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Safeguarding Little Abdul: Prevent, Muslim Schoolchildren and the Lack of Parental Consent

There are a lot of things that could be said about the new statutory guidance on Channel under Prevent issued in April for local authorities, nurseries, schools, universities, social services, health care services, the criminal justice system and the police. There are many hot-button issues here, but I want to focus on the impact of all this on under-18s. Half of our community is under the age of 25 and, according to Census figures, something in the order of 800,000 Muslims under 18 potentially fall within the remit of these policies. From the official guidance (pp.16-17, Paras 77-79) it seems that informed parental consent for under-18s referred under a counter-radicalisation scheme called Channel comes very late in the process. The mainstay of Prevent after 2010, Channel is a multiagency approach to identify and then support individuals being drawn into terrorism, in which the police play a central role. And Channel is not a low impact policy. The trend line for referrals presently is upwards from seven in Channel’s pilot year (2006-7) to 748 in 2012-13. Under an FOI request to the Association of Chief Police Officers, there have been 2653 referrals under Prevent up to April 2013. For ages 13-16, there were 645 referrals, and for 12 and under there were 113. In one case, a child as young as three was referred as part of a whole family. Where religious affiliation data was collected, from 2007-10, 67% of those referred were Muslim and in 2012-13, 57% were Muslim (their percentage in the population being 5%).

In Britain today, all these things could happen to the child of Muslim parents without their consent. Let’s take a hypothetical situation, elements of which are based on the official Channel guidance and on incidents a lawyer told me about who deals with such cases. There is of course a particular focus on schools (which accounted for a fifth of referrals up to 2013). Since February, schools are obligated under the Counter Terrorism and Security Act to prevent pupils from becoming radicalised.

Imagine your child is named Abdul, aged 12. He is taken out of class and questioned as to his views and behaviour by a member of the school’s senior management team. He might be asked about his beliefs, his political views, his associations, and so on. His case could be referred to the multiagency Channel Panel run by the local authority for assessment on the basis of the school’s investigation, and it would initially be assessed for risk by a police representative, and accepted or rejected at that point. The Panel could assess Abdul’s case and agree a series of interventions under Channel for Abdul. Only after all this referral, assessment and decision-making is completed is the Panel obliged to contact you for your consent in two matters (and only if Abdul’s case is not deemed high risk): (1) that you agree to interventions for Abdul under Channel that the Panel recommends, and (2) that you agree that information about Abdul’s case can be divulged to relevant agencies. It should be noted that the Panel reserves the power not to seek your consent if it deems Abdul’s case serious enough. There is also a further option left to the Panel if you do not agree to Abdul being put into the Channel programme. It can refer Abdul if he is deemed as “high risk” and “in need” to various forms of intervention from social services from financial and pastoral support all the way up to an “emergency protection order” under sections 17 and 47 of the Children Act 1989. This option adds an element of coercion to the informed consent asked of parents very late in the process of referral and assessment under Channel.

There have been instances where parents first realise that their child has been referred under Prevent because the child tells them he or she has been pulled out of class and questioned about his or her views and behaviour. In such cases, it is clear that some schools are assuming an implied consent on the part of parents to have their children questioned and assessed in this way. They have not heard formally from the school or from the Prevent Panel. Cases like these have not yet come to light because these parents are frightened of speaking out. They are worried that they will be labelled as extremists. Of course we have heard of reported cases where parents were completely unaware of the fact that their children had been radicalized without their knowledge. However, notwithstanding this issue, there are many genuine reasons to worry about how fair or proportionate this policy of referral and assessment under Channel is or will be in future. Let me conclude by sketching out a few of them.

The main concern is that we are heading towards intensified policing of regular conservative Islamic religiosity and dissenting politics among Muslims. Recent comments by Mak Chishty, the Metropolitan Police’s Commander for Engagement, that identify Muslim children not celebrating Christmas or supporting the boycotts, sanctions and divestments movement by not shopping at Marks & Spencer as potential indicators of extremism are very alarming. At the time of writing, the Met has not responded to calls for proper clarification of these remarks. Last week, it was found that a pilot survey (later scrapped when it was exposed) in east London primary schools was asking intrusive questions about political and religious issues from children as young as nine, without anonymizing the data.

