When is racism not racism? When you’re blamed for your religion!

When is racism not racism? When you’re blamed for your religion!

Alison Scott-Baumann

The language of racism is only ever fully understood by the victim, never by the perpetrator.  The person who delivers the killer punch of racist language is fully aware of what they are doing, but it doesn’t hurt. Those in the vicinity see the act but don’t really register it because they are white and are also not really implicated, are they? After all, they didn’t actively discriminate against anyone and would condemn such action if challenged for their opinion. So when Lord Carlile, who describes himself as a ‘nice, neutral QC’, comments that ‘The Prevent strand of counter-terrorism policy is, in my view, extraordinarily effective’ he is perhaps thinking that the ‘brilliant, young, Muslim, … lawyers, academics, doctors,’ whom he knows are not affected by counter terror measures like Prevent.  But he would be wrong.

The Prevent Duty Guidance is currently busy asserting that it has the far right in its sights, but it is still true to its original target, which is the British Muslim population, identifiable variously by skin tone, clothing and religion.

So when is racism not racism? When it’s religion that makes it alright, because that’s discrimination on the basis of dangerous ideas, not skin colour. Of course, this is actually a bad approach that creates a suspect group regardless of their opinion and status in society. Where do these dangerous ideas come from? Well in fact a lot of them come from government or from think thanks associated with government. Currently the most successful one to have the government’s ear is the Henry Jackson Society (HJS).

Lord Carlile is on record as having considerable faith in HJS, writing that, “I’d like to pay tribute to the work Henry Jackson Society has done, it has done more to identify the features, and indeed the identities of terrorists and has written more factual information about terrorists than any other non-governmental organisation.”

But if we consider the material produced by HJS it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. This is what they say:

Emma Fox, Research Fellow in the Society’s Centre of Radicalisation and Terrorism, writes that,  “Universities as we know are one of the most vulnerable sectors with regards to extremism. 200 events we found featured speakers with a history of extremist views or had representatives of an extremist-linked organisation. The majority of those we found were connected to the UK Islamist or Salafist network and we found that speakers’ views kind of crossed that violent extremism-non-violent extremism line so speakers had supported convicted terrorists, advocated for violent uprisings in the West, sanctioned the use of slaves under sharia law, defended the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. That may not be in relation to what we have seen with ISIS now but the idea is still there. We have also seen speakers defending, for example, Hamas’ employment of suicide bombers, supporting violent jihad and one speaker was actually linked to a terrorist attack overseas.”

However, Simon Perfect’s 2019 analysis of a recent HJS report, for the BBC’s programme Sunday, shows that HJS selected items that are connected with Islam and Muslims, such as ‘How to survive Ramadan at exam time’ which really isn’t dangerous and could in fact be seen as dangerous for student health if banned.

Perfect’s analysis shows there is a conflation of extremism with religious conservatism and a failure to demonstrate that if students are exposed to speakers with extreme views, this makes them more likely to commit acts of terrorism. Moreover, the list HJS compiled amounts to less than 2% of student society activities, which demonstrates a highly risk averse approach that implies great danger where there is no evidence.

Back in 2015, in order to develop a large and accurate evidence base, I led an AHRC funded research project (2015-18) about Islam on campus, with Professor Guest at Durham, Dr Naguib at Lancaster, Dr Cheruvallil-Contractor at Coventry and Dr Phoenix at SOAS (Islam on campus OUP 2020). By contrast with such assertions of high risk as expressed by HJS, we found no evidence of violent or non-violent extremism on campus, with an evidence base of over 2,000 students attending over 100 universities who filled in an online survey, and over 200 staff and students at six universities who agreed to be interviewed or took part in a focus group.  There was also little perception of fear or risk expressed by students about Islam, although there was a minority who were Islamophobic.

What we did discover was the concern expressed and repeated by over half the students and staff we spoke to, about not being able to talk freely on campus, whether in class or socially, about topics that would cause them to fall foul of the amateur surveillance techniques used on campus.  These include British Muslim identity issues, different approaches to feminism, issues regarding clothing and devotional habits, British foreign policy and Israel/ Palestine issues. None of these topics is illegal but if they are considered controversial, they may be discouraged by certain university authorities.  And this is the effect that the Prevent Duty Guidance has.

It can be argued that such topics should be actively encouraged, and that it is actually counterproductive to promote the idea that Islam is dangerous, because this creates a wicked, untrue narrative about over 3.5 million British citizens. However, there is clearly a view that government must clamp down upon freedom of association and of expression, both protected by human rights legislation, and Lord Carlile, now appointed to lead the review of Prevent, has clearly expressed how impressed he is with the work of HJS:

Emma Fox asserts that, “More clearly needs to be done and we need to be looking at more contextual factors about exposure and socialisation with extremist activists that is occurring on university campuses, how easy it is for individuals even though we have the Prevent strategy in place.

How will it ever be possible that the largest evidence-based listening exercise (2015-18 Islam on campus) yet conducted upon Islam at university campuses will be acted upon by the state, when our findings are trumped by distorted data collection that agrees with government policies? In research currently conducted with Simon Perfect of Theos and SOAS, it is clear that young people at university do not have much of a say in national UK conversations. It is true to say that students do not seek to engage with these discussions that tend to accuse them either of being as reckless as Henry Jackson Society asserts (inviting extremist speakers onto campus) or of being too cautious (refusing to allow conversations that may harm vulnerable groups). This latter snowflake image has been extensively promoted by Spiked Online with their attacks on universities or students’ unions whose ‘no platforming’ actions deemed too restrictive, also based on arguments with serious methodological flaws (see also, here).

Perhaps it’s not surprising that students don’t intervene, as they probably don’t recognise themselves as either proto terrorists or snowflakes. We don’t recognise either of these caricatures either, from our extensive experience of university campuses or from our extensive data base, to be published later this year in our research report. Are students really either snowflakes or proto terrorists?

Nobody born in the twenty first century had a vote in the 2016 UK referendum about the EU. Many students on campus thus do not have a voice in their future with regard to Europe and this theme of being silenced was a recurrent one in our research. This discrimination on religious grounds to which we bear witness to here can of course be softened by evidence of friendships and interreligious activities on campus that reduce fear of difference. Yet the fact remains that religious affiliation is being used across the country, not only at universities, to have a chilling effect upon freedom of expression and that this is being noticed as an inhibiting factor to democratic processes by non-Muslims as well as by Muslims. A far-right trope of anti-Islam has penetrated mainstream discourse, as described in  Andrew Brown’s excellent recent report on the idea of Eurabia.

We will have to ask Lord Carlile to deploy his lawyerly respect for strong evidence as he conducts the Prevent review.


Alison Scott-Baumann is Professor of Society and Belief and Associate Direct of Research, Impact and Public Engagement at School of Oriental and African Studies SOAS, University of London.