Resistance grows to UK's counter-extremism law

Resistance grows to UK's counter-extremism law
Comment: Even schools and hospitals have been drawn into the British government's spy games, writes Hilary Aked.
4 min read
09 Nov, 2015
Britain's most prominent Muslim associations have voiced their concern over the new counter-extremism law [AFP]

Following the passage of the UK government's Counter-Terrorism and Security Act earlier this year, British universities have, since September, been legally obliged to "pay due regard to the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism".

In fact the same applies to all public institutions from schools to the National Health Service.

But the legislation, which put the government's longstanding and extremely unpopular "Prevent" policy on a statutory footing, is facing increasing opposition.

Critics say the theoretical model underpinning the law, which suggests that so-called "signs of radicalisation" can be spotted early on - even in very young children - has created a climate of suspicion around many normal Islamic practices.

They argue that the definition of "extremism" is vague and contradictory - and that pressuring lecturers, teachers and doctors to inform on students and patients not only damages relationships of trust but essentially forces them to become agents of the state security services.

The government relies on another broad and contested notion in order to define "extremism", said to be "vocal or active" opposition to what it calls "fundamental British values".

     British 'values' purportedly include democracy, the rule of law and respect and tolerance for different faiths

These "values" purportedly include democracy, the rule of law and respect and tolerance for different faiths.

However, opponents of this concept say these values are neither exclusively British nor universally upheld in Britain.

Already, there have been several high profile cases of innocent young people being suspected - on entirely spurious grounds - of potential support for terrorism, and questioned about everything from their views on the Islamic State group to attitudes towards homosexuality.

In September, a student at the University of Staffordshire was questioned after being spotted in the library reading an academic textbook on global terrorism and security - for his post-graduate course.

Meanwhile, a 14-year-old secondary school pupil in a north London school who mentioned the word "eco-terrorism" in a debate about environmental activism during a French lesson was also questioned after having been pulled out of class.

Both these young people were, of course, Muslim. There have yet to be many cases where suspicions have been aroused by a non-Muslim engaging in such innocent activities. Though government rhetoric pays lip service to "all forms of extremism", when implemented in practice, the highly racialised discursive subtext of the war on terror discourse shows its true colours.

Although these two incidents are undoubtedly merely the tip of the iceberg and constitute only low level harassment, interventions and repression of dissent is making an impact on people of colour in civil society every day without making the headlines. But there are positive signs.

Not only did both the victims decide to speak out, and found support networks to help them do so, but mainstream media were willing to cover the stories, each of which provoked a good deal of public outrage.

Islington council, the north London borough where the secondary school pupil was questioned, responded by resolving to lobby the government to change its "crude" strategy.

     On December 7 students plan to hold a day of action against Prevent

At the grassroots, a Students Not Suspects campaign has been launched against the ethnic profiling implicit in counter-terrorism practices, and on December 7 students plan to hold a day of action against Prevent.

Lecturers, teachers and health workers are also making their opposition to the government's agenda heard from within the public sector, with initiatives such as Educators Not Informants and Education Not Surveillance, while Docs Not Cops focuses on opposing the similarly securitising requirements of the Immigration Act 2014.

The Together Against Prevent initiative, meanwhile, wants to unite civil society organisations who oppose the harmful effects of the "anti-extremism" crusade, and the ideas behind it.

However, far from paying heed to the increasingly numerous voices criticising the Act and calling for its repeal, Home Secretary Theresa May is instead lining up another new law, the Counter-Extremism Bill.

This looks set to further heighten tensions between UK ministers and civil society dissidents - some of whom say that with its counter-terrorism excesses and measures proposed in the new investigatory powers bill, the UK government is building the framework of a police state. 

Hilary Aked is an analyst and researcher whose PhD studies focus on the influence of the Israel lobby in the United Kingdom. Follow her on Twitter: @HilaryAked

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.