The clamour for greater resourcing for the government’s Prevent programme following last week’s terrorist attack in London is ill-conceived, opportunist and risks being counter-productive.
Most of it seems to be led by the Islamophobically motivated commentariat but calls to beef up the programme have also come from within the Muslim community. Foremost among them is the Quilliam Foundation, which as a poster boy and major recipient of funds from the programme, has a vested interest in the Prevent money trough being enlarged.
Prevent, an acronym for Preventing Violent Extremism, is one of four pillars of the government’s anti-terrorism strategy, CONTEST, which emerged as a response to the July 2005 terrorist bombings in the capital. Its stated aim to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.
The policy is predicated on the idea that British Muslim society lacked an effective counter narrative to ‘extremist’ ideological positions that were proving increasingly appealing to young Muslims affronted and angered by the effect on their co-religionists of western governments’ foreign policies, in particular the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.
Tapping into widespread British Muslim revulsion to the London attacks it claimed to seek to build a consensus around defeating extremist narratives. However it soon became clear what was originally sold by the government as a strategic partnership with other stakeholders – foremost amongst them the Muslim community – to counter terrorism was in fact part of an aggressive social engineering and spying exercise to transform attitudes in the community and gather intelligence on its members.
British Muslims, who were initially dubious about Prevent but won over by promises that it would help expand their organisational capacity to deal with violent extremism in-house and largely on their own terms, soon discovered that the whole initiative was a state-led snooping campaign. One high-profile example of this was the installation of 200 surveillance cameras in Muslim areas of inner-city Birmingham in 2010 by West Midlands Police and Birmingham City Council.
Prevent drew on voluntary sector organisations, community groups, educational institutions, local authorities, prisons, mosques and police forces to map the make-up and dynamics of British Muslim communities, often seeking information that had little to do with violent extremism or terrorism. Indeed the Prevent programme was so intrusive that Shami Chakrabarti, former director of Liberty and current shadow attorney general, branded it the biggest spying programme in Britain in modern times.
But it didn’t stop there.
By 2011, following a government review into CONTEST, Prevent took on a more aggressive attitude towards changing opinions amongst British Muslims. Henceforth, it would no longer be enough to use counter-narratives to challenge violent extremism – it was also expected that Muslims should also actively promote “core British values”, which according to the government, included conforming to its foreign policy objectives.
Accordingly, the definition of extremism has grown to cover non-violent extremism, something which was never originally part of Prevent. Now the government defines extremism as “vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”. The definition stretches the scope of extremist activity to draconian proportions, making it so wide that it is capable of ensnaring people who oppose government policies or hold conservative views such as disapproval of abortion, music or same-sex marriage.
To police this new ‘thoughtcrime’, in 2015 the government made it a statutory duty on public sector workers to implement Prevent by identifying those at risk of extremism, effectively making every public official a spy and every Muslim a suspect. Among the vague indicators of extremism that officials are expected to look out for are ‘a desire for status’ and ‘a need for identity meaning and belonging’. Figures published by the National Police Chiefs Council show that the number of Muslims tagged by Prevent has almost doubled since the duty came into force, to 2810 in 2015/16 from 1541 in the previous financial year (accounting for 68% of all referrals).
Among those caught by the dragnet was a seven-year-old boy who told his teacher and classmates he and his five-year-old brother had received toy guns as presents from their parents. Another involved a nine-year-old boy who was interviewed, without a parent or guardian present, and ‘cautioned’ for wearing a t-shirt with Arabic writing on it. These are by no means isolated incidents – in 2015/16 children under 18 made up half of all referrals for ‘Islamist extremism’ with 241 of these being under the age of 10.
The damaging impact of viewing Muslims through a security lens, as Prevent does, has been widely established. In April 2016 the UN Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Assembly, Maina Kiai, said that Britain’s anti-terrorism policies were counter-productive, undermining democracy and victimising the Muslim community. In October the same year a report by the George Soros funded Open Society Initiative concluded that Prevent undermined Muslims’ right to manifest their religion, often targeting them for displaying increased religiosity. Another report in July 2016 by RightsWatch UK called for Prevent to be abolished saying that a strategy that “alienates vulnerable children is counterproductive and inconsistent with the very ‘British values’ that the Government is supposedly promoting.”