The new Extremism Bill (pp.62-63) goes further in the direction of policing non-violent “extremism”, which includes measures like banning groups, gagging individuals, closing premises, employment blacklists and censoring broadcasts. Our Home Secretary Theresa May could not define “extremism” when pressed to do so by John Humphreys on Radio 4’s Today programme. Her response hardly seemed a step above an arbitrary rule of thumb that one would know an extremist if one saw one. This loose notion of extremism is predicated on active opposition to a simple checklist of British values, namely as set out in the guidance: “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.” While I don’t want to get into an extended discussion of this point here, these values are not parochially British nor are they unsubstantiated in the Islamic interpretive traditions or unpractised throughout the long and rich history of a world religion with 1.6 billion adherents. More importantly such values do not resolve conflicts in themselves. Rather, they define the very ground upon which we agree and disagree as to their meaning, application and commensurability.

To touch upon the point about commensurability further, David Cameron recently opined in promoting the new extremism bill that the British value of tolerance had been too “passive”. To quote him, the notion that “as long as you obey the law, we [the state] will leave you alone” was now to be abandoned. For many British people, including myself, this is in fact a cherished notion that needs to be protected at all costs rather than abandoned. So while tolerance is a value, what it really entails at any particular moment in the life of our nation will be up for debate. Values frame our national discussion but they do not define a monoculture. This contentious and unproductive debate about British values is going on against a background of anti-immigration politics, Tory triumph and UKIP gains in the election, the fragmentation of the left, and indeed the growing appeal of ISIS to some Muslim young people. Around 700 or so are believed to gone over to Syria and Iraq.

In this atmosphere of suspicion and fear, what are Muslim parents going to do to protect their children? They are after all the first “safeguards” of their own offspring, to use the current professional jargon. There are lively discussions on social media among Muslim parents about this. A widespread view seems to be striking a balance between bringing up your children with a positive view of themselves, their faith, their community, their society and country and the world at large while engaging them in an informed way about the very complex issues around terrorism, extremism, ISIS, the war on terror, racism, Islamophobia, grooming, sexism, etc. It is a daunting task. Hardly any Muslim parent I know thinks it is either easy or avoidable. Continually talking things through, listening, and offering support and guidance to our children is clearly essential. Dealing with teenage hormonal changes and challenges like depression and so on are more than enough for parents to deal with, without a kneejerk presumption that Muslim teens are converts on the jihadi “road to Damascus”.

Equally, a lot of Muslim parents I’ve talked to are concerned that the government is really overdoing things. The lack of parental consent is a massive issue. The government has set up an ill-advised process that implicitly excludes and alienates Muslim parents under an ethos of presumed mistrust. As I’ve outlined above, the school and the Prevent Panel can make major judgements and decisions about your child without even talking to you. We all have reasons to doubt how competently these Panels will make decisions about Muslim children. If they exhibit anything like the cultural ignorance of Commander Mak Chishty then we have every reason to fear that a lot of bad calls will be made.

Therefore, I would propose that it is in our collective interest to safeguard our children by pushing for consent and consultation to be at the heart of this policy. Those most affected by this policy – Muslim children and by extension their families – have been pushed to the margins. There is no requirement for Prevent panels to have any form of community representation and as a matter of course parents have no say in the referral or assessment process. I am aware of one case where a representative from a mosque council in a London borough has been offered a place on a separate advisory body, whose remit seems very limited and whose continuance is subject to the review of the Prevent Panel. This is obviously far from satisfactory: it seems tokenistic and is in danger of merely providing some kind of community rubber stamp for a referral and assessment process under Channel largely unaccountable to the community that it most affects. And then there is the fact that four-fifths of referrals are not taken further by Prevent Panels, according to ACPO’s own statistics. The negative conclusion from this low adoption rate is that children are being pushed towards Channel without sufficient cause. As parents we have to ask at what price? What impact will all this scrutiny at school have on Abdul’s sense of well-being and belonging, his confidence, his aspiration, or his happiness?

My personal judgement is that Prevent has gotten to a stage where it is institutionalising a “them and us” mentality that will reap a harvest of suspicion, distrust and doubt on all sides, and will drive the tiny pro-ISIS youth subculture further underground while conflating it with both conservative Islamic piety and Muslim radical politics. In my view it is better that we abandon Prevent in its new statutory guise and go back to the drawing board. In the interim, however, so long as Prevent is on the statute books, it may be wise to seek greater safeguards for our children against a system that has great potential to be stigmatising and discriminatory. There is obviously a lively debate to be had about which mix of tactics will work best to avoid innocent Muslim kids being mislabelled as extremists in schools.

Abdul deserves a better future. One in which he is treated a citizen rather than as a suspect. Where he can disagree, sometimes even be bold and radical in disagreeing if he chooses to do so, without being labelled an extremist. Where he can be proud rather than be ashamed of being a Muslim. He deserves to be inspired at school, opened up to new possibilities, for his autonomy to be nurtured and respected. This is the kind of schooling and the kind of country that we need to fight for.

