Government Policy Is Feeding Campus Islamophobia

The government's security apparatus is subjecting Muslim students to relentless suspicion and fuelling hate – turning universities from places of learning into sites of surveillance.

A 2018 NUS survey found that a third of Muslim students had experienced abuse or crime while studying. Credit: Getty Images

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that recent years have seen the very fact of being Muslim framed as a threat to ‘British values’. One of the clearest forms of this framing is the growing securitisation of Muslims, particularly in public institutions.

A lot of the anti-racism work I do at my university and in my field of global health brings me face-to-face with the constant threat of state surveillance, which in turn makes it increasingly difficult to speak up against Islamophobia. When Muslim children as young as four are referred to Prevent for talking about video games, students and scholars know it’s all too easy for words to be pulled out of context or purposefully misinterpreted in order to justify the enclosure of Muslims in a pre-criminal space.

Examples abound. The recent response to the LSE protest against far-right Islamophobic Israeli ambassador Tzipi Hotovely—which saw the Home Secretary back calls for a police investigation—demonstrated how empty or  intentionally misdirected notions of ‘security’ threaten our fundamental civil rights, particularly for Muslims and political causes in which Muslims are often invested. As the NUS noted in their statement on the protest, ‘It is concerning that a protest overwhelmingly led by students of colour and Muslim students was quickly characterised as ‘a violent mob’.’ This kind of violent characterisation is all too common, both consciously and unconsciously, and among those on campus as well as in the government: as a 2020 SOAS study of Islamophobia in universities found, the term ‘radicalisation’ is ‘commonly understood’ by both students and staff to refer to Islam.

As we mark this year’s Islamophobia Awareness Month, university campuses stand as one of the main arenas in which the fight against Islamophobia must and does take place. A 2018 NUS survey found that a third of Muslim students had experienced abuse or crime while studying, with most believing that that abuse or crime was motivated by Islamophobia. In my experience, students and scholars feel additionally unable to correct the misconceptions about politics or culture that fuel anti-Muslim discrimination, often due to fear of state security apparatus and the way it may impact them if they do.

The aforementioned SOAS study found that the government’s counter-terrorism strategy, Prevent, had ‘reinforced negative stereotypes of Muslims and has encouraged a culture of mutual suspicion and surveillance on university campuses.’ According to the NUS research, a third of Muslim students surveyed felt negatively affected by Prevent—effects which included being referred, having planned events cancelled or significantly changed, or disengaging from political debate and activity entirely.

Muslim students’ feelings of concern are not misplaced. Along with the regular stories that appear of children being referred to Prevent on absurd grounds, recent events show that students affiliated with Islamic or cultural societies or even non-religious political activist groups are increasingly targeted by surveillance. Among the anecdotes in I Refuse to Condemn, a book edited by by Dr. Asim Qureshi, are references to the installation of cameras in prayer rooms and Islamic societies being forced to provide lists of their members to their universities. In 2019, ten students affiliated with campaigns including Justice for Cleaners and Action Palestine were banned from the King’s College London campus during a visit from the Queen—eight of them were Muslim.

Visual expressions of Islam—in how students dress, how they practice, or what books they pick off the library shelves—are constant causes for suspicion. Rather than spaces for open conversation, securitisation has seen universities turned into agents of discriminatory state surveillance that is not just a lurking threat—it actively affects them.

These developments are not, of course, confined to the campus. 9/11 and the subsequent ‘War on Terror’ were major factors in the development of a constantly suspicious and often Islamophobic culture, as noted by Aneesa Akbar in her examination of institutional Islamophobia under Blair and Brown’s New Labour, and now the current government is entrenching it. In tandem with other legislative changes coming down the line—particularly the provision for revoking British citizenship in the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill, a measure which the vice-chair of the Institute of Race Relations has noted has so far been used disproportionately against Muslims—Britain is deepening its Islamophobia inside and outside the university, with far-reaching consequences.

The knowledge and ideas we produce in universities can have wide-reaching effects, including for policy and legislation. That means the consequences of stifling Muslim voices on campus go well beyond the individual, denying Muslim students and scholars an opportunity to fight the perpetuation of Islamophobia and related injustices both country- and world-wide.

None of this is an accident. It is part of a wider political effort to make opposition to state injustice unviable, especially among those most affected by it, regardless of the hollow assurances of a government that claims to value ‘free speech’ but does so only when that speech supports its own ideological ends. As this month moves towards its close, it’s important to recognise the growing threats to our freedoms and to continue working for justice, whether it’s in Britain or elsewhere in the world. We will keep resisting, and keep expressing solidarity against all forms of hate, until that change eventually comes about.