In recent weeks, Katharine Birbalsingh, dubbed “Britain’s strictest headteacher”, has sparked controversy for instigating a prayer ban at the Michaela Community School she founded in 2014. Serving as headteacher, with Suella Braverman as the first chair of governors, Birbalsingh now faces a High Court challenge from a Muslim student who views the ban as discriminatory.
In defence of her decision, during an interview with the British news organisation Unherd, Birbalsingh explained that the school’s atmosphere had become “quite horrible”. She cited instances where students started wearing hijabs and praying in the playground. The school lacked a designated prayer room for its significant Muslim student population.
Birbalsingh emphasised that, at Michaela, “children of all races and religions buy into something bigger than themselves: our country”.
However, many argue that her stance reflects a political agenda, pressuring British Muslims to sacrifice aspects of their religious identity for patriotic conformity, assuming that these two facets of identity are incompatible, and promoting an image of a suspect community — all of which contradicts the rhetoric of ‘Community Cohesion’ and multiculturalism.
The controversy is part of a broader concern about the alleged targeting of the Muslim community, exemplified by initiatives such as the Prevent programme. Launched in 2003, Prevent – one of the four components of the United Kingdom’s broader counterterrorism and deradicalisation strategy called ‘Contest’ – has faced widespread condemnation for being ineffective in its mission to combat violence and fundamentally discriminating against the Muslim community. Organisations like the United Nations, Amnesty International, Liberty, and Big Brother Watch have consistently challenged its principles and impact.
Intersection of schooling and securitisation
On July 18 last year, the UK government launched the Contest 2023 strategy, defining it as “a refreshed approach to the evolving and enduring threat from terrorism”. Its Prevent strand, incorporating recommendations from the Independent Review of Prevent by William Shawcross, primarily focuses on the threat posed by “Islamist terrorism”, neglecting “far-right extremist ideologies”.
“This means it is quite simply a political project,“ Dr Layla Aitlhadj, the director of Prevent Watch, an organisation that monitors the Prevent programme and provides support for people affected by the strategy, tells TRT World.
“Prevent, even by its own logic, reveals anti-Muslim and racial bias because fewer Prevent referrals from the so-called Islamist extremism category end up in the Channel interventions compared to those with right-wing ideologies. So, the referrals do not match the actual threat.”
Fionnuala Ni Aolain, former UN special rapporteur on the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering the threat of terrorism, tells TRT World that her mandate has long expressed concerns about Prevent, noting its discriminatory, stereotyped, and negative view of Muslims in the United Kingdom.
Since its 2013 revision, Prevent has imposed a statutory duty on various public service providers such as schools, universities, hospitals, and prisons to identify individuals at risk of radicalisation, drawing large sections of civil society into the programme. Critics argue that this has led to a climate of distrust and suspicion in public services, especially within the education sector.
Three years after the revision, the National Union of Teachers voted in favour of scrapping the strategy, raising their voice for the need to “Stop education professionals being the secret service of the public sector.”
Dr Aitlhadj reveals that, in fact, the education sector accounts for over a third of Prevent referrals.
However, this indicates a problem with Prevent – which, at its core, criminalises many ideas and behaviours that are simply part of growing up and are youthful expressions – and not with young people, she explains.
The supposed signs of radicalisation that public service workers must report include, for instance, someone changing their “style of dress or personal appearance”, being “disrespectful or angry towards family and peers”, and “changing friends groups and associations” – thus, raising concerns about potential bias, prejudice, or racism in identifying these signs, when adolescent behaviour couples with the expression of religious identity and leading to the disproportionate targeting of Muslim children under the age of 18.
“We see through our case studies how young Muslim boys tend to receive the most discrimination under the lens of Prevent. It may be the case that many of these referrals are such misinformed referrals that they never make it far enough in the pipeline to be recorded as official statistics, but the bias in Prevent referrals imitates the bias in general against young Muslim boys and men across the security and policing sphere,” Dr Aitlhadj says.
