Is state Islamophobia coming to a UK classroom near you?

We cannot allow our schools to become seeding ground for this latest wave of state Islamophobia, says Max Rosenberg.

The National Union of Teachers conference attracted front page headlines over Easter for its stand on Prevent, the government so-called ‘anti-extremism’ strategy. Previously a voluntary scheme, Prevent has now become statutory under the Counter Terrorism Act (CTA). The union conference position represented a beacon of principle against state Islamophobia.

Since January, we have seen a steep rise in anti-Muslim racism: a wave of demonising coverage followed the Charlie Hebdo murders; a political and media backlash was mounted against CAGE, the human rights organisation for Muslim prisoners; Theresa May announced new Tory manifesto pledges including the power to close Mosques and religious ‘supplementary’ schools. May declared ‘game over’ for ‘non-violent extremists’ while Nigel Farage referred to a Muslim ‘fifth column’ out to kill us. Meanwhile the election campaign is panning out to be the most racist in decades.

Not surprising then that teachers’ delegates gave example after example of Muslim students refusing to express their opinions for fear of being labelled extremist. NUT conference heard how whole classes shut down in silence at the mention of Charlie Hebdo and students would not admit they found the cartoons offensive in case they were reported. Prevent officers have told teachers that a student who goes on a demonstration against the bombing of Gaza should be treated as a suspect; even charitable work for Palestine has been challenged. This is the tip of a growing iceberg.

Jan Nielsen, NUT delegate from Wandsworth, told the conference, “We are really being expected to be the frontline storm troopers, who listen, who spy, and notify the authorities about students that we may be suspicious of”.

This is enshrined in the Prevent ‘Channel’ programme for reporting students on a ‘pathway to radicalisation’. The Institute of Race Relations found school students had been referred to Channel panels after making strong pro-Palestinian statements or for articulating strong political opinions on the role of British forces in Afghanistan. Pressure from Channel managers on schools and colleges to deliver referrals was leading to increasing numbers of young people being identified to Channel even before the CTA was introduced.

The stakes are high. Teachers need to have the trust of students if they are to foster discussion and debate and where necessary, challenge illusions in the likes of Anjem Choudary or ISIS. If we allow the government and Prevent to foster a climate of ‘them and us’ our students will be exposed to greater anti-Muslim prejudice and ever greater risks.

There are also dangers that Prevent ‘training’ will lead to divisions between Muslim and non-Muslim staff as well as between teachers and students. One teacher told me that he and other Muslim staff refrained from expressing any disagreement in Prevent sessions, even though they found the content highly objectionable. At the same time he said some non-Muslim colleagues seemed oblivious to their own discriminatory attitudes.

Now and then…

On 15 February, 2003, two million marched against war in Iraq. In a vast display of multicultural unity, Muslim and non-Muslim, Jew, black, white, young and old, LGBT and straight, marched side by side, against war, Islamophobia, racism, and in defence of civil liberties. In the words of a slogan of the times… this was what democracy looked like.

Tragically, we were unable to stop them from going to war and millions have paid a horrific price. However they were never able to win hearts and minds. In a poll taken on the weekend of the 2003 demonstration, opposition to the war stood at 52%, with support for the war at 29%.  A decade later, the warmongers and their apologists are no further forward. In a 2013 poll, 53% of those questioned said the invasion was wrong; only 27% thought it was right.

On terrorism, a YouGov poll in 2013 showed that a majority of the public (70%) believe the war has increased the risk of a terrorist attack on Britain.

It is in this context we need to understand the Counter Terrorism Act now coming into force and in particular the statutory status now bestowed on Prevent. State Islamophobia is to a certain extent working. Fifty-two percent of non-Muslims now think that Islam is incompatible with ‘British values’ and polls show an alarming increase in prejudice towards Muslims and Islam. The CTA is part of an attempt to break the unity between Muslims and non-Muslims, to undermine united opposition to war and above all, to shift the blame for terrorism from where it clearly lies – with the warmongers themselves - to Muslims as a whole and to opponents of government policy.

The Counter Terrorism Act (CTA)

Liberty has described the measures enabling the government to confiscate passports and suspend citizenship rights as “dumping suspect citizens like toxic waste”. I do not wish to downplay these aspects of the legislation. Yet perhaps the most sinister and pervasive measures are not aimed at terrorist suspects, they are aimed at you and me.

For a time, sections of government felt it too risky to legislate on the basis of political opinions. Instead they advocated a strategy of identifying and pursuing individuals they suspected of terrorist offences, or those they felt they could at least implicate.

However this did not satisfy those who wished to mount a full scale ideological assault. Such a strategy, strongly promoted by Michael Gove as education minister, was characterised as ‘draining the swamp’ (as opposed to ‘batting away the crocodiles from the boat’).

Under the CTA, schools, colleges and public bodies will be under a statutory obligation to report instances of ‘non-violent extremism’. To be clear, this is not about students suspected of planning criminal acts or absconding to Syria; such instances would be reported through established ‘safeguarding’ procedures and any teacher would want to act in such circumstances. This legislation is specifically aimed at targeting students for their political opinions. The rationale is pure McCarthyism: ‘non-violent extremists’, states the guidance, “purport to identify grievances to which terrorist organisations then claim to have a solution”. The underlying thesis is that ‘non-violent extremists’ provide the ideological vehicle for attacking ‘western liberal democracy' that terrorists then act upon.

