UK takes stronger stance on extremism at schools
London - “Be in no doubt: If you are teaching intolerance we will shut you down,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said during the Conservative Party conference.
With a renewed confidence after a landslide election victory in May, Cameron’s Conservative Party has developed a new counterterrorism approach, targeting non-violent extremism as the “root cause” of terrorism.
Cameron decried the “passive tolerance” that has come to characterise British politics, saying that the time has come to take a stand on issues that politicians had tended to shy away from.
“For too long, we’ve been so frightened of causing offence that we haven’t looked hard enough at what is going on in our communities,” Cameron said October 8th at the party conference. “This… has turned us into a less integrated country. It’s put our children in danger. It is unforgivable.”
His comments came after a government clampdown on education institutions in line with new Prevent guidelines — the government’s flagship anti-radicalisation strategy — including publicly naming four British universities for hosting “extremist” speakers.
The universities named by the government were Queen Mary University, King’s College, SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) and Kingston University — all London-based institutes with a large contingent of Muslim students. The universities hosted Islamist figures who state views, the government alleges, that are contrary to British values.
“Schools, universities and colleges, more than anywhere else, have a duty to protect impressionable young minds and ensure that our young people are given every opportunity to reach their potential,” Cameron said.
The Prevent strategy, for the first time, places legal requirements on universities and colleges to stop extremists from radicalising students on campus. It also tackles gender segregation at events and provides support to students deemed at risk of radicalisation.
But the National Union of Students (NUS) said it will boycott the guidelines, launching a “students not suspects” campaign, which was backed by the University and College Union (UCU), criticising the government for “intrusive” new measures.
“With the government focusing on ‘Islamic extremism’, the prospect of racial profiling and state-sponsored Islamophobia is all the worse. Black and Muslim students are bearing the brunt of a reactionary, racist agenda while freedom of speech across the board is curtailed. I believe this is a recipe for ‘extremism’, not a solution,” said NUS Vice-President Shelly Asquith.
British Minister for Universities and Science Jo Johnson expressed “disappointment” at the decision, calling on all British universities to abide by the “legal duty” that the government has placed on universities.
“Universities represent an important arena for challenging extremist views,” he said in an open letter to the NUS. “It is important there can be active challenge and debate on issues relating to counter terrorism and provisions for academic freedom are part of the Prevent guidance.”
“It is my firm view that we all have a role to play in challenging extremist ideologies and protecting students on campus. Ultimately, the Prevent strategy is about protecting people from radicalisation.”
With the government indicating that it intends to strengthen its counter-extremist narrative and the NUS showing no sign of backing down, university campuses are likely to become a battleground between the government and freedom of speech advocates.
The government’s new policy looks beyond higher education, however, specifically targeting madrassas — religious schools as well as extracurricular classes affiliated with local mosques that are run often with no government oversight.
“In some madrassas we’ve got children being taught that they shouldn’t mix with people of other religions; being beaten; swallowing conspiracy theories about Jewish people. These children should be having their minds opened, their horizons broadened — not having their heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate,” Cameron told the Conservative Party conference.
While the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) — the largest umbrella group of Muslim associations in the United Kingdom — largely welcomed the prime minister’s comments, it criticised targeting madrassas.
“We commend the prime minister for speaking up for a multicultural and multi-faith Britain and we welcome his focus on what more can be done to foster a nation at ease with itself,” MCB said in a statement.
“However we are concerned at the prime minister’s targeting of the supplementary schools. It is neither Islamic, nor prevalent, in madrassas to be isolationist or to preach hate of other faiths,” the group, which represents a number of madrassas said, calling on the government to substantiate its allegations with evidence.
“[But] we recognise that there is room for improvement as many of these establishments are under-resourced, understaffed and are often not properly trained and supported. In that regard, we welcome the government’s interest to support them in these provisions,” the statement added.