Counter-radicalisation strategy must acknowledge role of UK foreign policy

Counter-radicalisation strategy must acknowledge role of UK foreign policy
Comment: The Muslim Council of Britain has set in motion its own 'grassroots' counter-extremism programme, with the simple message that any use of violence is unacceptable, writes Tom Charles
5 min read
21 Nov, 2016
Under 'Prevent', many school teachers in the UK have received training in detecting radicalisation [Getty]

The UK government is set to double down on its opinion-dividing Prevent counter-terrorism programme, according to a secret Whitehall report.

Criticism of the Prevent agenda has come from British Muslim communities, politicians, legal experts and free speech advocates.

Some critics have raised the alarm over the potential damage being done by Prevent, while there remains an undercurrent of dissatisfaction at the government's unwillingness to include its own foreign policy as a factor in creating terrorism.

Prevent is closely associated with Prime Minister Theresa May, who as Home Secretary oversaw the strategy's implementation. And it is May who earlier this year ordered the secret review, which has recommended a change of name to "Contest", following concerns raised by the House of Commons Select Committee that Prevent had become a "toxic brand".


A re-branding exercise is unlikely to placate those who have raised serious concerns, and who are supported in their criticisms by an Open Society Foundation report, "Eroding Trust". The title of the report provides a succinct summary of its content, which details a raft of philosophical, political and practical flaws in the strategy and its implementation.

Over half a million public sector employees, including teachers, doctors and psychologists have now received training in spotting signs of radicalisation, but concerns raised about the impact of mishandled cases at community level have yet to be addressed by central government, which sets the parameters of the policy delivered by local councils.

Alternative plan

Such is the dissatisfaction, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) has set in motion its own "grassroots" anti-extremism programme, claiming to represent 500 charities. The proposed MCB anti-terrorism programme will be run by community groups, and intends to provide an alternative to Prevent, which it sees as only willing to work with those who explicitly or tacitly support UK foreign policy.

By not including UK foreign policy, or domestic economic policy, as part of Prevent's raison d'etre, the UK government has set itself at odds with those with an alternative analysis of the root causes of terrorism. While Prevent carries a message of opposing Islamist and other non-state violence, it condones UK state violence, and by extension US foreign policy.

Prevent condones UK state violence, and by extension US foreign policy

The MCB message is planned to be much simpler: that any use of violence is unacceptable. But, concerns will be raised that the MCB is seeking to establish a self-policing network working parallel to an established policy set by a democratically elected government.

Community participation

West London is one area that has seen high profile cases of youth people traveling to Syria to fight for IS. In the area, Prevent is administered by a tri-borough team, which engages Muslim community organisations and leaders to help reach those deemed vulnerable to radicalisation.

But cooperation with the local Prevent team does not necessarily indicate agreement on the part of the community groups with the national government's approach.

One community leader stated that, "The element of generalisation needs to be removed; the actions of an individual are labelled 'Islamic' if they are done by a Muslim, but this is not the case for non-Muslims".

Acknowledegment of the role foreign policy by the government would reduce the sharp disagreements over Prevent

Another prominent Muslim community coordinator agreed: "I've heard about kids being questioned for saying 'Allahu Akbar (God is great)' in class, or for deciding to wear a headscarf. This doesn't happen to non-Muslims".

And the community leaders agreed that acknowledgement of the role foreign policy by the government would reduce the sharp disagreements over Prevent. One reports that, "Britain and America have taken over Iraq and Afghanistan. They have used the African Union to control other Muslim countries. We can see that this is to secure contracts and that it is part of an East-West power struggle with Russia".

I was told that while foreign policy is by no means the only factor (family breakdown, gang culture and economic factors were also mentioned), when the UK's Middle East policy is raised with Prevent officers from the Home Office, it is met with the message "'your point is noted' but there is never a suggestion of anything changing. There is never any acknowledgement of Britain's foreign policy mistakes".


For cash-strapped local charities and community groups, Prevent can offer a source of funding to undertake vital work, and a way to ensure positive relations with the council. One charity worker told me: "Prevent is like a budget overhead, there's a sense that Prevent is where the money is to deliver community programmes, so let's go with that".

But in that west London tri-borough area, the councils have appointed Prevent officers who are rooted in their communities and who have been "nothing but helpful". In other boroughs, there has been widespread rejection of Prevent, which is seen as a hostile monitoring network keeping tabs on Muslims, harassing and stigmatising people and removing children from schools unnecessarily.

There has been widespread rejection of Prevent, which is seen as a hostile monitoring network keeping tabs on Muslims

Such cases are detailed in the Open Society Foundation report and there are plenty of anecdotal examples to back them up.

Despite acknowledging Prevent's limitations, the west London participants who I spoke to were keen to point out that the problem of people traveling to Syria having been groomed is very real, and that only the government has the resources and reach to address this issue.

The future

The west London community organisations also stressed their willingness to engage as fully as possible with the authorities. It may be that the government needs to increase its own willingness to acknowledge the long-term impact of the UK's role in the Muslim world, if it is to ensure that Prevent succeeds in its aims.

Tom Charles is a London-based writer, editor and literary agent. He previously worked in the UK parliament, including as a lobbyist for Palestinian rights. He has contributed to Jadaliyya and the Journal of Palestinian Refugee Studies. 

Follow him on Twitter: @tomhcharles

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.