who invite speakers who have received negative media coverage may receive a communication from the Charity Commission asking how they are protecting their public reputation from harm. They and the venue are also likely to receive a Prevent officer intervention.
Based on negative media reporting and harassment from Prevent officers; and combined with a hostile campaign from groups with a political agenda; venues (even private ones) will often decline a booking from Muslim organisations. I have come across venues that require a police form to be used to vet speakers before a decision is made.
I often advise charities and organisations on risk assessments for public speakers, and I carry them out, and it concerns me that this requirement tends to result in undue weight being given to the negative aspects of a speaker and seldom the positive benefits. The requirement to carry out a risk assessment before inviting a speaker is onerous, and the risk of hostile reporting simply means that many organisations have withdrawn from public to private functions.
Having been forced into the private sphere, the proposed Counter Extremism Bill seeks to sanction private venues and events. Such private (or what the Government has described as “closed events” in its recently announced Counter-Extremism strategy; 2015: 14) are cited as an indicator of extremism!
Universities have also been drawn into the Government agenda on banning of speakers and refusing venues. Over the last couple of years booking a university venue for a speaking engagement has become much more difficult for Muslim communities and student groups. When organising an event, many groups are avoiding university venues. Denying Muslim organisations a space to speak in public except for ”non-risky” speakers is a regressive step, it denies non-Muslim audiences and universities opportunities to hear the political and religious ideas and thoughts of an important segment of society.
Internet and Social Media
Britain’s terrorism laws cover violence and plots, but there are also sections that relate primarily to what lawyers describe as thought crimes (Sections 5 of the Terrorism Act 2006). There is an increasing use of Prevent theories of extremism in terrorism trials, especially through the use of theologically based expert reports. In my own work I am aware this is leading to the classification of individuals as having a terrorist or extremist “mindset” prior to engaging in any actual plot, or before travelling to a destination, using evidence obtained from Facebook and Twitter viewings and postings/downloads. The use of a person’s social and political postings and viewing habits, as an indicator of theological belief, ideas as well as intentions, is problematic. It allows for police officers and judges to arrive at a sentence about a person’s political and religious mind-set with little expertise. It also allows them to use non evidence based theories of extremism to arrive at those judgments.
When the current counter extremism proposals become law they will add a further layer of politically defined unacceptable behaviours, using the civil law for prosecution. Civil law requires a lower burden of proof, “probability” rather than “beyond all reasonable doubt”. Using social media as evidence it may be fairly easy to label someone and prosecute them as an extremist. Used in conjunction with terrorism laws, extremism may well become indistinguishable from terrorism, with many more people becoming criminalised for thought and political crimes.
Trojan Hoax and Ban Lists
This dangerous conflation of public expression, thought and comments as a barometer of intention is dangerous for society as whole. Using innocuous and spontaneous comments in emails, social media, chat messengers and public speeches as evidence of a mind and plot is already taking place. We see this in the Birmingham “Trojan Horse” extremist plot to take over schools that was unproven. Such comment is now being used as evidence to ban Muslim teachers from teaching and Muslim trustees from being governors of schools for life, using section 128 of the Education and Skills Act 2008. There are currently hearings underway, pursued by the Department of Education, which are seeking to impose these bans on a number of teachers. New counter extremism proposals will enable the banning of “extremists” from any public sector jobs and public bodies. Such plans will affect all those working in or with the public sector.
Prevent Duty vs Equality Duty
The Prevent Duty is in conflict with public sector equality duties. Most equality duties say that a public body should not discriminate on the grounds of a number of protected characteristics, including religious and political beliefs. Yet, the Prevent duty encourages people to identify and interrogate someone for their political and religious ideas and beliefs. This would include to consider if they are suitable for a job. It would appear entirely legitimate to make a judgement about someone to see if they are extremist based on their emails, social media usage/content and deny them an interview or employment. The Trojan Horse tribunals are an example of this.
My organisation is aware of an increasing caseload of Muslims in all sectors who are experiencing discrimination and now seeking legal advice and redress. In response to this, we have been consulted on a number of proposed Muslim legal and community support initiatives such as a Muslim lawyer’s/professionals forum called Supporting People impacted by Prevent, a London based community initiative called PreventWatch for reporting incidents alleged to be discriminatory, and a northern based initiative which will be launching soon.
Criminalisation through Classification
I have highlighted a number of areas where Prevent is having a detrimental impact on Muslims. There are many others that I am aware of or deal with. For example the banking sector now also uses software and risk assessment that incorporates coverage of public comment to assess risks of extremism and terrorism, and on that basis deny Muslim originations and individual bank accounts. This is affecting both charities and individuals and again affects what they say and who they invite to speak. In Manchester members of the Syrian community are also struggling to maintain or open bank accounts.
Counter Extremism laws have entered pre-crime space and people’s private spheres
Counter Terrorism laws have moved away from preventing real threats and plots, to focusing on ideas and thoughts. Muslims are being criminalised through political/religious labelling or classification. Counter Extremism laws have already entered what is being referred to as pre-crime space or people’s private spheres. New counter extremism proposals launched this week will move further into this territory. Banning of groups and people and closing private venues, censoring the media, will lead to more intrusive powers and the creation of political and thought crimes.
Criminalising Muslim politics and thought is having a chilling effect on the Muslim community. It is also leading to discrimination against the Muslim community and alienation, leading many to look for escape elsewhere.
The free flow and exchange of ideas and thought are necessary for the healthy growth and development of any civil society, including the Muslim community.
Prevent and the new counter extremism policies maybe be counterproductive. The free flow and exchange of ideas and thought are necessary for the healthy growth and development of any civil society, including the Muslim community. They should not be curtailed but allowed to flourish. Curbing them may even allow unhealthy ideas and politics to flourish and go unchallenged. It is even more important that children are allowed to develop ideas and thoughts without fear of sanction on them and their parents. To curtail and criminalise this through Prevent polices will stifle the healthy development and growth of children.
Although currently being applied to the Muslim community, these counter extremism laws and policies will eventually affect us all. The Muslim community is gradually losing trust in public sector bodies. Whilst recognising that there is a need to target those who genuinely pose a threat to society. There is a real danger that if we continue down this road of focussing on an entire community for beliefs, thoughts and ideas, all the decades of good and healthy community relations will be reversed, because of ill-informed and badly thought through legislation. That will not lead to less “radicalisation” but more, and in all segments of society.
Jahangir Mohammed is Chief Executive of Communica Ltd a company which provides expertise, advice and training to organisations and lawyers, on counter terrorism and extremism laws/policies, as well as on management and media. He can contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
To cite this article, please use the following: Mohammed, Jahangir (2015) ‘Britain’s Counter Extremism Policies are Criminalising Muslim Thought and Expression’, Public Spirit (October 2015: http://www.publicspirit.org.uk/britains-counter-extremism-policies-are-criminalising-muslim-thought-and-expression)