Text of my talk at the public meeting “Prevent: Racist and Islamophobic”, held at the Augustine United Church, Edinburgh on Saturday 30th April 2016. It may differ slightly from the talk as delivered.
Just a few months ago, very few people In Scotland knew anything about Prevent, even in institutions like schools and local authorities where Prevent was being implemented.
That’s beginning to change. If you are a student at Edinburgh University, or if you belong to and organisation – the Edinburgh May Day Committee for instance – that wants to book a room there, you will have to fill in a Prevent risk assessment form.
If you are a guidance teacher in many parts of Scotland, you will have had or will soon be sent on Prevent training. If you are a school teacher in Glasgow, and probably in other areas too, you’ll get your Prevent training at the end of the summer break.
In local authorities people who told me not long ago that Prevent wasn’t happening in their workplace have found themselves attending Prevent training.
So what is Prevent? ….
Prevent is a government programme supposedly intended to stop people turning into terrorists. It’s not a social programme, it’s one arm of a overall counter-terrorism strategy called Contest and it’s closely linked to defence policy, intelligence and policing.
Prevent activity in Scotland is now increasingly very rapidly, mainly because the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015 tells public bodies – schools, local authorities, the NHS, universities, that they have to do Prevent.
Prevent doesn’t deal with criminal plots. It operates in what police call the “pre-criminal space”. The lawful space, in other words.
It aims to influence the way people think about political issues that the government says are linked to terrorism. Public sector workers are taught to identify individuals whose thoughts about these things are so off-message that they need to be sent on “de-radicalisation” courses.
Establishment manipulation of how people think isn’t new. This week we heard how police, politicians and their friends in the media maintained a lie about the Hillsborough tragedy for 27 years.
In Britain this usually works through quiet back-scratching in the Old Boys’ network . Prevent is different. It creates a formal structure for social engineering. It puts the police somewhere near the centre of it, with MI5 just off-stage. It enlists ordinary people – teachers, doctors, social workers, lecturers – to do most of the work. It creates something like a police state.
Many public sector unions – the UCU, the NUT, the NUS, the EIS, and now the STUC as well – are opposed to it. So it isn’t unstoppable.
Who does Prevent focus on?
The current version officially focuses on something called “violent extremism” plus something called “Islamist extremism”.
Extremism isn’t defined in law, but is defined in a Prevent document as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values.” That could mean anything.
“Violent extremism” doesn’t mean an act of violence. This is the “pre-criminal space”. It means something like symphathy for violence, which could mean sympathy for armed action against an overseas government.
“Islamist extremism” isn’t defined anywhere, but the guidance document incorporated into the law under the Counter Terrorism and Security Act sets out the symptoms of it.
“Islamist extremists regard Western intervention in Muslim-majority countries as a ‘war with Islam’, creating a narrative of ‘them’ and ‘us’.”
So if you look at the world, or even at Prevent, and think a ‘war with Islam’ is going on, you’re probably an “Islamist extremist”.
Of course if you aren’t Muslim, you presumably aren’t an “Islamist extremist”. So I can think these things safely, but a Muslim can’t. This is discriminatory and Islamophobic. It’s written into statutory guidance that carries the logos of both the UK and Scottish goverments.
Prevent hardly operates in Northern Ireland. When Theresa Villiers was asked about this last July, she told Parliament:
“PREVENT forms one part of CONTEST … The primary focus of CONTEST is countering international terrorism, not domestic related terrorism which is the principal threat in Northern Ireland.”
You have to remember that “international terrorism” in government-speak includes “home-grown” terrorism by British Muslims whose action the government will say is unconnected with British foreign policy. And you have to remember that Prevent on this side of the Irish Sea does claim to cover “northern Ireland related terrorism”, but says it’s a secondary problem compared to “Islamist extremism”. It’s really just there for decoration, to deflect allegations of Islamophobia.
Prevent training teaches public sector staff – teachers or lecturers for example – how to look for signs of extremism. It uses videos of so-called case studies. If the trainer thinks the videos of Islamist extremism may be controversial (perhaps they are training a left-leaning audience), they’ll probably pick one of the videos dealing with far-right extremism instead.
Trainees are told there are three types of behavioural issues to watch for: emotional, verbal and physical/circumstantial factors, or a complex combination that might indicate a process of radicalisation. Under emotional behaviours, it refers to crying, quick temper, mood swings, sullenness, demeanour. Bear in mind that much of this training is directed at people dealing with secondary school students and university or college students. It’s saying that a teenager with mood swings may be undergoing radicalisation.
In England, when someone is suspected of radicalistion they are referred to a process called Channel. In Scotland, it’s called Prevent Professional Concerns – PPC. In England, the referral would come before a local Channel Panel – a multi-agency panel. In Scotland the referral comes before a multi-agency meeting. It isn’t a standing panel, but is put together in an ad hoc way. The police are always at the meeting. These meetings are supposedly dealing with non-criminal behaviour. The person they are discussing may be a child or a university student.
The number of PPC referrals in Scotland so far has been tiny. But Prevent hasn’t really started to operate here yet. Referrals will presumably increase sharply as the Prevent training begins to have an impact.
Prevent is political theatre that makes an example of Muslims. But what it’s trying to do is to police the way that all of us think about Britain’s relationship with the world. It’s doing this while North Africa and the Middle East are in the grip of conflicts set in motion by US and British wars, while refugees are drowning in the Mediteranean to reinforce Europe’s borders, while fascism is growing in various parts of Europe, fuelled not by anti-semitism but by Islamophobia. If we let the police supervise how we talk about all this, we have no chance at all of building a progressive politics, no chance at all of fighting austerity or dealing sucessfully with any of what some people call bread and butter politics.
Prevent is one of the biggest political challenges we face. It’s easy to beat, but only if we try and only if we involve a lot of people. Just say no to Prevent. Don’t take any excuses. Don’t let anyone tell you they have to implement Prevent unless they can show you a court order telling them to do it.