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PREVENT leads to flagging of essential reading material: time to be worried?

PREVENT leads to flagging of essential reading material: time to be worried?

Categories: Latest News

Wednesday November 14 2018

The PREVENT strategy has once again come under scathing criticism, after it was revealed that it had inadvertently led to the flagging of an essay at the University of Reading that was listed as “essential” reading for a module and is widely considered to be a mainstream leftwing political piece.

The essay was produced by the late Professor Norman Geras, a renowned left-wing political theorist, entitled: “Our Morals: The Ethics of Revolution”. The controversial Professor was often referred to as “Stormin’ Norm” for his aggressive pro-left pro-war stance.

The lecturer at University of Reading, who chose to include the piece as essential reading within the third year Justice and Injustice Politics module, at the time unaware that it may fall foul of the PREVENT duty, sent the following message to the students:

Dear students,

As you will probably be aware, the last of the nine substantive topics considered in this module is the permissibility and appropriateness of revolutionary violence. As a result, the material covered in the module falls within the University’s understanding of its legal responsibilities under the UK Government’s PREVENT programme, which is designed to reduce the threat terrorism poses to the UK.

It is not possible to discuss the possibility of permissible revolutionary violence without considering defences of the idea that some revolutionary violence is permissible and even justified.

I am very sorry that you have to do this. I was informed of this policy after I had put together the module for this year, and would have thought differently about what I included if I had known of its requirements. Please let me know if you have any questions”.

Waqas Tufail, a senior lecturer at Leeds Beckett University, has said: “This text was authored by a mainstream, prominent academic who was well-regarded in his field, who was a professor at Manchester for many years and whose obituary was published in the Guardian. This case raises huge concerns about academic freedom and students’ access to material, and it raises wider questions about the impact of Prevent”.

The University of Reading took the step to flag the piece as a cause for concern under the PREVENT duty which levies responsibility on public authorities to have “due regard to the need to prevent individuals from being drawn into terrorism”.

The University stated: “Lecturers must inform students in writing if their course includes a text deemed security-sensitive, and then list which students they expect will have to access the material. As laid out in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, the University of Reading has put policies in place to take steps to prevent students being drawn into terrorism”.

Therefore, the PREVENT duty has come under significant criticism for resulting in the restricted viewing of education material, with this case embodying but another instance of the security strategy’s impact in seemingly curtailing legitimate academic freedom in institutions positioned within our society as being beacons of discussion and critical thought.

This year has also seen both the United Nation (UN)’s Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance and the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Privacy, heavily criticise the PREVENT strategy for the use of “ambiguous definitions of terms like “extremism”, and loose guidelines to the entities implementing the strategy”.

The former rapporteur, Ms E. Tendayi Achiume, noted that the impact of PREVENT on education is clearly discernible when looking at where referrals originate from; highlighting that “the biggest number of referrals (one third) came from the education sector”. In effect, lecturers are being coerced into acting as defacto counterextremism officials and flagging thought-crime instead of focusing on fostering open debate and discussion.

Notable cases highlighting the ineffectuality of the strategy include the case of ‘Rahmaan Mohammadi’ and ‘Mohammed Umar Farooq’.

In the first case, a 17-year old, Rahmaan Mohammadi, was flagged up because of his solidarity with Palestine. Mr Mohammadi was distributing leaflets outside his school highlighting the need for humanitarian intervention in Gaza due to the lack of water and food in the area. His leaflets were confiscated and was questioned by a staff member described as a ‘special constable’ responsible for PREVENT referrals in his school.

In a further case, Mohammed Umar Farooq, who was a student at the University of Staffordshire was flagged up by a university staff member for reading a course book on terrorism. Mr Farooq was undertaking a Master’s degree in Terrorism and Security Studies at the time and had explained this to both people during a brief chat. However, subsequent to the chat the staff member complained to the university security that “there [was] a man, who is Asian, and with a beard, who is not a student and is reading a book on terrorism”. The University eventually apologised noting that the incident was the result of PREVENT training which was “devoid of detail” and was underpinned by guidance that contained “insufficient detail to provide clear practical direction”.

MEND urges for the immediate need to conduct an independent root and branch review of PREVENT and all counter-terrorism legislation enacted since 2000.

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