More recently the government has set in motion a review of after-school education in an alleged bid to tackle the so-called radicalisation of children in “unregulated education settings”. This effectively means government oversight of the Muslim religious education sector dominated by after-school madrasas. Quite how the madrasa system is breeding extremists has never been shown but the government seems intent on controlling them regardless.
It is also conducting a review into shariah courts in England and Wales, ostensibly to find out if any are acting “in a discriminatory and unacceptable way”. Incidentally, the Jewish community has also long operated its own religious courts called Batei Din to resolve civil matters according to their faith, However, despite repeated criticism that the courts discriminate against women, they have never been subject to government scrutiny.
Muslim organisations, particularly Muslim-run charities, have also felt the force of intrusive surveillance. From 5 December 2012 to 8 May 2014 the charities watchdog, the Charity Commission, 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. Between April 2012 and November 2014 more than 20 percent of all charities being investigated were Muslim organisations.
The whole edifice of repressive legislation and policy and the sheer scale of intrusion into everyday Muslim life are hard to reconcile with the idea that they exist only to combat terrorism. They serve a wider agenda. As I have written elsewhere “official anti-terror discourse is being driven by an extreme right-wing ideology rooted in the desire to control and shape British Islam”. If Muslims won’t voluntarily adopt liberal values the government is determined to drag them there kicking and screaming. That is why in the immediate aftermath of the London bombings Theresa May again rolled out the old chestnut that lessons in the superiority of British values would lead to less tolerance of extremism, implying that Muslims need to be protected against their own faith. May’s speech echoed one made her predecessor, David Cameron, who in 2015 referred to those in the Muslim community who “quietly condone” extremism, who “don’t go as far as advocating violence, but who do buy into some of these prejudices”.
Perhaps this is why anti-terrorism is failing in this country – the authorities seem so concerned with remoulding British Muslims that their energies and resources are taken up pursuing this latter day “mission civilisatrice” rather than seeking out real terrorists. The recent attacks in London and Manchester show that even where extremists have been brought to the attention of the authorities, in most cases by members of the Muslim community itself, no action has been taken. Could it be that the focus on reshaping Muslims into liberals is detracting from the fight against terrorism? Or is it the case that casting the whole Muslim community as suspects is stretching diminishing police resources and not allowing them to concentrate on the real extremists?
Whatever the answer it is clear that the Prevent strategy has not made Britain any more secure from the threat of terrorism. Moreover it has become a dirty word in the Muslim community, a byword for indoctrination and intrusion. Those involved in its delivery have been dubbed government agents. Organisations like the Quilliam Foundation have come to enjoy pariah status on the streets. These are the same organisations that are now spearheading demands for Prevent to be expanded, accusing those who oppose it of being extremists or serving an extremist agenda. They have been joined by new faces eager to feed from the same money trough that Prevent has created. Prominent among these is Nasir Afzal, the former chief prosecutor for the north west of England who has become something of a darling of the Murdoch media since the London attacks. Afzal believes those who criticise Prevent are peddling myths and undermining the fight against terrorism.
Any policy that that has been rejected by the vast majority of a community at whom it is mainly directed is doomed from the off and putting up more brown sahibs to front it is not going to change that fact. Prevent rests on racist and Islamophobic assumptions. It conceives of Islam as innately violent, casting all Muslims as potential terrorist sympathisers or suspects and in doing so contributes in no small way to the legitimisation of institutional discrimination against them. It perpetuates the notion that Muslims are in need of value modification and differential legal standards, thereby exacerbating the demonisation of Muslims in the public psyche. It ensnares innocent Muslims for displaying conservative views or practices and in doing so alienates innocent, law-abiding people. It also seeks to steer the community away from its own faith-based precepts and values to some vaguely defined liberal high ground, revealing itself as part of a wider neo-colonial socialising agenda. As long as Prevent remains a central plank of government anti-terror policy Britain will never win the fight against terrorism.