Leaked Prevent review: It was always about targeting Muslims

Leaked Prevent review: It was always about targeting Muslims
When criticism mounted against the Prevent agenda, the government attempted to reinstate trust by arguing it would tackle far-right extremism, the recent leaked review shows that the focus remains the targeting of Muslims, writes Layla Aitlhadj.
6 min read
26 May, 2022
Concerns were raised by hundreds of organisations over the appointment of William Shawcross to head up the independent review of the Prevent strategy. [GETTY]

The leaks around the Prevent review recommendations reveal more about the current UK government than it does about Prevent itself.

In 2019 when the Independent Review of Prevent was announced, nobody could have imagined that three years and two not-so-independent reviewers later, we would still be waiting for the review recommendations.

There has been no shortage of ‘leaks’ to keep us entertained. The latest round published by The Guardian suggests that the recommendation is to refocus Prevent’s lens back onto the Muslim community.

According to Shawcross that is where the real ‘terror threat’ is, despite counter-terrorism experts warning that most Prevent referrals involve amorphous ideologies, such as the “incel” group.

However, this is unsurprising given that an “Islamist” is markedly easier to profile than a person with “mixed, unclear” ideologies, and also due to Shawcross’s well documented Islamophobia

''What people failed to realise was that Prevent is not the solution to this hatred; in fact, it is now clear that the hand offering a ‘solution’ to hatred, is the very same one that is today excusing it. ''

His statements ignore growing criticism from experts across the field of Prevent and counter-terrorism, that the counter-extremism programme is not working and may even be counterproductive. 

And yet he steamrolls on, only reinforcing the fact that Shawcross is not, nor could ever be ‘independent’, and the conclusion of any such ‘review’ could never be taken seriously. 

This is why over 450 organisations pledged to boycott the Shawcross review of Prevent in March 2021. 

A further revelation in the latest ‘leak’ is that there is a double-standard when it comes to far-right extremism, and this is because the government perceives the definition of neo-Nazism to be so broad that it risks capturing ideas that are ‘mainstream’. 

This is a very revealing statement, as it admits that far-right attitudes are now ‘mainstream’. 

In an era when political leaders seem strangely out of touch with the reality of their people, there is no doubt that what is considered ‘mainstream’ is determined largely by the government itself, and not by the people. 

The current Conservative government has repeatedly demonstrated far-right stances both in the language and behaviour of its MPs and indeed the Prime Minister himself

Legislation has been passed which dehumanises migrants especially, and this is increasingly cheered on by a chillingly hateful right-wing media pack. 

From Priti Patel’s attitude towards asylum seekers, to the social media patterns of Bob Blackman and Nadine Dorries, Tory MPs, the Prime Minister and even William Shawcross himself, if they were subject to scrutiny by Prevent’s own logic, would easily be referred as ‘extremists’. 

It is perhaps this fear of exposure that has driven this recommendation.

As an alternative to the government’s review, myself and Professor John Holmwood, co-chaired The People’s Review of Prevent (PROP), which has already published its findings. 

This process included holding round-tables with experts in a number of different topics including far-right extremism. This quickly led to a discussion about liberal and illiberal racism - that is, racism that exists both on the political “left” and “right”. 

We explored ideas around what kind of racism and Islamophobia is now seen as ‘acceptable’ when they would have been previously frowned upon. 

In the UK, there has been a steady creep of Islamophobia over the years, particularly under the Conservative party leadership which has edged towards the far-right. Many therefore anticipated this whole outcome.

We knew that Shawcross would have no choice but to divert attention away from ‘far-right extremism’ as a pre-criminal offence, in order to avoid Prevent being applied within the corridors of power.

This gentle dodging of their very own flawed and abusive policy is typical of a government that has demonstrated a steady but drastic decline in accountability over the past two years.

It is also a confirmation of the validity of the PROP, which concludes that Prevent is dangerous. 

At least the truth is out. No matter what happens with the government’s stance on far-right extremism, Muslims will always be the primary targets of Prevent. After all, Prevent was originally launched as a ‘hearts and minds’ approach with the Muslim community as a primary focus. It is for this reason that the buy-in from the Muslim community was so eagerly sought initially, but uptake was so slow in the first years because its objective was clearly surveillance of the community. 

Many Muslim community groups simply refused to engage with it and comply with their own oppression and surveillance; when anti-Prevent advocacy became more pronounced and its broader danger highlighted, the inclusion of ‘far-right extremism’ was used as a deflection to try to convince us that Prevent was ‘non-discriminatory’. 

Those of us working with the hundreds of innocent people - especially children - who are criminalised by Prevent every year, did not buy it. 

But sadly, some Muslims did. This was partly because we are a community that recognises the dangers of Islamophobia - and so many of us were quick to adopt this new version of Prevent, which seemed to offer a solution to what seemed to be a growing hatred of Islam. 

What people failed to realise was that Prevent is not the solution to this hatred; in fact, it is now clear that the hand offering a ‘solution’ to hatred, is the very same one that is today excusing it. 

Rather, the solution, as always, is a more collaborative and transparent society. Although the majority of our cases at Prevent Watch – an organisation that assists people wrongfully targeted by Prevent - are Muslims, we are increasingly receiving calls from people whose children have been referred under the label of ‘far-right extremism’. 

The reason for these referrals and the concerns of these parents are the same as those expressed by Muslims. 

Children - no matter their backgrounds - should never be collateral damage to political strategy.

Prevent is a political programme, whose broad definitions of ‘extremism’ can be placed over any community that presents a dissenting view to what the powers choose to define at any point in history as ‘mainstream’.

Most of its targets are children and young people – in 2020, over half of its referrals (54%) were for individuals aged 20 years or under – and for ideas that are not illegal – this can end up promoting violence.  

Muslims and many others concerned with this trajectory continue to call for an end to this government’s increasingly narrow, cynical and oppressive stance towards its people.

Dr Layla Aitlhadj is the Director and Senior Caseworker at Prevent Watch where she supports people adversely impacted by the Prevent Duty. Prevent Watch has supported nearly 600 cases to date.

Follow Prevent Watch on Twitter: @PREVENTwatchUK

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk 

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.