As the government reviews its ‘anti-terror’ programme, the plight of young Muslims suffering as a result of racist policy only looks set to worsen.

As the government reviews its ‘anti-terror’ programme, the plight of young Muslims suffering as a result of racist policy only looks set to worsen.

When Nusayba took a job as a maths teacher in West London and was informed that she wouldn’t be allowed to pray at school, she was only half-surprised. She had expected to encounter some challenges at a school undergoing intense scrutiny from the tabloid press after some of its students left to join ISIS. But while she had expected a reactionary focus on British Values and tutor-time sessions on radicalisation, the reality came as a shock to her.

“I didn’t expect to see senior staff blocking students from praying by clapping in their faces and parents banned from the premises for wearing traditional Muslim clothes,” she recalls, describing an overall atmosphere where Muslimness was “attacked and eradicated”.

Schools banning certain religious garments and prohibiting congregational prayer may say that they do so in the name of equity and secularism, but as a teacher, I’ve seen how these policies very clearly target Muslim pupils – from forcing Muslim children into the cold and rain to fulfil their obligatory prayers, to Muslim mothers being barred from important school events because of how they dress. From Child Q to four-year-olds referred to counter-terror police for spelling mistakes, it’s clear that children of colour are unsafe in our school system. Thanks to the Prevent strategy, Muslim children face a uniquely potent set of conditions that means they are hyper-policed, surveilled and criminalised in the classrooms and playgrounds where they should be safe.

Introduced in a post-9/11 panic by New Labour and broadened under the Conservatives, the Prevent strategy has long been hugely controversial amongst Muslim communities. Unsurprisingly, the government’s promise of a review in 2021 fails to kindle much hope considering the choice of William Shawcross to lead it: a man who once said “Islam and Europe is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future”. With 500 organisations and individuals from rapper Lowkey to comedian Nabil Abulrashid, to university Islamic societies and advocacy groups like CAGE boycotting the impending Shawcross review, an alternative People’s Review was created. Their findings released earlier this year damningly conclude that “Prevent is Islamophobic; there is no problem of integration of British Muslim communities and no basis for regarding them and their families with suspicion.”

And yet, Prevent continues to wreak its damage. Ifhat Smith from North London knows all too well what this means for young Muslims like her son, who was in a French lesson when he used the term ‘eco-terrorist’ to describe climate activists. This seemingly innocent phrase, which he had first heard in school, led him to be taken from class into a small office by adults he didn’t know and questioned about his beliefs, specifically about ISIS. Under Prevent, children can be questioned without an adult present because, paradoxically, they have yet to be charged with a crime. 

This is something that worries me deeply, both as a Muslim and as a teacher. Given how disproportionately Prevent targets Muslims, a two-tier system is created where some children are vulnerable to unchecked interrogation and surveillance in places of learning, sanctioned by the state and carried out in the name of safeguarding. For Ifhat, Prevent is a policy that has “traumatised” her son and makes her feel “unsafe” with a Muslim child in the school system. These concerns echo the People’s Review of Prevent finding that the policy constitutes “serious potential breaches of human rights and children’s rights”. 

Prevent’s aim to preempt extremism conflates Islamic religious practice with fundamentalism and sanctions the erasure of Muslimness from our schools – an insidious extension to the policy made by David Cameron’s belief that Muslims are ‘quietly condoning’ extremist ideology. According to Richard McNeil-Willson, a Research Fellow in counter-extremism, Prevent “undermines the relationship of trust between teacher and child, having a chilling effect on discussion and discouraging minority communities from engaging with important political issues.” Although Richard regards Prevent as “wholly inappropriate for an educational environment” a quarter of Prevent referrals are still made in schools, second only to policing. As a Muslim teacher, this alarms me beyond words: Muslims are already hyper-surveilled in every other part of society. We should be safe in our classrooms. 

Amina* was 15 and a student at an Islamic school in Leicester when she was chosen to be part of an Ofsted panel. Expecting to be questioned about learning or behaviour, she felt “uncomfortable and upset” about the topics the inspectors chose to focus on, such as how their teachers would react if they left Islam, and how they feel about their brothers inheriting more than them when their parents die. When Amina challenged the direction of questioning, she felt they then took a specific interest in her class, as though her outspokenness was a red flag – even looking through transcripts of recent GCSE speeches and picking out anyone whose topic was related to racism or islamophobia for further probing. “It was like they expected to find extremist ideas just because we are Muslim,” she says. 

