London saw some of the most exceptional minds congregated on the 23rd of May. The event was run by the British Muslims for Secular Democracy, who informed attendees that an honest and thorough exchange from a group of people – including academics, organisations, activists, and policy makers – was sorely needed for a symposium on a crucial part of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy – Prevent. Some of those invited were in favour of Prevent, some were against, and many were undecided.
Most of the four-hour event addressed the most controversial aspect of Prevent. Inordinate amounts of vexing and irritation centred on the fact that Prevent confers a controversial statutory duty upon teachers (alongside prison officers, social workers, and NHS managers) to spot signs of ‘non-violent extremism’. Not only teachers, but nursery staff also have a statutory duty to spot children who could be vulnerable to radicalisation. When suspicions arise, those who are suspected of ‘non-violent extremism’ are referred to the government’s anti-radicalisation program, Channel.
Before attending, however, I took it upon myself to investigate this controversial part of Prevent. I had an importunate question that needed to be answered: how many young people have been referred to Channel since it was launched? What I unearthed was terrifying! Figures obtained by the Press Association last year showed that as much as eight people a day were being referred. Moreover, from the beginning of 2015 to October 2015, 1,355 people aged under 18 were referred compared with 466 in the previous 12 months.
Not only were various attendees in a stew about this particular part of Prevent, various academics, journalists, teachers and parents have, over the years, also vocally expressed their distaste towards a policy that many deem irredeemably controversial and deeply flawed. They argue that it demonises Muslims, it stifles debate, and it makes teachers feel vulnerable. Moreover, many have argued that there’s various problems given what appears to be overt areas of ambiguity within the policy – as well as misapplication, and excessive amounts of inappropriate referrals.
Many of those who take issue with Prevent are quick to show that despite the fact that Muslims make up just 5% of the population, data from the National Police Chiefs Council shows that 67% of those referred for suspected “radicalisation” between 2007-2010 were Muslim. Between 2012-13 this figure was 57% (compared to 14% of cases involving far-right extremism). Given these discrepancies, they argue that an unpardonably disproportionate number of Muslims are being targeted.
Many have also argued that the statutory duty undermines the very ethos and relationship of mutual trust and openness that are fundamental to education and our public services whilst endangering other legal rights and protections. Such worries have been shared by various luminaries, including Jenny Jones from the Green Party, Dr Douglas Chalmers, Professor Arun Kundnani and others.
What is more, those who have a grievance against Prevent argue that the strategy is excessively misapplied – shown by the fact that 80 percent of referrals to Channel are deemed inappropriate and turned aside to other services, and children as young as three years old have been referred to Channel.
However, those in favour of Prevent argue the point, and quite persuasively, that teachers have a duty of care to protect vulnerable young people from terrorism in a similar way as they have a duty of care to protect them from other dangerous things – such as drugs, physical and sexual abuse, etc.
They are also keen to point out that the terrorist threat at present is severe – meaning that a terrorist attack is highly likely. Surely, they argue, such preventative measures are necessary.
Not only that, but they point to the fact that according to British authorities, at least 800 people from the UK – an alarming number – have travelled to support or fight for jihadist organisations in Syria and Iraq. Of those, approximately 190 who have gone have lost their lives.
Those who support Prevent might even be willing to argue that the disproportionate number of referrals is justified. It could be argued that because 97% of those 122 people in prison for terrorist-related offences identify as Muslim, there is obviously a problem within certain regressive strands of the religion that warrant such a lopsided application of the strategy.
What, though, is my position on Prevent after having attended the event? Well, despite all the arguments I heard, I still felt that the statutory duty it places on teachers is unworkable. Indeed, I think that there is pressing danger that it might have the dire consequence of creating sanitised environments for debate due to the fact that many young people – particularly Muslims – could be too afraid to vocalise their views in fear of being referred to Channel.
After having heard a government advisor defend Prevent – as well as having thoroughly read through the policy – I couldn’t remove my conviction that the Government is a little too narrow-minded in its assessment of what it deems to be the causes of terrorism – particularly religiously-motivated terrorism. Whilst religious scripture, poverty, social deprivation, and foreign politics might all be sufficient explanations for such noxious mind-sets, I suspect that many other explanations have been overlooked- including mental health problems.
If there was one idea that the event constantly propounded in my mind it was that there should be an investigation regarding the effects of cultivating critical thinking in young people and the effects of establishing environments conducive to critical debate in the school curriculum for the sake of – amongst other reasons – forestalling susceptible mind-sets from falling victim to extremist narratives.
Most people would likely agree that environments conducive to open dialogue within schools, colleges and universities are an imperative constituent in the fight against terrorism. I think that the recent establishment of the #Right2Debate campaign reflects how important many people hold such a view to be. It’s imperative because open dialogue (and what this open dialogue affords – critical debate) plays an important role in challenging noxious narratives and ensuring that they don’t go ‘underground’, so to speak.
Even though environments conducive to open dialogue are important, having a proficient capacity to think critically is absolutely essential within such environments. This twofold factor – critical thinking and open dialogue – can be acquired, I think, through teaching young people philosophy.
Would teaching philosophy, however, actually have any impact? Interestingly, there are various studies that investigate the positive effects of teaching philosophy in schools. In 2007, British psychologists carried out a systematic review of such a thing. They found that when young people were taught philosophy at a young age they demonstrated a considerable development in their cognitive ability, they became better critical thinkers, there was an increased dialogue in the classroom, and a considerable development in their emotional and social skills.
I think that it is critical thinking which is particularly pertinent when it comes to the issue of Prevent. Most terrorism is committed by way of ideologically motivated reasoning that has overt degrees of closed-mindedness concerning other perspectives. By contrast, critical thinking is disciplined, clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.
Showing a clear increase in dialogue and, most importantly, an improvement in critical thinking, this study and others certainly points to a pressing need to further investigate whether being taught philosophy would help to immunise young people from the threat of terrorism. However, as many in education will attest – especially those working in universities – education is becoming ever more career-oriented at the expense of character-development.
Now, I do think that this should be the statutory duty placed on teachers i.e., enhancing the critical thinking of students and creating educational environments conducive to open dialogue and critical debate through teaching philosophy. I also think that other methods should be done in conjunction with this approach. What this could be I am not sure. However, I do not think that the current statutory duty placed on teachers is achieving what is required.
Even though I was informed various times by the Government advisor at the symposium that debate and character building is of paramount importance to the Government in its attempts to extirpate terrorism from our country, I was still of the opinion – like many other academics and activists – that the Government is comprehensively failing to exhibit this in its Prevent strategy.
When it comes to preventing terrorism, the statutory duty that we need to see conferred upon our teachers is for them to ensure that our country’s young people exhibit independent, educated and critical minds – such things do not come about in virtue of what it thinks, but in how it thinks. Young people need to have the tools to see the importance of having one’s beliefs proportion to the evidence, to see the importance of having an implacable smidgen of scepticism paired to every all-encompassing ideal, and to be readily receptive to having their views challenged whilst, simultaneously, prompt in challenging the views of others in a constructive, accommodating and deeply informed way.