Jesus College Student Union's motion to boycott Prevent was passed unopposed. sadsid94 | Flickr

On the 14th of February, the Jesus College Student Union (JCSU) passed a motion to boycott the government’s Prevent programme at its termly Ordinary General Meeting. The action was a statement against the repressive and discriminatory nature of the programme.

Prevent is the government’s ‘counter-extremism’ strategy, aimed at stopping radicalisation. It was introduced by the Labour government in 2003 as part of a wave of counter-terrorism policies primarily targeting British Muslims. The programme was intensified in 2006, and then made into a legal duty for public sector institutions in 2015 by Cameron’s Conservative government. This means that hospitals, schools and Higher Education institutions are all required to implement the policy.

In a university context, Prevent demands that a supervisor or Director of Studies who suspects a student of having been radicalised is obliged to report them to the programme. It’s important to note that the JCSU’s quarrel is with neither the University of Cambridge nor Jesus College, since they are legally mandated to implement Prevent.

“It operates in the pre-criminal space, trying to stop criminals from becoming so in the first place. It’s about risk elimination.”

Prevent doesn’t deal with people who want to commit violence or criminal actions - it aims to identify people who might want to in the future. That means that it operates in the pre-criminal space, trying to stop criminals from becoming so in the first place. It’s about risk elimination.

The problem, of course, is that the government can’t actually predict the future and identify who’s going to turn to violence; the science behind Prevent is faulty. Government statistics show that around 90% of referrals are false positives; only 1 in 10 people referred to Prevent should have been so according to the government’s own criteria.

Imagine if we had a Covid-19 testing system where 90% of positive test results were false positives; we would scrap it immediately. What’s more, the 90% figure doesn’t even tell the full story: there are thousands of Prevent-related interventions that occur within institutions, only to be dropped and left out of the official statistics, meaning that Prevent affects far more people than government data shows.

The collateral damage of all of this is hard to overstate: we’re looking at thousands of innocent people, many of them students and children, who are interrogated needlessly based on the paranoia and bias of someone at their school, university or hospital. Examples reported in the media aren’t hard to find. In 2016 an 8-year-old boy was questioned by Prevent officers because he wore a t-shirt displaying an Arabic name that his teachers mistook for ISIS propaganda; the boy was scared to attend school after the incident.

“Prevent cultivates a climate of fear and encourages self-censorship.”

Then there was the fourteen-year-old Muslim pupil who mentioned ‘eco-terrorism’ in a French lesson; he was taken out of class and asked whether he had links with ISIS. And shockingly, in 2020, it emerged that students at De Montfort University in Leicester had their academic essays read by counter-terror police without their knowledge.

Prevent cultivates a climate of fear and encourages self-censorship. If someone you’d usually trust misconstrues something you say or wear and reports you to the programme, leading to you being questioned to determine whether you’re an ‘extremist’, you’re unlikely to speak so freely or dress so casually in the future. Your professional relationships will never be the same again. If you tell others what happened, they’ll be worried about what they say too. A UN Human Rights Council report, unsurprisingly, described Prevent as being ‘inconsistent with the principle of the rule of law’; it doesn’t treat people as presumptively innocent, but as potential criminals.

“The concept of ‘pre-crime’ is intrinsically flawed and should be opposed regardless of who it’s directed at.”

Despite its colour-blind rhetoric, Prevent is also deeply discriminatory, with innocent Muslims disproportionately targeted under the programme. It’s not hard to see why; Islam and Muslimness are commonly associated with ‘terrorism’ in public discourse, so Prevent effectively forces people to act on their biases and prejudices. The policy was originally designed specifically to target Muslims, and Tarek Younis argues that it operates upon ‘a long-standing logic in which Western Muslims are in need of constant assimilatory monitoring and interventions’. France’s President Macron, in line with the Republic’s evermore extreme and coercive brand of secularism, recently demanded that mosques sign a ‘Charter of Principles’ supporting a ‘French Republican Islam’. Britain is far less repressive, but Prevent was conceived of according to the same logic.

Defenders of Prevent often point out that it also aims to combat the far-right, but that doesn’t make it better. The concept of ‘pre-crime’ is intrinsically flawed and should be opposed regardless of who it’s directed at. How can we trust a government policy to tackle the far-right when our own Prime Minister made remarks about Muslim women in 2018 that led to a dramatic rise in hate crimes against them?


Mountain View

The terror threat posed by the far-right must be taken seriously

As if to deliberately affirm Prevent’s racist credentials, the government recently appointed William Shawcross to lead its review of the programme. Shawcross has previously parroted the far-right trope that more Muslims mean more terrorism and said that ‘Europe and Islam is one of the greatest…most terrifying problems of our future’. If that wasn’t bad enough, he’s also written a book in defence of Guantanamo Bay and torturing terror suspects.

In light of all of this, the JCSU committee has concluded that it doesn’t wish to have any involvement with the Prevent programme in College. The goal of the boycott is simply to raise awareness about the problems with Prevent. We don’t have much power in opposing it, since it’s a government policy. But there is one thing that we can do: clearly demonstrate our contempt for the programme.

We’ve carefully considered the implications of this boycott. We’ll still be working with College on its safeguarding committee - we just won’t take part in conversations where Prevent is involved. It’s a discriminatory and repressive policy that represents a huge overreach of state power and violation of civil liberties. Prevent doesn’t have any place in this country, and the more people who oppose it, the better.