APPG Universities - A Comment from Dr Chris Allen

I was invited to the House of Lords to talk to the All Party Parliamentary University Group (APPUG) on Tuesday 23 June about the impact of counter-terror policies on the experience of Muslim students. Established since 1994, the APPUG brings together Members of the House of Commons and Lords with Vice Chancellors and other university representatives to discuss matters affecting Higher Education.

Yesterday’s meeting was in response to the new statutory duties that are to be placed on universities following changes to the Government’s PREVENT programme by the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015. Identifying universities as ‘special authorities’ in trying to prevent people from being drawn into violent extremism and terrorism, universities will – among other things - be required to provide specialist counter-terror training for staff, carry out risk assessments on students that are identified as being vulnerable to extremist ideologies, and provide appropriate welfare programmes for them.

The rationale for this is that university staff are uniquely placed to see the ‘changes’ in the behaviour and outlook of those who have been radicalised.

As I told the APPUG, this was not the first time that the notion of identifiable ‘changes’ had been posited. In fact it was a decade ago that the then Home Secretary, John Reid informed Muslim parents of the need to be vigilant in watching their children for the ‘tell-tale signs’ of extremism. Oft repeated since, no politician has yet come up with a definitive list of what these ‘tell-tale signs’ might be. Unsurprisingly, neither does the new PREVENT guidance.

As I informed the APPUG, this approach is extremely naïve as it implies that if a student becomes ‘more Muslim’, this must be evidence that they have been radicalised. Whether visual – evident in through the growing of a beard or wearing the hijab for example – or vocal – being more religious or political especially in relation to foreign policy or Palestine for instance –, if universities have a duty to identify, monitor and report where necessary students that fit this profile, students who just look ‘Muslim’ may find themselves being unfairly targeted.

There are a number of assumptions that underpin this that are also troubling. The first is that this approach suggests that being ‘more Muslim’ is a bad thing, a point that resonates with the ‘good Muslim/ bad Muslim’ dichotomy that has been a feature of political discourses since 9/11.

If being ‘more Muslim’ is bad, why might this be so? The second assumption then is being ‘more Muslim’ goes against the norm and by consequence, against who ‘we’ are. From my research into Islamophobia, Muslims are routinely understood through various negative stereotypical attributes and characteristics that demarcate ‘them’ from ‘us’, hence why being more ‘them’ can only be seen to be a bad thing.

Finally, because of what is known about these stereotypical attributions and characteristics, where Muslims are seen to be violent, manipulative, anti-Western and supportive of terrorism among others, it appears logical that students who become ‘more Muslim’ should be treated with greater suspicion and mistrust. This again has the very real potential for detrimental consequences.

Katherine Brown and Tania Saeed’s research provides some insight here. As they have shown, even before these new duties many Muslim students saw universities as spaces where covert policing and surveillance was already in place. As their research went on, many Muslim students already feel that they cannot be both publicly Muslim and what might be termed, an ‘ordinary’ student. The new duties have the potential to make the situation therefore even worse.

As IRIS’s Arshad Isakjee rightly notes, approaches to ‘spot’ radicalisation have to date been entirely futile and so too here. In spite of the fact that the ‘tell-tale signs’ continue to appear obvious to politicians, they remain elusive to the rest of us.

However, it is the impact of the even greater scrutiny of Muslim students that is most worrying. Given the current situation, the mere perception that Muslim students will now be subjected to even more monitoring and scrutiny - irrespective of the reality - will present even more barriers to Muslims being just ‘ordinary’ students.

And if so, this will have the potential to reinforce the very basis of those extremist narratives the new duties have been introduced to tackle; that ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’ can never coexist. If, as I predict, Muslims students feel increasingly pressurised, marginalised and excluded as a result of these new duties, then the law is likely to reinforce rather than counter the very same arguments that are used to justify the transition towards being radical and extreme.