How can we Prevent government extremism?

IssueOctober - November 2016
Feature by Milan Rai


Liz Fekete speaks in the post-Brexit debate at PN Summer Camp. Photo: Roy St PIERRE

A black woman spoke up from the audience at a public meeting held earlier this year, to launch a new issue of Race and Class, the journal of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). She was a teacher, struggling with the new legal duty on teachers to monitor and report signs of ‘nonviolent extremism’ among their students. Children were becoming frightened to express their opinions. What was she supposed to do, forced by the law to play a role that she fundamentally disagreed with? A racist law, which comes down heavier on black and minority ethnic people?

Liz Fekete, the director of the IRR, expressed her support and solidarity. I’d worked with Liz a bit a few years ago, but this was the first time I’d heard her speak in public. I was struck by how warm and down-to-earth she was, making a larger political point about the law (which came into effect in 2015) but staying connected to the struggles of this one particular teacher and her students. She was just the same when speaking at Peace News Summer Camp in July.

In the spring, I interviewed Liz for Peace News about her evolution as an activist and within IRR; she explained how she went from being a teenage troublemaker to an authority on European race relations – from being the institute typist to the institute director (PN 2954–2955). It’s a lovely story. Here is more from that conversation.

Undercover of the night

Recently, Liz and the institute have been doing quite a bit of work on this new ‘Prevent’ legal duty in schools. Liz gave me some of the background: ‘The institute, through Arun Kundnani, did the very first critique of Prevent, when the Labour government first introduced it’. (Spooked: how not to prevent extremism, IRR, 2009)

“What seemed an anti-extremism programme was actually a way of spying on communities.”

Prevent was supposedly an anti-extremism strategy, ‘so they gave money to different bodies to “prevent extremism”’. Liz acknowledged: ‘some people took the money and did good work, but you’d have all sorts of stipulations: working with the police and intelligence services, and so on.... What seemed an anti-extremism programme was actually a way of spying on communities. For the police and MI5 to put their tentacles into the voluntary sector. That was the first stage of Prevent.’

Liz told me: ‘Where I became more involved was when the last anti-terrorism act introduced a duty on schools, nurseries, doctors, healthcare, to prevent nonviolent extremism. This was taking it to a much bigger scale. It became a positive duty to prevent “nonviolent extremism”.’ IRR has focused on the impact on schools.

You’ve changed

What happens, Liz tells me, is that schools realise they have this new legal duty to ‘prevent nonviolent extremism’, and they decide to get some training: ‘So this counter-extremism industry comes in and gives a training. And there is little awareness of human rights or civil rights in this training. There’s no idea that there are other duties on schools. Schools have a duty to promote good race relations and to promote community cohesion. Could this new duty be in conflict with other duties?

‘You’re seeing the most awful things happen. What are the indicators of “nonviolent extremism”? You’ve got trainers coming in with the most ridiculous signs that a child might become an extremist. It’s this philosophy of suspicion against children and young people – and Muslims, it’s nearly always aimed at Muslims – on the basis of very vague criteria like “a desire for political or moral change”, “a need for identity and belonging” – which are typical of teenagers.’

Liz tells me the story of a four-year-old Muslim child in a nursery who drew a picture of his father cutting a cucumber: ‘The teacher asks: “What is this picture?” And the child says: “A cucumber.” And the teacher thinks he’s said: “A cooker bomb.” And then the nursery is discussing reporting the family to Prevent and Channel, and there’s an intervention. At the end of the day this becomes a form of religious and racial profiling which then goes on the child’s record and is carried with the child for the rest of his life.’

“The child says: ‘cuker-bum’ (cucumber) and the teacher thinks he’s said: ‘A cooker bomb’.”

This incident took place in Luton, in March. The four-year-old pronounced cucumber as ‘cuker-bum’.

If someone is suspected of vulnerability to ‘extremism’, under the Prevent duty, they can be referred to ‘Channel’, a home office initiative that assesses people and decides what should be done in the way of ‘counter-radicalisation’. This includes ‘counter-radicalising’ children under 10.

The Prevent duty is a legal obligation for local authorities, the NHS, the police, prison and young offender institutions, and probation services – as well as schools, further and higher education institutions.