This is what passes for ‘analysis’ promoted by a bunch of extremely right-wing ‘think-tanks’ such as the Henry Jackson Society (HJS) and the Quilliam Foundation. The old McCarthyite charge of ‘anti-Americanism’ has been given an Islamophobic facelift as “Westophobia”. In place of the Jewish-Communist conspiracy we now face an alliance of Muslims, the anti-war movement and the left, all of whom are deemed to share a common hatred for ‘the West’. The spokespersons of the Henry Jackson Society and the Quilliam Foundation in turn find common cause with Islamophobe fringe publications such as The Commentator and organisations such as the Clarion Project.

Suspects by skin colour

The consequences are starting to show. Just before NUT conference, journalist Melanie Newman for The Bureau of Investigative Journalism exposed how three schools in areas of high EDL/BNP activity in South Yorkshire were assessing risk of ‘extremism’ on the basis of skin colour. A template ‘risk assessment’ approved by Prevent and the police, asks, “Is the school particularly prone to radicalisation and extremism?”. Each of the three schools replied: “No. Cohort of pupils are white British majority.” The three schools then noted that BME students (black minority ethnic) students would be singled out for monitoring. Despite the fact that the EDL have a strong base amongst soldiers and military families, pupils with military families were seen as a positive proof of low risk.

Another example has emerged in Newham where the Labour council has appointed Ghaffar Hussain, recently of the Quilliam Foundation and the Henry Jackson Society; Hussain was formerly an advisor to the HJS front organisation, ‘Students Rights’. As Prevent lead for the borough, Hussain’s involvement in ‘Students’ Rights’ is particularly troubling. The organisation has been condemned as Islamophobic by the NUS and by a host of student unions and student organisations, including the Black Students Conference. This should disqualify Hussain from any role in ‘safeguarding’ Newham students at risk of racism and anti-Muslim hatred in the most diverse borough in Britain.

One of Hussain’s claims to fame was Quilliam’s farcical attempt to rehabilitate and promote Britain’s two leading Nazis, Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll of the English Defence League, even though the EDL had by this time been comprehensively broken by national and local anti-Nazi mobilisations. Tommy Robinson, now in jail, has made clear he regarded Quilliam as useful idiots and his fascist views had not changed. Kevin Carroll went on to express his support for the horrific ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Myammar.

Hussain has written numerous articles for the Islamophobe publication, ‘The Commentator’, and gave a very friendly interview to the Clarion Project, formerly the Clarion Fund. The latter is infamous for the funding and distribution of the anti-Muslim hate film “Obsession”; 28 million free DVDs were distributed in predominantly swing states before the United States 2008 presidential election, clearly tapping the Islamophobe, racist drumbeat against Obama.

Unsuprisingly, Hussain is an extremely divisive figure in the Muslim community. Shortly after his appointment, a large meeting of mosque representatives in Newham met to express their shock and to explore whether any action could be taken to challenge the appointment.

The examples of South Yorkshire and Newham will only deepen perceptions that Muslim kids are suspects first, students second, and that token references by Prevent to far-right extremism will at best be mere window dressing.  

The statutory obligations placed on schools and public bodies are designed to force schools and colleges to police themselves, and will have the effect of discouraging contentious views on government foreign policy, Palestine, or ‘the war on terror’. Muslim students will inevitably feel under suspicion and divisions will deepen. This is hardly a prescription for promoting faith in ‘democracy’ or preventing young people from absconding to Syria or embracing the likes of Anjem Choudary.

Ofsted now has an oversight role for ‘Prevent’ and will now provide the stick behind the policy. The ‘Trojan Horse’ hoax in Birmingham and the case of Tower Hamlets serve as warning. Of course, if there is an incident, the legislation can always provide a retrospective tool for scapegoating a school, college or local authority. In this Catch-22 world no-one will ever be able to prove they did enough to prevent ‘non-violent extremism’. In placing schools at the centre of the new legislation, the government will be able to target Muslim communities at will.


Prevent has long been recognised as counter-productive not only by researchers and bodies such as the Institute of Race Relations, but from within the ranks of the establishment itself. Dal Babu, a retired former chief superintendent and chairman of the Metropolitan police Association of Muslim Officers, recently termed Prevent a “toxic brand”; Eliza Manningham-Buller, former head of MI5, told parliament that Prevent was "clearly not working". The government itself has worried that it may risk exposing the Prevent programme to wider, generalised opposition by making compliance statutory. The government’s own impact assessment noted, “There is a risk that parts of the policy may be perceived to restrict the freedom of speech; and that legislating will give greater prominence to criticism that the programme is there to spy on individuals, or that it targets Muslims.”

As NUT conference shows, their fears seem to be materialising. Most teachers will want to defend freedom of discussion in the classroom and treat their pupils as students not suspects. Resolutions are already circulating in some school associations insisting that Prevent ‘training’ respect professional ‘safeguarding’ principles; that such sessions respect the principles of free discussion, including on the causes of terror, and that right-wing ideological bias should not be presented as ‘expert’ training.

Wars continue to wreak catastrophe in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Gaza and Somalia. Western governments and their allies promote vicious sectarian division in every corner of the Middle East. Terrorism is the inevitable price tag, including, appallingly, in London and Paris. Against this bloody backdrop we cannot allow our schools to become seeding ground for this latest wave of state Islamophobia. It is time to resist this ‘toxic brand’.

Source: Stop the War Coalition

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