LONDON // Muslim children as young as four are being monitored by anti-terrorism police in Britain for signs that they are being brainwashed by Islamic militants. A leaked memo from police in the West Midlands shows that officers have been monitoring nurseries and primary schools in the area, provoking fury among parents and Muslim groups.
Opposition politicians have also condemned the practice with Chris Grayling, the Conservative Party's home affairs spokesman, describing it as a policy that ran the risk of "alienating even more people". For the Liberal Democrats, Chris Huhne, the party's home affairs spokesman, said it was an "absurd waste of police time". In the e-mail leaked to The Times, a counterterrorism officer tells teachers: "I do hope that you will tell me about persons, of whatever age, you think may have been radicalised or [may] be vulnerable to radicalisation.
"Evidence suggests that radicalisation can take place from the age of four." A police spokesman yesterday confirmed that the officer who sent the e-mail had been to one nursery but said that was only because it was attached to a primary school he was visiting. However, Arun Kundnani, from the Institute of Race Relations, has disclosed that he had contacted the officer who wrote the e-mail and was told that he and his colleagues had visited several nursery schools.
"He did seem to think it was standard. He said it wasn't just him or his unit that was doing it. He said the indicators were they [children] might draw pictures of bombs and say things like 'all Christians are bad' or that they believe in an Islamic state. "It seems that nursery teachers in the West Midlands area are being asked to look out for radicalisation. He also said that targeting young children was important because they would be less aware of what was inappropriate to say at school.
"He felt that it was necessary to cover nurseries as well as primary and secondary schools. He said it was a precaution and that he wasn't expecting to come back with a list." The nursery visits are being made as part of the government's controversial Prevent programme, a scheme intended to steer young Muslims away from radicalisation but which has been criticised as an attempt to get communities to spy on their own.
Recently, the Home Office admitted that a seven-year-old child had become the youngest person to feature in a scheme to tackle grooming by extremists. The child was admitted to the Channel Project, a programme under the Prevent scheme in which more than 200 youngsters, mainly teenagers, are involved in discussions with their families, local imams and the police in a bid to turn them away from extremist influences.
But amid growing criticism of Prevent, John Denham, the communities secretary, said last week the programme had to be more transparent to dispel "the fear that by joining a Prevent activity, the organisers or the participants are opening themselves up to covert surveillance, intelligence-gathering and the collection of files on the Muslim communities". In the anger that followed the disclosure that nurseries were being targeted, one woman claimed on a Muslim website yesterday that her seven-year-old nephew was questioned at length at his school by social workers after teachers saw him using his fingers as a pretend gun as he played with friends.
"It was something all boys do. Can you imagine the uproar there would have been had they done this to a seven-year-old white, Christian boy?" she asked. However, there have been acute worries about attempts to radicalise the young in the Birmingham area of the West Midlands ever since Parviz Khan, who was jailed last year for plotting to kidnap and behead a British soldier, was videotaped trying to indoctrinate his son.
Khan, 38, could be heard threatening the boy with a beating if he did not answer questions correctly. "Who do you love?" Kahn asked. "I love Sheikh Osama bin Laden," the boy answered. Khalid Mahmood, the member of parliament for Birmingham, Perry Barr, said yesterday that he had not heard of attempts to radicalise children as young of four. But if such "disgraceful" tactics were being used, the targets should be the adults, not the children.
"We should clamp down on anybody that is trying to divert young children towards any form of extremism," he said. "I know there are people in our communities with very strange notions. "They are actively trying to divert some younger people toward extremism at college and university ages. It is certainly possible that the same people are trying just as hard with much younger children. "I think we need to concentrate all of our efforts towards the individuals who are trying to indoctrinate the youngsters.
"We need to protect our children of all ages. If the police and security services are aware of this then they should be going after the perpetrators, so that they can be dealt with and the children can be protected. "If anybody knows that this is happening to a friend or a relative then they should come forward and speak up. It is up to the communities here in Birmingham to contact the police and the security services."