On the Frontline: Lecturers are not counter-terrorism police officers

On the Frontline: Lecturers are not counter-terrorism police officers

Imran Awan (Birmingham City University)

Imagine this, you are teaching a class of students and someone raises a controversial question about Syria and counter-terrorism measures. The debate gets heated and one of the students looks anxious and upset.  What do you do? a) speak to them and ask them, what’s the matter? Or b) report them to a committee as potential extremists?  I know what my answer would be.  Universities, now have a legal duty to spot the signs of radicalisation, in punitive and excessive government policy measures that makes lecturer’s the new agents of the state.  Yes, that’s correct, lecturers now are teachers, tutors and spies.

This is part of new measures that are being imposed by the new Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 which means all University staff “should have sufficient training to be able to recognise vulnerability to being drawn into terrorism, and be aware of what action to take to take”.  In practice, this could mean looking out for ‘trigger’ points of potential extremist behaviour and conducting risk assessments for those most vulnerable to radicalisation.

Notwithstanding the threats posed by terrorism, there are clearly concerns about the practical implications of making it a legal requirement to ‘inform’ on students as potential extremists. Indeed, how are lecturers meant to understand who is and who is not a terrorist? Is it the way, some students might dress? Or the way they talk? Or perhaps’ the way they look? This is the UK Government’s latest strategy for tackling violent extremism, which seeks to place a duty on the education sector, to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.

I believe schools and the further and higher education sectors should be concentrating on helping students achieve and not be ‘spying’ on them. As this, will only feed into the perception that Muslims are a suspect community as is shown by research, I have conducted which indicates that Muslims feel stigmatised, alienated and marginalised. The Muslims, I have spoken to tell me of a ‘them versus us’ culture. They also remind me of past incidents since 7/7 which leading to a ‘breakdown’ of relationships between the Muslim community, the police and the State.   This form of anxiety and suspicion is epitomised in the words of one the people I spoke to. He told me: “Imran, what’s the point. I feel integrated but I’m told it’s all your fault. Can you please tell me how do I integrate?”

A part of my study, looking at the impact of counter-terrorism legislation and policies focused on Muslims, a number of people who I have interviewed, have spoken about their anger at and distrust of law enforcement agencies and the political elite based in Westminster. One man, I spoke to stated that: “Terrorism Laws have been invented for Muslims, to arrest us and treat us all like terrorists.” This lack of trust is evident from previous cases where people have been arrested for counter-terrorism related offences, but are released and found to be innocent. For example, while studying for a postgraduate qualification in counter-terrorism, Rizwaan Sabir was arrested under the Terrorism Act for downloading extremist material, but was released without charge. In 2011, Sabir was paid £20,000 in damages by Nottinghamshire police following his arrest.

In Sabir’s words: “This is finally some vindication and we can say proudly that I have proved to many, many people who may have suspected that I was a terrorist that I am actually innocent and always have been….” Sabir, is not an isolated case, Cerie Bullivant spent two years on a control order before he was acquitted of all charges. Bullivant was en route to Syria when he was detained, by British authorities, as a terrorism suspect. There were restrictions on his telephone calls, travel, and use of the Internet. The police could also visit his home from time to time, and the suspects would also be electronically tagged. This had an impact on an individual’s right to freedom of movement, freedom of association, freedom of communication, the right to liberty and the right to a private family life.

The impact on Bullivant’s private life included him having to leave college and being shunned by his family and friends. My study which looks at the impact of counter-terrorism policies upon Muslim families and shows a similar trend of fear, distrust and anger. This fear factor for Muslim communities, is enshrined in previous policies by the police such as Project Champion in 2010 when a number of secret covert and overt CCTV cameras in predominately Muslim areas paid for by the Terrorism Allied Fund were installed. This gives rise to the ‘Othering’ process and demonises students as violent extremists. This seems more to be align with the concept of ‘moral panic’ which applies to counter-terrorism today. This is the concept used to describe situations such as the media vilification of the Islamist in the public’s imagination to the point whereby even rational solutions to this problem of terrorism are totally inhibited and ignored.

My research has shown that there are both ‘Push’ and ‘Pull factors’ that lead people towards a path of radicalisation. These includes, anger, frustration; perceived injustice; exclusion and dissatisfaction.  There are also issues that pull people towards this form of extreme behaviour from those seeking an identity; issues of belonging; recruitment agents; seeking a sense of unity and ‘universal brotherhood’. But how Lecturers are meant to ascertain this in relation to their own students is problematic and also risks undermining the trust between lecturers and students.

These developments undermine due process rights, undercutting the right to liberty and to freedom of speech and can also pave the way for abusive practices, which might result in problematic relationships between students and lecturers. Further, it is an unnecessary curtailment of a student’s freedom for the sake of prolonged and speculative investigations by the state. Clearly, the threats posed by terrorism, as shown in recent events in Tunisia, Paris and Woolwich are a grave concern. However, a new wave of counter-terrorism measures across Europe, and beyond, that aim to tackle this phenomenon only risk alienating people. Similar counter-terrorism efforts across Europe have caused controversy where tactics such as ‘over-policing’, surveillance, email conversations, stop and search and wiretapping of Muslim suspects, as a means to prevent a potential terrorist attack, have been adopted.

However, while terrorist attacks remain a concern, we should not give up our civil liberties for such protection. This type of ‘Orwellian’ society will only lead to further unnecessary powers given to the police and the state, whose scope is already too broad and intrusive.  Lecturers should be first and foremost teachers and not the eyes and ears of the state or the police. Instead, counter-terrorism measures should remain with those in power, instead of throwing the ball back at Universities, which are places where students come to learn, not be radicalised.

I would argue that since 9/11, counter-terrorism legislation has actually increased terrorist activity. Tactics of over-policing and hardline legislation disproportionately targeted at Muslims have contributed to the ‘othering’ of Muslim communities. At the same time they have led to antipathy over the actions of far-right groups. The post, 7/7 ‘war on terror’ narrative, has revealed a new suspect community. Whether inadvertently or not, measures such as profiling, hard-line policing, stop and search, surveillance and now imposing duties on the public sector to tackle extremism, all have the potential to stigmatise an entire population, such as happened to Irish people living in Britain during the conflict in Northern Ireland, and now effects the Muslim community in Britain. Whilst the situation in Syria unfolds, we must ensure that the golden thread that runs back to the principle of the Magna Carta which is based on justice, due process, and the principle of habeas corpus is not broken by these new measures which ultimately is leading to the Muslim community in Britain to feel like a suspect community.

Next time, I give my lectures, there will be a lot to discuss.


Imran Awan is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Deputy Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University and has previously held academic posts at the Centre for Police Sciences (University of Glamorgan) and Wolverhampton University. He has published widely in the area of counter-terrorism, human rights, Islamophobia and policing and has co-edited the book Policing Cyber Hate, Cyber Threats and Cyber Terrorism (Ashgate 2012).