Recently I sat in on the launch of the National Union of Students’ new ‘#StudentsNotSuspects’ campaign at Queen Mary University of London. The campaign’s objective? Scrapping the government’s strategy for safe-guarding against radicalisation, the now publicly defamed Prevent strategy. The course of the evening demonstrated a remarkable lack of basic understanding amongst panelists of both the nature of the islamist ideology that characterises radicalisation, as well as the Prevent strategy itself. Students Not Suspects, it appears, is far more preoccupied with what they perceive Prevent to be (an anti-muslim surveillance program intended to suppress all political activism and religiosity on campuses) rather than what it actually is. Clearly the policy is not without issues. However, the NUS does not see its role as making balanced judgments on government policy. Rather, it is driven to oppose government policies wholesale, as if no level of hyperbole will get in the way of a good story.
The panel boasted Vice President of the NUS, Shelly Asquith, Queen Mary Welfare Representative, Adam Sparkes, Queen Mary Islamic Society President, Akiqul Hoque, and a passionate young sixth-former who had been referred to Prevent for his solidarity activism for Palestine, Rahmaan Mohammadi. Before proceedings began, the panel agreed reluctantly that I could record the event, stipulating that it would not be used for any ‘journalistic purposes’ – thus highlighting the skepticism of reporters and press that is common amongst the student-left of late.
For an event addressing the consequential issue of radicalisation and the government’s strategy on it, one was struck by the cavalier use of air quotes throughout, with each speech and Q&A littered with references to “so called radicalisation”, “so called violent extremism” and “so called Islamism” (a term unpalatable to every speaker). From the front row, this initially surprised me. My understanding of the campaign had been that it took issue with the prosecution and nature of the Prevent strategy. However, Student not Suspects goes far further than initial appearances challenging notions widely held within both academic scholarship and amongst those working around the world against Islamist theocracy. Namely that islamist extremism exists around the world today and in forms that are not solely reactionary to the West.
This kind of blasé attitude toward extremism reflects the post-modernist, morally relativistic stance towards Islamism, observed on the left since the failed War on Terror began. An attitude which at at its best leads to excusing the attacks on liberalism and secularism around the world today, and at its worst sees the left tacitly ally with fundamentally illiberal movements.
Throughout the event, the speakers presented several examples of referrals under the Prevent policy based on profiling such as the case of Mohammed Farooq being referred by university staff after having been seen in the library reading a book about terrorism, which was for his Masters course, and who was subsequently questioned over his views. Other cases included a group of Muslim sixth form students at Vic College suspended for sending a round-dobbin email to all students and staff opposing Prevent and an anti-cuts student at Birmingham Pat Grady, who was anonymously referred to Prevent.
Cases like these represent the problematic nature of educating thousands of academics and teachers to safeguard against radicalisation, a concept far more nebulous than safeguarding against grooming or child abuse. It also presents the issue of people abusing the referral system for their own political ends, as in the case of Pat Grady. However, to make the leap from criticism of these failures to espouse the wholesale scrapping of the entire safeguarding system requires something more. For instance, a sensible response to policy failings in Prevent might be to ensure that it is primarily based on community and educational intervention rather than police involvement – something occasionally necessary but often damaging. The NUS’ representation of Prevent is at best hyperbole and their promotional posters demonstrate this, suggesting that the program is a Machiavellian state-led attack on student activism. Having followed up with the policy guidance under Channel (Prevent’s intervention mechanism) my suspicions were confirmed. It states:
‘There is no single route to terrorism. For this reason, any attempt to derive a ‘profile’ can be misleading. It must not be assumed that these characteristics and experiences will necessarily lead to individuals becoming terrorists. Outward expression of faith, in the absence of any other indicator of vulnerability, is not a reason to make a referral to Channel.”
The rational conclusion from the cases of Prevent’s failure is that they are largely a result of failed training, not that safeguarding in principle is unworkable or as they argue systematically ‘racist’ and ‘islamaphobic’ at its core.
