Prevent: why the UK’s counter-extremism programme is toxic

Prevent: why the UK’s counter-extremism programme is toxic
The UK's counter-extremism efforts with Prevent treats Muslims with suspicion and leading to the country's Muslim community feeling increasingly isolated from authorities, says
7 min read
03 Dec, 2016
British Muslims are being unjustly treated with suspicion by authorities [Getty]

You are about to read two incidents. Would either be a cause for concern?

A  four-year-old boy mispronounces the word cucumber and instead says something that resembles "cooker bomb".

A student reading a book about terrorism as part of his master's programme.

No? What if the individuals in question are Muslims - does that change your perception?

These are just two real-life examples of individuals falling foul of the UK's counter-extremism programme Prevent.

And the incidents neatly highlight the main criticism of the scheme - that it creates a discriminatory atmosphere where innocuous incidents are seen as suspicious, especially if the individuals are Muslim.

Prevent was set up by the government to deal with extremism in the UK – in particular, Islamic extremism. It works at the pre-criminal stage and aims to prevent people from engaging in terrorist-related activities.

The controversial scheme has come under heavy scrutiny in recent months from academics, politicians, health care professionals and various other organisations.

Critics say it stigmatises and spies on the community, stifles legitimate debate, and makes Muslims feel victimised, and pushing those vulnerable to extremism further into the arms of extremists.

Prevent supporters say it has prevented terrorist acts in the UK and deters people from being drawn into terrorism. A recent secret government review even concluded the scheme should be "strengthened, not undermined".

Conservatism v extremism

The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) - the largest national representative of British Muslim associations - says Prevent is not fit for purpose and suggests a grassroots-led programme would be more effective.

Contrary to recent press reports, the Muslim Council says it is not planning an alternative scheme but highlighting themes that have emerged halfway through its recent consultation with the Muslim community.

Miqdaad Versi, the assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council, says the government's approach to counter-radicalisation has a series of problems - and at the forefront is its conflation of religiosity with radicalisation.

"If someone has a conservative religious perspective, that doesn't make them more likely to be an extremist or a radical," said Versi. "In fact, very often we see the opposite to be the case - that Islam is very much a moderating factor."

The Open Society Justice Initiative - which released a report analysing the human rights impact of Prevent in the education and health sectors - highlighted incidents where Muslims were targeted for displaying signs of increased religiosity.

The George Soros funded organisation believes it raises questions about the violation of Muslims' right to manifest their religion.

"Our report shows that the targeting of non-violent extremism and the targeting of religious ideology has no scientific basis," said Amrit Singh, the author of Eroding Trust: The UK's Prevent Counter-Extremism Strategy in Health and Education.

"And that the Prevent strategy, in its various dimensions, includes the targeting of a wide variety of indicators of so-called radicalisation, which are also suspect."

As well as the incidents already highlighted, the report included further case studies of the atmosphere created by Prevent that resulted in students being targeted unnecessarily and universities abruptly cancelling conferences and debates about Islam.

What worries Singh most is the imposition of a statutory duty on health and education bodies to monitor people believed to be at risk of radicalisation.

Our report shows that the targeting of non-violent extremism and the targeting of religious ideology has no scientific basis.
- Amrit Singh

"You have a statutory duty that requires people to report extremism but it's so broadly defined that even an expert would not know how to interpret this language," said Singh.

"You unleash this on people who are not trained as experts in spotting terrorists, but are teachers, doctors, psychologists - who first and foremost have a duty towards their students or patients."

She believes this approach inevitably leads to the targeting of innocent people and that causes "further alienation and stigmatisation, which can only be counterproductive".

In the summer, the Home Affairs Select Committee called for the government to engage more widely with Muslims to address the "toxic" levels of mistrust the community has towards the scheme.

Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson QC, said recently the Muslim community has no confidence in Prevent and feels targeted by the scheme.

He echoed sentiments expressed by the Home Affairs Select Committee about wider Muslim engagement and said its refusal to deal with the Muslim Council was "extraordinary".

Neither Singh nor Versi know which Muslim groups the government is liaising with to administer Prevent.

Versi is bemused as to why the government is not talking to his organisation.

"That shows the kind of attitude the government has - that the government's own advisor is saying they should be speaking to the largest Muslim organisation [in the UK] but they aren't."

Working with the community

Versi argues that a co-ordinated strategy is needed to counter extremism - and that includes mosques.

"Make sure mosques are in the forefront," he said. "We know that radicalisation doesn't take place in the mosque, it takes place online, but we want mosques to be stronger as we believe it's the best way to moderate the radicals."

Singh agrees with the role mosques and other institutions have in fighting extremism: "There is a real need for constructive dialogue from both civil society organisations and the government."

That dialogue is impossible unless there is transparency - another criticism of Prevent. "Overall, there is a tremendous amount of secrecy associated with Prevent, it’s certainly not a transparent programme," said Singh.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists - in its recent report "Counter-Terrorism and Psychiatry" - urged that data on Prevent be freely available and be subjected to peer review and scientific scrutiny. "Public policy cannot be based on either no evidence or a lack of transparency about evidence," the report said.

In an open letter, over 140 academics went further, questioning the "science" behind Prevent. "Tools that purport to have a psychology evidence base are being developed and placed under statutory duty while their 'science' has not been subjected to proper scientific scrutiny or public critique," the open letter read.

It drives conversation about terrorism underground instead of airing them so that controversial views can be challenged and debated.
- Amrit Singh

Versi said if the government wants any policy to be effective, it needs to gain the trust of the community and that can only happen through a transparent and evidence-based approach.

Curtailing free speech

Many criticise the Prevent strategy for curbing free speech. In July, the NGO Rights Watch UK concluded the programme stifled freedom of expression, while the UN's special rapporteur Maina Kiai said by suppressing debate and discourse, the scheme could create rather than counter extremism.

The Open Society Justice Initiative's report mentioned how denying free speech could be counterproductive.

"It chills free expression. It drives conversation about terrorism underground instead of airing them so that controversial views can be challenged and debated," said Singh.

The Home Office declined an interview but said in a short statement that it is working with various grassroots organisations and that Prevent is making a "positive difference".

"We have seen all too tragically the devastating impact radicalisation can have on individuals, families and our communities," said Security Minister Ben Wallace.  "

"Safeguarding those who are vulnerable and at risk is a job for all of us."

Not everyone agrees Prevent is making a "positive difference". Singh points out that Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5, said last year that Prevent was not working, citing the number of youngsters that travelled to Iraq and Syria from the UK as evidence.

"The government also says the risk of terrorism is severe, so it undermines that logic [that Prevent is working]," adds Singh.

Rather, Singh's report highlighted how Prevent is having a negative effect. The case studies show how the policies make Muslims feel alienated, stigmatised and less British - all likely to push people the opposite direction.

Versi agrees with the report and said many Muslims feel they only get viewed "through the lens of security".

"Muslims are British citizens - here to stay. They are not just a security threat but contributing members of society," he added.

Versi believes the government can turn it around by listening to the concerns and suggestions of Muslims and by working with groups that have genuine community leverage. He believes this will lead to an "effective and proportionate" grassroots response to the real threat the UK faces.

Muslims are eager to help in the fight against terrorism. Not only because they are responsible members of society but also because it affects them directly.

"It's Muslim families that are being broken up when a young person goes to Syria," reminds Versi.

"So why would we not want to be at the forefront of tackling and challenging this phenomenon?"

Follow Jamil Hussein on Twitter: @Jamil_TWN