After nearly a decade of failing to provide any tangible success stories, the UK Government’s counter-terrorism ‘Prevent’ strategy is being shunned by senior police officers and leading academics, writes Dilly Hussain.
The “Preventing Prevent lobby” is the new label that has been attributed to the groups and individuals of various ideological persuasions who oppose the UK Government’s flagship anti-terrorism ‘Prevent‘ strategy, which has now become statutory under the recently passed Counter-Terrorism and Security Act.
Prevent was introduced by Tony Blair in 2006 under CONTEST, in response to the 7/7 attacks in London. Ever since its inception, it has been perceived with much suspicion from the British Muslim community, as a divisive and ideologically-driven ‘thought police’ hell-bent on harassment and clandestine surveillance methods. This perception worsened, and became more widespread, compelling even non-Muslim academics and activists to publicly criticise Prevent.
Founded on the academically refuted and empirically unsubstantiated ‘conveyor belt theory’, the Prevent strategy continues to exert ideology as the main precursor to violent extremism; dismissing foreign policy grievances, socioeconomic deprivation, and psychological instability as contributing factors towards radicalisation. Furthermore, whilst the UK Government has always stated that Prevent’s work is not focused on any particular religious community or political ideology, an increasing number of incidents involving the Muslim community show that is far from the case.
The arguably failing Prevent programme, vehemently supported by neoconservative think-tanks like the Henry Jackson Society, anti-extremism think-tank the Quilliam Foundation, and women’s rights group Inspire, has failed miserably in convincing grassroots Muslim organisations and leaders to adopt the strategy. Even the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), which enjoyed the perks of being the “official” representative body of the Muslim community under Tony Blair, have criticised Prevent ever since they were sidelined as “extremists” by Prime Minister David Cameron.
Prevent under the CTS Act
A fortnight ago, the Prevent programme became a legal duty for schools under the CTS Act, and in effect, made teachers and childminders into state spies. The compulsory implementation of Prevent was not exclusively reserved for school teachers and childminders; it will eventually include all public sector workers from doctors, dentists, university lecturers and student bodies. However, in a stern reaction to the ‘McCarthyite’ tendencies of Prevent, the National Union of Students (NUS), National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), and civil rights group Liberty, all objected to the statutory footing of Prevent prior to the CTS becoming law. Furthermore, Professor Malcolm Grant, of the University College London (UCL), heavily criticised the strategy adopted by Prevent, and claimed that it was “stupid” as it will only lead to the compromise of academic freedom within the education sector.
The ‘anti-Prevent bloc’ further diversified and expanded after the CTS Bill became legislation in February. In the five months of the CTS Bill coming into existence, a number of senior policemen with experience in Prevent’s regional rollout have criticised the policy’s highly problematic community relationship building. Former Metropolitan chief superintendent Dal Babu’s strong choice of words in describing Prevent as a “toxic brand”, followed earlier comments made by Britain’s most senior counter-terrorism officer, Sir Peter Fahy, who accepted that Prevent was hampered from the onset due to the Iraq war. Whilst Sir Fahy argued that defining “extremism” was not the responsibility of the police, Dal Babu highlighted the inherent dilemma of allocating Prevent money to organisations such as the Quilliam Foundation, which he said was viewed with deep suspicion, and had minimal or no support in the Muslim community.
As Britain’s Muslim community became more frustrated due to the draconian nature of Prevent, and its insistence in tarnishing mainstream Muslim organisations, speakers and activists as “extreme” for espousing normative Islamic beliefs, it was inevitable that a collective movement would emerge against it.
“Preventing Prevent Lobby”
On 11 March, 242 leading Muslim organisations, scholars, imams, activists, teachers, doctors and journalists from a wide spectrum of theological, sectarian and political backgrounds, signed a strongly-worded joint statement against the UK Government’s alleged criminalisation of Islam. The open letter received significant media coverage, and illustrated that large swathes of Britain’s Muslim community had communal concerns over the CTS Bill, which they felt would indiscriminately target Muslims.
Last week, more than 280 academics and NUS members issued what many have regarded as the most powerful public statement against the Prevent strategy to date. The signatories argued that Prevent’s statutory duty under the CTS would have a “chilling effect on free and open debate and political dissent”, adding that “it shifts attention away from grievances that drive individuals towards an ideology that legitimises political violence.”
The public statement concluded by calling for Prevent’s total abolishment. University lecturers and heads of faculties also provided a simple solution – to replace the “failed” initiative, which has made Britain “less safe”, with a more inclusive approach based on dialogue and openness.
Ultimately, this is no different to what the Muslim community have been requesting from the government and law enforcement agencies for the last decade. What British Muslims received instead, were Cold War tactics of silencing legitimate political dissent, criminalising mainstream beliefs, and constant pressure to apologise and feel guilty for crimes that they were not responsible for.
Today, Prevent and the government’s anti-terror and counter-extremism laws appear to be targeting the Muslim community. There is nothing to stop environmentalist or anti-austerity activists, as well as journalists who are critical of the establishment from being labelled “extremists” and censored from speaking on public platforms in the future.
If the Conservative government persists in transgressing the very values it champions at home and abroad, then it can bid farewell to tackling the issue of radicalisation and home-grown terrorism in Britain. By paying lip service to upholding the principles of the Magna Carta, and cosmetically re-justifying Prevent under “safeguarding communities”, the government is only exacerbating an issue, which is steadily reaching boiling point for the Muslim community.
Unless PM Cameron learns from his predecessor’s mistakes, starts sincerely engaging with the Muslim community, and removes the neoconservative hawks within his ranks, the “Preventing Prevent” lobby will continue to garner support from all sections of British society.