The British Government’s flagship counter-radicalzation strategy leads Muslims who grow beards to be labelled as terrorists and could be used to clamp down on anti-austerity and environmental campaigners, hundreds of academics have claimed in an open letter to The Independent.
Wide-ranging powers brought in this month under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act force teachers, social workers, prison officers and NHS managers to report signs of radicalisation
Those suspected of extremism will be sent on deradicalisation programmes, while the whole system is to be policed by Government inspectors
But the new law has been criticised as a direct assault on freedom of speech and a move towards a police state.
In an unprecedented intervention, 280 academics, lawyers and public figures claim the controversial law will make Britain less safe as it will force radical political discussion underground.
Among the leading academics who want the Government to rethink the strategy are Karen Armstrong, one of the country’s most prominent writers on religion, and Baroness Ruth Lister, emeritus professor of social policy at Loughborough University
Another signatory is Rizwaan Sabir, 30, a lecturer in counter-terrorism, who was wrongly arrested under anti-terror laws by Nottingham Police for downloading an al-Qaeda training manual from a US Government website he we was using to research his PHD. He was later paid £20,000 in compensation after he sued the police.
The new regime, part of the Government’s counter-terrorism policy, Prevent, places public-sector workers under a statutory duty to confront radicalisation. Prevent was introduced by Labour in the wake of 9/11 and remains the frontline policy for combating radicalisation.
But the letter claims that “growing a beard, wearing a hijab or mixing with those who believe Islam has a comprehensive political philosophy are key markers used to identify ‘potential’ terrorism”.
It adds: “This serves to reinforce a prejudicial world view which perceives Islam to be a retrograde and oppressive religion that threatens the West. Prevent reinforces an ‘us’ and ‘them’ view of the world, divides communities, and sows mistrust of Muslims.”
Last month David Cameron said the Government would provide “a full spectrum” response to counter-terrorism, to include the vetting of external speakers at universities and banning those with extremist views. There are also plans to vet broadcast programmes for extremist content.
But the academics’ letter states: “Prevent will have a chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent. It will create an environment in which political change can no longer be discussed openly, and will withdraw to unsupervised spaces. Therefore, Prevent will make us less safe.”