When we started our investigation into racism at Oxford (see 3rd week’s issue of Cherwell), PREVENT and specifically its impact on Muslim students and students of colour was something we were certain we wanted to look into. Yet the wealth of testimonies and statements we found concerning PREVENT just proved too much to fit into the investigation, and this was certainly a topic we didn’t want to skim over. With three different testimonials from Oxford students describing their treatment under PREVENT, a statement from the Islamic Society on the specific ties between Islamophobia and PREVENT, and an interview with Sandy Downs, OUSU’s VP for Welfare and Equal Opportunities, this investigation may be published a little unconventionally but certainly has plenty of important content for considering one of the most controversial pieces of legislation concerning education in our lifetime.
In last year’s political climate, I thought it would be pertinent to organise an event on religion and religious discrimination. The event was supposed to invoke an open discussion, and involved a panel of speakers providing information on the topic. I’d booked lots of rooms in college before, and had never had any issues. This event involved a brief discussion of religious ideology, centring around Islam. The event title immediately caught the attention of staff in the administrative office. I was called in to meet with college staff to discuss the event for two reasons: I had to provide a list of the speakers I was inviting, for risk assessment reasons. But I was also questioned on the speakers’ and on my own beliefs, to find out whether I followed a ‘certain line’. This was a bizarre experience, and made me feel like an outsider in my own university – and this was before PREVENT had even been officially implemented. The rhetoric surrounding the PREVENT duty had only served to reinforce the implicit biases of those in the University. It continues to particularly discriminate against students who are already from marginalised communities, stopping their complete engagement in political and religious discourse.
I was working on the committee of a large student society at Oxford, which represents and holds events for a minority group. I looked forward to hosting some of our events at my college, expecting that they would be supportive of my efforts to bring authentic diversity to the space. I attempted to book a room for a Freshers’ Meet and Greet, but was told that the society needed to provide a full guest list 24 hours in advance. Of course it’s almost impossible to guest list many social events, let alone ones where new members will be invited for the first time. Many reasonable suggestions made by me and a friendly member of college staff — including having an agreeing member of staff supervise the door and throughout the event — fell on deaf ears. I eventually received an email telling me “the event was impossible without a guest list because of our legal duty to abide by PREVENT. All Colleges across the University must screen guest lists before they offer an event for security purposes”, and there was nothing they could do: they said, “our hands are simply tied on this one”. Being denied the ability to host at the space for Prevent reasons felt bad enough, especially with our events now almost jeopardised for this lack of cooperation. It was yet more disappointing to realise that this was also in fact a misinterpretation of what authorities are really obligated to do, but this incident showed me how much over-reach there is with PREVENT.
At the end of my working day, upon returning to my flat, I was told by a flatmate that after the normal cleaning hours the housekeeper and two scouts had entered my room, and spent approximately 25 minutes opening and closing various cupboards and drawers, presumably inspecting the room. I was also informed that the scouts were given specific instructions on ‘signs to look out for’, in relation solely to my room, and that you did not enter any of the other rooms of the flat. I believe it is well within my rights to understand why there has been a sudden and particular interest in me, my belongings, and my room. I am very concerned that this sudden inspection of my room and invasion of my privacy happened as a result of the scouts overhearing my prayers, which I read in Punjabi (since I have been raise Sikh), and therefore profiling me based on my race and religion. If this inspection is in any way related to the PREVENT strategy, it is my legal right to demand to be informed of this.
Yet my college is giving me conflicting accounts of what happened and is above all refusing to identify this as happening under the PREVENT strategy. I have been told in person that the scouts are PREVENT trained, whereas this was denied by the college. I was shown CCTV of who went in and out of the building that day, but it didn’t feature things I definitely know happened such as scouts leaving later in the afternoon when I’d got back and saw them cleaning the flat next door. Therefore I think the CCTV footage I was shown was edited, but I didn’t say this because I didn’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, so I just dropped it. My college chaplain and senior subject tutor have both assured me this is not related to PREVENT, which is very confusing. As a survivor of sexual assault, it is particularly unsettling to feel as though my personal space is completely disrespected by the college and I do not feel safe. Yet despite me informing the college of this, my room seems to have been searched again this term (3 months after the original incident), since my diary and literature on Islamic feminism had been disrupted and my door was locked although I had left it open.