Amina isn’t alone in realising that, even as a child, her identity was a threat. Khadija*, a teenager in East London, recalls the time a public figure linked to the government visited her class: “We were so excited to have someone important visit the school, but I went home that day feeling like I’d been interrogated”, she says. As the visitor awkwardly peered over their shoulders, watching Khadija and her friends write essays and solve equations, the questions they were asked left them feeling “confused and uncomfortable”. 

After specifically singling out the Muslim students in class, the visitor probed them on topics such as whether their school teaches British values, what Britishness meant to them and whether Britain or Islam was more important. “My older sister was asked what would happen if a student showed extremist views in class and whether she knew what Prevent was,” Khadija recalls.  

It was only when Khadija told her mum, Zainab, that the family realised the visitor was a high-ranking, vocal advocate for counter-terrorism with connections to controversial Islamophobic think-tanks. Zainab was furious: “I felt like they deliberately targeted their school because almost every student is Muslim […] After that, I warned my girls to never talk about Islam or politics in school again. I tell them to just keep their heads down and study.”

Iman, a mum in south London, also worries about what Prevent means for her and her child. After a short stint in Saudi Arabia, Iman’s daughter was behind in her vaccinations. To her shock, her daughter’s nurse automatically presumed this was due to religious extremism and threatened to report her to Prevent for failing to adequately look after her child, accusing her of neglect. For Iman, this sowed a seed of distrust in the system, with the incident weighing heavily on her mind when it came to choosing a primary school. “I avoided any that had a heavy emphasis on ‘British values’ because this has become synonymous with undermining Muslim cultural values,” she says. Iman feels that Prevent has already proven itself a tool to police and vilify Muslimness in the name of safeguarding. She doesn’t want the same thing to happen to her daughter at school. 

Sumayya* works in victim support for the Police and Crime Commissioner’s office in the Midlands, often with young people who have been signposted for Prevent while navigating asylum claims and mental health problems. She has witnessed how schools sometimes wrongly refer cases to Prevent because of misunderstandings or underlying bias, recalling how she has worked with children whose school reported them simply for watching Islamic videos and wanting to learn how to pray. According to Sumayya, there is a “disconnect with professionals not really being able to differentiate between a young person learning about their faith and being radicalised”. 

This is an inherent problem with the emphasis on preventing radicalisation. Prevent demands school staff judge for themselves whether so-called ‘risk factors’, such as a growing interest in religion and politics or defying authority, are in fact signs of radicalisation or just symptoms of burgeoning teenage identities. Teachers are humans with biases like anyone else. For me, a Muslim teenager becoming withdrawn might be a sign of too many late nights on the Xbox, but for a teacher who already views Muslims as suspicious and dangerous, it could be a sure indication of radicalisation. For Ifhat, it was significant that the teacher who reported her son was already notorious for deliberately refusing to pronounce Muslim students’ names properly. She feels that Prevent emboldened a potentially prejudiced teacher with a legally-sanctioned opportunity to exercise these views. 

Prevent pathologises Muslimness itself as dangerous: a precursor to violent terrorism, and it sweeps up into its midst political issues that aren’t exclusively Muslim but are wrongly perceived as such, like students referred to Prevent for pro-Palestinian activism. Proponents of the programme point to the fact that for the last few years, far-right terror referrals have outnumbered suspected Islamists, but when less than five per cent of the UK population is Muslim, the near 25 per cent of Muslim referrals to Prevent amounts to a clear imbalance. Under leaked proposals from Shawcross, this is only set to get worse with the upcoming review recommending that Prevent focus less on right-wing extremism and more on Muslims – even those “yet to meet the threshold of terrorism”. In translation: the assault on Muslims will grow more entrenched.

Prevent isn’t all about wrong referrals which are easy to write off as flukes at the hands of rogue teachers with questionable intentions. It’s about the normalisation of an Islamophobic agenda, the entrenchment of anti-Muslim sentiment into education policy, rendering schools places where Muslims are increasingly surveilled and unable to practice their faith safely. It’s about Tahmina*, who was reported to her headteacher for wearing a niqab outside of her school Bolton, or Mr Khan* from Surrey, who was mocked by students who found him praying and received no support, or the Muslim children who don’t even get the luxury of talking about computer games without suspicion. 

Prevent makes Muslim children less safe by design and any proposed revisions of the policy only seek to make conditions deliberately worse. We owe it to young Muslims, already systemically disadvantaged in society, to do better than leave their safety at school up to the whims and preconceptions of individual teachers and purposefully racist policy. 

*Name changed to protect identity

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