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Anti-extremist policy targeting UK Muslims successfully appealed

Dr Salman Butt

The landmark legal challenge ruled that guidance given to universities and colleges which saw speakers with ‘extremist views’ being banned from events was unlawful.

The UK’s so-called ‘counter-extremism’ Prevent strategy has always been a controversial policy. Not only have its negative consequences been felt and condemned in the United Kingdom, but its inherently flawed basis has been exported across the globe in the form of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) strategies.

Now an important judgment from the UK Court of Appeal has begun to tentatively turn the tide against Prevent, particularly in UK universities where it has had a chilling effect on students’ ability to have open discussions on important issues.   

Prevent is one of the four strands of the UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy, which is known as Contest. Unlike the other strands—which exist to deal with things related to actual terrorism—Prevent was created to combat ‘extremism’, which the government defined as the opposition to ‘British values’. Despite successive attempts to enforce Prevent using legislation, compelling more and more arms of the state and public sector to engage with it, the strategy is possibly now more toxic than ever before. As a policy it has been rejected by both the National Union of Students, and the National Union of Teachers (now called National Education Union), criticised by the British Medical Association, countless human rights groups, legal experts, politicians and hundreds of academics, even drawing condemnation from many UN representatives including Special Rapporteurs for racism, privacy and freedom of assembly. The pressure has finally forced the government to launch an independent review into Prevent, which is cautiously being welcomed by critics, depending on how impartial it will be.

The many symptoms of the toxic policy may be reduced to a few fundamental problems that are baked into the very DNA of Prevent and the global CVE policies that it has germinated.

The first is that it is based on pseudoscience, namely the belief that something called ‘extremist’ ideology causes terrorism, despite the wealth of peer-reviewed scientific research to the contrary.

In 2016, more than 140 academics criticised the previously secret ‘research’ underlying the Prevent strategy as ‘flawed science’, used to justify an ancient—yet sadly persistent—myth blaming ideas for the causes of some types of violence.

As professor Arun Kundnani traces, this was the same logic used to crack down on anti-colonial activism and labour movements in the last century. Despite the government distancing itself from the refuted ‘radicalisation’ theories underlying Prevent, they were unearthed as still being used in family courts as recently as 2018 to justify removing children from their families, ‘based on subjective and inaccurate perceptions of ideology’ rather than actual abuse. The second issue is that Prevent is inherently racist and discriminatory. As one racial equality organisation in England put it, Prevent is “built on a foundation of Islamophobia and racism”, and as a criminology lecturer wrote in The Guardian: “[It] gives people permission to hate Muslims.” The UK Home Office’s own published statistics showed that—despite Muslims representing five percent of the population, and accounting for less than five percent of terrorism across the UK, 65 percent of Prevent referrals were of Muslims, with 95 percent of those referrals being unnecessary.

Muslims are 40-50 times more likely to be referred to Prevent than non-Muslims. This is partly why some academics such as Professor David Miller have said that the sprawling counter-terrorism apparatus is one of the “five pillars of Islamophobia” in the UK, and possibly beyond. The third problem is that Prevent is actually counterproductive to its stated aims. In other words, it exacerbates the empirically-determined conditions and causes of terrorism, rather than reducing them. This is why the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to freedom of assembly said: “By dividing, stigmatising and alienating segments of the population, Prevent could end up promoting extremism, rather than countering it.” Tom Hickey, a lecturer at the University of Brighton and member of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) Committee, said it was as though Prevent was “almost designed to have the opposite effect”.

History shows us that it is when non-violent ‘radical’ movements experience state suppression that a minority of them turn to armed action. Even the UK Foreign Affairs Committee stated in 2016 that so-called “Political Islam” is a firewall against violence in the Muslim world. Despite its many essential and subsidiary flaws, those with a professional or ideological investment in Prevent have continued to champion it, citing it to intimidate organisations or venues to cancel events, push assimilationist agendas against minorities (particularly Muslims), uphold racialised myths about the causes of Muslim-perpetrated violence, and demonise Prevent’s critics as somehow pro-terrorism. They have been able to get away with this partly due to the confusing (and often contradictory) messaging and guidance issued by government departments, and the overall lack of clarity in the public domain about the legal and scientific status of Prevent.

In order to bring some legal clarity on Prevent and address some of the injustice caused by it, we launched a judicial review against the UK government in 2016. On Friday, the UK Court of Appeal released a judgement with an important win for universities and colleges in that regard. Judges ruled that the Prevent Duty Guidance given to higher education bodies was unlawful, because it was overly prescriptive and gave the impression to colleges and universities that they should not allow events with speakers with so-called ‘extremist views’ to go ahead, thus leading many to breach their duty to ensure to freedom of speech on campus.

The judges also reiterated that the Prevent ‘duty’ guidance is only a recommendation that public bodies are not compelled to follow. If universities wish to do so they are within their rights to completely disregard it in favour of, for example, preserving free speech. This includes the infamously loose and open-to-abuse definition of an ‘extremist’ being someone who opposes so-called ‘British values’. Universities are not obliged to prevent this ‘extremism’ on campus, but rather to have due regard to stopping people being drawn into terrorism, which has a legal definition and is far more restricted than ‘extremism’.

During the legal case, we also uncovered a previously secretive department within the Home Office, called the Extremism Analysis Unit. The Home Office admitted to harvesting information on Muslim speakers and activists from the likes of the openly and proudly Islamophobic Henry Jackson Society, whose associate director urged for in the past that “conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board”.

We argued that the government breached data protection and surveillance laws by effectively outsourcing surveillance to such shady third-party organisations, and using sophisticated automated research tools such as RIPJAR (created by a private company) to search and process private citizens’ data across all different social media platforms, without their knowledge. The court dismissed our claims on this ground, and we look forward to taking this to the Supreme Court because we understand the power and extremely personal insights that our data harvested in such a way can yield.

While the road to holding the government to account is a long one, Friday’s result was an important milestone. Universities and colleges that previously prevented events on the basis of Prevent or so-called ‘extremism’ need to redraft their policies and start to undo the damage Prevent has caused to discussion and debate. Campuses are supposed to be a place where radical thinking is encouraged, and Islamic societies in particular—who bore the brunt of this discriminatory chilling of free speech—need to take the lead in breaking the cycle of fear and culture of self-censorship and intimidation. If your views go against popular norms or government policy, that is nothing to be afraid of. As one judge said in court recently to the government’s barrister: “Is not one man’s extremist, another man’s serious radical thinker?”