Just over four years ago, the Sunday Times published a remarkable story. At a ‘Students not Suspects’ meeting at Goldsmiths students’ union, a young man called Rahmaan Mohammadi retold his account of being referred to Prevent by his school. He believed that his ‘Free Palestine’ badge had, in part, motivated the referral. The experience had, unsurprisingly, left him shaken:
‘When police come to your house and say, ‘I want to speak to you’, with this massive folder with your name on it, that’s intimidating. It makes you feel alienated.’
But was it actually true?
‘Students not Suspects’, a campaign run by the National Union of Students, undertook a nationwide tour of students’ unions in 2016. This culminated in a national conference featuring former Guantanamo detainee and CAGE outreach director, Moazzam Begg, and a speaker from the Islamic Human Rights Commission, which the previous year had given Charlie Hebdo an ‘Islamophobe of the Year’ award, two months after 12 of its staff were shot dead in a terror attack.
But it was Rahmaan Mohammadi who was the star attraction. Fresh-faced, sincere and passionate, his account of being victimised by the police for expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people encapsulated the message of the conference: that Prevent treats Muslim students with a concern for human rights as would-be terrorists.
It was a compelling story, and it was retold, not just by the Sunday Times, but by the Independent, the Huffington Post, and, of course, Russia Today. The BBC broadcast an interview with Mohammadi later that year and the Guardian also made a video about Mohammadi’s plight, which was later edited to remove inaccurate statements about Prevent. His case has been widely cited in a number of academic books as an illustration of the over-reach of the Prevent programme. Most reports identify his support for Palestinian human rights, or the badge, as the factor that triggered intervention.
Four years on, Rahmaan Mohammadi’s story continues to be widely shared. Last week, a teacher racked up 4,300 ‘likes’ for a tweet claiming that ‘Rahmaan Mohammadi was reported to Prevent by his teachers and investigated by counter-terrorism officers when aged 14 for wearing a Free Palestine badge to school’. He concluded: ‘It is not antisemitic to say that Palestinian solidarity has been suppressed in the UK’.
The trouble with Mohammadi’s version of these events is that his school flatly denies that it is correct. Challney High School for Boys put out a statement making it clear that teachers ‘were not concerned about the nature of the badges and wristbands’ and that ‘at no point was the student told not to talk about Palestine in school’. The school also said that it had actually supported fundraising efforts by Mohammadi and other students.
What was it, then, about Rahmaan Mohammadi’s conduct that had resulted in a referral to Prevent? We will never know, for a very simple reason. As the school explained, they operated a standard safeguarding policy for the young people in its care. A basic requirement of such procedures is that the facts of individual cases be kept confidential in all circumstances. That injunction could not be lifted merely because the school was thrust into the national spotlight by the actions of its pupil.
It is futile to speculate as to the factors which did in fact motivate the Prevent referral. However, a number of Mohammadi’s Facebook posts might well have raised concerns. On 2 August 2014, he declared: ‘Long Live Assad!’. On 9 February 2015, he accused ‘the Jewish Zuckerberg’ of allowing security agencies to spy on him. On 4 July 2015, he greeted a jihadist attack on Israel by Isis with the words ‘Finally!’.
We do not know if these posts formed part of the ‘massive folder’ that the police carried when they visited Mohammadi. But it should be obvious that social media posts of this type are likely to lead to a certain nervousness. Although most of those who express such sentiments will never even come close to involvement with terrorism – and, indeed, no further action was taken in this case – can you imagine the furore were an attack to take place, and ‘warning signs’ such as these had been ignored?
Prevent is, in essence, a triage system. The overwhelming majority of referrals result in no action, and are quickly disposed of. It does not target Muslims: it focuses on violent extremism. Last year, the programme dealt with as many cases relating to far right threats as Islamist. Prevent has been constantly reviewed and refined, and the system has been fine tuned.
However, when it comes to debunking canards, the police and the government have been hopeless. It was left to Mohammadi’s school to say what they could about the true reasons for his referral. Confidentiality obligations limited their ability to respond. In any event, their explanation was reported only in one small, local paper.
Prevent requires trust in order to be effective. The greatest threat to that trust comes from anecdotes of this type. Mohammadi’s case is not the only such example. Those who work in the Prevent programme will tell you that many of the cases which have made headlines are not all they seem. The Government is currently conducting a further review of Prevent. An authoritative rapid rebuttal process that can address such stories before they can be used by far left and Islamist groups who would prefer that we did not fight terrorism at all must be one of its recommendations.
David Toube is director of policy, Quilliam International