Prevent Watch

Shared concerns: Community security in Muslim and Gypsy communities

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Prevent Watch was recently part of an interesting discussion on the increasing assaults on community  security in the UK, including the use of Prevent on Muslims. We found some common ground with the new Policing Act and its impact on Gypsy and Traveler communities.

The Policing Act 2022 introduces a new criminal offence relating to trespassing, and it strengthens already existing police powers against roadside camps, in effect criminalising the nomadic life that is core to the culture of Britain’s Gypsy, Roma, Traveller community.  

In a recent discussion on the Rethinking Security podcast, Dr Layla Aitlhadj, director of Prevent Watch, found several common touchpoints with Lynne Tami from Aye Right, an organisation that advocates to protect the rights of Traveller communities to live a nomadic life.

A theme running through the discussion was that having a strong community identity that is different but not necessarily in conflict with what are considered very narrowly by the current government as “British values”, is increasingly seen as a “threat” by the government.

This has resulted in different policies that in effect other, and even criminalise, those who share the same but also have some different values to the dominant group.

In this toxic paradigm, these communities are no longer secure in holding onto their values, so their community security is compromised – as is their political security because those who advocate in the political arena, are silenced as threats themselves.

Considering nomadism as a protected right

Gypsy and Traveller communities travel or move location a few times in the year. For these groups, community security means the right to have safe places in the form of a network of stopping places.

Historically in the UK, families travelled along traditional routes, stopping at well-known spots – so much so that families could map the route of the births of their children and siblings at different stopping places. These routes were followed by families year on year.

A family needs to feel secure that they will be able to take up their traditional routes. But the new Policing Act (2022) makes this very difficult. It enables either a council eviction or the appearance of police at stopping places.

Police now have the right to confiscate caravans – in effect rendering a family homeless. When individuals resist, they are arrested, leaving their children vulnerable.

Members of other communities have also been enabled by the new Act to act violently against Gypsies and Travellers; members of the public may support placing large boulders at stopping sites, for example, or they turn a blind eye when groups of youths throw rocks at camps.

All of this violates fundamental rights to family life and shelter, which are protected under various international conventions. Although these concepts are lived in a slightly different way by Gypsy and Traveller communities, they do not threaten the dominant way of life in the UK.

Prevent’s similarities with the Policing Act

Similarly, Muslim communities hold very similar views to the mainstream “British values”, but some of our views differ on some subjects, although they are not illegal. Holding values that may challenge or disagree with the dominant ones, often invites suspicion or structural violence under the Prevent duty.

The Prevent duty is driven by a lobby of think tanks and organisations that have created a Prevent industry, so its function has been corporatised; its ideologies are therefore also profit-driven.

Prevent has taken projects like the youth clubs that existed prior to austerity measures, claimed their funding, and securitised them. The same has happened for religious venues, including mosques. So data collection can take place in what were once safe community spaces. This assault on community security is in fact an assault on broader public security.

Similarly, when it comes to nomadic communities, there is often a corporate goal behind seizing stopping spots. Often, these pieces of land have been claimed by real estate companies, who build large retail parks on traditional land without considering the serious implications on nomadic lives.

The toxicity of pre-crime and Prevent

The Prevent duty is based on the notion of pre-crime – the idea that certain beliefs or behaviours (including, for example, religious dress such as the head scarf) are supposed to “indicate” that an individual is “at risk” of “extremism”, and thus – by extension and assumption – a potential terrorist.

Teachers, social workers, and employees in the health sector are legally obligated to report people they think might be “at risk” or “a risk”. Through this dangerous devolution of national security to the public sector, the crucial aspect of trust that the sector requires to be effective, is being lost.

Over half of those referred to counter terrorism are children. In a Prevent intervention, an under 18 has less rights than individuals suspected of committing an actual crime. This is the legal grey area that is created by the presumptions that must necessarily come with pre-crime.

For pre-crime policies like Prevent to continue, it is also necessary that the communities it targets be framed with the language of othering and fear, including even children at school.

To justify itself, it must create a toxic cycle since it can only be sustained by more referrals, necessitating more criminalising of legal ideas, values, and religious practices.

No political opposition, just a language of fear

The recent recommendations from William Shawcross to increase the focus of Prevent on Muslims were driven by this ruling ideology; it is given free rein by Prevent, which is the only part of the counter-terrorism strategy that it doesn’t fall under the review of the Independent Reviewer.

This means that the criminalisation of Muslim ideas and practice through Prevent faces little resistance in government, and media simply repeats language that casts Islam as a threat.

Similarly, the criminalisation of nomadism via the Policing Act faced no opposition in the House of Lords. The perception of Traveller and Gypsy communities as a community that is “invasive” of land that “belongs to Britain” goes back many decades, and the media colludes with it through its language.

In the early 2000s, The Sun ran a campaign called “Stamp on the Camp”, in which nomadic communities were “monstered”;  the language used furthered the perception of “folk devils” who are a threat to the security of the state, when this is far from the case.

A new understanding of community security

The national security agenda can easily shut down discussion and concerns voiced by impacted communities. This is spread into the wider community, where people are then enabled to take on this bias and, in some cases, express open fear and hatred at a community.

This means today’s preventative policing and pre-crime are in fact dangerous to minority community security, as well as to a community’s political security – the freedom to adopt political views. This is counter-productive because the ability to be secure, active participants in society is a natural public safety mechanism.

Instead, to function, national security polices like these rely on the notion of prevention-based presumption. Presumption as a foundation in pre-crime is not by its nature based on evidence, because evidence takes place when something has actually happened, such as a crime.

Politicians don’t want to step into this legal grey area or into the national security space more broadly; for them to adopt a stance that would challenge the dominant group means compromising their career. We have seen how the populist electoral system can make this worse.

In today’s environment, national security has assumed more power than principle; it can even moderate people’s actions, shaping their behaviour in a way that they would normally find ethically questionable, especially when they are responsible for protecting human rights.

For minority nomadic communities, community security means a safe family life and a secure home. Political security means having our rights protected. As Muslims, we share these concerns.

You can listen to the full discussion on Rethinking Security.


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