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The UK’s Propaganda Machinery and State Surveillance of Muslim Children

On 8 July, it was announced that Ofsted head, Sir Michael Wilshaw, in his advice notes on academies and maintained schools in Birmingham stated that Ofsted’s work to protect children from extremism would be a potential “waste of time” if local authorities did not improve the tracking of pupils in England who leave mainstream education.  A Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Wilshaw  singled out the cities of Birmingham, Luton and Bradford as potential radicalisation hotspots since “missing pupils” could be at risk of exposure to extremism.  Similar to the recent critiques by teachers who claim that they are forced into the role of “front-line storm troopers” to spy on pupils as part of the Prevent strategy, this latest comment by Wilshaw indicates a new low in governmental support for and training of professionals in education to continue this mandate which is proving to do more harm than good, whilst infusing the culture of learning with a side mandate to discriminate wholeheartedly against Muslim students.

I contacted Ofsted’s press office and asked if the location of students was tracked and if this tracking was uniquely related to Muslim students.  The answers I was given reveal the rather problematic and contradictory nature of these policies from Prevent to the handling of students within Ofsted’s mandate. The press office stated, “Ofsted inspects all registered schools against the same framework, regardless of any faith character…[w]herever there is evidence of concern.” Yet, in the very same email I was referred to this letter written by Ofsted Chief Inspector to the Secretary of State which makes reference to “the risks that some young people face, such as female genital mutilation, forced marriage, child sexual exploitation and falling prey to radicalisation.”  This document demonstrates its unique focus and mandate to profile Muslim students while the larger policy pays lips service to the “same framework” discourse.  It is clear to any Muslim parent what profiling looks like despite said policy doled out with a smile and the call for “concern.”

More troubling is the absolute lack of data linking precise acts of radicalisation to what Wilshaw claims to be “more than 250 children who had been removed from a council register without being located.”  When I asked for the data which would back up Wilshaw’s words, Ofsted communicated to me, “[T]his lack of tracking and recording of young people’s whereabouts could be leaving young people at risk, including from radicalisation and extremism.”  Notice the repeated use throughout Ofsted’s policy and press documentation of “could be.”  This means that the Chief Inspector of Education is drawing conclusions about radicalisation to further entrench the need for the profiling of Muslim students while also ensuring that the Prevent strategy is couched within flimsy language, thus guaranteeing the continuance of what is nothing other than an Islamophobic policy.  It is the perfect tautology where could be becomes the code for terrorist grooming.

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) has already come out in full force to critique Prevent rejecting this strategy which was designed to tackle extremism due to concerns that it causes “suspicion in the classroom and confusion in the staffroom.”  Aside from this strategy is the more frightening Research, Information and Communications Unit (Ricu), the UK government’s covert propaganda unit, which is designed to stop Muslims from joining ISIS.  Touting itself as a campaign providing advice on how to raise funds for Syrian refugees using the campaign, Help for Syria, Ricu has distributed leaflets to 760,000 homes throughout the country without alerting the recipients that these were government communications.  The Ricu initiative is contracted to private companies such as Breakthrough Media Network which in addition to Help for Syria has also produced content on Twitter, Facebook, radio, and The Truth about ISIS.

According to one former Breakthrough employee, the communications campaigns were designed according to objectives set by Ricu, and that the government administered the progress of products for which it had final say, underscoring that these messages are targeting “Prevent audiences”:  particularly British male Muslims, aged 15 to 39.  Inspired by Cold War propaganda models such as the Information Research Department founded in 1948 and the United States’s military PSYOPs (Psychological Operations), Ricu is funded by the Prevent programme in part and today its funding is £17m.  Vaunting this programme to the intelligence and security committee, Theresa May stated earlier this year that Ricu was “road-testing some quite innovative approaches to counter-ideological messages.”  The larger problem, however, is how the government is using its various branches of influence to spark fear and distrust, such as the Department of Education where Prevent is in full-force and now the head of Ofsted who signals the “concern” for children who are at “unregistered schools” where “they could be vulnerable to all sorts of influences including radical and extremist thoughts.”  Like the Prevent programme which operates on zero social science and complete conjecture as to what could be, the danger in positing a faction of British society, its youngest Muslim members, as possible radicalised future-terrorists.

Wilshaw’s comments are largely based on the “Trojan Horse” controversy from 2014 where,   Birmingham was at the centre of a controversy which focussed on an alleged plot by a small group of hardline Muslims to take control of a small number of the city’s schools. A leaked document claimed that non-Muslim staff were being removed an operation called Trojan Horse which was set to expand to other cities. Four separate inquiries were launched into the allegations and other claims, including a Birmingham City Council and a Department of Education probe. Ofsted also conducted inspections at 15 city schools. The outcome of these investigations were not conclusive and several reports were issued.  Russell Hobby, general secretary, National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said that his organisation did not “fully support the conclusions” of the Birmingham City Council’s report because of “too narrow a definition of extremism” and the fact that its process and terms of reference were crafted in such a way as to “exclude[s] critical evidence.”

Kevin Courtney, Deputy General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, in his blog, highlights one of the problems for teachers in implementing this strategy:

But there is a danger that the Governments Prevent strategy will close down space for debate which affords young people the opportunity to hear arguments against extremist views from any quarter….This is a crucial issue for teachers and that’s why teachers need support to carry on defending democratic values and tolerance in our classrooms. That tolerance must extend to respect for our Muslim students, the vast majority of whom have no time for the ISIS death cult.

And in speaking with several Muslim parents from London, they have reported feeling that their children are being targeted due to their religion because this is precisely what Prevent enacts—a focus on children which profiles students based upon their religion.

Wilshaw’s advice notes highlight certain perceived problems in certain schools in Birmingham, namely anti-western rhetoric, segregationism, perception of a worldwide conspiracy against Muslim, and intolerance of difference.   The irony, however, is that these notes, point for point, mirror the ethos of the Prevent strategy which is:  mired by anti-Muslim and anti-non-western rhetoric; is extremely segregationist in how it sets up a “we” and a “them; describes a worldwide conspiracy by radical Muslims against the west;  and through its repeated phrasing of British core values, establishes intolerance for anything that might challenge the purity of these values.

So in the forthcoming summer holiday which begins for British pupils this week, while many families will soon be deciding if to go camping, attend the Living Islam Festival, go to Camp Bestival, or even look for things to do in Bosnia or closer to home,  Muslim families must now worry about their movements being studied by government spying manoeuvres such as Ricu and other surveillance tactics covered by Prevent.  The use of such measures breaks a public trust such that there is no way of repairing the human cost of state surveillance and the social atrophy of ethnic and intra-cultural relations that posit one specific religion as toxic in a hyper-xeonophobic, post-Brexit era where British Muslims are certainly not immune to the hazards of looking or sounding “different.”

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Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com

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