T.S., a 22-year-old British woman of Saudi Arabian descent and an Oxford University graduate who prefers to go by her initials, recalls first encountering Prevent in her Islamic high school, where male students have been particularly targeted by the strategy.
“If a boy grows a beard and starts to pray five times a day and a teacher notices this, it is like their duty by Prevent to report this.” And “it’s really funny,” she adds, “because now it is a fashion to grow a beard. It’s like the abaya situation in France, right? Where do you draw the line?”
‘Human cost of Prevent’
T.S. recounts an Ofsted inspector stopping her and friends in the playground during their break and asking them questions such as ‘What do you think of terrorism?’. “The weirdest question to ask a 15-year-old girl in a playground,” she says, laughing at its absurdity. In the blink of an eye, her expression changes.
“I think that shaped our identity in that way. It makes you defend yourself, feel suspicious and alienated,” she says, describing how her experience shaped the idea of how her identity is perceived by the government from a very young age.
She notes the pressure on Muslim professionals, including teachers and doctors, to constantly emphasise British values and perform virtue-signalling, fostering a narrative that may affect individuals’ self-perception and sense of belonging.
“It made me question ‘do I have something that conflicts with these values?’” she says.
T.S. adds that Britain’s Muslim community is aware of Prevent in all areas of public and social life and, through its gaze, it makes everyone feel on the edge. Indeed, many critique the strategy for compromising trust within a multiethnic, multiracial society by taking up the “securitisation of everything” approach.
The surveillance, policing, and securitisation go beyond the place where a referral originates, since the data end up on the police database. So, individuals can find themselves in a range of situations whereby their Prevent referral can impact their future due to the level of data sharing and the smear of terrorism associated with Prevent, Dr Aitlhadj says.
Voicing concern over systemic issues in the referring process, Fionnuala Ni Aolain emphasises the recurring pattern of pre-criminalising children within the school system, leading to their inclusion in the Prevent referral system. This early identification can have lifelong consequences, making individuals visible to the carceral, administrative, and policing states, she warns.
Yahya, a 29-year-old British Muslim, shares with TRT World the impact of Prevent on his life, from his introduction to it during his second year at university as head of its Islamic Society to his current role as a mental health lecturer supporting children from diverse ethnic backgrounds.
The influence of Prevent became palpable when the university, reacting to Prevent advice, abruptly cancelled scheduled events on campus, he says, noting that these cancellations occurred despite speakers receiving prior approval, with their names, content information, and paperwork cleared weeks in advance.
Yahya vividly recalls a particular instance where Prevent officers disrupted their event taking place at a local church, accusing the audience, comprising both Muslims and non-Muslims, of radicalisation.
“My name was on the papers as head of the society, and that’s when I started getting phone calls from Prevent regularly,” he says.
Since Yahya’s name found its way into Prevent’s radar, he has experienced consistent and excessive scrutiny during travel, often facing interrogation and detention, despite having no criminal record. The recurrent justification for such interventions, as he notes, remains consistent: ‘We’ve been given insight from the UK Intel.’
“It’s unfortunate to say but I am grappling with anxiety during travelling, given the amount of detention centres I was put in and prolonged questioning”, he shares.
Despite these challenges, Yahya remains determined to challenge the strategy’s representation and legitimacy. He actively advocates for change within his workplace during mandatory Prevent education, challenging them to foster stereotypes and helping younger mental health workers entering the National Health Service (NHS) raise their voices against discrimination implemented by the programme.
While reflecting on the evolving discourse around Prevent, Yahya observes a shift in public perception and a growing scrutiny of the narrative.
“People have started questioning it and the narrative and the pressures are changing, and this is what it is,” he says.
He sees these developments as indicative of a larger informational battle. “This is a war of information,” he says while highlighting the ongoing efforts to reshape the dialogue surrounding Prevent and its impact on individuals like himself.
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