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Filed under Civil liberties, Ghuluw, Terrorism, UK Muslim Politics, UK Politics

Global Britons, Muslim Futures

It is now a commonplace to observe that “Britishness” and “Muslimness” have become polarised: by seeking definitions against “the Muslim threat”, “true” Britishness, it is felt, can be retrieved.

Yet the evidence shows the opposite: most of Britain’s ethnic groups emphasize both religious and national identities together, a trend most noticeable among Muslim Britons. Polling usually confirms that Muslims are comfortable in being Muslim and British, antagonism only arising when slanted questioning asks respondents to choose one over the other.

What is remarkable about the strength of religious-national identities among Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, Hindus and Afro-Caribbean Christians is that it comes at a moment when formal Christian allegiance is in decline, i.e., believing in God without belonging to a Church, alongside a receding sense of Britishness. Church attendances are in decline, and alternatives for the major rites of passage at birth, marriage and death can be found outside the Church. Likewise the National Centre for Social Research showed that only 44 per cent of all Britons described themselves as “British” in in 2007 compared with 52 per cent in 1997. [1] Compare that with post-9/11 polling of British Muslims and the figures range between 75 and 85 per cent. [2] So the question arises: why is patriotism in general in such decline?

A bit of history might give us more purchase on an answer. Britishness was always a political, civic identity that contrasted with one’s ethnic or cultural background, and it was a marriage of four nations – Welsh, Scots, English and Irish – that came into its own from the early eighteenth century. It was Protestantism, the Industrial Revolution and the building of the British Empire that forged the modern British nation, tied together by a titanic struggle with Napoleonic France and later on by two world wars against Germany in the last century. [3] But today, formal Christianity is in decline, we work in a post-industrial information economy, formal decolonisation is over and the French and Germans are Britain’s partners in the EU, a tightening confederation of formerly warring nation-states.

So in the age of globalisation – one of mass communication, travel, migration and trade – sharp identification with the nation-state is less meaningful than before, even if it would be premature to speak of its demise. Global elites now champion open borders, are less interested in nationalism, and argue for new sorts of regional and global reordering. The expansion of the EU alongside devolution in Scotland and Wales is rewriting our unwritten constitution. More important perhaps is the fact that popular culture now owes more to the market than to the state: so how much more significant are identities of consumption, for instance, than civic or nationalist ones? Even if ideas, trade and money flow more freely, we find that elsewhere, burgeoning security controls, the poor treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, and the whole immigration and integration debate betray strong anxieties about porous cultural boundaries.

In the late nineties, a “Cool Britannia” that embraced multiculturalism, creativity, openness and globalisation was advocated. But after 9/11, multiculturalism (if not neoliberalism) came under attack along with a public debate on Britishness. Some point to shared institutions like the NHS and the BBC as repositories of British values and culture, but are institutions alone really enough to hang a national identity upon? And to list certain democratic values that could just as easily be Japanese or Canadian, like the rule of law, or freedom of speech, seems inadequate too, as these relate to the formal rights of citizenship, but not to a sense of duty, or emotional attachment, to fellow citizens.

A better approach, perhaps, is to commit to an open-ended conversation about how to define what we Britons have in common, as well as seeing in cultural diversity a source of wisdom, and an opportunity to expand the wellsprings of our collective imaginations. The distinctive contribution of Muslims to national self-understanding will be but one strand among many. With all the suspicion levelled at Muslims today, it takes intellectual and moral courage to remain creative and self-aware enough to ponder our shared future while retaining a sense of faithful integrity.

Yet, in our interconnected world, this will not merely be a parochial endeavour, but will be intimately concerned with making sense of our public identities on a fragile, wired-up planet. To be cosmopolitan is to name our current challenge, to recognise that while we might aspire to universal values, they are variously negotiated across real and legitimate cultural diversity. [4] A new Britishness in our global age would therefore arise, and be informed by “rooted cosmopolitanism”, a principled looking out at the challenges and opportunities of the world from our home, while never losing a sense of who or where we are.

Yahya Birt is Commissioning Editor at Kube Publishing and blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com. This, the last of twelve comment pieces for Emel Magazine, will appear in Issue 48, September 2008.

Notes

[1] Chris Rojek, Brit-Myth: Who do the British think they are? (London: Reaktion, 2007).

[2] Ian Bradley, Believing in Britain: the spiritual identity of Britishness (London: Monarch, 2008).

[3] Linda Coley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992).

[4] Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006).

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