Since at least the turn of the millennium the British government has been engaged in an unprecedented legislative programme to combat what it calls terrorism but which also includes ideological and physical threats to its overseas interventions.
Running parallel to this since 2005 has been a wide-reaching anti-terrorism strategy called CONTEST, a key component of which is the PREVENT programme, designed to eradicate beliefs amongst British Muslims that run counter to so-called ‘British values’ and British foreign policy objectives in Muslim-majority countries.
Prevent is the ‘soft power’ component of the British establishment’s attempts to engineer a change in the political attitudes of Britain’s Muslims. What was originally conceived as a programme to confront violent extremism has progressively expanded into an assimilation exercise to create a new liberal, secularised Muslim community.
Since its inception Prevent has expanded from being an intrusive surveillance programme into an invasive social engineering exercise that critics say directly attacks the Muslim community and strikes at the heart of long established civil liberties.
Today the programme – by dint of law – requires official agencies and professionals such as doctors and teachers to monitor people for signs of extremist ideas. These have always been loosely defined making the determination of ‘extremist’ a largely subjective consideration to be made by non-experts. Significantly, their incorporation into the state security apparatus means that individuals can now be monitored for signs of radicalisation from the cradle to the grave. Cases abound where normal expressions of religious belief have been reported as evidence of extremism, such as of schoolchildren saying music was forbidden or parents querying changes to hijab policy by their children’s school.
More than that, schools are now required to inculcate and reinforce ‘British’ values. The focus on British values in response to unfounded accusations of Muslim extremism implies that they are either incompatible with Islam or that Muslims cannot be trusted to uphold them. More disturbingly, rather than being independently thought out, British values are being defined in opposition to Islam.
Last month, IHRC found itself intervening in the case of a predominantly Muslim school in Leytonstone, East London, after its pupils were issued with questionnaires soliciting their views on a range of issues and hypothetical cases designed to tease out any “extremist” tendencies. The school asked a series of highly loaded questions which seem to be based on a perception of extremism and radicalisation held by right-wing neo-cons
Under Prevent, those who criticise UK foreign policy and/or hold a non governmentally-approved interpretation of their faith have been treated as ‘extremists’ by the Prevent programme and referred for ‘treatment’ using deradicalisation (read indoctrination) programmes. This has spread fear within communities, as well as among voluntary organisations and public employees who are expected to implement the programme. The upshot is that Prevent has stifled legitimate debate about some of the key issues of our times, especially surrounding terrorism and foreign policy.
Prevent is an open-ended programme which is constantly growing. Its application requires that Muslims be subjected to policing for signs of extremism, as if extremism was an unavoidable consequence of adherence to the Islamic faith. No area of life is immune. Muslim-run charities have felt the force of intrusive surveillance by the charities regulator, the Charity Commission. In the period 5 December 2012 to 8 May 2014
it labelled 55 charities with the issue code ‘extremism and radicalisation’ without their knowledge. These charities were being monitored as a potential concern for matters relating to extremism and radicalisation. Since there are no written criteria for applying or removing this label it lends itself to non-evidence based targeting of Muslim groups, a concern borne out by a Guardian study which showed that of all the investigations being carried out by the Commission from April 2012 – November 2014, more than 20 percent were of Muslim organisations.
Only last May IHRC found itself writing to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe to express its concern over an article written by a force commander proposing that the authorities “move into the private space” of Muslims in Britain in order to root out ‘extremism’. The comments made by the Met’s head of community engagement, Commander Mak Chisty, in an article published in the Guardian, recommend the intrusive policing of Muslims because “it is in these private spaces where this (extremism) first germinates”. In Chisty’s opinion, views that would qualify as extremism include Muslim children considering Christmas to be “haram” or individuals criticising and boycotting Marks and Spencer.
While Prevent has been around for a decade and has been subjected to intense criticism by academics, rights groups as well as community groups, it has rarely, if ever, formed a focus for a gathering in which experts and those affected by it can subject the programme to critical scrutiny.
It is with this in mind that IHRC, together with Campaign Against Criminalising Communities, and the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, has organised an international conference this weekend to confront the programme. The speakers include some of the most highly acclaimed authorities in the field such as Arun Kundnani, currently of New York University, who has written extensively on government anti-terrorism strategy and Marie-Breen Smith of the University of Surrey.
The conference is being held this Saturday 13 June in London.
More details about the conference including the full list of speakers can be found at http://ihrc.org.uk/events/11430-preventing-violent-extremism