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The UK government is using coronavirus to attack our civil liberties

Many of the powers extended to the state amid the pandemic feel reminiscent of deeply problematic counterterrorism policies
The UK’s Prevent programme has sparked widespread criticism among rights groups (AFP)

It is understandably difficult to focus on anything that doesn’t fall under the category of surviving the global Covid-19 pandemic, as more and more people lose their lives, loved ones, jobs and freedoms. But this exceptional period has also brought exceptional rules imposed from the top.

When the proposals of the UK’s Coronavirus Act were presented, concerns were raised over their impacts on civil liberties. From shutting down public meetings, to restricting people’s right to travel, to the use of surveillance technologies, many of the powers extended to the state felt reminiscent of counterterrorism strategies.

Indeed, even during this exceptional period when the entire world is fighting a deadly pandemic, the British state has modelled its response on measures expected to have a catastrophic impact on civil liberties.

Alarm bells ringing

When the director of the Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism at the Henry Jackson Society describes the British government’s strategy towards Covid-19 as “a similar course of action to its counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST”, alarm bells should be ringing everywhere - especially since, just weeks before the Coronavirus Act was passed, the mounting case against Prevent and counter-extremism practices was becoming overwhelming.

For example, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Fionnuala Ni Aolain, recently delivered a report to the UN Human Rights Council in which she outlined her concerns and warnings about counter-extremism policies in the UK and other countries.

The debilitating fear of being the next target ... creates a climate in which there is a heightened need to overcompensate

From the absence of a consistent rule of law or human rights grounding, to her conclusion that “large-scale violations of the rights of religious and ethnic minorities are being enabled by "deradicalisation" policies and practice”, the judgement is as damning as it is total. The special rapporteur raises a specific concern over programmes that weaponise civil society and rely on teachers, social workers and healthcare staff to report signs of radicalisation.

Supporters of the UK’s policy, however, point to research released by the criminal justice think tank Crest Advisory, which was funded by “a charitable trust with an interest in policing and crime reduction which for security reasons does not wish to be identified,” according to the BBC.

Despite the fact that it is difficult, at best, to take seriously the credibility of a non-disclosed trust, their findings have been groundbreaking, according to advocates of the Prevent strategy.

Prevent discrimination

Crest Advisory found, for example, that 67 percent of British Muslims surveyed - compared with 63 percent of the wider public - would alert authorities of potential radicalisation. This has been presented as a sign that the “toxic brand” of Prevent isn’t all that it seems. 

As the argument goes, surely those interacting with the counter-extremism apparatus - which the entire public sector is forced to use by law, and which has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, from healthcare to schooling, travel and even spiritual life - must trust and believe in the project?

Prevent should be scrapped not reviewed
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Did Crest Advisory fail to look into what campaigners, public sector workers, politicians, UN special rapporteurs and many others have said in opposition to the strategy? Many have long warned that given the disproportionate targeting of Muslims through Prevent, there is far more self-policing within communities, leading to a chilling effect on free speech.

The debilitating fear of being the next target because of the racist nature of UK counterterrorism policy - which continues to disproportionally target Muslims, despite them comprising less than five percent of the UK’s population - creates a climate in which there is a heightened need to overcompensate, to engage, and to be seen to support any initiative that counters radicalisation. It is compliance in a desperate attempt to not be the next in line.

The Crest Advisory survey showed that Muslims are more likely than non-Muslims to be aware of what Prevent is, which only confirms the fact that they are considerably more likely to be targeted by it. That this is not mentioned in the report shows the think-tank’s attempt to whitewash the policy.

MEE reached out to Crest Advisory for a comment but did not receive a response until time of publication.

In fact, the UN special rapporteur outlined that many counter-extremism practices lead to discriminatory “overselection and overreporting”.

Call for boycott

On Crest Advisory’s notion that British Muslims appear “just as willing to step up and report concerns about an individual at risk of being radicalised as everybody else”, one must really wonder what the starting point of this research was. Is it a revelation that Muslims, like the rest of the British public, are concerned about acts of violence?

The reality is that the UK government cannot be trusted with addressing these longstanding concerns. It has shown repeatedly that it does not wish to engage with evidence, academic research and first-hand accounts. 

Total refusal to participate is the only way forward. Civil disobedience by public sector workers asked to report on students, patients and service users is urgently needed

It only further insults us when it offers pathetic attempts at “engagement” over rising discontent towards Prevent in the form of a review, whose conclusions are known in advance and whose authors are cherry-picked accordingly. The last appointed reviewer, Lord Carlile, was forced to step down after a legal challenge by Rights Watch (UK) demonstrated his past advocacy for Prevent.

International efforts to dismantle counter-extremism policies, along with research highlighting the lack of scientific evidence by those advocating for and delivering such projects, have all been important, but the policies survive. So, what next?

The answer is: boycott. Total refusal to participate is the only way forward. Civil disobedience by public sector workers asked to report on students, patients and service users is urgently needed. This requires strong levels of organisation and resistance in the face of much adversity, especially in sectors where safeguarding has been so deeply embedded within counter-extremism work.

But there is little choice left if we are to root out these policies and protect young people, oppressed communities and civil liberties.

Collective resistance 

The British government is taking advantage of this current atmosphere of fear, hysteria and tragedy to further curtail our freedom to collectively organise, at a time when millions of people will want to hold them accountable for their deadly policies, as soon as we are able to gather and strategise collectively again.

We, too, must prepare by maintaining our focus on issues that have not disappeared because of mass quarantine, but have in fact grown more problematic. 

Our collective resistance is necessary, even if it is only taking shape on virtual platforms.

We must be creative in how we arrange open discussions on the problems of counter-extremism policy and its links to current “extraordinary powers”, so that we may strengthen a movement that takes a principled opposition to discrimination, racism, and suppression of political and civil rights.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Malia Bouattia
Malia Bouattia is an activist, the former president of the National Union of Students, co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network and presenter/panelist on British Muslim TV's Women Like Us.