Does the British state see Muslim children as a threat?

  • Elis Gjevori
  • 3 Feb 2021

An increasing chorus of academics and activists are calling on the British government to pull the plug on an anti-extremism strategy which criminalises children.

Are young Muslims allowed to express their political views without being called extremists? ( Getty Images )

A four-year-old Muslim boy was referred to the state-run anti-extremist program for talking about a video game. A teenage boy expressing support for Palestine has also fallen foul of the government’s anti-terror measures.

No, this isn’t another story about France targeting yet more of its beleaguered Muslim community. Or, for that matter, China rounding up its own Muslim citizens for committing thought crimes.

This is the United Kingdom where a new investigation has found that hundreds of children are being reported to the British government’s anti-extremist programme breeding fear and suspicion among Muslim families.

Introduced in 2003, the ‘Prevent’ strategy was geared towards purportedly preventing radicalisation. By 2015, it had morphed into a legal duty for all state institutions to monitor and report on people they suspect of being radical.

"Prevent is a symptom of wider policies which legitimises racial prejudices," says Dr Tarek Younis a Lecturer in Psychology at Middlesex University who focuses on the impact  counter-terrorism policies have on the mental health of designated communities.

It's difficult to talk about Prevent as a cause and effect as well as the impact it has on children and adults, argues Younis, it's "more of an atmosphere" that's generated around the counterterrorism policies.

"It’s the fear of being judged, the fear of being stigmatised or securitised," says Younis speaking to TRT World.

Many families have chosen to keep their head down when targeted by Prevent, or they simply speak to the media anonymously.

"For them to go out and speak publically [it’s difficult] they are afraid it's going to stigmatise them or make them look worse in front of the police that they are speaking out," added Younis.

The government's counter-terrorism approach towards those that speak out after they have been targeted by Prevent policies, has, ironically, been to see them as potential extremist trouble makers.

"We know that in counter-terrorism that is something that is given some weight. The people who lash out are upset or angry about their treatment by the police or counter-terrorism teams,” they can face additional scrutiny from the state, says Younis.

In the UK, the Prevent programme has become one component of a wider ecosystem that has raised concerns — from academics and the wider Muslim community — that it is fuelling anti-Muslim sentiment and creating suspect communities.

Capturing the impact on Muslim communities has proved challenging for researchers in the field who have struggled to find funding for their research.

"This is one of the most difficult issues we have within the Muslim community - capturing the impact of a Prevent referral or counterterrorism officer at the door or counterterrorism officer speaking to a child," says Younis.

Beyond anecdotal information, it proves complicated for researchers to track the long term impact and trauma of the state treating a child or a family as a national security threat.

Experts in the counter-terrorism field speak of the notion of "affective surveillance" says Younis. "It's an anxiety that you are being constantly scrutinised and are constantly under surveillance. That you as a Muslim youth can't talk about politics or Palestine or other issues that are important to you in the same way that a white youth does." 

That experience goes beyond Prevent.

The global war on terror created categories of good and bad Muslims, says Younis. Stepping out of what the media, government or society expects you to say and think, can automatically frame you as a suspicious individual.

Traumatised communities

Despite a lack of formally funded research on the issue, one community rooted organisation has been tracking anecdotal evidence on how the Prevent ecosystem has impacted the Muslim community.

CAGE was set up in 2003 to empower communities dealing with the fallout of the War On Terror, and has tracked the government’s anti-extremist strategy.

“From our own cases, we know of children who were so deeply traumatised by Prevent and counter-terrorism violations that they wet their beds, became reclusive at home and at school and worried deeply about any engagements with official bodies, especially social services and the police,” says Anas Mustapha, spokesperson for CAGE speaking to TRT World.

TRT World has found that among Muslim parents, the main concern is usually over whether their children might say something in school that could be miscontrued negatively - anything from an Islamic term being bandied about, to an opinion that is then misunderstood by a teacher to be a form of extremism.

In dealing with the community from a security perspective, rather than as partners, the British government could be creating problems for the future in traumatising Muslims. There is also a concern about how that trauma will manifest itself socially.

“There are clear parallels here with the intergenerational trauma that exists in some black communities that have been subject to state and police brutality,” says Mustapha.

“In the wider community, there is a palpable fear of being ‘referred’ and what that would entail, especially as some cases have escalated to the removal of children from families,” added Mustapha.

“False referrals,” that is to say, reports that did not amount to anything account for more than 95 percent of cases to the Prevent programme, says Mustapha. The records of the referral, however, “remain with the police in a counter-terrorism database, and are shared with other undisclosed agencies.”

The government has come to the conclusion that the Muslim community in the UK is in a state of pre-crime. The government's evaluation is less about a crime being committed now, but one that may be committed in the future.

‘Long-standing ideological war against Muslims’

Dr Rizwaan Sabir, an Assistant Professor specialising in counterterrorism at Liverpool John Moores University, describes the Prevent programme as “one of the most effective ways of gathering on-going surveillance data on entire communities and to map their future actions and trajectories so they can effectively be controlled and disciplined accordingly.”

In 2008, Sabir, then a post-graduate student, was conducting research on terrorist tactics, when the University reported him to the police for downloading the Al-Qaeda training manual which is accessible from a US government website and can be purchased from the UK's largest bookshop.

Sabir was released after several days in jail and was later given compensation after police made up evidence against him in a bid to justify the arrest.

While the actions of the university and the police were not directly linked to Prevent, the programme has heightened suspicion around Muslims giving cover to institutional anti-Muslim tendencies.

Sabir, speaking to TRT World, describes Prevent as part of a “long-standing ideological war against Muslims who seek to integrate their politics and faith as a way of bringing some element of equality and justice for Muslims around the globe.”

The UK government announced in 2019 that it would review the Prevent programme, raising hopes amongst activists and academics that a serious reform would be undertaken.

In January of this year the Conservative government finally installed William Shawcross to lead this, dashing any hopes that a fair and critical review of the Prevent strategy would be undertaken.

Shawcross, as a former director of the right wing think, the Henry Jackon Society, has asserted in the past that “Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future.”

When Shawcross was appointed to head the UK Charity Commission in 2012, a body which overseas the workings of non-profit organisations, he quickly embarked on a crusade against Muslim charities. Within a short period of him taking office, more than a quarter of investigations that the Commision was looking at were related to Muslim charities.

“The whole appointment of an Islamophobe such as William Shawcross to conduct a review of Prevent is a way of giving Prevent a mask of respectability and accountability whilst the results are already predetermined,” says Sabir.

Even as cases of the expansive and overreaching nature of the Prevent programme continue to emerge, the government will “continue to hold onto the Prevent policy firmly” says Sabir, “irrespective of the cost and criticisms of its racialised Muslim communities.”