Jazz hands are not the issue

Jazz hands are not the issue
Comment: A dangerous new bill threatens to further eradicate civil liberties under the guise of fighting terrorism, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
11 Oct, 2018
The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security bill now awaits scrutiny in the House of Lords [Getty]
It is ironic and deeply worrying that as policies which further undermine our civil liberties are being pushed through parliament, students who are making successful use of democratic forums to shape their universities, are once again being portrayed as an ongoing threat to freedom of speech. 

And yet, this is exactly what is happening. This week, after democratic debate and a vote, Manchester students' union passed a policy asking students to use British Sign Language clapping (or 'jazz hands') in their public forums, in an effort to make them accessible to all. Meanwhile, the UK government has been quietly trying to expand the reach of the Prevent policy across the UK.

The former development was covered extensively in the media, the latter has been met with comparatively little uproar.

The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill includes a set of deeply concerning proposals that will impact academics' and students' ability to access online research across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Individuals could find themselves sentenced to years in prison over the content they view or read.

It's not difficult to imagine what this will mean for those studying and teaching subjects such as international relations, politics, or security studies, for example, which require reading on counter-terrorism, counterinsurgency programmes and violent resistance, to name a few.

The bill opens up a real threat to journalists, lawyers, human rights workers and so many more, whose work requires research into very sensitive issues, but who could find themselves criminalised for it. In addition, it aims to expand Prevent's reach to local government, and therefore is likely to impact those providing and receiving social services.

People with no motive, no criminal activity, no reason to be thought of as outside the law, could now find themselves assumed guilty of future crimes

Importantly, proposed legislation sets out to continue in the direction set by Prevent and other counter-terrorism programmes in recent years.

Rather than criminalising actions and intent, as is the case with any other criminal activity, the logic here is to criminalise thought.

The so-called 'conveyor belt theory' is based on the assumption that certain ideas, certain behaviours, whether linked to any actual crimes or not, will in the long-term lead to terrorist actions. The science behind these assumptions has never been made public, even when the
Royal Society of Psychologists specifically requested the government submit it to peer review.

These assumptions are of course deeply racialised. It is not difficult to imagine how differently someone arguing in favour of Hobbes' Leviathan or in favour of an Islamic caliphate would be treated in class.

Similarly, someone consulting combat manuals from western armies online, or watching videos of American soldiers in the region will not have to worry in the same way as someone consulting the same for so-called 'insurgent groups' in the global South.

These approaches are not new. Two students in Nottingham were arrested and held for weeks under Prevent guidelines without access to a lawyer, because they had accessed publicly available material relating to Al Qaeda on the CIA website.

Both students did so in the context of their doctoral research on the 'War on Terror', but their Muslim sounding names were enough for the university and the state to designate them as threats. Proposals to further enshrine this kind of repressive and racist behaviour into law are highly worrying.

In fact, the Joint Human Rights Committee criticized the proposals, expressing concerns over academic and journalistic freedoms, as well as "inquisitive or even foolish minds" whose lives are likely to be impacted by such laws. The Committee further added that the, "viewing of material without any associated intentional or reckless harm is, in our view, an unjustified interference with the right to receive information".

The Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Max Hill QC, highlighted that these changes could be counterproductive because they will push terrorist material further underground, which would make it much more difficult to monitor. Hill explained that, "Once this material goes underground, it is harder for law enforcement to detect and much harder for good people to argue against it, to show how wrong the radical propaganda really is."

Once again crime or intent goes out the window and abstract ideas of what constitutes 'suspicious' behaviour become the basis for repressive laws

The bill doesn't stop there. Those who find themselves in "designated areas" overseas - namely high-risk countries such as Syria and Iraq where there is an established IS presence - could also be criminalised.

Those with families, work, or even just a personal interest in visiting countries that raise an alarm for the Home Office, will be forced to reconsider their travel plans. Once again crime or intent goes out the window and abstract ideas of what constitutes 'suspicious' behaviour become the basis for repressive laws.

Given the racialised nature of counter-terrorism today, the disproportionate targeting of Muslims under its laws, and the particular examples being issued as "designated", this law certainly raises a lot of similarities to the US' infamous Muslim ban. Though in true English fashion, instead of directly informing people that their freedom could be stripped from them the second they step foot in certain nations, thinly veiled words and threats are issued behind closed doors.

Furthermore, those detained at UK borders, could have their right to legal representation delayed for up to an hour while being questioned, if a police officer thinks that waiting for a solicitor will "prejudice determination of the relevant matters".

Following the hour spent unrepresented, officers will also be given the power to listen in on once deemed confidential conversations between suspects and their lawyers. The president of the the Law Society of England and Wales, Christina Blacklaws,
stated that depriving anyone of their legal rights in such a way, "runs against all the usual standards of justice". She also expressed concerns over detainees not being offered a solicitor, as they will have to actively make a request.

The upcoming bill, which has already passed through the Commons and now awaits scrutiny in the House of Lords, will seriously damage fundamental human rights. The proposals will destroy important cornerstones of our democracy, from the right to movement, to freedom of speech and even, potentially the right to a fair trial; if confidentiality isn't respected.

The bill also goes after the presumption of innocence. People with no motive, no criminal activity, no reason to be thought of as outside the law, could now find themselves assumed guilty of future crimes, on the basis of which their legal rights will be undermined.

Rather than criminalising actions and intent, as is the case with any other criminal activity, the logic here is to criminalise thought

George Orwell, writing in a very different context, summarised the situation well when he said,

"Threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in their effect, and unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen."

Adding to that the racist nature of Prevent, what is taking place in the UK is a process through which a series of policies are incrementally normalised when applied to Muslims and others.

So-called gangs in working class neighbourhoods, anti-fracking and pro-Palestine activists, and even anti-Prevent campaigners have all discovered that the policies passed under the guise of fighting terrorism are increasingly being mobilised against them, too.

Our freedom is being eroded, not in students' union but at the very highest levels, in the corridors of power.

For further information, the SOAS Preventing Prevent campaign is holding an event discussing the bill and its implications on the 17th October.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.