This is in a broader context of staff acting differently this year. My boyfriend is always asked for his Bod Card when he comes to visit, and when two Muslim friends (who are people of colour) came to visit the porters made them register their names, addresses and phone numbers. I feel unsafe in college but I am unable to speak up about what is happening.
Interview with Sandy Downs OUSU VP WEO
What is happening with PREVENT at Oxford Uni?
The university is bound to comply with the PREVENT duty, but they are doing the bare minimum in order to limit its impact on the freedoms of students and staff. Consequently, PREVENT has only resulted in two policy changes. One is to the code of practice for meetings and events, although actually this needed to be updated anyway. PREVENT only comes into it quite vaguely, in stating that rooms or events in the university cannot be intended to draw people into terrorism. The other is to the IT policy. There had been a suggestion from HEFCE [the Higher Education Funding Council for England, who oversee prevent] that this should involve monitoring of emails and searches online, but the university has absolutely refused on that front. Once again, the only change is a specific reference to not allowing people to use university platforms to draw others into terrorism.
HEFCE has been in charge of checking up on policy at a college level, so each college has its own policy which it gave to HEFCE. We don’t have an overview of college policy, and are often told colleges don’t have a PREVENT policy, because people aren’t aware of it. The university policy is about as good as it can be, but there is an issue with what different colleges may be implementing.
What impact does PREVENT have on the welfare of students?
What’s really scary is the atmosphere created by PREVENT. It feeds into the growing Islamophobia which is having a huge impact on the welfare of Muslim students, as well as specifically feeding into the insidious tradition of Islamophobic legislation in this country.
What’s really scary is the atmosphere created by PREVENT
Hypothetically, there would be huge welfare concerns if PREVENT were being fully implemented and people were being referred. But this looks very unlikely to happen in Oxford in the current climate. A more specific worry is regarding the counselling service, and that PREVENT could mean any “signs of radicalisation” were a reason to break confidentiality. Although once again this is being mitigated in Oxford, it still impacts the likelihood of Muslim students accessing counselling if they are concerned that they might get reported.
What have OUSU and the university been doing to look after the welfare of students and staff?
The main thing has been developing training on PREVENT for staff which emphasises the risks of implementing the duty. So the training focuses on the human rights, education and freedom of speech legislation which PREVENT contradicts, and why they are more important to the university than PREVENT. The point of this is basically to inform staff abut PREVENT so that they won’t use it. I sit on the PREVENT steering group, so have been developing and delivering this training along with staff.
OUSU has been supporting the Preventing PREVENT campaign, so we have been working on an educational video for students about their rights and including some case studies about incidents in Oxford. We’ve been trying to get people to report incidents of PREVENT being used against them, either to the Preventing PREVENT Gmail account or directly to me, and we encourage that in any situation which could be vaguely linked to PREVENT.
I would stress that the university are doing quite well on this, and are very open to being contacted by anyone about PREVENT because they are incredibly concerned about how this is affecting students.
Statement from ISoc, Oxford University Islamic Society
PREVENT is legislation designed to guide bodies such as schools and universities to forestall ‘extremism’ and ‘radicalisation’ of people in its care. In its implementation, however, it is a mandate for educational institutions to surveil and monitor its Muslim students. Some of the extremist warning signs that PREVENT advises teachers and lecturers to watch out for are sudden changes in clothing, hobbies, or friendship groups. But there is a sinister side.
