Being watched in Britain

The UK government says it wants to put an end to extremism by engaging the Muslim community. It recently began the “Prevent” program, which seeks to stop the extremism before it happens. However, many British Muslims are skeptical of the program, which they feel is another attempt to unfairly scrutinize their entire community.

I went to Birmingham, UK, to speak with Muslims and government officials about this subject. This is my report, video and written, on that investigation.

UK uses health workers in counter-terror plan
(original link on Al Jazeera English)

Medical workers, most would agree, have one important job to do: look after the well-being of their patients. However, in the UK, employees of the National Health Service are now being assigned another task: identifying potential terrorists.

This new directive comes from the Prevent programme, part of the UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy created in the wake of the July 2005 London bombings.

As part of this mission, since last year Prevent has been providing mandatory training to employees of the National Health Service (NHS) on how to identify potential terrorists among patients, visitors and other medical staff, and report them to the authorities.

Documents given by Prevent to medical workers, copies of which were obtained by Al Jazeera, say the following: “The NHS has been identified as a key player in supporting the Prevent strategy as healthcare staff are considered to be well placed to help to identify concerns and protect people from radicalisation.”

‘Government informants’

Al Jazeera spoke to a nurse working for the NHS on condition of anonymity because she was not permitted to talk to the media. (Al Jazeera also learned of similar Prevent training being offered to educators, firefighters and others in the public sector; however, none agreed to discuss the training on record.)

“The healthcare worker’s job is to ultimately treat your patient,” the nurse said. “It doesn’t matter what they walk in the door with – you, as a healthcare professional within whatever specialty you work, you’ve been trained to support them.”

The nurse was concerned by the vague characteristics presented as indicators of possible radicalisation. One of the Prevent documents listed factors such as “identity crisis”, “personal crisis” and “unemployment” that could make someone vulnerable to radicalisation.

The document also listed political views that NHS staff should look out for, such as a “rejection of UK foreign policy”, “mistrust of Western media”, and “perceptions that UK government policy is discriminatory [eg counter-terrorist legislation]”.

The nurse said trainers were careful to avoid mentioning Muslims. However, medical staff were told that the main terrorist threat to the UK comes from Islamist groups, and the violent acts mentioned were mostly incidents perpetrated by Muslims.

She added that identifying potential terrorists was not part of her job as a health worker. “It’s actually something that the police should be doing,” she said. “Offering this training, it’s almost as if we’re becoming government informants.”


Sir Peter Fahy, chief constable of Greater Manchester and national lead for Prevent’s police programme, confirmed to Al Jazeera that medical workers and other civil servants were being given counter-terrorism training.

“If there are health professionals who have serious concerns that the person they’re dealing with is getting involved in extremist activity and that is harming their well-being and harming their community, then yes, absolutely, it’s about them being able to raise those concerns,” Sir Fahy said. “Clearly, there is a significant terrorist threat to this country. We can understand that people can feel very strongly about international issues and other political issues, and it’s trying to identify people who may be at risk of taking that concern to a level of violence.”

On its website, Prevent says it seeks to tackle terrorist threats wherever they occur. However, it also says that the “most serious is from al-Qaeda, its affiliates and like-minded organisations”. With the overwhelming majority of Prevent’s efforts focused on British Muslims, many in the minority community believe they are being unfairly targeted.

Sir Fahy acknowledged the grievance, and said he hopes to address complaints by making Prevent’s efforts more transparent to the public. “It’s really about how we… confront the threat of terrorism, but at the same time maintaining the confidence of the Muslim community as we go along.”

Lost confidence

But that confidence may already be lost. Jahan Mahmood, a historian and former adviser to the government’s counter-terrorism unit, said that while Prevent mentions possible extremism from a range of groups, “there is a disproportionate focus on Muslims, there is no doubt about that. And that’s also one of the reasons it’s failed to gain traction with the Muslim population”.

