Countering Violent Extremism training is institutionalising Islamophobia

Following an increase in terrorist attacks in western and non-western countries, there has been a steady rise in Islamophobia, defined as prejudice and xenophobia towards Muslims, in Australia and across the world, as well as increasing government measures to Counter Violent Extremism (CVE). In this article, Dr Susie Latham writes that parents of Muslim children are increasingly fearful of excessive monitoring through CVE measures in Australia, where their children’s words and actions are likely to be scrutinised more carefully than those of others as Islamophobia is increasingly institutionalised, including through training to detect the radicalisation of young people to violent extremism.

Dr Susie Latham is an Adjunct postdoctoral fellow at Curtin University, a member of the Challenging Racism Project at Western Sydney University, an executive member of the Australian Association of Islamic and Muslim studies and the co-founder of Voices against Bigotry. Her PhD research was on challenging Western stereotypes of Muslim women. Susie has written on Islamophobia in academic journals and mainstream media outlets including The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and Crikey, and is also the co-author of Human Rights Overboard: Seeking asylum in Australia, which won the Australian Human Rights Commission award for non-fiction in 2008.

Countering Violent Extremism training is institutionalising Islamophobia

Australian Muslims live in a society where more than 40 per cent of the population has negative attitudes towards them.[i] Parents of Muslim children, like myself, are increasingly fearful that their children’s words and actions will be scrutinised more carefully than those of others as Islamophobia is increasingly institutionalised, including through training to detect the radicalisation of young people to violent extremism.

In the UK, the PREVENT duty has been criticised by civil society groups as “the biggest spying operation of all times.”[ii] Under PREVENT, health workers, teachers, social workers, council staff and childcare workers have been obliged since 2015 to report suspicions of radicalisation to authorities. In 2016-17, 3704 referrals were for Islamist concerns and 95 per cent of these referrals were found to be inappropriate, including 1000 of children under 15 and 900 of 15-20 year olds. Muslims were 32 times more likely to be referred than non-Muslims.

Examples of reasons children were reported to PREVENT include: using common Arabic words such as “alhamdulillah” and “allahu akbar”; starting to wear hijab; drawing a “cooker bomb” (later discovered to be a cucumber) in kindergarten; using the word “eco-terrorism” in a class discussion on the environment; supporting Palestinian rights; and borrowing a book on terrorism from the school library.

Adults studying counter-terrorism at University have also been reported for reading and downloading course materials. One left after a three month investigation and an apology, another completed his PhD despite being held in custody for six nights.

In Australia, the Queensland Government and the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW), together with the AFP and the Federal Attorney General’s Department, have developed a national Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) project to deliver training materials to social workers. According to the AASW website, “We are joined in this initiative by the Australia Medical Association, the Australian Psychological Society, the Australian Psychiatric Association, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, to name a few.”[iii]

The AASW training introduces participants to areas of a person’s life that might change as they radicalise to violent extremism, and explains the severity at which these changes might warrant a report to police. It provides the telephone numbers of national security programs including the National Security Hotline.

Over 300 social workers have been trained in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. The training is based on the “Behavioural Indicator Model” developed by Monash University’s Global Terror Research Centre in partnership with the Victoria Police, Victoria Corrections, Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet and the AFP, which focused “primarily on ‘jihadist’ terrorism.”[iv] Most peer reviewed publications, media articles and conference presentations arising from its development have been on Islamic terrorism.

The researchers who developed it say that the model was developed to inform academics, government and law enforcement and was not intended for a general audience.[v] However, it has also been rolled out in schools, and to over 1000 members of the wider community through both online and in person training by the Australian Multicultural Foundation.

Comments made in one AASW training session demonstrate the assumption that the training is primarily aimed at Muslims. These comments about violent extremism are clearly not referencing the radical anti-Muslim groups and political parties that have mushroomed in Australia since 2015:

Faith and radicalisation are intertwined, migration, different cultures, an emerging issue that is rare but with a high impact, not just terror, mental health and cultural issues cross over, now the focus is on religious aspects, every religion has extremist elements, martyrdom can be a factor.

While CVE training and reporting is not currently mandatory in Australia, it is easy to imagine a political scenario in which it could be made so. Regardless, such training greatly increases the potential for frivolous, ignorant or bigoted reporting of Muslims, particularly by those working in risk-averse bureaucracies. Yet researchers who developed the training model have warned, “There is little independent evaluation or evidence-based research to suggest that social cohesion or prevention initiatives have led to an actual reduction in violent extremism anywhere in the Western world”.[vi]

[i] Yosufzai, R., SBS, Why do 25 per cent of Australians feel negativity towards Muslims? 29 November 2017, https://www.sbs.com.au/news/why-do-25-per-cent-of-australians-feel-negativity-towards-muslims

[ii] Prevent isn’t making anyone safer. It is demonising Muslims and damaging the fabric of trust in society, Letters, The Guardian, 11 February 2016

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/feb/10/prevent-isnt-making-anyone-safer-it-is-demonising-muslims-and-damaging-the-fabric-of-trust-in-society, accessed 23 July 2018

[iii] “Countering Violent Extremism CPD Program,” AASW website, https://www.aasw.asn.au/professional-development/key-events, accessed 18 July 2018

[iv] Project Overview, Monash Radicalisation Project, Monash website, http://artsonline.monash.edu.au/radicalisation/about/, accessed 18 July 2018

[v] Safi, M. (2015) “Anti-radicalisation kit never meant for use in schools, says key author”, 25 September, in The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/sep/25/anti-radicalisation-awareness-kit-never-meant-for-use-in-schools-says-key-author, accessed 18 July 2018

[vi] Harris-Hogan, S., Barrelle, K. and Zammit, A. (2016) “What is countering violent extremism? Exploring CVE policy and practice in Australia,” Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, Vol. 8, No. 1, p. 21