Speech: Institutionalised Islamaphobia and collusion of Higher Education Institutions in the PREVENT Agenda

Thank you. My name is Ratna Lachman and I am the Director of JUST West Yorkshire – an organisation that promotes racial justice, civil liberties & human rights.


I would have liked to address today’s theme through exploring three propositions to underline the challenges of building an anti-racist university.


My first contention is that Universities are institutionally racist spaces because the systems and processes wittingly or unwittingly disadvantage BME students and staff.


My second proposition is that modern-day Universities are neo-liberal enterprises wedded to the capitalist system and this ideological framework mitigates against building an anti-racist university


Thirdly – that universities are institutionally Islamaphobic spaces. – a theme that I will be exploring today.


The attack on the Twin Towers in 2001 and the London bombings in 2005 saw universities becoming the site of struggle between the State and young people, particularly Muslims. The anti-extremism and anti-terror policies – knows as PREVENT and CONTEST – were born in their immediate aftermath.


So what is PREVENT? It is a programme designed to prevent extremism – and although it is supposed to cover ALL kinds of extremism –the PM’s Munich speech in 2010[1] and the Home Secretary Theresa May’s statement on PREVENT[2] made it clear that it was targeted at Muslim communities and universities were the vanguard in the fight against extremism.


The co-option of universities in the PREVENT enterprise is premised on these core assumptions:


1.     As 30% of known terrorists are university graduates – campuses represent ‘ungoverned spaces” that have to be policed.


2.      Because Muslims are conflicted in terms of their identity – they are deemed to be susceptible to the influence of Muslim demagogues who radicalize young people.


3.      Muslim societies in campuses aid and abet the process of radicalisation because they open up spaces in which guest speakers are given the platform to pollute young minds.


4.      Young Muslims are vulnerable to these ideologues because they do not share the Western liberal values of human rights, equality before the law, democracy and full participation in society.


5.      The PM’s conveyor belt theory of radicalisation posits that the path to terrorism starts with exposure to non-violent radical views – which progresses to extremism – and ends up in acts of violent terrorism.


The problem with this analysis is manifold:


1.      It creates a false dialectic between Islam and the West and a policy imperative that defines Muslims through the lens of ‘Us and Them’.


2.      It strips Muslims of their of agency as individuals with their own minds and puts Muslim societies on campus under the intelligence spotlight


3.      Disturbingly rather like the film Minority Report – it turns Universities into Tom Cruise’s pre-crime department –i.e. the thought patrol – policing the grey area between pre-crime and the actual crime of terrorism.


Yes there have been dissenting voices – particularly from the Association of Teachers – who have said that they are not happy to be trained to monitor a specific ethnic group. [3]


In reality however the tertiary educational sector has largely been co-opted into Prevent. In 2009 when the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills asked 40 English universities deemed to be at risk of radicalisation to do a risk assessment of their vulnerability[4] – rather than challenge this edict – they concluded that there was a need to share intelligence with the police and counter terrorism unit and to train staff to identify signs of radicalisation.


The National Union of Students on the other hand moved a motion last year to “stand in solidarity with those negatively affected by Prevent’ and refused to support the scheme.[5]


Rather than supporting the motion – the University of Bradford for instance which has a high number of home students of Pakistani Muslim heritage – has disclosed students’ names and dates of birth to a university appointed Prevent liaison officer.


The university has also confirmed that it has worked with counter-terror police as part of a programme involving “risk and tension monitoring.”[6]

In case you think Bradford University is unique – 11 universities in the Yorkshire and Humber Region are part of the Regional Higher Prevent Education Network – and this framework is touted as a model of good practice by the Association of Chief Police Officers [7]  because members are proactively involved in the design and implementation of Prevent training and support programme;  they have embedded a Prevent information sharing protocol;  they organize residential courses for chaplains from all 11 universities; they have created ‘safe spaces’ for debates.


So what exactly are Universities looking out for when they are seeking out potential student extremists?

Drawing on academic research, the Association of Chief Police Officers in their guidance suggests the following signs as posing a potential threat:

·  Underachievement

·  Poverty

·  Rejection by peer, faith, social group or family

·  Identity confusion

·  Recent or political or religious conversion and so on


The net is cast so wide that any Muslim person can come under the rubric of this definition.


And if we want to measure the Prevent’s reach then we should be concerned that West Yorkshire has one of the highest referrals to Channel – a de-radicalisation programme that potential extremists are referred to. Last year 748 people in total were referred to the Channel programme across England and most of them were young people. [8]


So while lecturers, managers and bureaucrats are making judgments on what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable speech, behaviour and conduct, they need to be aware that there are no scrutiny mechanisms, no accountability frameworks to challenge the efficacy of this scheme and the quality of the referrals that are being made.


We are living in an Alice in Wonderland world where the familiar has become distorted, Anyone reading the ACPO guidance on Universities should feel a chill because it highlights how advanced the police and CTU are in their thinking.[9]


For instance it makes the following points:


1.   Acknowledging the unease with Prevent on campuses it urges the police to take an approach that links Prevent with the Equality Act, safeguarding and ‘duty of care’ frameworks that universities are obliged to comply with in order to ensure compliance.


2.   Police officers embedded in university settings are adviced to partner with Student Services using their framework for addressing vulnerability issues such as homesickness, bereavement, substance misuse and domestic violence to identify potential extremists.


3.   In order to side step the sensitivity around spying and intelligence it suggests those words should be avoided.


4.   Most chilling perhaps is its core premise that Prevent should not be police-led and its success should be measured in relation to the co-operation of student unions, staff, managers even the Vice Chancellor


The measure of the success of this model is evident from the fact that the national police Coordinator for Prevent has secured funding from the European Union (EU) Commission to work in partnership with the Belgium Police, the Ministry of Justice in Sweden and other Member States to develop resources and training packages targeting policing, prisons & probation, NGOs and Universities in the EU. [10]


So given the challenges I have outlined how should we respond if we truly want to build an anti-racist university.


Raising the issues as we have today is the first step. Critically academics have to step out of their academic bubble and into the real world and hold those tasked with responsibility for Prevent to account. You need to open up lines of communication with your student community and particularly Islamic societies so that your challenge is informed by the reality of their lived experiences – in short you have to become activist lecturers.


Will this happen?


I remain skeptical simply because – going back to the thesis I started off with – institutional racism is embedded in the heart of universities and they prop up Whiteness.


Critically as extensions of capitalism – it is league tables that will inform how universities and staff frame their priorities rather than the notions of racial justice and group solidarity.


Thank you.