Prevent ‘reinforces negative views of Islam’ among students in UK

Research also suggests that government’s anti-terrorism strategy is causing students and staff to self-censor discussions of Islam

July 14, 2020
Muslim student
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The UK government’s anti-terrorism strategy, Prevent, has reinforced negative views of Islam and Muslims and has blocked campus discussions that could challenge discriminatory views, according to research.

A report, Islam and Muslims on UK University Campuses: Perceptions and Challenges, led by SOAS University of London working with Lancaster, Durham and Coventry universities, found that agreement with government policy on counterterrorism appeared to be associated with holding negative stereotypes about Islam and Muslims.

The authors said they “uncovered a worrying correlation between the language of policy and the language of prejudice”. Widespread societal discrimination against Muslims and other minority groups has become embedded in institutional structures, reinforced by the Prevent guidance, which seeks to stop students being drawn into terrorism by, for example, imposing limitations on events featuring allegedly extremist speakers.

A survey of more than 2,000 students at 132 universities, conducted for the report, found that of students who agreed that “Prevent is essential to protecting the security of our universities”, 36.4 per cent agreed that Islam was “a faith that preaches intolerance towards non-Muslims”. This compared with 20.5 per cent of all students and 13.2 per cent who agreed that “Prevent is damaging to university life”.

Those who agreed that “radicalisation is a serious problem in UK universities”, the government’s reasoning behind the strategy, were four times more likely to believe that Muslims have not made a valuable contribution to British life.

The report also showed that this was often the case with those who don’t know much about Prevent, which was 59 per cent of students surveyed. “Lack of knowledge does not appear to be a sufficient reason not to voice an opinion,” the authors said. In fact, an acknowledged ignorance about Prevent was associated with support for it, while familiarity with was more likely to be associated with strong opposition to it, they found.

The report backs up previous research that has argued that the Prevent strategy has served to restrict free speech and to marginalise Muslim students and staff in British universities.

In a series of one-to-one interviews and focus groups, the researchers found that students and staff admitted they often self-censored or were “discouraged from exploring, researching or teaching about Islam, especially when linked to terrorism, fundamentalism or military conflict”.

Only 25 per cent of students said they felt “entirely free” to discuss their view on Islam on campus.

“A lot of Muslims…feel that they can’t air their views, they can’t voice their opinion, because they’ll be labelled extreme,” a postgraduate student told the researchers.

Mathew Guest, professor in the sociology of religion at Durham and one of the authors of the report, said the findings showed an “especially worrying pattern when universities have traditionally prided themselves on instilling habits of critical thinking and dismantling narrow stereotypes”.

A further worry for universities will be that those who cited their university as their foremost source of knowledge about Islam were the ones who had the highest levels of agreement with negative statements about Islam, alongside those who used the media as a source.

The authors called for universities to foster greater awareness among staff and students about Islamophobia and to ensure that those who experience such discrimination are aware they can raise issues and will be listened to.

Universities must also re-affirm their strengths in critical thinking to encourage open debate about all forms of ideology and make sure clear guidance is available on free speech on campus, they added.

The authors said they were not calling for the government’s strategy to be scrapped entirely but said that they believed “there is a strong argument for Prevent to be discontinued in its current form” as “the evident damage this programme has done to university life clearly calls for a rethink at the policy level”.

According to Alison Scott-Baumann, a co-author and professor of society and belief at SOAS, the “case for evidence-based policymaking is urgent. We believe this report will serve as a helpful contribution to this process, not least as it contains positive and practical proposals for building on the considerable strengths represented across the HE sector.”

A government spokesperson 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.”

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