‘I feel I had to self-censor. And that’s not the point of therapy. It’s meant to be a place where you’re open to getting to the root of your problems’.
27-year-old Ahmed has had 13 cognitive behavioural therapy sessions, but he feels he’s had to hide or understate parts of his Muslim identity.
He, of course, has no radical tendencies, but worries that when discussing the feelings of alienation which many British Muslims feel at times, it could be misconstrued as something darker, something terroristic.
This, he feels, is due to the government’s counter-extremism programme Prevent, which has been accused of discrimination for undue surveillance on Muslims for years.
The Prevent strategy includes a statutory duty for schools, NHS trusts, prisons, and local authorities to identify and report concerns about people who may be at risk of turning to extremism.
But this has disproportionately affected Muslims who seem to have become synonymous with terrorism.
In fact, the government guidelines for Prevent explicitly and repeatedly names Islamic groups as threats.
But evidence shows that there are more white suspects arrested for far-right terrorism than Islamist ones.
And yet some research claims that ‘Islamist extremism’ referrals are 17 times more likely to pass through to Prevent than far-right extremism (which Prevent tells us is inaccurate).
There is distrust among Muslims about the Prevent duty which they, like Ahmed, feel places extra scrutiny on their movement.
But Muslims who feel otherised from society have nowhere to turn except inwards, even when their mental health is compromised.
This is worrying considering more than half of young British Muslims have suffered poor mental health, and around a third have had suicidal thoughts.
Muslims may be grappling with several things at once; a moral panic to prove their Britishness, as well as the burden of disavowing acts of terrorism.
Juggling these complex emotions can take a huge mental toll on them – but if there is a lack of trust in mental healthcare provisions, for many, the psychological impact will only get worse.
Ahmed has felt these apprehensions.
He says: ‘One thing that made me hesitant to be a bit more open during my therapy sessions is that the fear that what I could say could be used against me because the therapist said he wanted to record it.
‘I wasn’t sure if I could trust my therapist 100%. He said our sessions would be private, and it’s not like I talked about Prevent or anything but it was a point of concern.
‘I understand that therapists have an obligation to report whatever concerns they have because of the Prevent duty.’
Ahmed thinks more diversity is needed in the sector to have therapists that have a better cultural understanding without any bias.
‘I don’t think I said anything that would’ve warranted me to be referred or anything that could be misconstrued. But it’s important for therapists to understand cultural contexts, for example, the experience of being a brown Muslim man, family pressures, etc.’
Cultural psychologist and lecturer Tarek Younis has studied how Muslims are racialised in healthcare settings.
He explains to Metro.co.uk that before Muslims have even said anything, their appearances can say a lot more, as a result of unconscious bias on the healthcare professional’s part.
He explains: ‘Muslim appearances and behaviours are associated with threat, regressiveness and foreignness in British public imagination. In other words, a random individual is much more likely to think “threat” when they see/hear a Muslim than a white person—there’s enough research to demonstrate this.’
Tarek says that Prevent trains staff to rely heavily on ‘gut feelings’ which are not objective measures to call out threats.
‘In this way, Prevent legitimises prejudicial referrals,’ he adds. And this affects how likely Muslims are to turn to healthcare services.
‘I have met a number of Muslims who explicitly admitted they withheld seeking mental health support in the NHS once they heard of the Prevent duty.
‘Over the years, I’ve since heard dozens of stories where a Muslim women was told that her headscarf may be the problem or other such incidents where Islam is viewed as the problem. Again, it draws on racialization, where Muslims and Islam are associated with threat and regressiveness.
‘Crucially, the Prevent duty only exacerbated an already existing apprehension among Muslims: they will be ill-judged or mistreated when seeking mental health support.’
Medical student Halim says he’s never considered therapy but isn’t overly enthusiastic about the idea, having understood how staff are trained to consider ‘signs of extremism’.
‘I have never considered therapy due to this idea,’ he tells us.
‘I have never felt the need to use therapy services in general. But it is a valid concern in any public sector job. Even in medicine, we’ve been given prevent online training and its incorporated in F1 training the idea of being aware of “signs of extremism”.’
He argues that healthcare workers, in general, are more averse to the idea of ‘spying’ on their patients as that would compromise the idea of a confidential patient relationship.
The people that spoke to us explain that it’s not the fault of individuals who are encouraged to call out potential radicalisation.
They argue that Prevent is just a symptom of a larger problem which doesn’t have a clear-cut solution.
Cultural sensitivity may be needed where professionals are taught about how different backgrounds can influence health.
But, Tarek argues, that bias training – where the health professionals may be taught about unconscious judgements based on a person’s age, gender, race, religion – is inadequate.
He also believes that taking a ‘threat agonistic’ approach – where you believe just anyone can be radicalised – is unhelpful in the same way being ‘colourblind’ is when it comes to seeing racism.
He says the British public will not be able to genuinely maintain this approach.
‘I’m not saying NHS professionals shouldn’t be taught about Islam and “Muslims”. The problem arises when “cultural sensitivity” and “threat agnosticism” are presented as ultimate solutions to systemic problems of racism.
‘Rather, there are several other things that are necessary, beyond learning about Islam. First, understand how racialisation occurs and do not assume the British public can maintain a threat agnostic position to a racialised social ill such as terrorism.
‘Secondly, we need to train staff to be reflexive and think critically of policies, not just manage how they should think and behave in bias training.’
There is a legitimate and serious need to identify terrorism threats but a holistic, non-biased approach may be more productive.
Currently, many Muslims feel they are treated as an inherent threat opposed to democracy.
They should, at least, have a qualified person they can talk to about it without judgement and preconceived ideas.
We have contacted Prevent for comment and a Home Office spokesperson said: ‘Prevent is about protecting vulnerable individuals from all kinds of terrorist recruiters and does not focus on any one community.
‘Last year almost half of those supported by the Prevent Channel programme were referred for concerns around far-right extremism, more than those referred for Islamist-related extremism.
‘Independent research published recently by Crest Advisory found that British Muslims support Prevent and its work to stop people being drawn into terrorism, in line with the wider public.’
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