The UK’s counterterrorism guidance should be scrapped

Feelings of isolation and the need to self-censor are familiar to the tens of thousands of Muslim students affected by the counterterrorism programme Prevent, says Akiqul Hoque

September 19, 2018
Student with head scarf
Source: istock

Students in higher and further education face an uncertain future. From political anxieties about Brexit to the marketisation of the sector and rising living costs, students are repeatedly – and at times it seems deliberately – excluded from conversations where their input is vital.

The counterterrorism guidance programme, Prevent, is one of the best examples of this exclusion. It has affected tens of thousands of Muslim students across the UK. Since its implementation in 2006, Prevent has failed to effectively counteract terrorism and has instead alienated and ostracised countless Muslim students.

We at the Federation of Student Islamic Societies represent more than 100,000 Muslim students across the UK and Ireland and are unsurprised by Alison Scott-Baumann’s recent findings that Muslim students and staff feel marginalised as a result of the Prevent duty.

While the government claims to be upholding free speech on campus – with the support of the new Office for Students – the Prevent duty means that speakers who are overtly critical of failed policy or those who scrutinise British foreign policy of recent years will be censored. 

Worse still, students – particularly those in social sciences and the humanities – will begin to self-censor out of fear that attacking Prevent, other security related matters or British foreign policy will only lead to trouble.

Universities are meant to be bastions of free speech and places where the exchange of views and ideas is rich and plentiful. Yet there is a worrying trend towards the securitisation of space when it comes to discussing particular ideas – especially when they are expressed by Muslim students. This is against the purpose of universities and institutions of learning.

Students who are visibly Muslim are made to feel isolated from their cohorts. Like their peers they are in higher and further education to expand their intellectual horizons and contribute to the exchange of knowledge and ideas. But they are made to feel less like students and more like suspects. 

By wearing a hijab, growing a longer beard or even just by having a name that “sounds Muslim”, they feel that their actions will be held to a different standard to those of their non-Muslim peers.

Even the safeguarding element of Prevent is applied differently to Muslim students. They fear that their mental health issues will be mistaken for more sinister intentions, unlike those of their non-Muslim classmates.

Counterterrorism experts, scholars and academics within universities have criticised the Prevent duty. They have spoken of the need to allow students to think freely and take a critical standpoint on causes they believe in.

The problem of radicalisation tends to exist online. The censorship of speakers who criticise the government’s domestic and foreign policy on university campuses does little to help the important work that needs to take place within the field of counterterrorism.

Looking at past perpetrators of terrorism, most tend not to have had anything to do with universities and education. At the same time there is also a rise in the number of far right attacks and the mobilisation of far right terror groups. But little of this is taken into consideration when discussing counterterrorism tactics, it seems.

FOSIS reiterates its stance against the failing Prevent duty and we call for it to be scrapped immediately for the safety and well-being of Muslim students in the UK and Ireland. We look forward to a time when Muslims in education are seen as students and not suspects.

Akiqul Hoque is vice president of student affairs at the Federation of Student Islamic Societies. 

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Reader's comments (3)

He should offer concrete examples
it is not surprising that FOSIS has a problem with Prevent. In 2011, Prevent's Strategy review concluded that: "FOSIS has not always fully challenged terrorist and extremist ideology within the higher and further education sectors. FOSIS needs to give clearer leadership to their affiliated societies in this area. There are several examples of students engaging in terrorism or related activities while members of university societies affiliated to FOSIS.” They have also been involved in gender segregation at university events.
This is a useful document: