In 2015, the Counter Terrorism and Security Act created a legal obligation for public institutions to comply with PREVENT, which essentially attempts to ‘prevent’ people from being drawn into ‘terrorism’ and/or ‘extremism’. Teachers, doctors and university staff, among others, have since become foot soldiers in the government’s war against ‘extremist ideology’ and ‘radicalisation’.
Since its introduction, there has been a national campaign calling for the government to retract PREVENT, coming from countless sectors of society, including academics, teachers, students, doctors and senior politicians. But in November, the Guardian reported that a secret review urged the government instead to ramp up the PREVENT strategy, and just last week announced that King’s College London has warned students that their emails may be retained and monitored by the university.
PREVENT has been creating an atmosphere of fear on campuses that disregards students’ most basic rights, contradicts colleges’ responsibility to uphold the Equalities Act, the Education Act, and the Human Rights Act, and disengages students from political activity. In a frighteningly cynical and pernicious way, it is being rolled out under the guise of ‘student welfare’. As more and more members of staff and senior members of colleges—even, in some cases, fellow students— are being trained in PREVENT, we are witnessing the increased securitisation of student welfare.
In Oxford alone over the past few months, there have been numerous reports indicating the over-reach of PREVENT. Two weeks ago, a student had their room searched without their knowledge after scouts heard them reading prayers in Punjabi, and then was asked if they had been ‘radicalised’ by their college tutor.
When booking rooms for discussion events, students have been interrogated about the kind of ‘Islam’ they intended to ‘promote’, and other room-bookings made by a number of different religious and cultural societies have been blocked.
More and more students across the university are coming forward to report incidences where colleges and departments have obstructed students’ freedom of discussion and impinged on their right to privacy under the guise of this legislation. Countless other incidences are currently going unreported and unacknowledged because of the lack of transparency about what official college policies are: students have rarely been consulted in the creation of PREVENT policies, despite promises made to do otherwise.
What is particularly chilling under PREVENT is that university officials and college staff have effectively been given a carte blanche by the government to surveil students and obstruct their everyday activities. Tutors, welfare staff, deans and porters are now authorised to act on their own suspicions with impunity, possibly without even realising that in doing so they are creating an atmosphere of suspicion and fear. The incidences coming to light illustrate that PREVENT is doing exactly this: students are becoming reluctant to practise their culture and religion freely, they are reluctant to organise events that they fear will be shut down, and are increasingly weary of being visibly involved in contentious issues. These individual cases mask the larger point, the structural nature of the legislation.
Make no mistake—in a time of austerity and rampant Islamophobia at home and renewed British imperialism abroad, this legislation is designed to depoliticise and disengage the Muslim community from politics. It is aimed at the surveilling of an entire community, and the policing of the boundaries of what is considered acceptable discourse from them. It evolves out of the conception of an entire religious group as a security threat to be managed, rather than citizens with rights to be upheld.
PREVENT is therefore not particularly new or original—it fits into a wider strategy in at least three ways. First, it draws on a familiar racial discourse that forms a dichotomy between ‘us’ and ‘them’: entire groups are shrouded within a context of threat and insecurity.
Second, PREVENT must be understood within the broader context of surveillance and counterterrorism strategies in the post-9/11 era. These practices draw lines around particular groups, separating ‘the normal’ and ‘at risk’ from ‘the suspicious’ and ‘risky’. For these strategies to work, the state requires citizens to take individual moral responsibility for ensuring their own safety; we are told to ‘remain vigilant’, to be ready for a terrorist to strike at any minute, to monitor for ‘suspicion’ during everyday activities. This entails, essentially, reporting anything that deviates from what we deem ‘normal’—the way someone dresses, their political views, their religious beliefs or the colour of their skin. Under PREVENT, identifying features range from ‘appearing angry about UK foreign policy’ to ‘seeming isolated or withdrawn’.
Finally, PREVENT embodies a politics of pre-emptive identification of ‘future terrorists’, and it is this logic that erodes our rights and liberties in the name of ‘security’ and ‘protection’. At its most extreme, the logic of PREVENT dissolves our very notions of innocence and guilt. Suspects are no longer innocent until proven guilty, but rather guilty until proven innocent. And guilt is determined not based on someone’s actions, but on whether or not they conform to vague notions of ‘British values’. Recognising the structural nature of PREVENT makes clear: counteracting PREVENT is part of a larger struggle for global justice and the protection of our freedoms.
At the university, PREVENT stifles intellectual debate, endangers student welfare, cracks down on political dissent, and creates an atmosphere of fear and suspicion. Anyone who takes seriously the university’s position as a bastion of freedom of speech, as the protector and guarantor of all of our academic freedoms, must vehemently oppose this legislation and fight back against it.
If you have been affected in any way by PREVENT, please email PreventingPREVENTOxford@gmail.com. The email is run by a group of students who will keep incidents completely anonymous if so wished. Get involved with Preventing PREVENT Oxford on Facebook to stay up to date with resistance to PREVENT
For more information on PREVENT itself, please visit http://www.ltai.info/what-is-prevent/