If we really want to tackle extremism, Prevent must seek to engage, not isolate

Last week the annual conference of the National Union of Teachers voted overwhelmingly to reject the government’s Prevent strategy, claiming that it created “suspicion in the classroom and confusion in the staffroom”. This was yet another damning indictment of the current government’s approach to tackling extremism, which has been marred by accusations of being out of touch and ill-considered. Since last summer, teachers have been compelled to report pupils suspected of engaging in any kind of terrorist activity or radical behaviour. However a lack of understanding, a product of inadequate training, has resulted in 90% of referrals ending with no action taken. The damage done here is that a climate of pressure on teachers to report pupils has resulted in a McCarthyite climate of fear, and a tide of inappropriate accusations. The press has had a field day reporting the most bizarre instances of reporting that have resulted from this policy. These incidents include paranoid teachers reporting students for voicing support for Palestinian liberation, for expressing a desire to hold a fundraiser for Syrian refugees, or – in one particularly ludicrous incident – for writing that they lived in a ‘terrorist’ rather than a ‘terraced’ house.

All of this is symptomatic of a broader problem, faced by both the current government and its predecessors; how to prevent radicalisation among British Muslims without alienating or patronising them in the process. So far, government efforts have been highly stigmatising. Attempts to ban extremist groups and radical speakers at universities have served to push these people further toward the margins of society, rather than confronting them with head-on debate. Another policy of particular concern a program, recently announced by David Cameron to much fanfare, intended to encourage non-English speaking Muslim women to learn the language. While seemingly well intentioned, media pundits have pointed out that the program amounts to funding of less than £100 per woman, but is attached to a threat of deportation if language skills are not improved. This attitude is hardly a charming olive branch that will ingratiate the Muslim community. Amidst all this chaos, Muslims have been left with a bitter taste in their mouths. Fear of being reported is silencing Muslim pupils right at the moment their contributions and participation is vital to countering extremism, and this extends beyond the classroom into daily life. I only have to talk to my Muslim friends to appreciate how frustrating this must be; none of them are by any means radical, but all feel stigmatised and patronised. This current guise of the Preventstrategy could have worse implications still; ironically, marginalising Muslim pupils by placing them under intense scrutiny is more likely to push those more vulnerable to being radicalised towards extremism than away from it.

The government’s Prevent strategy is doomed to failure because it places the onus solely upon Muslims to become ‘deradicalised’, while totally ignoring the factors involved in social marginalisation that have led Muslims to feel isolated from British society. Thus, a successful Prevent strategy must see Islamic extremism as a universal social phenomenon that stretches beyond British Muslims across the whole of our society. Social isolation is a failure of society, not just an isolated group. Exclusion, by its very nature, is a relationship between the excluded and the excluders.

So what could a successful Prevent strategy look like? The government is right to look to schools as a key battleground in which to tackle extremism. Stories of young girls brainwashed into travelling to Syria have shown that impressionable young people are the most vulnerable to radicalisation. But they are also the people most accessible to the government, with the highest likelihood of being coaxed away from extremism as well as towards it. Instead of a program that places the burden of suspicion upon teachers, Prevent must be reformulated with a positive focus. Money must be invested in an education program aimed at all pupils, regardless of ethnicity or religious background. These lessons must explore Islam and extremism, encouraging constructive class debate in order for pupils to discuss their views in a non-judgemental environment. Education in the diversity and politics of Islam would serve to benefit non-Muslim pupils and tackle the discriminatory and ignorant attitudes frequently found within the pages of British tabloids. This strategy would be almost the reverse of the current Prevent approach, allowing open and frank discussion among young people in an environment where they are able to communicate without fear of suspicion.

David Cameron is right to address the issue of Muslim women who cannot speak English, although he is wrong to exclude men from this. The ability to communicate with those outside of your direct community is vital for fostering political inclusion. But this program must be properly funded, and not used as weapon with which to threaten deportation, as this will only serve to further isolate already marginalised individuals.

It is only through taking these kinds of steps that we bring Muslim communities back into the political mainstream. Prevent can only be successful if Muslims themselves take the lead in drawing others away from the dangers of extremism. But this cannot be achieved if we fail to foster a political climate of inclusion and discussion, rather than the current agenda of suspicion and political lecturing. The focus of political and media debate is inevitably going to be on the most extreme elements; the bombers and jihadis who threaten human life. But extremism, by its very nature, sits at the end of a complex spectrum. There are violent people in our society who seek to cause us harm, but these individuals are unlikely to be swayed by broad government programs that aim to deradicalise. Prevent must aim to target those on the verge of radicalisation, to stop the poison spreading. To tackle Islamic extremism, we must recognise that there is a huge grey area in which many feel disillusioned; this is where extremism will either thrive or be neutered. It is here that we must tackle political disenfranchisement and social isolation, by ensuring that Muslims have an equal voice in our society.

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