Sunday 13 December 2015

Councillor pledges to arrange talks on community concerns over 'counter-productive' Prevent Strategy

Cllr Harbi Farah pledged to arrange talks between community organisations concerned about the Prevent Strategy and Cllr James Denselow (lead member for Stronger Communities) or Cllr Muhammed Butt (leader of Brent Council).

The pledge was made at a public meeting where strong objections to the Strategy; which makes it a statutory duty for the Council, schools, colleges, health and social services to report anyone thought to be in danger of becoming an 'extremist' to the authorities; were voiced.

Cllr Michael Pavey, who was attending another event sent a message to the meeting:
I think Prevent is completely flawed. At best it is patronising to our Muslim communities and at worst it is utterly alienating and therefore completely counter-productive.
Cllr Margaret McLennan had also indicated her opposition 'for obvious reasons' while Barry Gardiner, MP for Brent North, told the meeting on Syria a few weeks ago that the Labour Party was critical of the government's Prevent programme. It was a top-down model rather than the bottom0up approach that could harness forces at a community level.

However, Humera Khan of the An-Nisa Society, which has run a Muslim Sunday School at Park Lane Primary School for 30 years, told the meeting that they had repeatedly asked the council to arrange a meeting with headteachers to establish a meeting where a constructive dialogue could take place with headteachers about the issues involved. There had been no response and eventually An-Nisa had given up. This was despite the fact that the Strategy was supposed to be 'community led'.

Humera juxtaposed the impact of the Prevent Strategy on the Muslim community with the requirements of Brent's 2015 Equality policy. The default position of Prevent was that Muslim=Violent Extremism, the whole community was being stigmatised and marginalised.

Khalida Khan, of the An-Nisa Society, emphasised that teachers were not a branch of the Intelligence Survey.  Reminding the audience of institutional failures over child protection she suggested that there was a huge potential for institutional failure on Prevent and gave the example of a primary school where the first names of pupils felt to be in danger of 'radicalisation; were publicly released.

The danger is that the Prevent Strategy is helping fuel Islamophobia. A recent Public Attitudes Survey had found that 71% of those surveyed thought that Islam was incompatible with British culture and 45% of Britons think there are too many Muslims in the country.

Khalida said that Muslim parents were now worried about the normal 'wierd or funny' things that all children say might now get them into trouble.  Sympathy for the plight of refugees could now be seen as extremist.

She spoke of the effect on the Muslim community, which already felt excluded, of their children and young people being monitored. It would affect mental health and feelings of exclusion and negatively affect parenting.  Making people afraid to speak out would damage the Muslim psyche and undermine self-respect and sense of belonging.

The Strategy put communities against each other and the promulgation of 'British Values' implied that only the British had these values, while in fact they were universal.

Khalida suggested that the ultimate goal was to abolish the Prevent Strategy, for the Council to work with others to pressure the government for its abolition, and meanwhile find ways of legally working around it. There was a need to adress the needs of Muslims as citizens.

Rizwan Hussain, speaking for Brent Anti Racism Campaign and the community organisation Jawaab, gave the example of a young man, Abdul, and how he was experiencing the present climate.

Abdul had been stopped and searched on the way to his mosque. This was an invasion of what he thought of as his 'safe place' - a place of solace and a constant in his life which offered protection and role models.

Abdul was scared about the attitudes he was now encountering which included attacks on his hijab wearing sisters. His personal and social spaces were being invaded by Islamophobia.

Rizwan said that in Jawaab's work with young people discussions of foreign policy figured but there were also  major concerns over mental health and unemployment that needed to be addressed. Young people needed safe spaces where they can gain empowerment to become leaders, develop the skills to tackle difficult situations, develop self-empowerment to make change in their own lives.

These spaces could not be created under Prevent, because people like Abdul won't engage with that strategy, but created by organisations experienced in this area. Facilitators would help youth use their experience to create resilient young people, educating them but giving them power to make decisions.

Bill Bolloten, from Education Not Surveillance, welcomed the meeting as a 'conversation about Prevent' and a way of arriving at strategies to deal with the issue.  There were different experiences at different ages in the education system with Prevent starting at the Early Years Foundation Stage. The Ofsted requirement that schools should pay 'due regard' to the Strategy  and that this was part of the Ofsted inspection, meant that nursery and school staff had to monitor children for extremism/radicalisation and provide evidence that staff had been trained in the Strategy.

Training materials were not openly available and there was no empirical evidence justifying the theory behind the 'signs and indicators of radicalisation'  that trainers gave.

Counter-terrorism experts had said that the Prevent Strategy indicated a 'shallow understanding of the radicalisation process'.

Despite the short-comings referrals to Channel (the conduit for passing on concerns about individuals and families) had gone up from 20 in 2012 to 424 last year, half of which had come from education.

