British schoolchildren have just started on a new academic session; and while, on the face of it, it is business as usual Muslim pupils will need to watch out. For there will now be a Big Brother in the classroom keeping a watchful eye on them for what they say and do.
And if what they say and do is not to BB’s liking they risk being criminalised thanks to a new controversial law requiring school and college teachers effectively to spy on their Muslim students for signs of radicalisation. Those suspected of being at risk will be referred to the government’s de-radicalisation watchdog, Channel, which includes police.
The law, which is part of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy innocuously called, 'Prevent', places a legal obligation on educational institutions to have "due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism". This includes ensuring that children are not able to access extremist material on the internet "including by establishing appropriate levels of filtering".
What critics find particularly controversial is that it broadens the definition of extremism to include any action that may “create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism and popularise views which terrorists exploit”. There are fears that children could be branded extremists and criminalised for simply exhibiting curiosity, or being in possession of anything that may be regarded as “conducive’’ to extremism.
Post-9/11, a series of harsh counter-terror measures have been introduced, but this, by far, is the harshest. A much milder plan by Tony Blair's Labour Government after the July 2005 London bombings had to be dropped in the face of strong protests.
So, what changed?
The government justifies the law on grounds that the level of radicalisation has reached such alarming levels that even little school children are at risk. An estimated 700 British Muslims, including several schoolgirls, have so far fled to Syria to join the Islamic State and despite a government crackdown the trend continues.
Opinion polls, showing a rise in public fear of Muslims, strengthened the government’s hand. Prime Minister David Cameron says the country has to confront "a tragic truth that there are people born and raised in this country who don't really identify with Britain – and who feel little or no attachment to other people here."
But there is deep and widespread concern over what critics say amounts to creating a whole new surveillance system singling out members of one community. A huge row is brewing over its implications.
Muslims, understandably, are livid and see it as an "Islamophobic witch-hunt". But it has also come under fire from other quarters-- teachers, student unions, civil rights campaigners, MPs and the liberal media. There is worry that it will stifle debate, increase tensions in multi-faith communities, and criminalise young people which may push them further into extremism.
Teachers say they are being forced into conducting “surveillance” on their own students which raises uncomfortable ethical questions about teacher-pupil relationship.
Gary (not his real name), a teacher in a culturally diverse East London school with a large number of Muslim pupils, mostly from the Indian subcontinent, Somalia and North Africa, is a worried man these days. To the point that he is contemplating leaving his job.
“I can’t bear the idea of doing such a thing to my pupils with whom I have a relationship of trust. Spying on them means betraying that trust,’’ he says.
But there are also more practical concerns. Teachers are confused as to how they will implement the law. What, for example, will constitute sign of extremism? Will a student be regarded as a “risk’’ if he or she said something politically unacceptable such as that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists “had it coming to them’’.
“It’s far from schools’ normal areas of expertise so there’s quite lot of nervousnessss and uncertainty about how best to do it – and the stakes are very high,” says Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) told The Guardian.
“If you think a young person is involved in criminal activity or at risk of being drawn into it, you’re going to report it. But the idea of conducting surveillance on students or taking on some sort of policing of students is alien to schools. They’re not trained to know the early warning signs of extremism or radicalisation, some of which are subtle.’’
Apart from ethical issues that surround the law, there is a danger that overzealous teachers under pressure to “deliver’’ may over-react as happened in an American classroom recently when the teacher had a Muslim boy arrested for bringing a digital clock he had made. The teacher believed that the clock was a bomb.
According to one Muslim parent, his son’s teacher warned him that the boy was "talking too much about Palestine."
"It's a real example of the climate…. a sort of self-policing on the one hand, a fear of open discussion on the other," said Rob Ferguson, a London school teacher.
Comparisons are being made with the racism suffered by non-white immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s.
“It is like we are going back to the old days when people were stigmatised because they were the wrong colour. Now they are being singled out because of their religion,” said Asif Khan, a former Birmingham mill worker, who lived through that racially surcharged era.
While governments are right to be worried, they need to be very careful in how they respond; or they will end up alienating the very people whose support they need to deal with the threat. The situation demands engagement with Muslims, not confrontation.
"There has sadly, over the last six years, been a policy of disengagement from British Muslim communities," said Sayeeda Warsi, a former chairman of Cameron's Conservative Party, and cabinet minister. "Successive governments have seen more and more individuals and organizations as being beyond the pale and therefore not to be engaged with."
What’s happening in Britain is a cautionary tale for India where Muslim radicalisation, on the one hand, and Sangh Parivar's divisive rhetoric, on the other, make for an explosive mix. There will be many hang-‘em-flog-‘em types who will want the government to emulate the “British model’’ to flush out potential extremists.
But Delhi will do well to resist any such temptation. Because there is a flip side to the gung-ho British model which, over the past decade, has spawned a raft of increasingly harsher counter-terror measures. Yet far from crushing extremism, they’ve proved counter-productive by managing to alienate the very sections of the Muslim community whose support is crucial to their success. The result is there for all to see: a spike in extremism as the alienation caused by the government’s ham-handed strategy has made it easier for groups like IS to exploit disaffected and vulnerable young Muslims.
Surely, this is not what India wants.