In Birmingham’s predominantly Muslim Sparkbrook neighbourhood, Mahmood pointed above his head to lampposts where in 2010, the government installed hundreds of surveillance cameras – ostensibly for monitoring crime in the area.

But it was soon exposed that the counter-terrorism unit installed the cameras to monitor residents. After an outcry from the Muslim community, bags were placed on top of the cameras and they were eventually removed, with authorities assuring that they had never been turned on.

Mahmood said the incident led to a serious breakdown of trust between Muslims and the police. Al Jazeera spoke to a number of British Muslims in cities like Birmingham and Manchester, who said they believe Prevent and other counter-terrorism efforts are less about preventing violence than about monitoring every aspect of Muslim life. This has left many in the community feeling alienated from the rest of British society.

But Mahmood warned that it’s not only British Muslims who should be concerned over the government’s counter-terrorism laws and programmes like Prevent.

In recent years, Mahmood said: “We’ve seen draconian legislation introduced – and that means we are surrendering our civil liberties. Where will this end? The rest of Britain needs to wake up to the fact that we are sleep-walking ourselves into very serious times.”

“We are not your slaves”

Students gather outside the University of London Union in central London before marching to parliament. (image: matthew cassel)

While I was at the protests in London yesterday posting updates on twitter, a friend wrote me and asked why I care so much about students in Britain. Here is my response: I care first and foremost about human rights, of which the right to education is definitely included. It’s pretty basic that any nation claiming to be built on democracy and the respect for the rights of all its people must offer equal access to health care and education. Yesterday, the Cameron-led government further ripped away the right to education from much of Britain, yet somehow it’s the few young people who threw things at police in full riot gear and sprayed graffiti on walls who some are trying to portray as the “violent” ones. It was not the state under attack yesterday, it was the state attacking the rights of students.

I care about the students here because one country does not exist in isolation from the rest of the world, and the UK raising tuition fees by 300% will affect all of us. Granted the education system was far from ideal before yesterday as many British friends have told me, but no longer can most people in theory study and go on to become a politician, academic, artist, writer, journalist, teacher, lawyer, doctor, etc. Like in the US, those positions will be almost entirely reserved for the increasingly exclusive upper classes who can pay exorbitant fees to obtain an education. Most people who can’t pay will either forgo their studies or remain forever in a pit of debt from which escape is close to impossible — trust me, I can tell you all about that.

As a journalist working in the English-language media, I greatly appreciate the relative openness that exists in media based outside the US (I am able to write things for a mainstream British publication that I could never write in a comparable US outlet). It’s by no coincidence that many of these English-language countries offer either free or affordable health care and education, two rights long extinct in the US. When education becomes a privilege and not a right, we instantly lose diversity in the voices discussing the world and what’s happening in it. Not that such diversity flourishes today in the corporate-dominated media, but it is a struggle that many of us working in independent media are engaged in. And it’s a struggle that time might show took a major setback yesterday.

However, it’s truly inspiring to see tens of thousands of students now leading the way. And it’s not only in the UK, but elsewhere across Europe where equal access to education and health care are at threat. Hopefully the students will carry on their fight and other countries will join in this battle for democracy and human rights before their governments — backed by armed riot police — continue forcing their shallow definition of these concepts not only on their own populations, but also on the rest of the world in the form of bombs, coup d’etats, support for dictatorships, etc.


On the way to parliament (image: matthew cassel)
Shouting against the government for taking away their right to education (image: matthew cassel)
My first time seeing Big Ben, and big Harry, big John, big Thomas, etc. (image: matthew cassel)
Nope, yesterday you most certainly were not (image: matthew cassel)
Trying to break through police barriers to reach parliament where politicians sad "aye" and took away their right to education (image: matthew cassel)
"Your job is next!" some protestors shouted to police. Although judging by anger around Britain at the government, I think if there is one job that will be protected it will be the police. (image: matthew cassel)
Dance party, bonfire, etc. (image: matthew cassel)
(image: matthew cassel)
Even Santa came and told the cops to "fuck off" (image: matthew cassel)