How Preventing Terror is Promoting Violence

How Preventing Terror is Promoting Violence

Rob Faure Walker

In 2014 the Muslim students in my classes stopped engaging in political debate. I am a secondary school teacher in London and such debates are vital.  They ensure that views that at first appear extreme are aired and questioned, students and teachers alike are challenged on their views, and we all appear and become less extreme.

Teaching in Tower Hamlets, where 90-100% of the students in any of my classes are Muslim, this shutting down of debate had a profound impact and caused me to worry about the effects that this was having on the students’ education. I carried out research at UCL Institute of Education to find out what was going on. I have run student focus groups, including for the Tower Hamlets Overview and Scrutiny Committee into Prevent, interviewed many pupils from across the country and I have also spoken about this with the hundreds of students who I teach. I have heard it repeated in all of these settings that students are scared to practice their religion and that they do not feel comfortable to speak openly with adults.

Students include their teachers and their parents in those that they don’t speak openly with and while it was initially only Muslim students saying this non-Muslims have started sharing similar concerns more recently. When I question students on the causes for these concerns, the universal reply is that they fear being reported to the security services under the PREVENT Counter-Terrorism Strategy, which compels their teachers to report signs of ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ to the security services. Students tell me that fear of being reported is causing them to alter their behaviour. This has led me to analyse the PREVENT Strategy, revealing that its discourses of ‘radicalisation’ and of ‘extremism’ are at the core of this approach to counter-terrorism.

The first thing to note about these discourses, or narratives, of ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ is that they have developed and changed since 9/11. In fact, you will struggle to find these words used in explanations of 9/11 in the few years following the tragic day in 2001. It is also notable that ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ do not appear in Giovanna Borradori’s book, Philosophy in a Time of Terror, recording interviews with the philosophers Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida in New York in the 3 weeks following the tragedy. In the following years they appear, but as political concepts that have no implicit association with violence; an example of this is the PREVENT Strategy from 2008 which creates such a distinction by only using the terms alongside references to violence, associating them but drawing a distinction for if they were the same they would not be used together. However, since then, the strategy has been rewritten and in the glossary of the current strategy that was written in 2011 and that is now followed by schools, ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ are defined by their association with violence. These words that previously described relative political stances have become synonymous with violence.

By fixing political opponents to these violent definitions, we are placed in an essentialised world where radicals are people who support meaningless acts of violence rather than people who might conceivably alter the way we interact with and view the world. Further analysis of media and other government documentation suggests that this violent usage has been accepted and this was confirmed earlier this summer in a High Court ruling that stated that the definitions for ‘extremism’ and ‘radicalisation’ that are found in PREVENT are ‘so much a part of contemporary life they scarcely need definition’.

Acceptance of the new meaning from the more recent 2011 Strategy, that radicalisation leads to the support of violence, cuts off the avenues by which peaceful political reform might be achieved. This presents subjects of the strategy with a choice. If they value peace over political change this may result in the suppression of discourse that is in opposition to the Government. However, those who desire political change and social reform more than they are opposed to violence might have violent or terrorist identities reinforced. It is important to appreciate that what we say does not only describe the world, it informs understanding, action and agency, creating identities and this points to the importance of this kind of sociolinguistic analysis.

PREVENT is a strategy that reveals an aspiration to a politics of consent. By casting radical or extreme views as pathologically violent, it presumes that its own stance is unassailable. An aspiration to consent might at first appear to be a noble aim, but recent philosophers and political theorists have pointed out how this undermines democracy in a plural society and is likely to result in the inadvertent promotion of violence. Belgian political theorist, Chantal Mouffe, has written in her book, On The Political, that ‘it is undeniable that it [violence] tends to flourish in circumstances in which there are no legitimate political channels for the expression of grievances’ and she describes the shutting down of discourse in a democracy as ‘letting death in’. The late French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, in his conversations on 9/11 and other work, has described the ‘autoimmunity’ of liberalism and how this aspiration to consensual politics can result in a violent backlash. Adam Przeworski (1991) similarly suggests in his book, Democracy and the Market, that a failure to be represented by the democratic process might leave violence as the only option for those excluded.

The application of the PREVENT Counter-Terrorism Strategy in schools casts teachers as informants. Under these new conditions my pupils and pupils across the country have stopped engaging in the political debate that Mouffe, Derrida and Przeworski see as vital for peace in a democracy. The aligning of political opposition with violence adds a catalyst to this already dangerous situation. The logic of counter-extremism and anti-radicalisation strategies in schools undermines the mediating and peacemaking mechanisms of democracy. This ultimately leads to a call for the abandonment of the use of teachers as informants as prescribed by PREVENT.

Abandoning counter-terrorism strategies in schools would support teachers’ efforts to create a more harmonious society. An example of how schools do this every day was revealed in my classroom a few years ago. In 2013, I was a form tutor to a particularly lively class, we would meet every morning and afternoon and we would discuss the news of the day. In one particularly heated encounter, a group cited the Koran to argue that gay people should be denied equal rights. Not surprisingly, the ensuing argument got very heated and lasted for more than a few days as these views were vehemently challenged by me and by other students. A few months later in July 2013, when the Equal Marriage Act was being debated in Parliament, the students raised the topic again. This time, arguing that it was surely right and kind to call a union between any people a marriage, no matter what their sexuality. This was a view that they had heard from me in the earlier classroom debate. I had also learned from them, that they were not trying to be difficult, extreme or radical in their earlier assertions, they were responding in a non-critical manner to received wisdom. A year later a local PREVENT Counter-Terrorism Strategy had been implemented in the school and these same students were among those who informed me that they no longer engage in political debates because they fear being reported under PREVENT. As one of them had quoted the Koran to justify harming gay men in our earlier discussion, they were right to fear that they would be reported. And this is the problem, with PREVENT in schools. Necessary debates will not happen, extreme views will not see the light of day and will not be challenged.

While this research does not challenge the work of the security services more generally, it suggests that when applied to educational settings, counter-terrorism duties may be counterproductive. Counter-extremism and anti-radicalisation strategies in educational spaces are restricting debate. We need to open education up to the promotion of criticality, something that is being restricted by a well meaning but flawed counter-terrorism duty. It is through this promotion of debate that education can contribute to a more harmonious society, offering students the tools to challenge dogma that they might encounter now and in the future. Critical citizens are also required to resist the otherwise unchallenged acceptance of the violent subjectivities that are promoted in the discourses of ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’. If teachers were freed from their duties as informants they might return to being facilitators of debates that can challenge views that appear to be extreme or radical.


Rob Faure Walker is a PhD student at UCL Institute of Education where he is investigating the impact of counter-terrorism discourses in educational settings and on the democratic process. He has also worked as a secondary teacher in London since 2005. This article is a summary of research that has been presented at the Annual Conference of the International Sociological Association in Vienna, The King’s Think Tank, and has contributed to reports by Rights Watch (UK) and Open Society and will be published next year as a chapter in a forthcoming book about processes of violent radicalisation in the 21st century by Cambridge Scholars Publishing.