A top UN official has slammed the Prevent counter-extremism programme, warning that the state is perceived by some as acting like “big brother.”
UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Of Association Maina Kiai said that the Prevent strategy “is having the opposite of its intended effect.”
“By dividing, stigmatizing and alienating segments of the population,” Kiai said, “Prevent could end up promoting extremism, rather than countering it.
“The feedback from civil society on the impact of the Prevent strategy was overwhelmingly negative,” he added. “Students, activists, and members of faith-based organizations related countless anecdotes of the program being implemented in a way that translates simply into crude racial, ideological, cultural and religious profiling.”
Kiai said that a particularly concerning effect of Prevent was that it stifled debate by creating “unease and uncertainty around what can legitimately be discussed in public.”
“The specter of Big Brother is so large,” he said, “that I was informed that some families are afraid of even discussing the negative effects of terrorism in their own homes, fearing that their children would talk about it at school and have their intentions misconstrued.”
The Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) said it gave its full backing to the UN findings.
In a statement the IHRC said: “His findings echo our own. In recent years the definition of extremism has become so expansive that it now covers activities such as expressing conservative religious views or criticising government policy.
“IHRC views current anti-terrorism policy as Islamophobic since it rests on the assumption that by dint of their faith all Muslims are potential terrorists who must be steered off that course by the state.
“We also believe that far from being driven by a desire to fight terrorism, anti-terrorism policy is the leading edge of a government strategy to control and shape Islam and Muslims in Britain. It is part of a social engineering exercise that has at its heart surveilling Muslims from cradle to grave and legislating what they can and can’t believe or say.
“The repeated emphasis in the new strategy on the need to conform to British values is another cynical attempt to juxtapose them against Islamic values. It is a deliberate and disgraceful ploy to mark the Muslim community as an ‘outgroup’ and justify further official discrimination against its members.
“This anti-Muslim discourse is not only socially divisive but is also increasingly encouraging hate crimes against Muslims such as physical and verbal attacks and discrimination.”
IHRC chair Massoud Shadjareh added: “We are not surprised that the UN rapporteur has reached the same conclusions. Successive governments have exploited the terrorism threat to appropriate ever more intrusive anti-democratic powers for the state. The effect of that has been to securitise the discourse around minority groups so as to stigmatise them. On top of that they have become much more totalitarian in their approach to civil society groups seeing them as opponents instead of partners.”
Responding to the criticisms, a spokesperson for the Home Office said: “Prevent is about safeguarding people who are at risk of radicalisation, and protects those being targeted by extremists and terrorist recruiters. It deals with all forms of extremism, including those at risk from far-right and Neo-nazi extremism, as well as those vulnerable to Islamist extremism.
“This is challenging but absolutely necessary work. Currently the greatest threat comes from terrorist recruiters inspired by Daesh [the Islamic State militant group]. Our Prevent programme will necessarily reflect this by prioritising support for vulnerable individuals, and working in partnership with British Muslim communities and civil society groups.”