Student Voice: Let’s have an honest discussion about Prevent

Last month, University of Warwick student, Phoebe Davies-Owen, attended a conference addressing the Prevent duty in universities.

Here, she gives her take on the one-sided message being spread by the attendees, and the difficulties she faced when attempting to challenge the claims of the anti-Prevent lobby. All views are her own, and do not necessarily represent those of Student Rights…

On the 15th of October, I woke up and thought, “I’m going to challenge noxious narratives today.” I went onto Warwick University campus and, at around 11am, sat down in a lecture room in the Social Sciences building, expecting to hear a reasoned debate around the implementation of the Government’s PREVENT policy.

Prevent is one of the four ‘Ps’ that make up the government’s post-9/11 counter-terrorism strategy, known as Contest: Prepare for attacks; Protect the public; Pursue the attackers; and Prevent their radicalisation in the first place.

The event scheduled three panels of speakers, and after reading some of their biographies, I was under the impression that an informative, nuanced discussion was to be had. What I heard, however, for around three or four hours, was an angry mob advocating the immediate dissolution of PREVENT from educational institutions within the UK.

The speakers informed the audience that PREVENT is faulty in both theory and practice. PREVENT is, they argued with mulish conviction, “Islamophobic”. Moreover, they claimed PREVENT is isolating the Muslim community, fostering a climate in which students have become suspects, and has only increased existing prejudices against Muslims within schools and universities.

I attempted to speak up repeatedly after the first panel had finished, but was ignored. My argument about challenging bigoted narratives instead of silencing them was met with legions of shaking heads, tutting, and a retort about how it is “easy” for me to promote free speech because I have “white privilege”.

The feeling of being uninvited extended to the society that I preside over – Warwick Atheists, Secularists and Humanists (WASH). I heard how opposed people are to it and how students should take a stand against, again, its “Islamophobia”.

This isn’t anything new, the society has had many comments from a select group of students on its Facebook page pedalling the narrative that the society is “Islamophobic” for having various posts documenting Islamist terrorism, and for having speakers such as Maryam Namazie talk at the society.

WASH wasn’t the only organisation that had aspersions cast upon it. Contempt was also expressed for the Quilliam Foundation – justified, speakers argued, for its supposed ‘neo-con’ agenda, and its uncouth and even dangerous desire to implement its “divisive” #Right2Debate policy.

This came as a shock to me, given the fact that the panel and audience were vociferously criticising PREVENT for “shutting down free-speech”.

I attempted to explain that the #Right2Debate policy is a procedure for concerns to be raised by student unions and groups about a speaker who may be attacking mutual tolerance and respect. It places the onus on debate as opposed to no-platforming as a means to counter speakers who propagate intolerant narratives.

I also challenged the speakers of the second panel, but again was met with a chorus of guffaws and mockery from the audience when I told them that acceptance of Islamist narratives were more widespread than they care to admit, and that two men leaving schools in Cardiff to join ISIS was already too many.

However, this number was downplayed. The speakers suggested there is no problem with Islamist terrorism – the problem instead centred principally on far-right speakers and nefarious Israeli sorts smearing Palestinians.

In the end, myself and my fellow student left the hall as it was evident we were no longer welcome. The audience was not presented with a counter argument at any point and any points supporting PREVENT were met with scorn and ridicule.

The discourse, that PREVENT was full of problems and should be done away with completely, was the only one presented. Not once did we hear about why PREVENT was drawn up in the first place (to combat increasing radicalisation of young men and women into different forms of extremism), and I heard nothing about the resistance within Muslim communities to tackling the issue.

Now, I do accept that PREVENT has its flaws. Data taken from the National Police Chiefs Council shows that 67% of those referred for suspected “radicalisation” between 2007-2010 were Muslim. Between 2012 and 2013 this figure was 57% (compared to 14% of cases involving far-right extremism).

Given these discrepancies, it could be argued that a disproportionate number of Muslims are being targeted. Many also argue that PREVENT damages the trust we have within our society, silences Muslims and systematizes anti-Muslim bigotry at a time when far-right groups are gaining power across Europe.

What we must remember though, is that our teachers have a duty of care towards young people who may be vulnerable to radicalisation. Those who support the implementation of PREVENT would argue that, as the threat of a terror attack is severe, we are in need of these preventative measures.

What is more, those who defend PREVENT often point to the fact that, according to British authorities, at least 800 people from the UK have travelled to support or fight for jihadist organisations in Syria and Iraq. Of those, approximately 190 who have gone have lost their lives.

How many young men and women have to leave the UK before the opponents of Prevent realise there is a problem? Obviously, there is a difference between how PREVENT has been written and how it has been executed. However, the best way to address PREVENT’s weaknesses is not to confuse the policy with the way it has been implemented, but to instead listen to these contrasting arguments.

People who refuse to listen to the counter-arguments actually obstruct the progress that can be made to reform PREVENT. Opening up the debate for those who disagree with this implementation is paramount. It frightens me to think how many more young people might become radicalised without PREVENT. Surely that is a more dangerous prospect?

A longer version of this post was first published by Conatus News, and can be read here.

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