Prime Minister, David Cameron “linked the notion of perverted ideology to the official support and promotion of Islamic reform, the indirect conflation of religious conservatism within an expanded idea of extremism”…
With Daesh seemingly here to stay, David Cameron has set out his five-year plan to tackle extremism. Yahya Birt asks what the priorities should be for British Muslims.
In the last year, the rise of Daesh (IS, ISIS or ISIL) has been a game-changer. It is more than al-Qa’ida 2.0, and will be here for some time. Given our abject failure in Iraq, there is little or no public appetite for Western “boots on the ground”; instead, the strategy is containment through the support of proxy regional forces and massive aerial bombing.
With its sophisticated online propaganda, Daesh projects itself as a utopian new caliphate that offers an alternate society rather than just endless jihad and martyrdom. As a community, we are collectively puzzled and frightened by the few British Muslim families migrating to Daesh territory with young children or aged grandparents. As a society, we need to find out more about why a few people in our community think that life in Britain is so bad that Raqqa offers a better alternative. And more about why some have returned: sharing stories about what really happens would help to take the shine off Daesh’s propaganda.
With Daesh not going away any time soon, two elements stood out in the Prime Minister’s recent speech on extremism. Despite his nods to inequality, Islamophobia and alienation, Cameron’s emphasis on religious ideology or extremism as the crucial element showed Michael Gove’s continuing influence. He went further than before to link the notion of perverted ideology to the official support and promotion of Islamic reform, the indirect conflation of religious conservatism within an expanded idea of extremism, and made a connection to cultural practices like forced marriage and female genital mutilation.
It is significant that the Prime Minister gave his speech at a secondary school in Birmingham with a large Muslim intake. While the new statutory duty on Prevent, the Government’s counter-terrorism policy, came into force in July and applies to all public bodies from universities and hospitals to local authorities, the most important sector for Prevent will be schools.
Teachers are now obliged to refer children whom they suspect of extremism to a Channel panel, and according to official guidance schools are not required to obtain parental consent for a referral. Operating in a “pre-crime” space, these multiagency panels, in which the police play a leading role, can decree interventions for the child in question. Although participation in these interventions is voluntary, an element of coercion remains as panels retain the ultimate sanction to remove children from parents whom they deem to be extremists. In July, a three-year-old child in London was taken away from its parents on these grounds.
Something in the order of 800,000 Muslim pupils could be affected by Prevent. Potentially that could be anyone’s child, grandchild, sibling, nephew, niece or cousin. So it is unsurprising that there is growing concern, even alarm, at how Prevent will affect Muslim schoolchildren. The policy misappropriates the language of safeguarding while marginalising and stigmatising both Muslim parents and children, even though it is mum and dad who are the primary safeguards of their children.
How much confidence can the Muslim communities have in Prevent in schools when serious abuses are being reported already? For instance, that a fifteen-year-old was questioned by police at home about his views on Syria and Daesh because he wore a “Free Palestine” badge to school and handed out some leaflets promoting the boycotts, divestments and sanctions movement. During the visit, when he sought to reassure his mum in her mother tongue, the police officer harangued him, telling him to stop being clever. Or, in another case, where a fourteen-year-old was referred to Prevent without his parents’ consent for not engaging in a music lesson. It is political views and piety that are being stigmatised rather than any sensible definition of extremism centred on political violence.
With over 300,000 public sector workers, including educators, having been given cursory training in Prevent, it is almost inevitable that ignorance or malice could drive wrongful referrals, overcoming the common decency or sense of professional propriety among teachers. From 2007 to 2013, 80% of referrals were deemed of no consequence by Channel panels. The official guidance says that, if in doubt, one should refer to a case to Channel. So what will the cost of Prevent be on the dignity, confidence and sense of belonging of Muslim children?
So how are we to respond? On extremism, it is important to restate that secularism is a double-edged sword. While we are often reminded that religion should not interfere with politics, it less often stated that politicians should not interfere with religion either. In a decentralised tradition like Islam, all government-sponsored efforts to reform it usually lack credibility, waste money, retard internal debate, and create unnecessary opposition to change.
On Prevent, it is essential that we acknowledge that the relationship between British Muslims and the state has become securitized, creating a suspect community. With schools, it means that we should campaign with teachers, parents, activists, academics and others for education not surveillance. For teachers who inspire kids, teach critical thinking, who recognise the legitimate place of Muslims and Islam in Britain, who have the trust and confidence to tackle sensitive topics – these qualities will do far more to confound Daesh than the current Prevent-inspired atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust can hope to do.
Yahya Birt is a member of the growing #EducationNotSurveillance network, is undertaking a doctorate on Muslim political activism in Britain at the University of Leeds and writes in a personal capacity.