Does Prevent really reinforce negative views of Islam and Muslims?

14th July 2020

A new study, ‘Islam and Muslims on UK University Campuses: perceptions and challenges’, has been published. The research which underpins the report is led by SOAS University of London working with Lancaster, Durham and Coventry Universities.

The report has been framed by the authors as a critique of the Prevent programme. Indeed, a press release has been distributed, which is entitled: “Prevent reinforces negative views of Islam and Muslims”. Their headline conclusion is the Prevent should be scrapped:

We believe there is a strong argument for Prevent to be discontinued in its current form. The evident damage this programme has done to university life clearly calls for a rethink at the policy level. Prevent has caused significant harm by reinforcing common stereotypes of Islam and Muslims and by curbing freedoms of speech and expression on campus.

However, the emergent problems run deeper than this. Within the cultural imagination, including on campus, a close link between Muslims, radicalisation and terrorism is already firmly embedded. The evidence discussed in this report underlines the close relationship between belief in a narrative of suspicion about Islam, support for Prevent and patterns of Islamophobia. Moreover, and despite many critical voices, a minority among university staff and students are convinced that Prevent is a sensible solution to a very real problem. A change in policy alone will most likely do little to redress entrenched  prejudice and uncritical acceptance of claims made by media, campaigners and politicians that Islam is a social problem and Muslims a suspect community. For this reason, our recommendations (set out at the start of this report) focus on culture change within universities

Apologies for being blunt: but the SOAS research does not support the conclusions that the authors seek to draw from it.  It does not demonstrate that suspicion about Islam or Muslims is a product of support for Prevent, or the Prevent programme itself. It does not show that Prevent “reinforces stereotypes” about Muslims. 

The cart has been put before the horse. It is considerably more likely that support for Prevent results from domestic islamist terrorism than from the prejudice and bigotry of undergraduates. 

Indeed, the report notes that “the most striking finding here is that such a large proportion of students stated that they had never heard of Prevent (a majority of 59%)”. That figure is in line with similar studies relating to awareness of Prevent that have surveyed the population in general. It is difficult to see how Prevent can have such a baleful influence, if most students haven’t heard of it at all.   

The game is rather given away by the response of the authors of the report  to the finding that – of students who had heard of Prevent – only 9% agreed with the statement: “Prevent is damaging to university life and other approaches should be taken to tackle security concerns and terrorism’”. They state:

This is a striking finding: given the high profile and impassioned campaigns against Prevent within some universities, it is remarkable that less than 10% of those respondents familiar with Prevent unequivocally condemn this government strategy. 

It is indeed rather “striking” that the report should take this position. It is almost as if they were surprised to discover that many British university students are concerned about islamist terrorism, and think that it should be addressed by their institution. From that revelation, the report then goes on to speculate as to why students might have such worries, and argues backwards to produce a wholly unsupported conclusion: that Prevent is in part to blame and should therefore be scrapped. 

It is similarly “striking” that the authors of the report have cited Asim Qureshi, of CAGE – an agitator against Prevent who famously described Jihadi John as a “beautiful young man” – as an academic authority. 

Another “striking” observation that the SOAS report fails to make is that the authors’ opposition to Prevent is completely out of step with those of British Muslims in general. In the Crest Advisory report, published earlier this year, it was revealed that:

36% of British Muslims said they supported the principle of Prevent being focussed in large part on Muslims communities due to the threat of extreme Islamist terrorism. A further 38% said that while they also supported this principle, they had some concerns about it.

We can compare those figures with the level of agreement with the following two statements in the SOAS report:

Among those of our respondents who said they had heard of Prevent, a variety of views were expressed, falling across these contrasting statements. 30.1% agreed that ‘Prevent is essential to protecting the security of our universities and combatting terrorism’; 44.9% agreed that ‘Prevent can be helpful in tackling these issues but can be damaging to universities if not implemented sensitively’

Although the two sets of questions are not identical, it appears that attitudes towards Prevent are as positive among British Muslims as among university undergraduates.  

There are two quite remarkable omissions from this report:

  • The depressing saga of the tour of islamist hate preachers who have incited against minority groups around British universities.
  • The equally worrying catalogue of students at British universities who have engaged in terrorism. 

It is astonishing that a panel of academics has taken funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to conduct research into “Islam on Campus”: but yet have ignored these two issues. It has apparently not occurred to the authors that these two factors might have, to some extent at least, fed into attitudes towards both Islam and Prevent. 

Let us take the two issues in turn. 

In our report for the Commission for Countering Extremism, we examined a speaking circuit consisting of a series of preachers with a deep attachment to islamist political and religious theory toured a number of British institutions. Their preferred solution to contemporary problems besetting Muslims includes the advocacy of a single caliphate that implemented “the Sharia”. Many of these preachers engaged in hate speech towards minorities: in particular Jews and other non-Muslims, and gay people. 

We restricted our paper to a limited number of preachers, although there were other individuals and organisations which had to be excluded, for reasons of space. Those who spoke at university Islamic Societies (ISOCs) included the following:

  • Anwar Al-Awlaki, the deceased Al Qaeda recruiter, was hosted by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies at its 2003 Annual Conference. Various university Islamic societies affiliated to FOSIS, including those at City University London and the University of Westminster attempted, successfully or otherwise, to broadcast video messages from Awlaki. 
  • Khalid Al-Fikry has been hosted at Kingston University
  • Haitham Al-Haddad has been hosted at a number of ISOCs, including City University
  • Murtaza Khan has been hosted at Queen Mary 
  • Uthman Lateef has been hosted at the University of East London , Kings College , Kingston, Royal Holloway, Queen Mary and SOAS
  • Bilal Philips was hosted at Queen Mary before he was banned from the United Kingdom
  • Abuz Zubair was hosted at Queen Mary 

A few examples of statements by these preachers will suffice to give an impression of their political orientation. 

