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UK accused of 'thought control' over counter-extremism strategy

Campaigners call for widespread opposition to government's Prevent strategy and warn that political dissent is being stifled
Human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce was among speakers at Saturday's conference on the UK government's Prevent strategy (AFP)

Leading lawyers, medical professionals, academics and human rights campaigners in the UK have called for a widespread campaign of opposition to government proposals to outlaw so-called non-violent extremism amid concerns that the plans amount to an unprecedented exercise in “thought control”.

Speaking at a conference in London on Saturday organised by a coalition of groups opposed to the Prevent counter-extremism strategy, human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce said the government was waging a “covert war” on political dissent.

“The UK is further than any other in terms of thought control legislation,” Peirce told the event at Goldsmiths University, warning that there more statutory provisions to criminalise dissent on the way.

Last month the government announced plans for a new counter-extremism bill which if passed would allow for groups and individuals deemed to be extremist to be banned or silenced.

In the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act last year, it also introduced a statutory Prevent duty for teachers, doctors and other public sector workers requiring them to “have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”.

Since then the number of young people referred to the Prevent-linked Channel counter-radicalisation programme has surged, with almost 4,000 referrals logged in 2015 compared with 1,681 in 2014.

The strategy's reputation has been damaged by accusations that it is discriminatory against Muslims and undermines freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

Teachers and doctors have also raised concerns that the duty expects them to spy on students or patients and amounts to a form of surveillance.

On Saturday, organisers of the conference and keynote contributors accused the government of eroding civil liberties and of deepening discrimination against Muslims.

Arun Kundnani, author of The Muslims are Coming! and a researcher on the impact of counter-terrorism policy on Muslim communities, said that the impact of Prevent and the proposed counter-extremism bill had narrowed the space for political dissent and disproportionately targeted Muslims.

“If the government get their way we aren’t going to be able to have meetings like this anymore, because they are trying to say that even getting together to talk about how our civil liberties are being infringed is extremism. They are trying to set the limits of acceptable and unacceptable speech,” said Kundnani.

Speaking hours after famed boxer Muhammad Ali's death had been announced, Kundnani pointed out that Ali and Martin Luther King had been labelled as extremists in the US in the 1960s for opposing the Vietnam War.

The conference was also addressed by Malia Bouattia, who is the president-elect of the National Union of Students and one of the architects of the NUS-backed Students Not Suspects campaign against the implementation of Prevent in universities.

"This conference is an important opportunity for all activists, students and trade unionists who are concerned by Islamophobic legislation and attacks on civil liberties to come together, debate the issues we face, and develop strategies for the year ahead," she said.

Other speakers included Rahman Mohammadi, a teenager who said he had been bullied and harassed by school staff and police officers after wearing a Free Palestine badge and seeking to raise funds for Gaza in the aftermath of Israel's 2014 attack on the Palestinian enclave.

Mohammadi told the conference he had been told by a police officer not to speak about Palestine in school.

The conference drew criticism online from supporters of Prevent and the government's counter-extremism agenda.

Will Baldet, a Prevent coordinator in Leicester, wrote on Twitter that the conference could have been a “vital debate on a vital topic” but added: “Instead the comments all appear a little.....well.....odd.”

Inspire, a counter-extremism organisation with close links to the government, said that an anti-Prevent lobby was promoting “confusion, paranoia and myths about Prevent,” which was undermining safeguarding efforts to protect Muslims from Islamic State (IS) group propaganda.

Advocates argue that Prevent staff are providing vital safeguarding for vulnerable individuals and have reached thousands of people at risk of radicalisation. They also say that it tackles all forms of extremism, including far-right ideology and Islamophobic hatred.

Critics argue that it is based on flawed theories of radicalisation suggesting a link between ideology or religion and political violence.

Prime Minister David Cameron has described fighting “Islamist extremism” as the “struggle of our generation,” but opposition to Prevent and further proposed counter-extremism measures has swollen in recent months.

Last week Simon Cole, the police chief responsible for implementing Prevent, also warned that the new counter-extremism bill would require officers to act as a “thought police”.

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, last month called for Prevent to be reformed, while Andy Burnham, Labour's shadow home affairs spokesman, urged the government to step back from plans to outlaw extremism.

The European Commission's top human rights watchdog also recently flagged up concerns that Prevent was isolating British Muslims, echoing similar concerns raised by a United Nations special rapporteur and David Anderson, the UK's independent reviewer of terrorism legislation.

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