Dissent Develops Democracy sticker, 2007 | PHOTO: Jason Wilson on Flickr

In hospital departments, council offices, GP surgeries and schools across the country, trainers are preparing an army of staff for a new ‘war on terrorism’: their task, to identify those who may have supposedly stepped onto “an escalator of radicalisation”.

From today, provisions within the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015 shift the government’s controversial anti-radicalisation strategy, ‘Prevent’, from a voluntary programme into a statutory duty for most front-line public services, including private sector contractors. They can no longer choose whether to participate and regulators such as Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission will measure how effectively public sector bodies deliver on this duty.

The ‘Prevent’ strategy has been around for a decade and its attempt to divert individuals allegedly at risk of radicalisation, through ‘support’ provided by multi-agency panels, has always been highly contentious. In March this year, the strategy was described by one senior police officer as a ‘toxic brand’ because of the way it discriminates against Muslims and some argue that, far from stopping people from supporting terrorism, it has potentially made matters worse. One academic has said that “by putting a magnifying glass across the Muslim communities of Great Britain, what has happened is that has widened the schism between the ‘Muslim’ us and the British ‘other’.”

To an extent, the government’s decision to make ‘Prevent’ compulsory is an acknowledgement that, despite an annual budget of £40m, the strategy since 2005 has been a failure. It cannot function without partners, so the government is now attempting to enforce cooperation. However, the new approach also represents a fundamental expansion of focus from people’s actions to their ideas, by including a greater emphasis on “non-violent extremists” who express “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values”. In a speech to the Metropolitan Police’s counter-terrorism conference last month, Home Secretary Theresa May said that the government wants to ”protect people from extremism in all its forms: non-violent and violent, Islamist and neo-Nazi. At the heart of that strategy sits a positive vision of Britain.

Even more than the idea of ‘terrorism’, which at least implies some degree of clarity about links to political violence, trying to pin down a definition of ‘extremism’ is almost as difficult as finding any real evidence of a link between its ‘violent’ and ‘non-violent’ forms. Last year Netpol publicised the problems the police have faced in coming up with an adequate way of explaining ‘domestic extremism’. The government’s own list of so-called ‘British’ values – democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs – involve concepts whose interpretation depends very much on the political views of those accusing others of rejecting them. The Daily Mail, for instance, described protesters who took to London’s streets in May as “enemies of democracy” for rejecting “the democratic voice of those who voted” in the general election.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are many who challenge the idea that the ‘rule of law’ prevents arbitrary decision-making or has any real meaning when the British state can place restrictions on ‘terror’ suspects’ movements and living arrangements without first obtaining a conviction for a crime, or even revealing any evidence for the removal of these individual liberties. The same could be said for the arbitrary nature of the government’s detention of asylum-seekers or the persistent racial profiling in the use of police powers of stop and search. There are undoubtedly millions of people who would struggle to share any kind of “positive vision of Britain” with a Conservative government planning to make £12 billion of cuts. Are they ‘extremists’ too?

The activist and academic Arun Kundnani, author of ‘The Muslims Are Coming!‘, told a recent conference organised by the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) that Prevent’s expansion is fundamentally about clamping down on dissent, with a clear main target. In a subsequent article, he added:

If the new anti-extremism powers were applied consistently, then millions of British homophobes and racists would find themselves deemed extremists for their rejection of equality and respect for minorities. But it is reasonable to assume that the overwhelming majority of persons affected by the powers will be Muslims who are perceived as rejecting British values because of their expressed religious or political opinions.

Coincidentally, only yesterday Education Minister Nicky Morgan claimed homophobic views may indicate a pupil who is at risk of becoming an extremist – rather than a young person who is simply part of the huge problem of homophobic bullying in schools that she highlighted as a government priority only three months ago. The worry for Muslim parents is that their children could potentially find themselves not in an anti-bullying programme but one aimed at ‘de-radicalising’ them – with a file kept on their sons and daughters until they reach 18.

Kundnani points to systematic surveillance and ‘counter-ideological measures’ directed at others, including “far-Left activists, and perhaps also environmentalists and animal rights activists”. This certainly correlates with evidence Netpol has previously highlighted of counter-terrorist police targeting student campaigners, journalists and opponents of fracking as alleged ‘extremists’.

His greater worry, however, is that that Muslims expressing radical opposition to British government policy “are no longer seen as participating in a British tradition of dissent but as extremists who are on a conveyor belt to terrorism”. Our specific concern is that, particularly on campuses, this results in increasing targeting of pro-Palestinian and boycott, disinvestment and sanctions (BDS) activists. it is therefore welcome that last week, it was the Palestine Solidarity Campaign that brought together campaigners and trades unionists for a wide-ranging discussion on ‘Prevent’, which explored ways different organisations can supporting each other in resisting the criminalisation of dissent.

With such broad spectrum of different professions now drawn into counter-terrorism structures for the first time, It was clear from this meeting that any resistance to ‘Prevent’ will inevitably become a battle fought on many fronts, from teaching unions in schools seeking to protect their pupils from unwarranted referrals and challenging aggressive ‘Prevent’ training, to the University and College Union (UCU) defending academics’ statutory duty to ensure freedom of speech on campus. Groups like the IHRC, meanwhile, are planning to gather testimony about the impact of new ‘Prevent’ provisions on local communities.

In keeping with our priorities, Netpol intends to support campaigning groups like the Palestine Solidarity Campaign to gather their own evidence about the way ‘Prevent’ undermines protest, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

At the IHRC event last month, Kundnani reminded the audience of a famous speech made by Dr Martin Luther King in 1967 at Riverside Church in New York, that forcefully denounced the US government’s policy in Vietnam. King was denounced as a ‘communist’ for making it and spied on by the state. Now he has a federal holiday named in his honour.

At the start of this week, Prime Minister David Cameron drew comparisons between the fight against extremism and the “battle against communism during the cold war”, an observation that was unfortunate but perhaps apposite: governments that try to make war on dissenting ideas often completely fail to silence their dissenters.

The IHRC is asking Muslims who feel they have been unfairly questioned or targeted by their local council, school or university about extremism to contact them at 020 8904 4222 or to email lena[at]ihrc.org

Palestine solidarity and BDS activists with similar experiences can share their stories with PSC at info[at]palestinecampaign.org or by calling 020 7700 6192