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UK anti-terrrorism strategy has “blocked campus discussions”

The UK government’s anti-terrorism strategy, Prevent, has reinforced negative views of Islam and Muslims and has blocked campus discussions that could challenge discriminatory views, according to research.

Launched in 2003, Prevent aims to safeguard individuals and communities from the threat of terrorist-related attacks by “preventing” people from becoming or supporting terrorists.

This is achieved through working with local authorities and schools to support and provide services to those vulnerable to radicalisation.

Prevent is one element of the  Government’s wider strategy CONTEST (Counter Terrorism and Security Act), which seeks to “reduce the risk to the UK and its interests overseas from terrorism”. 

The other elements of CONTEST are Pursue (to stop terrorist attacks), Protect (to strengthen the UK’s protection against terrorist attacks) and Prepare (to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack). 

However, the Prevent element has been particularly controversial, as a recent report, Islam and Muslims on UK University Campuses: perceptions and challenges, has highlighted.

The report, led by SOAS University of London working with Lancaster, Durham and Coventry Universities, critiques the intrusive monitoring into civilian’s lives, something that disproportionately surveils Muslims.

The research also demonstrates that universities could play a crucial role in addressing racism and Islamophobia by improving religious literacy about Islam in British society

– Dr Shuruq Naguib

In 2017-18, Muslims were two and a half times more likely to be reported under the Prevent Duty than far-right activists, a disproportion that has only begun to balance in recent years.

Co-investigator Dr Shuruq Naguib, from Lancaster University, said: “There is evidence of prejudice in the classroom and in everyday encounters on UK campuses, particularly affecting visibly Muslim students. Yet the research also demonstrates that universities could play a crucial role in addressing racism and Islamophobia by improving religious literacy about Islam in British society.”

Prevent also requires non-experts to recommend someone for the strategy, meaning judgements are often biased by prejudice, time-constraints and a lack of information.

It has further affected university-level education by flagging certain teaching material as “high-risk” and preventing academic staff from giving lessons on “sensitive” topics.

Despite criticisms, Home Secretary Priti Patel has opted to expand Prevent, prioritising rural areas in a ‘root and branch reform’ which aims to target regions outside of traditional Muslim areas.

The report suggests a more effective approach would be to encourage healthy debate surrounding Islam, rather than censoring it. Stronger links between universities and Muslim colleges are also encouraged.

Principal investigator Professor Alison Scott-Bauman said: “We believe this report will serve as a helpful contribution to this process, not least as it contains positive and practical proposals for building on the considerable strengths represented across the HE sector.”

The report is the first of its kind to present how Muslim students – around 230,000 or 8-9% of the student population – have been treated at UK universities. 

It conducted a national survey including 2,022 students across 132 UK universities, as well as interviews and focus groups with 253 staff and students at four universities and two Muslim colleges of Higher Education.

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