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

UK's racist 'Prevent' strategy failed once, and it will fail again
Comment: The UK government's 'Countering Extremism' strategy is designed to criminalise dissent and demonise Muslims, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
11 Oct, 2019
'"Countering Extremism" rests first and foremost on the scapegoating of minorities' [Getty]
The Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE) under the leadership of Sara Khan, released their report on challenging extremism in England and Wales this week. After years of identifying the main issue to be an ill-defined 'non-violent extremism' - this time they are targeting hateful extremism. The irony will not be lost on those paying attention. 

The call to fight hateful extremism is coming from the very institution that is constructed and framed by the practice of hate.

Counter Extremism (CE) - as numerous voices across the world have pointed out repeatedly - rests first and foremost on the scapegoating of minorities in general and Muslims in particular, passing repressive policies which silence and criminalise critical sections of society, and justifying the continued funding they receive through the exploitation of public fears over violent terror.

The report is yet another concerning publication in this direction.

Indeed, it lays the groundwork to further target progressive forces that stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable in society. Alongside, drawing the far-left and anti-imperialists into its remit as one of the three groups it is concerned with - alongside 'Islamic extremists' and the far-right - the report stresses the need to focus on protecting those supposedly combating extremism, who are falling victim to "hateful extremism".

In other words, the target will be those critical of the so-called "War on Terror" and those who oppose the government's counter extremism agenda for shutting down debate, for criminalising pro-Palestine,
anti-fracking and other activists, and for undermining civil liberties.

While this has been
the direction of travel for a while now, the report reaffirms and warns us (threatens?) that the onslaught will grow.

This is important. Indeed, it signals both the failure of the CE project to garner popular support, and the increasing need to rely on repression and intimidation to function.

It lays the groundwork to further target progressive forces that stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable in society

Across the UK, trade unions, civil society groups, faith leaders, politicians, journalists and academics continue to raise growing concerns about the way CE targets and discriminates against Muslim communities and undermines civil liberties across the board.

Faced with this growing outcry, the CCE has to rely on shutting down debate and criminalising dissenting voices. In fact, criticising  was already identified as a key indicator of potential 'non-violent extremism' in previous years.

Khan states - rather shockingly - that challenging extremism, "is demanding work and there's little support". This is someone who has the platforms, support, funding and resources of one of the most powerful governments in the world, not to mention her 'community' is the considerable securitisation industry, which is funded by governments and private entities across the western world.

Her report is covered positively across mainstream media, and is placed at the heart of successive governments' policies. What she means is not that there is little support, nor even that it is hard or difficult, but that it is failing.

The public is turning on Khan and her ilk, and the report's simultaneous attempt at shifting its focus and increasing repression demonstrates it.

Real difficulties, however, do exist. They exist for the people on the ground, who are harassed in universities, mosques and community spaces, for those who continue to defend their right to think critically, to invite open discussions on difficult and pressing matters, and for all of those who continue demanding that our government is held accountable for all that it does in the name of fighting terror.

These people are blacklisted by official institutions, dragged through the media and defamed, lose their jobs in schools, and face growing institutional pressure in universities and the NHS.

Yet, according to the report, the victims are those who have taken on government jobs focussed on combating extremism (was it hateful or non-violent?) and
who face being called names, like "Islamophobes" or "native informants". They should be left to spy and repress in peace.

The far-right is also given attention in the report, but we have learned the limitations of this argument in the past, especially when wielded by the same state institutions that pass the xenophobic and Islamophobic laws, and normalise the racist discourses that allow it to grow.

In the case of Prevent, for example, when challenged and accused of disproportionally targeting Muslim communities, officers would claim to also be challenging those linked to far-right activity. But all research continues to point to the fact that the
vast majority of its targets remain Muslim, despite the fact that they make up just over 4 percent of the British population. The same is true for other CE programs, such as Schedule 7.

Furthermore, this broadening of the scope is now turning more obviously on the far-left, which for the CCE includes environmentalists, as well as anti-cuts, anti-racism, anti-imperialist activists. While Palestine activism, anti-fracking campaigning, or criticism of British foreign policy have already been used as indicators of extremism by Prevent in the past, the report institutionalises it further. 

It also does so by remaining characteristically vague. Stating, for example, that "a democratic process like protesting can turn into hateful extremism when protesters deliberately distort the truth to persuade their audience to adopt discriminatory and hateful attitudes" is unspecific enough to be applied to many groups and acts of dissent.

It signals the increasing need to rely on repression and intimidation to function

That the arbiter of 'truth' would be left in the state's hands, should be enough to remove the illusions of anyone left hoping that the counter-extremism apparatus could be used for good. We know, for example, how Palestine solidarity activism is being depicted exactly in this way, and repressed on these grounds, by supporters of Israel. 

The problem with the claims of focus on the far-right by the CCE is not that these groups should not be fought, it is that CE neither does so nor can do effectively.

their own data shows that they focus overwhelmingly on Muslims, followed by progressive social movement activists, at a time where far-right attacks, mobilisations, and groups are growing.

Token brown faces are not what Muslim women want

Furthermore, the War on Terror, CE, and the demonisation of Muslims that it is premised on have been at the heart of the new wave of far-right activity across Europe and North America. The claims made by Tommy Robinson and other assorted fascists are that the state has identified a central problem with Muslims and Islam, but refuses to take the necessary steps to fight back and protect them.

So what now? In truth, the report changes little but does warn us that more of the same is to come.

It should also be a sign to those within the Muslim community who continue to hope that state institutions will be our allies and recognise their 'mistake' are barking up the wrong tree.

CE is designed to criminalise dissent and demonise Muslims. It can only be defeated through mobilisation and pressure from below. In addition, the tone of the report should also give us hope. It recognises indirectly that the government is losing the fight for public approval. 

So, in the months to come, we have to carry on mobilising against the entire apparatus, we need to carry on holding our ground against the siren call of petty concessions like 'reviews' of strategies such as Prevent.

We must continue to ensure that those who fall victim to these policies are supported (
Helping Households Under Great Stress and CAGE are groups that do just that). We must also continue to fight through civil disobedience and mobilisations to root out so-called counter extremism from our community and faith spaces, unions, education institutions, hospitals, nurseries and borders. 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

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.