Prevent Watch

The College Student Case

Sector: Education and childcare

Date: July 2015

Gender: Male

Location: West Midlands

SJ is a 19-year-old college student who was reported to the police by his College. Police officers from West Midlands Counter-Terrorism Unit went to SJ’s home twice when he was not there and proceeded to send text messages to his mother until the family agreed to a meeting. SJ did not know why the Counter-Terrorism Unit was approaching him but felt that it was because he had recently become more religious in his appearance, for example, by wearing a thawb (a long garment).

During the home visit, the officers mentioned that part of their role was to ‘prevent people, mainly young men, from going to Syria’. The officers confirmed that it was the College that had contacted them with a number of concerns- majority of which were manifestly tied to SJ’s religion.

This became clear when SJ was informed that one of the issues raised by the college was the fact that he had started to dress in traditional Islamic clothing. It was made clear to the officers that this was a matter of personal choice. Other issues raised by the College included SJ’s participation in a ‘discussion on jihad during his law class’. SJ wanted to clarify that the discussion had taken place during his Religious Studies, Islam and Philosophy class where he is often vocal during various debates. To SJ’s surprise, the College had also raised his ‘views on the illegality of homosexuality in Islam’ and ‘on the role of women’ as concerns.

The remaining issues concerned SJ ‘watching Islamic videos on his iPad’ during class- something SJ had apologised to his teacher for- and SJ asking whether his parents would need to pay his student loans should he pass away. SJ told the officers that these questions stemmed from his Islamic beliefs and concerns about burdening his family with debt. The officers were also reminded that SJ’s sister had recently passed away so such issues of mortality were relevant to him.

The officers then proceeded to explain that viewed separately, none of these factors would draw attention but that it was the ”combination” of all the factors that had caused concern. However, SJ felt that the College was harassing him. Following the 80-minute discussion, the officers concluded that there were no concerns. The officers stated that SJ had a good supporting family and they would be advising the College as such. The family felt the matter would end there.

The family sought advice from Prevent Watch prior to the meeting with the Counter-Terrorism Unit. The family was informed about their rights and provided support with regards to managing the visit. Prevent Watch further liaised with a legal representative who accompanied the family during the visit.

This case demonstrates a number of issues. Firstly, the issues around the changes in SJ’s appearance and focus on religion are symptomatic of the flawed thinking behind PREVENT- there was a clear focus on viewing orthodox Islam as suspect. Equally, the College in this case had forgone its position as an educational facility and the teachers were evidently carrying out the role of the police. Many of the issues raised by the college largely stemmed from religious and cultural ignorance. Any remaining issues were commonplace in a college environment and could have been readily discussed with SJ without contacting the Counter Terrorism Unit. SJ had expressed his opinions in class, which should have been a safe space for him to do so. Instead, SJ was clearly targeted as a young Muslim man whose behaviour was viewed solely through a securitised lens.

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