The pressure-cooker effect: The harm of self-censorship on Palestine

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From self-censorship to democratic disengagement, the real impact of Prevent on young people should be causing the government to reconsider Prevent especially at this time – so, why are they only increasing the pressure?

This article is based a recent podcast on The Thinking Muslim.

The Government’s Prevent strategy, a problem at the best of times, is deeply problematic in the current context of Israel-Palestine, because it is being used with overt bias. More than ever, we see Prevent now as a political tool, and not as a means of bringing genuine and long-term public security which is its ostensible purpose.

Rather, it is creating more tension at an already incredibly tense moment in the UK. This is evident in the fact that the police sent letters to schools to remind schools of their Prevent duty at this time – in one borough, the police letter was forwarded directly to parents.

Tension has also been stoked by the Home Secretary warning about flags and slogans at demonstrations in support of Palestine.

Young people every day are being reminded that to voice support for Palestinians may be seen as “extremism” or even supporting terrorism. There is rising anger among young British Muslims and others at what is happening to Palestinians, while at the same time there is pressure on them not to express their views.

Self-censorship as a downward spiral

We believe this approach will backfire. Our children will go into school, treading on eggshells, feeling that it is unsafe to air their concerns.

At best, they will withdraw from discussion, and this will be a cause for suspicion. At worst they will express views that a teacher – probably one with less knowledge about the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict – considers “risky” under Prevent.

A recent case reported to Prevent Watch illustrates the downward spiral that happens with self-censorship. It involved a teacher approaching a parent about something a child had said at school. In response, the parent had told the teacher that the child had been cautioned not to speak about it “outside of the home”.

The teacher then became even more suspicious, wondering what was being spoken about at home.

Instead of understanding the dynamics of self-censorship – itself a harm – the teacher had simply increased the pressure on this child and family.

Aside from this example, the actual act of self-censorship is more serious among adults and tertiary students. Recent research about university students has revealed that Muslim students are self-censoring as a direct result of Prevent.

UN Rapporteurs have also acknowledged this “Prevent effect” noting that it is widespread among civil society organisations and young Muslim adults.

The danger of securitising public services

There is no question that Prevent is political; in a legal environment that allows individuals to go and actively fight for the Israeli Defence Forces and for Ukraine, when individuals express opinions at odds with those of government Prevent is used to silence them.

An example of this is a recent case where a Muslim boy expressed support for Russia, and this was mentioned on a Prevent referral.

This pressure-cooker effect combines with the increasing lack of trust between public authorities and the people they are meant to support, which has been the direct result of Prevent.

We have had cases where children aged 14 and over, after encountering Prevent, simply fear and distrust authorities.

They refrain from seeking mental health support from the NHS because Prevent compels health practitioners to report “susceptible” individuals. The guidelines also indicate the “need for mental health support” a possible indicator of being “susceptible” to “extremism.”

Simply put, being Muslim and in need of support increases the risk of being reported to Prevent.

Self-censorship as the real outcome of Prevent

When public participation and legal civil actions can lead to surveillance and possible police intervention, then young people will begin to feel that the system of democracy is not working for them.

The ultimate result of this is, on the one hand, very strong critique of democracy – which is also a “sign of extremism” – and on the other hand, complete disengagement, such as the refusal to vote.

To make young people feel that speaking up and participating in political protest is cause for suspicion, then you risk what successive UN rapporteurs have warned about: Prevent may end up bringing about what it claims to seek to limit.

Encouragement for parents and young people

While we continue to call for the withdrawal of Prevent from education and health in particular, we advise parents and young people to continue participating in positive ways and to not be afraid.

Parents trying to navigate this difficult time should encourage their children to speak within the boundaries.

Children cannot “glorify” Hamas, and parents and children should realise what this kind of expression looks like and what the limits are. There is still room to speak up positively for Palestinian rights.

Also, people should be comforted that although their data is taken during a Prevent referral, it can be removed from the system and from the safeguarding file. This may mean seeking legal advice, but often we have managed to have data removed without involving lawyers.

We also don’t think there will be many Prevent referrals that will progress on to Channel at this time. What we might see is a lot of test cases on this issue.

We invite concerned individuals to contact us for support, and/or to donate towards our work.

Prevent Watch helpline: 03333443396.


Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash. 

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