Bill agreed that prevent was fuelling anti-Muslim prejudice. A survey of 6,000 pupils had found  widespread anti-Muslim feeling. Pupils had estimated an average figures of 36% for the Muslim population of the country whereas it was actually 5%.

Bill concluded with the recommendation that we should ensure schools are safe places for Muslim pupils. We should make sure that they feel they belong. A dialogue with school headteachers and governors should be established. We need better ways of understanding our duties under the Equality Act.

Rob Ferguson of the NUT and Newham Stand Up to Racism said that Prevent also applied to supplementary schools and classes and was a bridgehead to attack the whole community through young people. The Newham statement (see below) had been conceived at a local level by Muslim and non-Muslims to put pressure on the council to break with the Prevent agenda.

Rob said that both Newham and Brent were in the top 10 for attacks on Muslims on London. There had been a 300% increase in attacks.  He spoke about the fire bombing of the East London Mosque and how hate crimes were being unreported. Muslim teaching staff were avoiding using public transport and not wearing the hijab in public. Parents were telling their children to keep silent in class - 'Don't mention the War' was no longer a joke.

After the softer Post 9/11 versions of Prevent where organisation took government money to promote social cohesion the Counter Terrorism and Security Act in February amounted to state promotion of Islamophobia. He warned that the next round of legislation citing 'reasonable justification' could be widened to a whole group of other issues.

Kiri Tunks speaking for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign on the impact of Prevent on education about the issue said, 'If you can't talk about Palestine, there's something wrong with our society'.   A film about Palestine for classroom use had been attacked as being anti-Semitic as a way of silencing discussion. Now in the current situation  students tended to be silent and teachers frightened. Tis emphasised the need for schools to provide 'safe spaces'  for children to talk about contemporay issues.

Hank Roberts, of the ATL, speaking from the floor commented that even during the worse of the IRA bombing campaign teachers had not been asked to spy on Irish children in the classroom for signs of IRA sympathies.  We need to see through this nonsense, and incidentally reclaim the term 'radical' - 'there's nothing wrong with Radical. 'I'm a radical'.

Malia Bouattia from the National Union of Students was unable to attend but send this message:
We're encouraging Student Unions and student officers to take up a stance of non-compliance with PREVENT and working with academics and staff to undermine the implementation of the Prevent duty and essentially, make it unworkable in practice.

We've had over 30 Student Unions now pass policy to this effect.

The NUS Black Students' Campaign have produced a student handbook to PREVENT and campaigning against it which is available online.
We're also encouraging students to lobby their university/college to come out against PREVENT but so far we're at early days of the campaign and are prioritising raising students' awareness of PREVENT and getting them to build opposition amongst students and academics on their campuses.
Shahrar Ali,  deputy leader of the Green Party told the meeting that the Prevent Strategy was counter-productive on its own terms. he said, 'You can't fight injustice by perpetrating injustice'.

Commenting that  the Secretary of State can direct universities to comply with the Prevent Duty he asked,  'How can you not encourage contestation of ideas in universities? Students must be free to explore and discuss.'

Shahrar described the Prevent Strategy training he had undergone and the spurious video example of of extremism.

He concluded by pledging the Green Party's opposition to Prevent.

Cllr Harbi Farah, who attended after Cllr James Denselow (Lead member for Stronger Communities) and Cllr Liz Dixon (leading on Prevent) had been unable to attend, stressed that he was not t the meeting to defend Brent Council. He said that the Muslim community itself was diverse and many in it do not even know what Prevent is. The Council had a statutory responsibility to operate the Strategy but because secondary schools were now all  academies (MF or faith schools) the council had little influence over them.

Harbi committed himself to try and improve the relationship between the voluntary sector and the Council and arrange a meeting with Cllr Denselow or Cllr Muhammed Butt.

In addition to the proposed meeting with councillors it was also decided to formulate a statement similar to that from Newham (see below) and develop the Monitoring Prevent in Brent Facebook so that people could report what is happening on the ground.


Alison Hopkins said...

So, why didn't Dixon's response on behalf of Brent Council make any of the points of objection?

Good for Harbi, hope he's able and allowed to follow through.

And yes, I met a delightful sixth former a couple of weeks back - her friends have in some instances stopped wearing hijab as they've been abused. She herself is petrified of Tube travel due to the number of nasty things she's had said. She's no wimp, either - bright, feminist and wants to read law.

I am somewhat convinced that much of the abuse wreaked on hijabi is simply camouflaged misogyny and sexism. But it's become acceptable, because it ostensibly isn't against women, but against a "symbol". Feh.

Anonymous said...

Cllr Pavey criticised a government policy? He's been radicalised!