The UK government has long maintained that radicalisation is a problem in universities and that Prevent, the national counter-terror programme, is an essential means of tackling it. Yet recently the Office for Students reported very little such activity: in 2017-18, only 15 referrals were made by universities to Channel in England (the Prevent rehabilitation programme), and it is unlikely that all 15 were found to be terrorism-related.
Despite a clear lack of evidence of radicalisation in universities, Prevent training continues for staff. Indeed, a major new report of a three-year study of Islam on campus shows that almost 10% of all students believe there may be some risk on their campus. Our research reveals that Prevent reinforces negative stereotypes of Islam and Muslims: 20% of students believe that Islam is not compatible with British values; among those supportive of Prevent, the figure rises to 35%.
This project, led at Soas University of London by myself and Dr Aisha Phoenix, with Professor Mathew Guest (Durham), Dr Shuruq Naguib (Lancaster) and Assistant Professor Dr. Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor (Coventry), is the largest data set yet collected about Islam on campus. In total, 2,022 students attending 132 universities answered a detailed online survey. We also collected and analysed 140 hours of interviews from six campuses.
Our research finds that Prevent discourages discussion about culture, identity and religion – especially, but not exclusively, about Islam. Students and staff are discouraged from raising concerns about Prevent. They self-censor their discussions in order to avoid becoming the object of suspicion and are sometimes discouraged from exploring, researching or teaching about Islam. They see this as a counterproductive policy in the light of the perceived need for securitisation to fight terrorism, which trumps all other human rights.
On the other hand, 59% of students said they’d never heard of Prevent, yet many of those then expressed opinions about it, from an apparently non-existent knowledge base. When students are kept ignorant, this creates a democratic deficit: the student population should be fully informed about Prevent, about perceived and actual risk, about the facts and figures, and encouraged to debate these issues. Honesty and clarity are urgently required.
There’s so much more that the campus offers. The university population is religiously and culturally diverse, and despite the secular tone of the modern campus, most of our student sample believe that religion is an important source of moral values. Almost 70% of Muslim students and 56% of Christian students believe that university provides a valuable opportunity to develop their faith in new ways. And 79% of Muslim students believe that the university experience should encourage critical thinking about matters of faith.
Great energy and enthusiasm emerged in discussion and in focus groups: students and staff expressed sincere support for debate and for multifaith, culturally diverse campus activities. They explained how friendships between Muslims and non-Muslims dispel the effects of media coverage of terrorism that depicts Islam as dangerous. This is a crucial finding, because a quarter of all students say they depend on the media for information about Islam.
In discussion, staff and students offered practical suggestions for ways to improve and increase these interactions on campus. These include calling on universities to create opportunities for difficult discussions, to increase inter-faith activities with staff support for student societies, and to develop knowledge of Islam and Muslims.
Many see the university as part of the solution, not the problem. Universities can remedy concerns expressed in the British Muslim population about Islamophobia and extremism developed as a result of overexposure to ruthless social media misinformation.
Our research shows how Prevent reinforces negative views of Islam and Muslims beyond the university campus, at a time when it’s vitally important to keep the impetus going to support Black Lives Matter and concerns about black and minority ethnic Covid-19 deaths. Our work can trigger real change, because we explain how unequal treatment stigmatises individuals: an inhibiting vacuum can arise in a conversation when significant worries are not shared, as shown in our stop-start animation.
Our research shows what universities achieve already and how they can do even more to dismantle stereotypes by challenging policies, improving communication and deepening understanding. This is more important than ever with huge, unpredictable socioeconomic transformation ahead.