Treat me right

In January, IRR published a report by former immigration and human rights barrister Frances Webber that ‘tested the Prevent duty in schools against the Children’s Convention’. As Liz explained: ‘We said there’s another instrument to look at this. Let’s not just look at it in terms of anti-racism and Islamophobia, important as that is. Let’s look at it in terms of children’s rights.’

Frances Webber of IRR examined 15 reported cases, and established that there were conflicts between Prevent and several aspects of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (which became part of UK law in 1992). In the convention, there are protections for children’s freedom of thought, conscience and religion; for their right to freedom of expression; for their rights to preserve their own identity and practice their own culture and religion; and for their welfare and right to education. All of these rights have been eroded by Prevent policies.

Webber referred to the case of a 14-year-old Muslim boy at Central Foundation Boys’ School, in Islington, London, who mentioned ‘eco-terrorisme’ in a French class that was discussing the protection of the environment. A few days later, he was unexpectedly taken out of class and questioned by a child protection officer who asked him if he was ‘affiliated’ with the ISIS terror group.

The joint secretary of the Islington branch of the teachers’ union, the NUT, described this action as ‘racist’ and ‘aimed at Muslims’. Islington council passed a motion to lobby the government to change elements of Prevent that ‘damage community cohesion’. It’s easy to see how this kind of action undermines freedom of thought and expression, and undermines education – this boy subsequently dropped French.

The IRR report points out that Prevent also undermines parental responsibility. Children can be referred and assessed without the consent (or even knowledge) of a carer or parent – as in the case of the Islington 14-year-old. Carers/parents are sometimes then pressurised into accepting a package of measures with the threat that their child will be removed from them if they refuse.

Frances Webber notes that: ‘In the three months June–August 2015, 312 children were referred [to Channel] (of 796 referrals in total)’. This does not include children whose parents were notified of the possibility of referral (as in Luton) or who were questioned by child protection officers about their terrorist sympathies (as in Islington).

Fear of a black planet

Liz clarifies something that has been confusing me. In the world of anti-racism, different groups use the same words to mean different things. At IRR, Liz says: ‘We make a distinction between “Islamophobia” and “anti-Muslim racism”. “Islamophobia” in my definition is a hostile mindset towards the Muslim world. In a sense it is a prejudice. “Anti-Muslim racism” is the institutionalisation of that prejudice. Once you institutionalise that prejudice, it ceases to be a prejudice, because then it becomes a structure. Which is why I’m never happy when people say “institutionalised Islamophobia”, for me that doesn’t quite make sense because once it’s institutionalised it’s structured anti-Muslim racism.’

If someone has a fear that all Muslims are terrorists (or terrorists-in-waiting), that’s ‘Islamophobia’, under this definition. That fear becomes ‘anti-Muslim racism’ when it becomes a legal duty to report Muslims with ‘pre-criminal’ behaviours and attitudes.

Liz explains more about how we’ve got to where we are. In the 1990s, there was a ‘war on refugees’ in Britain and the rest of the EU (see the first part of the interview in PN 2954–2955): ‘What the war on refugees did, or the “harmonisation of asylum policy”, was create a separate welfare system for asylum-seekers, foreigners, refugees: vouchers, not being allowed the same housing rights.’

After the 11 September attacks in the US in 2001, there was a new stage: ‘What the war on terror did was create an alternative criminal justice system for Muslims. Harsher punishments — suspicion-based, based on prognosis — of further behaviour rather than actions. That was the first stage of structured anti-Muslim racism. The moulding of the criminal justice system towards a more punitive system for Muslims, which then of course can be expanded out to other categories.’

The next stage was through the counter-radicalisation programme, Prevent and Channel: ‘For Prevent and Channel to extend their reach, they had to create an industry around them, which appears to be part of civil society. The industry appears to be independent, but they’re so closely aligned with government strategies and thinking that they’re invested in the continuation of Islamophobia.’ This includes the kind of training programme referred to earlier.

Won’t get fooled again

Liz puts this into a bigger context. ‘The neoliberal project is a project to shrink the welfare state, to privatise public services, to deregulate labour and transform the state from within. People like [former prime minister David] Cameron say they want a “smaller state”, it’s not true, what they’re doing is creating a different state, they’re transforming the state. The state is not becoming smaller, it’s becoming more diffuse, which is what you see around the whole counter-radicalisation and Prevent strategy.’