Yet, the NUS holds both the strategy and the government in contempt, despite having been called out by former PM David Cameron for their partnership with the organisation CAGE, frequently accused of being a soft front for Islamism. Whilst superficially appearing harmless, however, the NUS’s relativistic position demonstrates a careless lack of research and understanding of islamism; to quote NUS VP, “I reject the term islamism, it is a lazy term invented by the western media”. Upon following up on her stance, citing the 6,000 Muslims who have left Europe to join Islamic State, Asquith responded:
“I fundamentally disagree with ‘islamism’ being a political desire to implement Islam. Students coming together so they can practice Friday prayer, is that islamism? I don’t think so. And actually I do think there are loads of other factors that are causing radicalisation. I do think it’s about people being pushed into poverty, I think it’s about racism, I think it’s about foreign policy, I think it’s about a lack of access to education for certain communities in this country, I think it’s about resources being moved from some communities and put into other communities, I think it’s about thousands of cameras being put into highly Muslim populated areas and making people feel like they’re not welcome in this country. I don’t think it’s about people’s faith and I don’t think it’s about ‘so called’ islamism’”.
Clearly, the NUS speaker, shouldered by the ISOC President and the rest of the panel, refused to even accept a contemporary working definition of islamism. Although, to be fair to them, they were keen to point out that they weren’t counter-extremism experts. Nevertheless, if they engaged in a rudimentary historical inquiry on the subject, they would have been able to trace the root of islamism to 20th century post-colonial movements. An ideology that manifests itself first in the Muslim Brotherhood, the works of Sayeed Qutb and Hizb ut-Tahrir then later with a violent voice in groups like Hizbollah, Hamas, al-Qaeda, and modern renditions such as the Pakistani Taliban and Islamic State. ‘islamism’ at its core is the desire to impose any form of Islam on society, and typically this denotes a fundamentalist, fascist interpretation of the holy texts. While the notion of a Caliphate is indeed central to the principle tenets of Islam, there is no consensus on what one looks like or what kind of Sharia is required. Therefore, to conflate this authoritarian islamist stance with the Islamic faith is a grave injustice which achieves the opposite of what the well-intended student leaders are fighting for.
The causes of radicalisation for the speakers were primarily Western foreign policy, lack of education, poverty and of course, the Prevent strategy itself. Recent statements from the NUS President Malia Bouattia have attributed low voter turnout amongst students to the Prevent strategy and proposed looking at Student loan debt and youth centres to tackle radicalisation. All this amounts to a startling ignorance of all the research we have on radicalisation which points to poverty being a false flag, given that would-be terrorists come from predominantly middle-class, university educated backgrounds. Stripping away ideology as a driver not only removes agency from these radicals leaving to wage jihad but it ignores what they profess are their motives. ISIS’ global magazine ‘Dabiq’ recently released a piece entitled “Why we hate you and why we fight you” outlining why there is a fundamental opposition to liberalism, atheism, secularism, democracy, and so forth that will continue, regardless of Western foreign policy.
Furthermore, the preoccupation of the speakers with intersectional struggles was notable in the evenings proceedings. The speakers transitioned swiftly between their campaigns against tuition fees, prevent, and advocacy for LGBT causes. Freedom of speech seemed to be a key touchstone for the speakers too, yet when it came to Prevent strategy, QMSU’s VP was keen to prevent (no pun intended) a university appointed Prevent speaker from ‘myth-busting on campus’. The QMSU and NUS speakers proceeded to encourage students to protest any Prevent officers on campus and for those legally required to abide by the policy to break the law and resist any implementation. It has become increasingly clear, with several occurrences of high profile thinkers being blocked from campuses both in the UK and the US, that certain aspects of the student left’s ideology (manifest in no-platforming and in safe spaces) are destroying universities as bastions of free expression. Intersectionality in its simplest working definition is the notion that all struggles are linked and therefore all struggles should ally together, a noble sentiment which in all too many cases has seen the left make very illiberal bedfellows. For the student left to tacitly support virulent attacks and no-platforms on the likes of Germaine Greer and others who fall out of line, and meanwhile provide no criticism of ISIS (the NUS failed to pass a motion to ‘condemn the IS and support Kurdish forces fighting against it, while expressing no confidence or trust in the US military intervention’) is clearly a troubling double standard. Regardless of their nuanced motivations they should be cognisant as representatives of students of the message they are conveying to the public.
Ultimately, despite the good intentions of the NUS and the passion of the campaigns supporters, Students Not Suspects reveals far more about the shortcomings of the NUS on extremism than it does about the Prevent strategy’s. As long as they continue to operate in a leftist, identity driven echo-chamber, lacking any real conception of the islamist ideology that needs challenging in the UK, then their massive credibility gap with students, government and the media will continue to grow. Meaningful dialogue in good faith with free debate and discussion will be the only path towards rectifying this.