We’ve all heard the reports- the 14-year-old interrogated for mentioning the word ‘eco-terrorism’ in a discussion on environmental activism; the calling of anti-terror police to question a schoolboy wearing a ‘Free Palestine’ badge; the student of terrorism studies at Nottingham University arrested for studying books on terrorism. All of them involve the abuse of the arbitrary power PREVENT gives educational institutions.
We in the Islamic Society recognise that for all the talk of rights and free speech, affecting every student, the Muslim Community is the principal target for the legislation. It has been introduced to arbitrarily police the boundaries of our free speech, and demobilise our political voices. It has aimed to raise the costs of Muslim activism and engagement, and increase the precariousness of our place in British society.
In Oxford, the current implementation of PREVENT is having exactly these effects. We’ve already received reports of Muslim students not being able to hold events to talk about Islamophobia, of being interrogated by porters about the kind of Islam they believe in when booking rooms, of the refusal of College deans to allow Muslim students to host events on Palestine. However, again, the individual cases shouldn’t mask the overall, macro-effects: We have seen first-hand how the atmosphere amongst Muslim students seeking to get involved in political activism has shifted towards extreme precaution and fear – the so-called ‘chilling-effect’ of the legislation.
Students from abroad, already having had to register with the police, are particularly reluctant to demonstrate or organize, or be visibly involved in contentious issues. But even UK Muslims have intimated or demonstrated their desire to keep their heads down and concentrate on their degree, rather than involve themselves in debates over Palestine or the bombing of Syria.
PREVENT is useful for the government. It creates a sense of precarity amongst UK Muslims
PREVENT is useful for the government. It creates a sense of precarity amongst UK Muslims, and obstructs the mobilisation and organisation of a constituency which not only frequently contests British foreign policy, but commonly the neoliberal ethic too. PREVENT ensures that the boundaries of acceptable Muslim discourse on foreign policy are constricted, carefully monitored, shifting and arbitrary. It is little wonder that many Muslims, even at a place like Oxford, decide that the perceived costs of political activism are simply too high.
Thus, naturally, we are disappointed that the University, in implementing PREVENT, did not go far enough to safeguard its Muslim students under the Human Rights Act, Equalities Act, and Education Act. In our view, it has not done enough to consult its Muslim students on the impact of its implementation of PREVENT. We disagree with the attitude that this new law ‘won’t change very much’ because, for us, it already has.
At a time of increased Islamophobia, of a Muslim Ban and post-Brexit surges in hate crimes, a world-class University seeking to attract international talent, advocating free speech, and valuing the welfare of all students and staff has the responsibility to do everything it can to allow Muslim students to express themselves and feel secure by not compromising their welfare and legal rights
We need to fight back and allow all of our students to contribute to the critical debates our country faces, by pressuring our Colleges to uphold the relevant Equality Acts. All of these are law, and any College which implements PREVENT against these acts is acting illegally. We need to monitor closely the uses of PREVENT in Oxford and highlight where it is abused. We need to (at the College and University level) demand non-compliance with this discriminatory legislation, and lobby nationally for its repeal. Muslim students have a wide, rich tradition to draw on and contribute to the discussion. We cannot allow PREVENT to impose a climate of fear on an entire community.
The Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) famously issued the Constitution of Medina, guaranteeing equal rights to minorities, over 1400 years ago. Perhaps the University could evoke the spirit of that document, and assert positively the rights of all students to free speech and inquiry; refuse to implement PREVENT, treat it as a hollow, empty legislation, in name only, and instead make sure that all staff and administrators know that rigid adherence to equality (as prescribed by law) takes precedence. The Oxford community proudly and unconditionally stood with the Muslim community in a recent demonstration –we urge the University to do the same by increasing its resistance to PREVENT.
To report an incident which you think may have involved PREVENT, you can email [email protected] or contact Sandy Downs at OUSU. To find out more about PREVENT, like Preventing PREVENT Oxford on Facebook, look out for the soon to be released OUSU video and attend the panel event in 5th week. The NUS have a hotline for concerns about PREVENT on 07741264037 which you can ring at any time.