Haitham Al Haddad:

Why do we need caliphate? We need caliphate because caliphate runs the true Islamic system….We say that we want the Islamic caliphate because the Islamic caliphate represents the true Islam

Khalid al-Fikry:

Every Muslim wishes to be under the umbrella of Khilafah Islamiyyah [Islamic Caliphate], means shari’ah, means the Islamic law as a whole…. [This] comes with the hudud [corporal punishments], how to deal with a thief, or to deal with a zani [adulterer], to deal with a murtad [apostate], and so on.

Uthman Lateef:

They will sell you a democratic Islam, a socialist Islam, a social democratic Islam, every Islam except the Islam of Mohammed. Beware of the new things, right? The redefined, repackaged Islam. The so-called Islam that speaks of the abolition of Shari’ah, like we don’t need Shari’ah anymore. The so-called Islam that speaks about the fact that sovereignty does not belong to Allah. ….Don’t let these people be a cause of misguidance for you. Don’t let these people be a cause of fitna [strife] for you. Deception!

Murtaza Khan:

When the time is right, [be] stern towards the disbelievers. I am not promoting these views, even in the hadith you will find that you walk in the road, when Muslims are dominant, they made sure that the non-Muslims were pushed against the wall. 

Abuz Zubair was involved in a campaign against my friend, Sheikh Usama Hasan, who had declared that accepting the validity of the theory of evolution was not incompatible with Islam. He concluded that “the call to evolution is a call to kufr and apostasy from Islam” and stated:

“if there is absolutely no other way of stopping this person except execution, then this person should be executed because he is an apostate and apostates are executed.”

The presence of hate preachers at university ISOCs does not appear in the report. Instead, there are merely some high level concerns relating to the impact of Prevent on freedom of expression. 

Had the Principal Investigator of the report, Professor Alison Scott-Baumann of SOAS, cared to turn her eyes to her own institution, she would have found that her university’s ISOC is one of the most prolific hosts of hate preachers and extremists in the country. To give one example: a few years ago, SOAS Muslim Students Association held a “Brothers Behind Bars” event that highlighted “the plight of Muslim Prisoners in the War on Terror”. Alongside CAGE’s Moazzam Begg, the meeting featured the son of a convicted terrorist, Munir Farooqi. This is why Mr Farooqui was imprisoned:

Three judges at the court of appeal in London rejected a challenge brought by Munir Farooqi, who was given four life sentences in September 2011 at Manchester crown court.

Farooqi, of Longsight, Manchester, was at the centre of a plot to radicalise and persuade vulnerable young men to “fight, kill and die” in a jihad in Afghanistan.

Mr Farooqi is reported to have held strong views on the subject of Jews:

He believed that Jews were the “Shaitan” (devil)”, and would eventually be killed by Jesus.

At the event, a large banner was displayed with a call to “Free Munir Farooqi” who, it was claimed, was “framed by undercover police”. 

In our report, we concluded that is not proper to draw a direct link between the appearance of a preacher who promoted the ideal of a Caliphate at a particular institution, and a particular student’s decision to engage in terrorism. However, we noted that a number of graduates of British universities have committed terrorist offences or travelled to Syria to join terrorist groups.

In 2010, Hannah Stuart listed a number of former ISOC Presidents and officers at British universities who have been convicted of terrorism, or died while carrying out their attack. They include the following individuals:

Students at British universities convicted of terrorism offences or otherwise involved in terrorism include:

Since 2010, the list has continued to grow. We could add Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab of University College, London, for example. Last year, Zakariyya Elogbani, a captured ISIS terrorist who had attended the University of Westminster told the BBC that seven of his fellow students had joined the terrorist group. One of those students, Ishak Mostefaoui, was killed only this week. Students will have read news stories featuring such horrors prior to and during the course of their time at university. 

Yet none of this information features in the new report. There is no discussion of the impact on student attitudes of the presence of hate preachers on campus or the holding events in support of convicted terrorists. Terrorism – as the report puts it – “attributed to Islamic extremists” is considered only as a negative stereotype about Islam that some students may hold.  The distinct impression created by the report is that the authors do not think that islamist terrorism is a problem at all: except to the extent that it may feed in to bigotry against Muslims.

There is one final absurdity at the heart of the SOAS report. Although it is disturbing that some people take a blanket, negative view of Islam, the report shows that, broadly speaking, students have positive views about Muslims and Islam. The following table shows the percentages of students who agree with a set of six statements:

The statements themselves consist of broad generalisations about Islam: which is a diverse religious tradition. An intelligent student might object to being asked these questions at all. One might give dramatically different answers to them in relation to the Sunni takfiri jihadist tradition and the Ismaili tradition. Students have been forced by the researchers into binary choices containing generalisations about Islam and Muslims which they may well not have wished to make. 

A more fruitful approach to the question of attitudes towards Muslims and Islam would involve the following elements. First, the diversity of Islam and of Muslim culture should be acknowledged. Secondly, the issue of hate preachers and students who have engaged in terrorism should have been discussed. Finally, consideration should have been given as to the best way to differentiate the plurality of Islamic belief and practice from the narrow teachings of islamist hate preachers and takfiri jihadist groups. 

That would have been a better use of the funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.