Why is the UK Government’s Prevent policy so toxic? More importantly, if calls for its abolishment is becoming more mainstream, what is a viable alternative, asks Ghulam Esposito Haydar.
QC David Anderson is the UK government’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation. Earlier this week, he featured in a BBC Daily Politics programme where he spoke about his role as an independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, and his views about the Prevent programme. Although his role as an independent reviewer for terrorism legislation does not extend to Prevent, the link Prevent has with anti-terror laws means he has an inevitable interest in this area.
I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet David Anderson a couple of weeks ago during one of his countrywide visits to meet representatives from Muslim communities. I found him to be a very sincere and engaging man, with a fascination in Islamic history and multiculturalism. From our group interaction, it was patently obvious that he was already well aware from speaking to Muslim communities up and down the country that the Prevent programme is a failed policy, which needs to go back to the drawing board. Whether the ideologically-driven government are willing to take heed of his suggestion is altogether another matter.
What is extremism?
Just like I did a few months earlier in a private meeting with Charles Farr, the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and Head of the Joint Intelligence Organisation, at the Cabinet Office and before that, from 2007 until 2015, the Director of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT) at the Home Office, I bought up the vagueness of the term “extremism”, and how it seems to be including more and more normative Islamic beliefs, and the academically bankrupt conveyor belt theory which underpins it all. But unlike my time with Charles Farr where I didn’t have at hand an empirical reference point to suggest what “normative Islamic” beliefs actually are, I was able to present QC David Anderson a copy of the Normative Islam Report conducted by independent market research company Pickersgill Consultancy & Planning Ltd on behalf of 5 Pillars; a report which demonstrates to some degree what widespread normative Islamic beliefs actually are.
I bought up statistics from the Mi5’s own research that demonstrate that early religious grounding and upbringing has shown to be a deterrent against crime (which terrorism is), and how sidelining legitimate Muslim voices, opinion and critique is creating a mood which contributes to grievances, something that can easily become exploited by “legitimate extremists”, who operate around fringes of the Muslim communities.
Numerous independent academic studies by experts in terrorism have explained that religious ideology is not causative but incidental i.e. they use their “ideology to justify their actions”. There is a massive difference between a cause for something and a post-facto justification. When an individual decides to commit an act of political violence, he will justify it using the language, imagery and a framework he is familiar with. A Christian will resort to so called “Christian beliefs”, for example, Britain First, the Klu Klux Klan etc. If the individual happens to be a Buddhist, such as the militias in Myanmar slaughtering the Rohingya Muslims, then they will use “Buddhist justifications”. If the individual is Hindu, then they will use “Hindu justifications”. If he is secular and non-religious, then separatist terrorism will be worded in neoliberal terminologies. And if he happens to be a Muslim, they will incidentally employ ‘Islamic justifications’.
When it comes to our whole “counter-terror” apparatus, the government and the media should act responsibly by refraining from exaggerating the threat of terrorism. To put it into some degree of perspective, you are 93 times more likely to die by being stung by a bee than die via an act of terror. The real threat of terrorism does not really warrant separate legislation or policies which apparently “prevent” it. Existing criminal laws are more than sufficient to deal with criminal acts. By exaggerating the threat of terrorism and subsequently creating laws to deal with this perceived threat, we have only contributed to the moral decay of society and curtailed our own civil liberties.
Although my views about Prevent are strong and I call for its absolute abolishment, I understand that we are in a position where this can never happen without a suitable alternative. So what should we do with the Prevent programme? I believe the Prevent policy needs to be rescinded and replaced with something completely new, which is based on independent specialist academic advice around empirical evidence, practitioner input and religious consultation from mainstream Muslim communities.
In the meantime, I would let existing criminal laws deal with issues pertaining criminal acts, just like we would for any other crime. Terrorism is no exception and it really shouldn’t be when everyday other criminal threats are much higher.
Ghulam Esposito Haydar is a Muslim activist, joint founder of Manchester New Muslim Network and a director of the Myriad Foundation.