Student Voice: Prevent and the NUS’ credibility gap on tackling extremism

Queen Mary student, Jacob Kishere, attended last month’s ‘Students not Suspects’ event at his university which saw NUS vice president, Shelly Asquith, criticised for encouraging students to ensure universities were unable to fulfill their legal duties around Prevent.

Here, he gives his take on the positions taken by the speakers. All views are his own, and do not necessarily represent those of Student Rights…

Recently, I sat in on the launch of the National Union of Students’ (NUS) new ‘Students Not Suspects’ campaign at Queen Mary University of London. The campaign’s objective? Scrapping the government’s strategy for safe-guarding against radicalisation, the now publicly-defamed PREVENT policy.

The panel boasted the Vice President of the NUS, Shelly Asquith; Queen Mary

University Student Union Welfare Representative, Adam Sparkes, Queen Mary University Islamic Society President, Akiqul Hoque; and a passionate young sixth-former who had allegedly been referred to Prevent for his Palestine solidarity activism, Rahmaan Mohammadi.

Before proceedings began, the panel agreed reluctantly that I could record the event, stipulating that it not be used for any “journalistic purposes” – skepticism of reporters and the press is common amongst the student left of late.

For an event addressing radicalisation and the government’s strategy on it, I was struck by the cavalier use of air quotes throughout, with each speech and the Q&A littered with references to “so called radicalisation”, “so called violent extremism” and “so called Islamism” (a term unpalatable to every speaker).

This initially surprised me, as my understanding of the campaign had been that it took issue with the prosecution and nature of the PREVENT strategy. However, ‘Student not Suspects’ goes far further than initial appearances, challenging the widely accepted notion that Islamist extremism exists around the world today and is not solely reactionary to the West.

This kind of blasé attitude toward extremism reflects the post-modernist, morally relativistic stance towards Islamism seen on parts of the left since the ‘War on Terror’ began. This is an attitude which, at its best, leads to excusing the attacks on liberalism and secularism around the world today, and at its worst sees the left tacitly ally with fundamentally illiberal movements.

Throughout the event, the speakers presented several incidents which they claimed showed Prevent referrals were based on profiling, such as the case of Mohammed Umar Farooq, who was wrongly questioned by university staff while reading a book on terrorism in the library, though not ever referred to Prevent.

Other cases mentioned included a group of Muslim sixth form students at NewVic College suspended after misusing college communications for sending a round-robin email to all students and staff opposing Prevent, and an anti-cuts student at Birmingham, Pat Grady, who it was claimed was anonymously referred to Prevent after he was arrested on suspicion of assault during a demonstration at the University of Birmingham.

While cases such as Farooq’s represent the problems which can stem from poorly-trained staff being involved in safeguarding people against radicalisation, a concept far more nebulous than safeguarding against grooming or child abuse, making the leap from criticism of these failures to espousing the wholesale scrapping of the entire safeguarding system requires something more.

The NUS’ representation of PREVENT is at best hyperbole, and its promotional posters demonstrate this, suggesting that the program is a Machiavellian government attack on student activism. Having followed up with the policy guidance under Channel (Prevent’s intervention mechanism) my suspicions were confirmed.

It instead states that:

“There is no single route to terrorism…For this reason any attempt to derive a ‘profile’ can be misleading. It must not be assumed that these characteristics and experiences will necessarily lead to individuals becoming terrorists…Outward expression of faith, in the absence of any other indicator of vulnerability, is not a reason to make a referral to Channel.”

The rational conclusion from the cases of Prevent’s failure, with reference to Prevent policy, is that they were largely a result of failed training, not that safeguarding in principle is unworkable, or as the NUS argues, systematically ‘racist’ and ‘Islamophobic’ at its core.

Despite this, the NUS holds both the strategy and the government in contempt. As a result, it has been in public spats on extremism with the government since being called out by former Prime Minister, David Cameron, for its partnerships with CAGE, alleged in the past to be apologists for Islamism.

Whilst superficially appearing harmless, the NUS’s relativistic position demonstrates a careless lack of research and understanding of Islamism. NUS VP Asquith told students: “I reject the term Islamism, it is a lazy term invented by the western media”. Upon following up on her stance, citing the 6,000 Muslims who have left Europe to join Islamic State, Asquith responded:

“I fundamentally disagree with ‘Islamism’ being a political desire to implement Islam…Students coming together wanting a prayer room, so they can practice Friday prayer, is that Islamism? I don’t think so. And actually I do think there are loads of other factors that are causing radicalisation.I do think it’s about people being pushed into poverty, I think it’s about racism, I think it’s about foreign policy, I think it’s about a lack of access to education for certain communities in this country, I think it’s about resources being moved from some communities and put into other communities.I think it’s about thousands of cameras being put into highly Muslim populated areas and making people feel like they’re not welcome in this country. I don’t think it’s about people’s faith and I don’t think it’s about ‘so called’ Islamism’”.

The NUS speaker, as well as much of the rest of the panel, refused to even accept a contemporary working definition of Islamism. Though, to be fair to them, they were keen to point out that they weren’t counter-terrorism experts.

If they engaged in a rudimentary historical enquiry on the subject, they would be able to trace the roots of Islamism to 20thcentury post-colonial movements. An ideology that manifested first in the Muslim Brotherhood, the works of Sayid Qutb and Hizb ut-Tahrir, before later developing a violent voice in groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaeda, and modern renditions such as the Pakistani Taliban and Islamic State.

‘Islamism’ at its core is the desire to impose any form of Islam on a section of society, typically this denotes a fundamentalist, fascist interpretation of the texts. While the notion of a Caliphate is indeed central to the principle tenets of Islam, there is no consensus on what one looks like or what kind of Sharia is required.

To conflate the authoritarian Islamist stance with the Islamic faith is a grave injustice and achieves the opposite of what the well-intentioned student leaders are fighting for.

The causes of radicalisation for the speakers were primarily Western foreign policy, lack of education, poverty and of course, the Prevent strategy itself. Recent statements from the NUS President, Malia Bouattia, have attributed low voter turnout amongst students to the PREVENT strategy and proposed looking at student loan debt and youth centres to tackle radicalisation.

All this amounts to a startling ignorance of the canon of research we have on radicalisation, which points to claims it is driven by poverty and a lack of education being deeply flawed given many would-be terrorists come from predominantly middle-class, university educated backgrounds.

Stripping away Islamist ideology as a driver not only removes agency from radicals leaving to wage jihad, but also ignores what they profess their motives to be. ISIS’ global magazine, ‘Dabiq’, recently released a piece, entitled ‘Why we hate you and why we fight you’, outlining why there is a fundamental opposition to liberalism, atheism, secularism, democracy, and so forth, that will continue, regardless of Western foreign policy.

Ultimately, despite the good intentions of the NUS and the passion of the campaign’s supporters, the ‘Students Not Suspects’ event revealed far more about the shortcomings of the NUS on extremism than it did the PREVENT strategy.

As long as the NUS continues to operate in an identity-driven echo chamber and lack any real understanding of the Islamist threat that needs challenging in the UK, then its massive credibility gap with students, government and the media will continue to grow.

Meaningful dialogue in good faith with free debate and discussion will be the only path toward rectifying this.

A longer version of this post was first published on Jacob’s Medium page, and can be read here.

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