The Prevent scheme polices, monitors and disciplines British Muslims through an all-pervading divide-and-rule neoliberal framework
There was understandable outrage last month when Muslim primary school pupils in an East London school were asked to complete counter-terrorism questionnaires. Buxton School, at the centre of the scandal, released several (albeit dubiously conflicting) statements following the media outrage, outlining their stance on the issue. Despite Buxton’s claim that the school has since destroyed all filled-in questionnaires, according to Waltham Forest Council, over 250 children in the borough have completed the questionnaire so far. Whether the information from completed questionnaires in other schools will be passed on to the groups behind the ‘BRIT’ project is still unclear.
Following the news of these questionnaires, a new development in counter-terrorism technology has emerged that is already being piloted in 16 localities in the UK. One of several counter-terrorism software packages available on the market, ‘Impero’ (ironically translating to ‘Empire’ in Italian) is being marketed as a unique keyword-detection tool that teachers can install on school computers to monitor pupils for potential ‘extremist online activity’. The software claims to use a three-tier system that detects words and phrases associated with ‘radical’ or ‘extremist’ views that could lead to terrorism. Worryingly, Impero has been developed in conjunction with ‘experts’ at the Quilliam Foundation: a ‘counter-extremism think-tank’ that has had several links with far-right, neoconservative and anti-Islam groups such as the EDL and the Henry Jackson Society.
It is somewhat unsurprising, then, that in a revealing Twitter thread with Bill Bolloten, an education consultant (@SchoolEquality), the team behind Impero (@ImperoSoftware) appeared reluctant to reveal whether the software has ever actually detected a pupil likely to be at risk of radicalisation. Suspiciously, the CEO of Impero, Jonathan Valentine (@jonimpero – whose tweets are now private), seemed to know little about the keyword lists used in the software, and to boot, has tweeted publically about his disgust at ‘g*psies on benefits’ and Channel 4 making ‘UKIP look bad’. Are we really allowing a dubious private organisation with a bigoted CEO to profit from the online profiling of Muslim children in schools?
Perhaps one of the most insidious aspects of this software, however, is its regurgitation of Prevent’s highly racialised narrative that brands victims of racial discrimination as primarily vulnerable to radicalisation. In the words of Impero:
…one of the recognized factors for making someone vulnerable to radicalisation or potentially vulnerable to radicalisation is a crisis of identity which may be triggered by things such as racism or discrimination.
Despite MI5 research from 2008 revealing that there is no specific pathway to violent extremism, the peddling of such racialised rhetoric in both government and private-run counter-terrorism schemes goes widely unchecked. Presenting victims of racism and discrimination as vulnerable to radicalisation is harmful in particular to young children. It delegitimises and criminalises the anger children feel at the injustices they face through discrimination. Schools should provide support systems for victims of discrimination; but by introducing such racialised counter-extremism narratives to the classroom, discrimination will not only go unchallenged, but will be bolstered through government-backed policy. Rather than viewing the vulnerable as potential ‘radicals’, we must challenge the role government policy plays in pushing so many children and young people from marginalised backgrounds to feel increasingly unsupported, silenced, isolated and vilified.
It has become glaringly clear that what is hitting the headlines is just the tip of the iceberg: insidious counter-terrorism policies are already omnipresent in schools across England and Wales. In other words, these are not isolated incidents, but symptoms of a much larger predicament:
The Prevent scheme, now strengthened by the obligatory legal framework outlined in the Counter-Terrorism & Security Bill passed earlier this year, reaches into every aspect of the lives of British Muslims. So insidiously intimate is its reach, that there are few spaces (both in the private and public spheres) that Muslims can occupy without being monitored. Prevent acts to police, monitor and discipline British Muslims through an all-pervading divide-and-rule neoliberal framework that centres profit-hungry private firms and the police at the forefront of policy implementation.
The recent school scandals are all manifestations of Prevent, but the real question is, once pupils are identified as vulnerable to radicalisation, what happens to them? That’s where the Channel programme comes into play. Pupils who are identified as being ‘at-risk’ are referred through Channel. The new statutory guidance for Channel under the Prevent scheme from April 2015 describes the Channel programme as a ‘multi-agency approach to identify and provide support to individuals who are at risk of being drawn into terrorism’. It operates within sectors and institutions, such as schools, where they believe there are risks of radicalisation. Alarmingly, the police are the first point of contact for those referred under the programme before each case is presented to a local panel. Considering the role of the police as the arm of the state, who embody the structural violence enacted on marginalised groups within the UK, is the police’s central role in the Channel programme not another facet of this violence?
This question is particularly salient when you consider the recent ‘Preventing Radicalisation’ workshop advertised to parents of four- and five-year-old children at Monega Primary School in Newham, London.
The parties behind Prevent are evidently unafraid to encompass children as young as four into their unforgiving counter-extremism narrative. This, despite the fact that children at such an age are barely literate, let alone vulnerable to radicalisation. If a four-year-old child were to be referred through the Channel programme, their Prevent Officer (who is usually a member of the police force), social worker and local panel would have the power to make arrangements for their ‘safeguarding’ without the consent of their parents. Parental consent is not even mentioned in the new statutory guidance for Channel, in the cases of child referrals. This (perhaps deliberate) exclusion of parental consent from the Channel guidelines evidences the government’s role as an enactor of disciplinary violence on Muslim children, and their families, under the guise of counter-extremism.
Prevent is but one aspect of the spectacle of legalised persecution and pre-emptive prosecution that has legitimised the use of state-perpetuated white violence against Muslim bodies. This is further exacerbated by the fact that counter-terrorism has become an industry: private firms are profiting from the collective-punishment and surveillance of Muslims in the UK, including school children. To deconstruct and challenge this violence, we must understand that counter-extremism policies exist within the context of persisting colonial realities, where orientalist myths of the Muslim Other, the surveillance of brown and black bodies, and the divisive politics of the War on Terror and its by-products are rooted in a history of Western imperialism.
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Ananya is a graduate of History and Anthropology BA from Goldsmiths College, University of London. She is a part-time researcher, soon-to-be student of the MPhil Modern South Asian Studies at Cambridge and currently blogs for Tutorhub.com. Her academic interests include neoliberalism, structural violence and Hindu nationalism in South Asia. She writes on intersectional feminism, resistance, issues pervading the War on Terror, capitalism and neoliberalism. Follow her on Twitter @ananya_rm
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