‘If you look at something like the welfare state, the whole neoliberal philosophy was that big bureaucracies don’t work, we don’t want nationalisation, the NHS needs to be broken up, etc. Through that, you actually deliver services in a different way.... Organisations that were set up to end poverty or stand up for children, or to fight for better race relations, have been transformed into service delivery. You could say that they’ve become part of the state. That’s an example of how the state becomes more diffuse.’

‘The biggest example of this is in immigration detention when Barnados decided to work in Cedars detention centre for families with children.’ There had been a big campaign to end child detention. The government had said in 2010 it was going to end child detention. ‘Then Barnardos ended up going in to provide support for children in Cedars’ from 2012 till July 2016 when Cedars was shut down, and Barnardos refused work in the child detention section of Tinsley House.

Liz adds: ‘You’ll see that throughout this whole sector, it’s European-wide, more and more immigration removal centres are contracting out, so you’ll find the Red Cross administering the centres. Private security companies will want to work with a third-sector organisation because it will increase the likelihood of their bid being successful. Then you’ll see things like Frontex will have a human rights council and the big organisations will sit in that.’

Liz acknowledges the complexity of the situation for NGOs: ‘It’s not always black-and-white and clear-cut. It’s wrong if you just condemn people across the board for doing it, because everyone has to make their call. But... it comes to a point where you say: “Are we there just to teach them how to kill people more humanely?” Everyone has their call to make, but what I’m saying is: the diffuseness is they’re using our knowledge to govern and to do things we don’t agree with.’

Take me to the river

For Liz and the institute, there is an organisational culture and a radical tradition that helps them to steer away from becoming an arm of state repression: ‘Whenever you find yourself falling into an instrumentalist or pragmatic way of thinking, you suddenly think, but this is where I’ve come from, this is where this institute has come from, this is where this journal has come from. This is the stream that we’re part of. We’re not going to step out of that stream, so many years having been part of that stream. Certainly me, as the person who came from being the typist and now is the director, the idea that I would take the institute out of that stream, that would be a terrible thing to do.’

“What the war on terror did was create an alternative criminal justice system for Muslims”

The stream grows partly out of the anti-colonial national liberation movements that IRR supported. ‘The institute and Race & Class had huge connections with those Third World struggles, people like Walter Rodney, who wrote How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, so I would hear these people talked about, many people who were assassinated, [PN contributor and university lecturer] Malcolm Caldwell; huge people, huge people in liberatory struggles, passed through the Institute of Race Relations, passed through Race & Class; and also because Sivanandan [IRR director] was seen as a key thinker, both as a Marxist and as a black activist, [the institute had] connections with the whole anti-racist history in this country.’

Liz goes on: ‘So that’s the liberatory history which is black, red, Irish (because we’ve had key thinkers in the Irish struggle like Bill Rolston, who’s on the editorial committee of Race & Class, who’s written so many of the formative books on Northern Ireland, on the murals in Northern Ireland, that’s just one example of his work), women, gay.... The connection has been always there, right from the start, with that liberatory history. So it’s kind of always there, always part of your consciousness, whatever you’re engaging in, that you’re part of this anti-racist tradition.’

Again, Liz puts this into a bigger picture: ‘In terms of immigration, the refugee issue and when you look around at the whole of Europe, it is clear that immigration is being used as the route to shrink the welfare state, and to soften people up for a different style of government. Having said that, I feel that there is a bigger cleavage in society than there’s ever been in terms of support for immigration, a natural feel for a multicultural society that has grown up among young people – and another class of people who are, I think, anachronistic in their attitudes to people, who have not accepted a culturally pluralist Europe.

‘I see there is a battle between those two forces, I think during the whole refugee crisis there was the mobilisation of a humanitarian movement. People just seemingly coming out of nowhere just to act like human beings, and taking over the functions of the state. Because the state was treating the refugees as a security issue not a humanitarian issue, so the times are more balanced than maybe we imagine between the forces of reaction and the forces of progression, but still very very alarming. We’re almost at a cusp period between two different worlds.... What we’re seeing is this progressive stream and this authoritarian stream are sort of coming together at some point. Two streams can’t run at the same time.’