Students not suspects: Prevent on campus

Students not suspects: Prevent on campus
Comment: The Prevent policy disproportionately targets dissenting students, people of colour and Muslims, writes Malia Bouattia.
5 min read
13 Apr, 2018
'The government's Prevent strategy is repressive and discriminatory' writes Bouattia [Getty]
Students at the University of Westminster organised a protest on their campus last week over the institution's implementation of the Prevent strategy that, they explained, disproportionately targets dissenting students, people of colour and Muslims at the university and around the UK.

The lead up to Friday's demonstration saw a week of action in conjunction with SOAS' student union, which focussed on a list of demands, including that the university uphold its obligation to protect freedom of speech, and stop discrimination against societies based on their political opinion, religion or ethnicity.

Organisers highlighted that double-standards facilitated through the Prevent duty have allowed the systematic targeting of the Palestine and the Islamic Societies, the overpolicing of events held, disproportionate scrutiny via external speaker policies, and even the cancellation of events without plausible justification by the institution.

In the event advertised online, the group stated that "we will march through all of Westminster's campuses to protest the racist nature of Prevent's implementation, and to support Westminster students. With this march we can show universities that if they target or discriminate against students they should expect resistance."

Students, and particularly Muslim students, have felt marginalised in many ways over the years.

Qurans have been shredded on campus. Cameras were installed in the prayer rooms. Individuals organising events on the basis of solidarity with Palestine or by representative Muslim student groups have been forced to implement extra security measures no required of other societies.

The Prevent policy undermines civil liberties and closes down political space

Westminster has seen, in a particularly intense way, how the Prevent policy on campuses targets Muslim communities, Palestine activism, and others - and does so by undermining civil liberties and closing down political space.

Farah Koutteineh, one of the organisers of the protest from Westminster Students Not Suspects explained:

"For nearly two years, we have wasted months upon months in meetings with the interfaith advisor in question, with the SU, with VC's, and we find that these meetings are firstly, just a means to buy time so we eventually leave not having changed anything. Then, the new students will take over societies and repeat all our efforts with the same meetings, the same cycle, not having changed anything. Secondly, the final straw for us was having ID checks and blatant racial profiling at one of our IAW events."

Over the years I have spent focussed on political organising, students from the university of Westminster have often told horror stories of the repressive practices on their campus.

A former student union officer once got in touch pleading with me to find her "pro-Prevent" fascists from the EDL, Britain First "and any groups like that" for an event on institutional Islamophobia.

Once I received confirmation that it wasn't a joke, the officer proceeded to explain that the only way the event would go ahead is if there was adherence to "a balanced debate" on the question. In other words, if there are speakers invited to speak out against state-led and street-level racism as a bad thing, there would need to speakers who felt the opposite way. 

70 percent of Muslim students experience hate on their campuses

These tales of Westminster are unfortunately, not unique. SOAS has just employed the individual who Westminster activists have accused of playing a key role in the discriminatory practices; interfaith advisor, Yusuf Kaplan. This comes in the wake of media attention on SOAS over its implementation of the Prevent duty.

Safety, in the case of Muslims (and by extension racialised students) is literally a non-factor for officials and representatives, especially within the context of the so-called safeguarding against radicalisation.

When Islamophobia awareness events are flagged by Prevent officers, and at times even
shut down by universities, the safety of Muslim students appears to be of no interest to those in charge. Around 70 percent of Muslim students experience hate on their campuses; our lives are cheap and our suffering and oppression is normalised to the point of being literally enshrined in law.

Dehumanisation is after all, one of the key elements of such wide-reaching state Islamophobia, a key tool in the securitisation of every corner of our society and the rolling back of our rights and freedoms.

Without it, how could Muslim children be referred to de-radicalisation programmes in their hundreds? How could universities justify targeting our prayer spaces and closing down our events?

If we weren't already considered suspect - or guilty - by simply being who we are, how could state policy turn our doctors, nurses, lecturers and nursery staff into extensions of state surveillance?

The students at Westminster are showing the way forward.

Prevent, institutional racial profiling, and the shutting down of political space, are all techniques that function behind closed doors, through unaccountable policies which hide oppression behind legal language.

Part of its effectiveness is that the knowledge of its existence, without clarity on how to challenge it, leads activists, Muslims, and people of colour to police their own actions, second guess themselves, and limit the scope of their own activity.

The students at Westminster are doing the opposite. They are bringing the issue into the open. They are putting their experiences of racism and political harassment on the agenda, and they are doing so collectively, loudly, and demanding justice. 

This is the way repressive and discriminatory legislation has always been defeated. Prevent will be no different.

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.