Academics call on government to overhaul ‘negative’ anti-terrorism programme

Image: Ianholton flickr

By Rosie Dawson

Academics from several leading British universities are calling for a huge overhaul of the government’s Prevent programme, after claiming that it harms students and threatens free speech and the freedom of research.

They have compiled a report, Islam and Muslims on UK University Campuses: Perceptions and Challenges, which says the Prevent programme reinforces negative views about Islam and Muslims.

The research, which was led by SOAS University of London with Lancaster, Durham and Coventry universities, provides the first nationwide picture of the experience of Muslim students and the perceptions that others have of them. It was based on a survey of more than 2,000 students in 132 universities and in-depth interviews with 253 respondents across six sites of higher education.

The Prevent programme was launched by the Labour government in 2003 to identify people thought to be at risk of radicalisation that might in turn lead them to support or engage in terrorism.

Its remit was widened by the Liberal-Conservative coalition government in 2011 and in 2015 legislation was introduced which required public bodies including universities to report any concerns about people deemed to be at risk. Prevent addresses all forms of terrorism. Home Office figures show that of the 561 people who were referred in 2018-19 to Prevent’s support arm, Channel, 37 per cent were referred because of concerns about Islamic extremism and 45 per cent because of concerns about right-wing extremism.

But Professor Alison Scott-Baumann from SOAS, who led the research team, told the Religion Media Centre that the findings challenge the government’s insistence that the Prevent programme was essential for tackling radicalisation.

“Despite a clear lack of evidence of radicalisation at universities, Prevent remains integral to universities campuses and compulsory Prevent training continues for staff,” she said.

Many Muslim students reported feeling that they were treated with suspicion, she added. One was quoted in the report: “The fact is, if you’re a Muslim and start taking your religion seriously, start practising and start growing a beard, you’re going to be under the spotlight.” Another said she asked a white friend to take a particular book out of the library for her because she feared she might fall under scrutiny for doing so.

There are 230,000 Muslims studying in UK universities with about 10 per cent coming from overseas. The report found that they were more likely than non-Muslim students to experience university as a place where they could develop their faith and think critically about it.

The researchers found that although more than 70 per cent of students agreed that Muslims made a positive contribution to British society, one in five of them believe that Islam was not compatible with British values. Those students who approved of the Prevent agenda were more likely to hold negative views about Muslims.

Professor Scott-Baumann said: “Our research shows the social functions that universities already achieve and how they can and indeed must do more to dismantle stereotypes by challenging securitisation policies, by improving communication and by deepening understanding of Islam.”

Dr Shuruq Naguib from Lancaster University said the research raised serious concerns about the impact of Prevent on academic life, students and on research.

“A well- seasoned researcher couldn’t continue with their research because of the ethics forms required by universities to report any extremist ideas among participants. That is a way of closing down research on sensitive issues because a researcher is ethically bound to protect the identity and confidentiality of participants. They will report criminal activity but the ideas and opinions of individual participants is something that researchers need to protect.”

In response to the report, the government pointed to research by Crest Advisory, a crime and justice consultancy, published in March 2020 which showed that British Muslims supported the Prevent initiative.

In a statement to RMC, a government official also said: “The government is committed to strengthening academic freedom and free speech in universities, so that they are places where debate thrives.

“Universities are required by law to uphold freedom of speech, allowing academics, students and visiting speakers to challenge ideas and discuss controversial subjects. The Prevent duty explicitly requires this.”

But Professor Mathew Guest from Durham University, the main author of the report, says the government has little notion of the social life of its policies. “Until the government seeks out research that is grounded in the actual experience of students, especially Muslim students who are on the receiving end of their policies, they won’t achieve a full understanding of the consequences of their policies. To suggest that they won’t have an impact on someone’s life is disingenuous at best.”

The report concludes “We believe there is a strong argument for Prevent to be discontinued in its current form. The evident damage this programme has done to university life clearly calls for a rethink at the policy level.”