Prevent’ is one of the four elements of CONTEST, the government’s counter-terrorism strategy. It aims to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.

Section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 (the Act) places a duty on universities (and other bodies) to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. So we now have ‘Prevent Duty Guidance’.

This is difficult territory, and whilst some of the ‘Prevent duty’ may lead to empathetic support for more vulnerable students, other aspects would appear to be more alienating than supportive. First a positive bit of guidance:

… we would expect [universities] to have clear and widely available policies for the use of prayer rooms and other faith-related facilities. These policies should outline arrangements for managing prayer and faith facilities (for example an oversight committee) and for dealing with any issues arising from the use of the facilities.

Then there’s:

Universities will be expected to carry out a risk assessment for their institution which assesses where and how their students might be at risk of being drawn into terrorism. This includes not just violent extremism but also non-violent extremism, which can create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism and can popularise views which terrorists exploit.

This provokes obvious concerns about freedom of speech: one person’s non-violent extremist is another person’s wise voice. No university in this country will want to ban free speech, or arguments that cause offence. But the ‘Prevent Duty Guidance’ raises something even more troubling than the risk to freedom of speech: the ‘othering’ of young Muslims.

Whilst I was thinking about this, Mathew Wilkinson kindly gave me a copy of his recent book, A Fresh Look at Islam in a Multi-Faith World: a philosophy for success through education (Routledge, 2015). The book is focused on the teaching of history, religious education, and citizenship in schools. Wilkinson regrets the decline in humanities education: he encourages us to re-imagine the nation though history education; to use religious education in schools as a “living ‘multi-faith’ encounter” and citizenship classes to value new ethno-national ‘hybridity’. “The skilled teacher can present young Muslims with civic scenarios redolent with ethical overlap and creative tension, rather than Manichean opposition and incommensurability” (p 245).

For me, the main value and challenge of the book is how Wilkinson articulates the ‘othering’ and ‘counter-othering’ of Muslim youth. He explores history, and the contributions of Muslim scholars from the ninth to the fourteenth centuries, who were often both motivated by the demands of their faith, and living within “the nexus of diverse, multi-faith Islamic civilizations” (p17). He argues that the institutional fabric that sustained Islamic scholarship and civic cohesion gradually crumbled, from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, as a result of a combination of internal (structural) and external (colonial) pressures. For Wilkinson, the Muslim-majority world gradually shifted, first in the consciousness of non-Muslim powers and peoples, and then its own self-consciousness, from being the shaper of the intellectual and political world, to being shaped by the intellectual and political world of non-Muslim powers and processes. These institutional changes, and a loss of structural coherence towards the end of the Ottoman period (1800-1924), generated a theological and intellectual crisis among Muslim religious thinkers (see p22). Taking history forward, Wilkinson classifies reformists as secularists, Islamic modernists and radical Islamists. The book is as hard-hitting in its criticism of modern Muslim states as of the ‘west’.

I cannot evaluate Wilkinson’s history, but I can engage with the difficult questions facing Muslim youth in this country. What does it mean to live in a Muslim-minority country, surrounded by people who do not believe in the truth of Islam, or even in God in any form, and yet who are more often than not palpably good and decent human beings? What does it mean to obey God in a society whose members often do not believe in Him and which sometimes makes religious obedience difficult and even counter-cultural?

Being a young Muslim in the UK today is challenging – not least because they have been thrust into the national consciousness in a way which has led to the ‘securitisation’ of the Muslim community (p 8). The current school curriculum doesn’t help. (I slip over intriguing chapters on Islamic critical realism, and a detailed analysis of the Koran and of the life of the Prophet Muhammad). To generate ‘success’ in educating young Muslims, Wilkinson argues that we must avoid overwhelmingly negative stereotypes: for boys, both a real and an imagined vulnerability and a propensity for radicalisation and violent extremism; for girls, an intense focus on Islamic dress codes. Focusing on these negative stereotypes means that Islam constitutes, for large numbers of British Muslims, “an identity from which to resist ‘white’, ‘Islamophobic’ oppression rather than a daily practice that forms a platform for educational engagement and success” (p 121).  His argument suggests that the type of ‘Prevent strategy’ that singles out one group as a security risk and identifies educational spaces as the means to ‘deal with them’ can fuel the alienating othering-counter-othering dynamic that drives extremist discourses of all types and which threatens to alienate parts of the Muslim community.

Have the drafters of the ‘Prevent Duty Guidance’ thought adequately about this? The stigmatisation of Muslim youth needs to be handled with great sensitivity. Islam, and Muslims, are too easily construed or assumed to be a potent and threatening ‘other’ to modern, secular ‘normal’ liberal beliefs. The ‘counter-othering’ by some elements of the Muslim (usually young, male and Islamist) community to the effect that our criminal justice system is inherently un-Islamic, and therefore not to be respected, also needs to be addressed (see p 29). This ‘othering’ and ‘counter-othering’ is already being recognised within our prison system. Let’s not encourage it within our universities.

Clearly, Wilkinson is keen to argue that Islam can be a medium by which Muslims can interact productively with a multi-faith and no-faith world.   But his questions are not unique to Muslim/non-Muslim relationships, and indeed to focus on this issue may itself add to the ‘othering’? Let’s also think about Catholic and Protestant identities in Northern Ireland, or the way English nationalists can thrust other minorities into a defensive-aggressive ghetto. And indeed, let’s never forget the intolerance of many Muslims to non-Muslims. Wilkinson’s main focus is to argue for the potential ‘humanising’ role of the humanities in education.

I write this blog simply to suggest the need for ‘humanity’ in the way the ‘Prevent’ agenda is both portrayed and implemented. We need to tread carefully. We need, in universities, to create safe spaces for the robust articulation of difficult debates and histories and to promote the sort of ‘inclusion’ (a sense of comfort and security?) which just might remove the need for a ‘Prevent strategy’ in the long term.

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.

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