I submitted a subject access request last year to the University of Birmingham, where I studied, for all data containing my name.
It came back with correspondence between Peter Clarke, retired head of Counter Terrorism Command in the London Met, and lead officer on the Trojan Horse investigation in Birmingham, my university management and West Midlands police, all identifying me in a video of a student protest in London from 2013.
This is a protest where I was not arrested, let alone charged. My only previous interaction with police had been when I had given my name following a protest against cuts to library services in Birmingham.
The lesson, which becomes more relevant as we anticipate the rolling out of Home Secretary Theresa May’s new “counter-terrorist”strategy, is that we should expect the counter-extremism agenda to be used against political activists of all stripes — including socialists, student activists, environmental activists — as well as, of course and most notably, being used as a means of scapegoating Muslim and black and minority ethnic (BME) communities.
Only a few months after the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act was passed, Theresa May is “stepping up” new measures to fight extremism.
The strategy targets the public sector and, for the first time, introduces policy which criminalises individuals exhibiting “extremist ideology” even when a crime has not been committed.
It begins with a full review of all public institutions — including schools, colleges, and local authorities — with the aim of implementing measures to “safeguard against ‘entryism’” and expose extremist individuals. It will give new powers to the government which include the power to ban supposed extremist groups; close the local mosques of individuals seen to be promoting extremism; intervene in faith schools; impose “disruption orders” on extremist individuals; and to confront and suspend the services of television and radio broadcasters if they are seen to platform “harmful messages and falsehoods without critical challenge”.
As Prevent has been rolled out in universities and schools over recent years, ratcheted up in February with the Counter-Terrorism Act, it has seen pressure mount on teachers, tutors and other staff to monitor, censor and report on students expressing opposition “to fundamental British values”.
Putting the irony that the counter-terrorism agenda being pedalled by May, Cameron and others is itself extreme to one side, this latest strategy will undoubtedly have the effect of further boosting McCarthyite anxiety, and see an ostensibly Islamophobic surveillance and criminalisation of our Muslim and Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) communities.
Most concerning, the strategy will target individuals guilty of no crime. Whether they are deemed to be a threat to national security will be judged by a government pedalling a racist, right-wing, counter-extremism agenda.
What the government judges as a harmful message might be a protest for free education, against austerity, or for free movement across borders. What the government judges an incident worthy of intervention might be a young boy of primary school age who faces racism and Islamophobia day-to-day asking his teacher about terrorism, or a university student writing his thesis on terrorism, asking probing questions about the government’s political agenda.
In the face of a government that becomes increasingly like that in Orwell’s dystopia 1984, we should be prepared to all fight instances of victimisation and criminalisation under the auspices of counter-terrorism when they happen, in solidarity with comrades, brothers and sisters from other political organisations, and other communities and backgrounds.
As May steps up her counter-extremism rhetoric, we must step up our struggle against the government’s strategies for division and control.