Against Complacency: new article on the MCB’s Soundings

A revised version of my blog article, Theresa May and Coalition Government accused of ‘complacency’ over re-hashing failed New Labour policies has now been published on the MCB’s Soundings web-page as part of its PREVENT 2011: towards informed responses feature. You can view the revised version, Against Complacency, by clicking here.

As well as my own article, there will soon be responses to the Coalition Government’s review of the Prevent strategy posted from such commentators as Richard Jackson, David Tyrer, Shamim Miah, Alana Lentin, Derek McGhee, Fahid Qurashi, Yahya Birt, Yunis Alam, Katherine E. Brown and Laura Zahra McDonald amongst others. Already published is an article by my colleague Basia Spalek entitled, A Top Down Approach.

I have reproduced the revised version of my own article below:

Against Complacency

It was interesting that the Home Secretary, Theresa May pre-empted the launch of the Coalition Government’s review and revised Prevent strategy by criticising universities for their apparent “complacency” in tackling radicalisation and Islamic extremism on campus. As she told the Daily Telegraph: ‘I think for too long there’s been complacency around universities. I don’t think they have been sufficiently willing to recognise what can be happening on their campuses and the radicalisation that can take place. I think there is more that universities can do’.

For a Government that was to announce its new thinking, ideas and strategy merely a day later, a Government that had previously stressed the ‘need [for] a strategy that is effective and properly focused’ to tackle the problem of extremism, it was therefore somewhat bizarre to think that they chose to pre-empt this apparent new thinking by re-hashing and re-stating a much criticised and widely rejected New Labour “innovation”. Back in 2006, the former Higher Education minister, Bill Rammell put forward the idea that academics could ‘spy’ on students they suspected of being involved in Islamic extremism and supporting terrorist violence. This was also around the time that the former Home Secretary John Reid was asking Muslim parents in east London to look out for the ‘tell-tale’ signs of extremism in their children.

Neither Rammell nor Reid though were able to elaborate on what these “tell-tale signs” might look like.

As a taste of what was to come, May’s regurgitated ideas did not instil confidence that the Coalition had been able to muster the necessary new thinking, ideas and strategy that would ensure that the addressing of violent extremism might be ‘effective and properly focused’.
Now that the review and revised strategy has been launched, it is clear that a paucity of new ideas and thinking underpins the way forward for the Coalition.

But May’s pre-emptive strike is symptomatic of much that is problematic with both the previous New Labour and current Coalition governments’ approaches to tackling extremism.

Most prominent is the fact that there is very little hard evidence of how significant or widespread the issues are. On the apparent extremism and radicalisation on university campuses, what May says that universities must “recognise what can be happening on their campuses and the radicalisation that can take place”. But what ‘can be happening’ is significantly different to what is or even might be happening. In fact most people are merely a click or two on Google away from an extremist website or message – Anjem Choudary’s extremism can be regularly found on the websites of the Daily Mail and Daily Express – so this ‘can be happening’ is happening almost anywhere: this is not exclusive to universities.

Rather than making simplistic and lazy assumptions about what ‘can be happening’, what do we know ‘is’ actually happening on our campuses?

On reflection, the evidence is far from convincing. Some clearly goes against what May was suggesting.

First off, in her charge of “complacency” May states that more than 30% of people convicted of Al-Qaida associated terrorist offences went to university. What she seems to have overlooked is that around 40% of all young people go to university in today’s UK. Consequently, the number of those convicted and who went to university is less than the national average. To compound the farcical nature of these comments, 100% of those convicted went to school. Why then is May not suggesting we tackle what ‘can be happening’ in the school system?

To question the credibility of May’s allegations even further, in February this year the Universities minister David Willetts stated quite categorically to the Freedom of Speech on Campus stated, ‘Universities have a legally defined role to secure freedom of speech and promote academic freedom’ which is fundamental to their role in society. And while ‘views expressed within universities, whether by staff, students or visitors, may sometimes appear to be extreme or even offensive […] unless views can be expressed they cannot also be challenged’.

We cannot therefore be complacent in defending academic freedom or indeed the freedom of speech of others. It is, to coin a phrase of the new Prevent strategy, a British value. Nor indeed must we be complacent in rejecting the lazy and overly simplistic “solutions” that some politicians seem to constantly be peddling.

Chris Allen is Research Fellow in the Institute of Applied Social Studies of the School of Social Policy at the University of Birmingham. Islamophobia, his latest book, is published by Ashgate (2010). (Disclaimer: Please note that this article reflects the personal views of Chris Allen and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Birmingham).

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