by Jason Barnes
I am deeply concerned that Muslims in North London near Finsbury Park mosque were targeted last week during their holy month of Ramadan.
An act of terror has been inflicted directly on the Muslim community; the kind and peaceful British Muslim community who played an integral part in saving lives and arranging support during the Grenfell Tower fire.
There is often an expectation on Muslims generally following terrorist attacks (such as in Manchester, London Bridge and Borough Market, where dozens were killed and many more injured), to apologise and explain the rationale of these attackers.
Yet there does not appear to be any expectation on me as a white man to speak for or apologise for the attack on muslims at Finsbury Park mosque. This is white privilege, and as social workers we must be astute in recognising and challenging this discrimination and prejudice.
This leads directly to the government’s Prevent Strategy, which is in place to protect British citizens from being groomed and radicalised into any form of extremism.
As a social worker I received the Prevent training, however I am worried about it and feel uncomfortable with how it has been implemented and applied. I feel it has caused deep divisions in Britain, and sowed fear and suspicion. It is experienced as an oppressive surveillance which focuses overwhelmingly on the Muslim community.
Almost 4,000 people were referred to the UK de-radicalisation scheme last year (2015-2016) up from 1,681 in 2014, official figures show.
Significantly for social workers; children aged nine and under were reported among those 4,000. Many of these were unsubstantiated referrals. What impact does this have on a child’s sense of safety, belonging and identity within their school and local community? Are we equipped to deal with the confusion and potential trauma following this experience?
When I completed Prevent training as part of my professional development, the focus was almost exclusively on identifying suspicious behaviour among young men of colour and young people from Muslim backgrounds. We were being trained to notice what kind of things a Muslim person might say or do if they were being radicalised and how to report it.
However, the information was not entirely clear and there were minimal discussions about the risks posed by fascist and far-right groups.
Not enough information was given about Muslims generally (for those who had minimal understanding of the religion) and there was no representation of Muslims at the training. Could a more active engagement with the religion of Islam by young people be misconstrued as ‘becoming radicalised’? If we are misinformed, yes.
A Community Care poll in 2015 found that almost 70% of social workers had no or limited confidence and experience in dealing with issues of extremism. If professionals are not feeling confident, decisions will be made out of fear or anxiety and be perceived as oppressive, or potentially racist and islamophobic.
In this incredibly tumultuous time, social workers need to exercise professional judgement which is informed. Our role within communities and society generally is to strengthen, empower and provide protection and support. It is vital that we engage more fervently than ever before in non-discriminatory practice and, in particular, to challenge Islamophobia and other forms of hate.
The HCPC Standards of Proficiency require us to be able to work with others to promote social justice, equality and inclusion and to address the impact of discrimination, disadvantage and oppression.
We must use reflection and supervision to think about what we’re doing and why and ensure that we do not become fearful or suspicious of minority groups and limit our effectiveness in practice.
If we are uncertain about the social work role in preventing radicalisation, of all kinds, then this must be raised with our employers and the British Association of Social Workers.
Critique of ‘Prevent’ is often viewed as controversial, however looking for ways to deliver best practice should be embraced and discourse encouraged. Social workers have a unique role and professional duty to speak out and promote acceptance, inclusivity and to challenge discrimination.
Given the recent terror attacks in England, we as a profession, along with other public agencies, need to look at our approach to radicalisation and ensure that our practice is not discriminatory and functions in a robust but genuinely inclusive way.
How do we do so? Given that Muslim children and families will be disproportionately affected by errors of judgement we must engage with our Muslim friends, neighbours, community leaders and charities. Being neither Muslim or a person of colour it is vital that I and others listen to and learn from those with know-how.
Organisations such as “Maslaha”, based in London exist to ‘change and challenge the conditions that create inequalities for Muslim communities, combining creativity with practical work and strategic thinking to tackle social issues in areas such as health, education and the criminal justice system’.
‘TELL MAMA’, a public service who support victims of anti-Muslim hate and also measure and monitor anti-Muslim incidents can support social workers to make informed assessments about risk and vulnerability. They noted a ‘five-fold increase’ in anti-Muslim incidents since the London Bridge attacks with a rise of 500%.
Social work practice which is not inter-sectional is ineffective and oppressive.
One in three terror suspects in UK is now white, following a significant rise in far-right extremism. It is therefore unacceptable for us to be blinkered about where potential risks are coming from.
If we work with families who make anti-immigrant or racists comments are these reported and addressed? If not, why not? Far-right extremism is insidious and very dangerous as it, in many ways, forms part of the mainstream narrative.
The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) took aim at some British media outlets, tabloid newspapers like The Sun and Daily Mail, for “offensive, discriminatory and provocative terminology”, which has been interpreted as being racist or inciting hatred towards minority groups. Our ability to challenge this narrative is integral to effective practice.
As social workers, it is vitally important that we are responsive to the needs of our society, particularly in the wake of recent significant events. We must engage with victims of terror and prejudice, demonstrating leadership and a commitment to equality, respect and justice for all.
This week a social worker, writing for the Guardian newspaper, challenged us to leave our comfort zones and to reconnect with those in need. It’s an important challenge and one which we can and must face together.
Jason Barnes is a social worker and Professional Development Assessor. He tweets @jsnbarnes.