Appointing an Islamophobe to review 'Prevent' won't rebuild trust with the community

Appointing an Islamophobe to review 'Prevent' won't rebuild trust with the community
Comment: The UK's Prevent agenda is nothing more than state-sanctioned Islamophobia. The appointment of an Islamophobe to review it only adds further insult to injury, writes Taj Ali.
6 min read
04 Feb, 2021
'Prevent' was set up in 2006 as part of a wider counter-terrorism strategy [Getty]
Last week, the British government announced that William Shawcross had been appointed to lead an "independent" review of the government's controversial counter-terrorism policy known as Prevent.

The Prevent agenda was set up in 2006 by the British government as part of a wider counter-terrorism strategy known as Contest. The controversial programme has long been criticised by human rights groups for undermining civil liberties and deliberately targeting British Muslims. 

William Shawcross, the man tasked with reviewing the Islamophobic programme, has his own history of Islamophobia. In 2012, in his role as director of the neoconservative thinktank the Henry Jackson Society, Shawcross said that "Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future. I think all European countries have vastly, very quickly growing Islamic populations."

This divisive appointment only serves to highlight how out of touch our government is with the Muslim community in this country. Lord Carlisle, who was previously in the role, was removed in 2019 after a successful judicial challenge to his independence from the human rights group, Rights Watch UK.

For several years now, many British Muslims have highlighted how the Prevent agenda has targeted them and contributed to the Islamophobic narrative that Muslims constitute a suspect community.

In 2010, the newly-elected coalition government acknowledged the previous government's counterterrorism legislation was "a significant source of grievance within the Muslim community". But these were hollow words and it wasn't long before the toxic programme was expanded in scope.

Prevent is a failed policy that has led to the criminalisation of communities and the suppression of civil liberties

By 2015, the government passed the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, and made the controversial counter-terrorism programme Prevent, statutory duty. Public sector workers including teachers and doctors were required by law to make referrals and spot signs of "radicalisation", often with inadequate guidance.

That guidance on what constitutes radicalisation has often been vague and the government's emphasis on religious ideology being a key driver has inevitably meant Muslims have often been targeted simply for practicing their religion. According to a survey conducted by the National Union of Students, one in three Muslim students felt negatively affected by the Prevent duty.

As a young British Muslim, I've seen first-hand the detrimental impact that Prevent can have on Muslim communities. Prevent often blurs the lines between political activism and violent extremism and this has meant it has become increasingly difficult for British Muslims to express their grievances with British foreign policy for fear of being branded extremists.

I grew up in Luton and attended a predominantly Muslim school. A friend of mine had police officers interrogate him on his own doorstep for wearing a Palestine badge. Another friend was reported by a teacher to a special constable based at our school because he'd been reading a leaflet on Palestinian human rights.

Read more: UK's racist 'Prevent' strategy failed once, and it will fail again

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Across the country, there have been numerous incidents of young Muslims being targeted. From a four-year-old child facing terror warnings for mispronouncing the word "cucumber" to a case revealed just this week where another four-year-old was referred to the programme for playing a game of Fortnite.

Many Muslims come from communities that have suffered colonial violence, the consequences of foreign policy and institutional racism, and policies like Prevent portray the articulation of our lived experiences as synonymous with extremism.

For years, we've tried to highlight how toxic this strategy is, and instead of scrapping it, it's been expanded in scope. In June 2019, organisations such as Greenpeace and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) were featured in a Prevent guidance document which was distributed to teachers and medical staff by counter-terrorism police. The Prevent agenda sets a dangerous precedent allowing political dissent to be clamped down on under the guise of national security.

Prevent, and the resulting over-policing of the Muslim community has created a climate in which Muslims are increasingly viewed through the lens of security. In some ways, it parallels the way Irish people were treated during "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland, when the British government enhanced security measures which had dire consequences for the civil liberties of the Irish community.

Muslims are increasingly viewed through the lens of security

Clothed in the language of tackling the growing IRA threat, these new laws enhanced state powers to detain suspects for indefinite periods of time without trial. These security measures, coupled with a hostile media, contributed to an atmosphere with the Irish were treated as a suspect community. Paddy Hillyard coined the term "suspect communities" to describe this moral panic which led to a rapid increase in racism and hate crime against Irish communities.

Prevent, too, is a failed policy that has led to the criminalisation of communities and the suppression of civil liberties. In many ways, it reinforces far-right narratives that have long portrayed Muslims as the enemy within. By securitising and criminalising harmless Muslim behaviours and ideas under the guise of national security, it has alienated many British Muslims and led to growing distrust of the government and law enforcement agencies.

The appointment of Shawcross follows a growing trend of divisive appointments that will only erode trust with the Muslim community even further. 

In November, the government appointed David Goodhart, who had previously downplayed the issue of Islamophobia, as a commissioner on the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). It later emerged that Douglas Murray who said "Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board" was also asked to be an EHRC commissioner.

The government has done nowhere near enough to win back the trust of British Muslims

And, of course, Sarwan Singh who has been criticised for his comments about "Muslim victimhood" is heading up the inquiry into Islamophobia within the party of government.

It is abundantly clear that the government has done nowhere near enough to win back the trust of British Muslims. Instead, what we've seen in the last few years is an attempt by the government to shield themselves from accountability on the issue of Islamophobia.

Prevent serves as a reminder that Islamophobia is not restricted to fringe bigots on the far-right. It has been embedded in government legislation for years and if we are serious about challenging Islamophobia, we need to take a stand against the discriminatory laws which enable it.

It's time to end the criminalisation of communities and the suppression of civil liberties. That can't be done by side-lining Muslims and ignoring our concerns, and it certainly can't be done by appointing anti-Muslim adjudicators to review anti-Muslim policies.

Taj Ali is a freelance writer and political activist based in Luton. He recently graduated from the University of Warwick with a BA in History and Politics.

Follow him on Twitter: @taj_ali1

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.