The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act may stifle Muslim voices in schools

The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, currently a bill under consideration in the House of Commons, stresses it is the ‘duty’ of frontline public authorities to intervene in the process of violent and non-violent extremism and radicalisation. The Home Office’s guidance on the ‘Prevent duty’ shows that schools, among other public institutions, will be responsible for preventing violent extremism. As the Independent and the Daily Telegraph reported recently, staff at early childhood educational institutions are expected to undertake training in Prevent and report children that might espouse extremist views to government programmes such as Channel.

If this act passes, schools will be required to undertake Prevent training and monitor pupils. The guidance that goes along with the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act calls for schools to promote ‘fundamental British values’ (though these are loosely defined in other Prevent material) and safeguard pupils and staff ‘from the risk of being drawn into terrorism’ and non-violent extremism (see paragraph 106 in the guidance). Teachers will be responsible for determining whether the opinions, statements, and perspectives of a pupil demonstrate a risk of radicalisation and sympathy with extreme views and have the power to report them to authorities where relevant (see paragraph 110). According to the guidance, a pupil would not need to say something violent as it covers non-violent extremism as well, allowing for a broad range of perspectives and comments to be policed in schools.

After the Trojan Horse scandal broke, the BBC highlighted reports from some parents that Muslim students were negatively impacted and felt stigmatised. In 2014, Tell MAMA received a report of a student at a school implicated in Trojan Horse allegations. The student wrote a literature piece expressing his concern and deep unhappiness with the Gaza conflict in the summer of 2014. The instructor, upon receiving the student’s work, immediately handed it to the head teacher at the school. They claimed it displayed ‘extremist tendencies.’ Upon hearing this, the distraught student—who was just accused of ‘extremism’—snatched the paper from the instructor, ripped it up, and flushed it down a toilet. The school staff decided to discipline the student by treating the student’s actions as an ‘assault’, suspending him for three days despite the fact that his actions were an emotional response to being branded an ‘extremist’ by school officials. Under the guidelines from this bill, the student could be placed into a counter-terrorism programme, though we have yet to see what the mandatory channel processes will be that the Home Secretary has raised in 2014.

Whilst the referrals to TELL MAMA on the Trojan Horse affair have been low, there is nonetheless a sense of fear within Muslim communities as to what the impacts will be for their children. Some within the community fear that a statement about Gaza or Kashmir may lead to their child being potentially stigmatized and these are concerns that need to be legitimately tackled.

This new ‘Prevent duty’ being expanded to school officials (in addition to higher education officials, the NHS, and the police among others) will extend a strategy that has, it must be said, been tainted over time. This is most evident within Muslim communities who believe that the brand itself does not command weight or pull within Muslim communities. Some have even suggested a brand re-launch though this is not likely given that this Coalition has made the decision to amend the focus, yet continue the terminology associated with Preventing Extremism.

The Prevent strategy to date has a ‘monocultural focus’ on Muslims and while it pays lip-service to far-right groups and white supremacists, the Home Office singles out prayer facilities (see paragraph 72) as sites to monitor and calls for close scrutiny of visiting speakers (see paragraph 110). Yet, the Home Office has taken the position that extremism as a whole is to be tackled, although, when material on far right extremists are passed to the Home Office from the TELL MAMA project, the material is redirected towards local police forces to pick up as hate incidents. In many of these incidents, perpetrators are showing clear signs of extremist far right radicalisation with some even posting pictures of mosques that they wish they could attack. Additionally, the Home Office is keen to emphasise the importance of filtering out terrorist and extremist material online. (The British far-right is prolific with its online hate but there is no specific mention of it in the Home Office guidance).

This bill has potentially serious consequences for young students and children. Whilst ensuring community safety is maintained and goes hand in hand with tackling extremism, we also need to be aware that such a bill will bring in the potential of self-censorship in Muslim communities. Whilst we need to root out and tackle extremist narratives, young school children talking about Palestine or Kashmir should not lead teachers to automatically assume that the children have been radicalised. However, we believe that over time, self-censorship will creep in whether through the parents or through self-learning by young students. In a subtle way, this bill does nothing for free expression on issues like Gaza and Kashmir, for example, and subtly curtails it over time.

Finally, it will be interesting to see how many children or young people end up in Channel or are referred and how many of them are referred from Muslim and non-Muslim communities. This Home Secretary has made a courageous set of moves on ‘Stop and Search’ and should be commended for them. Let us hope she does not leave a lasting legacy where freedom of speech is for the select few and for others, the freedom to dissent is curtailed by virtue of being classed as subversives.

 Bharath Ganesh is the Research & Digital Projects Co-ordinator at Tell MAMA. Follow him @bganesh11.