On Wednesday, Student Rights attended an event called ‘The Prevent Guidance: Preventing extremism or promoting prejudice?’ at University College London (UCL) which was co-hosted by the law firm Bindmans.
With a balanced panel and independent moderator in the form of David Anderson QC, the event was a rare example of a robust debate on Prevent at a university.
Arguing for Prevent was Simon Cole, the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) lead on Prevent, and Anjum Khan, the Director of Collaborative Ventures and a former Prevent lead and Specialist Intervention Provider in a number of local communities.
On the other side was Miqdaad Versi, the Assistant Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), and Malia Bouattia, who was recently elected President of the National Union of Students (NUS) and who has played a leading role in the anti-Prevent ‘Students Not Suspects’ campaign.
During the event, the usual Prevent myths and scare stories were trotted out, with Versi falsely claiming the strategy “stigmatises religion as a precursor to terrorism” and is “policing our thought”, comments which were echoed by Bouattia, who claimed the counter-extremism strategy was “targeting and demonising Muslims”.
These remarks are incredibly divisive and risk further alienating Muslim communities. It was therefore encouraging to see several practitioners challenge this narrative by highlighting the safeguarding and community cohesion role Prevent plays.
Bouattia came unstuck when an audience member asked what she thought the causes of radicalisation were, and what measures she would put in place to challenge it. Responding to the question, Bouattia said:
“What is leading particularly young people to feel so, kind of, disempowered that they’re left with no choice but to go off to Syria or join certain groups?
And I’d also say we have to look at mass unemployment, the fact that education is being privatised and rendered ever inaccessible, youth centres have been closed down, every service available to support young people to allow space for critical thought and development has been shut down by the state.”
Student Rights responded to her comments, which have since appeared in a number of media outlets.
National Organiser Gray Sergeant said:
“Claiming the privatisation of education and service cuts are responsible for radicalisation misunderstands the problem entirely, and downplays the damaging influence of extremist ideologies on vulnerable people. “There are many pathways into violent extremism and Prevent aims to identify those at risk before they put themselves or others in harms way. This is a vital safeguarding effort and it’s high time the NUS stopped undermining those seeking to deliver the strategy.”
Bouattia was also challenged by an audience member about the NUS failure to tackle Islamist extremism, as well as by Khan and Cole, who debunked some of the myths surrounding Prevent.
Both cited their own work with vulnerable young individuals who were potentially about to make decisions which would harm themselves or others.
Khan also highlighted the role of Prevent in tackling far-right extremism, a point often dismissed by the strategy’s critics, and Cole stressed that:
“[Prevent] is a voluntary scheme that is offered to people to give them an opportunity to make decisions about their own lives.”
He also emphasised the need for counter-extremism measures in light of recent attacks in Orlando and Paris, as well as the UK’s current severe threat level, all of which is downplayed when anti-Prevent activists like Bouattia use terms such as “invisible terrorism”.
Student Rights welcomes this event, as it was a refreshing change from the unbalanced ‘Students Not Suspects’ campaign which has toured university campuses with extremist groups, and was one of few on-campus events where myths about Prevent have been challenged and the anti-Prevent narrative was exposed.
In particular, Bouattia’s comments on the drivers of radicalisation highlighted the ‘Student Not Suspects’ campaign’s desire to push their own political agenda rather than take the threat of radicalisation seriously, and demonstrate the campaign’s lack of credibility on the issue.