The Prevent strategy: From violent international terrorism to local religious conservatism

Journalist Nargess Moballeghi has written a series of in-depth articles about how the government’s Prevent counter extremism strategy targets Muslims. In this first piece, she explains the conceptual framework behind Prevent and how it has impacted on the Muslim community.

There has been a proactive effort, especially since 2006, to expand the law and broaden the definition of terrorism to no longer centre on criminal violent terrorists, but focus on the entire Muslim community.

This strategy was launched by the Labour Party, but has been particularly intensified by subsequent Tory-led governments. Central to this strategy is Prevent, also introduced in 2003, as part of the government’s wider “counter-terrorism” strategy called Contest.

Contest contains four “priorities” or departments: Pursue, Prevent, Protect and Prepare. Prevent aims to tackle “radicalisation” thus “preventing” people from turning in to extremists and terrorists.

Initially, Prevent played a minor role in Contest relative to the other strands. But following the attacks in London on 7th July 2005, the importance of the Prevent strategy increased. At its core, the Prevent strategy was built to be the “hearts and minds” dimension of the overall Contest strategy.

Prevent targets Muslims. Its very foundations assume that there is a correlation between Muslim populations and risk of terrorism. When it was first launched, funding was “allocated on the basis of Muslim population size, with those areas with the largest Muslim population receiving the most funding”.The government literature talked about the number of Muslims in a particular area being a proxy for the risk of radicalisation.

Notably, the policy doesn’t apply in Northern Ireland, even though the MI5 threat rating for Northern Ireland-related terrorism is the same as from international terrorism. When Northern Irish MP Gavin Robinson asked a government official about this he was told “don’t push the issue too far. It is really a counter-Islamic strategy.”

In March 2009 the Government launched a revised strategy, popularly known as CONTEST II that took Prevent from the “least developed strand of Contest” to “the forefront of counter-terrorism” work. In the years since it has become a toxic policy that has been repeatedly expanded to infringe on ordinary Muslims.

Non-violent extremism and British values

Since the 2011 Prevent Strategy the government has defined “extremism” as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values.” The government has described 4 key “fundamental British Values” – “democracy”, “the rule of law”, “individual liberty”, and “mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.”

Beyond this, there is no specific definition of “British Values” or explanation of where the lines of “opposition” – that would result in you being an “extremist” – are drawn.

It is purposefully broad and vague. If you vocally oppose the British view on democracy or liberty or tolerance then you are an extremist, even if that vocal opposition is simply a tweet.

The government uses the term “terrorism” and this broad definition of “extremism” (“opposition to British Values”) symbiotically.  For example in the 2011 Prevent Strategy they state that “we will respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism and the threat from those who promote it. In doing so, we must be clear: the ideology of extremism and terrorismis the problem”.

The government believes that vocal opposition to “British values” means you are a “non-violent extremist” somewhere along the line of becoming a terrorist. This is the process the government calls “radicalisation.”

This process has become popularly known as “the conveyer belt theory of radicalisation” or as the government describe it, a “pathway to terrorism.”

The conveyor belt theory of radicalisation

“Radicalisation” is the process in which this “extremism” (opposition to fundamental British values) takes hold of ordinary British Muslims and “drives” them to terrorism. The “pathway” suggests that any Muslim who opposes “fundamental British values” is somewhere along the conveyer belt to terrorism.

Within the government there are differing views on the mechanics of this conveyer belt pathway; some staunchly believe that ideology alone is sufficient to lead to terrorism, other “more liberal” voices think ideology needs to mix with other “key ingredients” – like social deprivation, or criminal background – to take you all the way to the end of the conveyer belt to a terrorist act.

Prevent was first devised by Tony Blair’s Labour

But all government views are rooted in the same foundation; that there is something inherent in their ideology that radicalises Muslims to some extent or another towards terrorism.

The main government policy to deal with this “radicalisation” is the “Prevent” policy, which sees extremism as “the foundation, the driver for terrorism.”

The research used by the government as the basis for identifying this “radicalisation” in the Prevent programme has been classified. We know that it was conducted by two psychologists at the Prison Service, and that they identified 22 risk factors that make individuals “vulnerable to extremism”. The government call this the “Extremism Risk Guidance 22+” but won’t reveal what the 22 factors are.

However the psychologists who wrote this research, which is called the “The Science of Pre-crime” have discussed their methodology in an academic journal in which amongst other things, they admit that they do not factor political grievance in to their scientific model of radicalisation.

A review of that article led to 140 academics, scientists and experts writing an open letter warning that the government’s Prevent policy “relies on flawed science’. “Tools that purport to have a psychology evidence base are being developed and placed under [law] while their “science” has not been subjected to proper scientific scrutiny or public critique.”

In fact, the professional body that represents psychiatrists in the UK, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, has raised concerns about “the variable quality of the evidence underpinning the strategy” and called on the government to publish the evidence so it can be subject to scientific scrutiny.

Prevent duty

Yet on the basis of this secret research the government put Prevent on a statutory footing in its 2015 legislation. The Prevent Duty now requires, by law, that all those in local government, criminal justice, education, child care, health and social services refer individuals who they suspect of “being at risk of radicalisation” to the authorities.

Being at risk doesn’t mean you have acted. It merely means that the person reporting you thinks youmaybe at risk of possiblybehaving a certain way.

Whilst these “risk factors” have been kept a secret by the government, teachers who have been given Prevent Duty training say they include if a child starts wearing the hijab, growing a beard or starts to pray. Teachers have been told in Prevent training that they should look out for and report this “behaviour” to Prevent if they see it happening.

The National Union of Teachers has said Prevent has turned teachers in to “frontline stormtroopers, who listen… spy and notify the authorities” and that it is “shutting down debate”.

Amongst dozens of cases that have made the media are a 4 year old who was threatened with Prevent referral for mispronouncing “cucumber” as “cooker bomb and a 14 year old being questioned about ISIS after a classroom discussion about environmental activism.

Prevent for the under fives

Advice given by Pacey, the professional association for childcare and early years (under five years old) illustrates the extent that “British Values” is now imbedded in Prevent and also how inherent Prevent has become. Pacey has a dedicated section for “British values the Prevent Duty” which says “British values…help keep children safe and promote their welfare….specifically to counter terrorism. Promotion of British values is firmly embedded in the work that you do”

So how does a child carer stay “alert” to the radicalisation of children under five years old? Pacey has a “British values wheel” and a “jargon-free blog” that breaks this down.

“So, let’s start with democracy. Think of democracy as a situation where everyone is treated equally and has equal rights,” the blog starts. Then using two separate photos of toddlers playing together, it says “Hollie has filled up a bucket with water and fetched a paintbrush which she’s been painting the fence with. Does she mind Sean dipping in with a brush of his own?”

In another example it says “okay, now we have just one cardboard box and two explorers who want it for their rocket. Who goes first? What will we each do while we’re in the box and out of the box?”

The implication being made is clear; how children under five play with each other can be used to assess their adherence to British values, and their non-adherence could mean they are radicalised. In short, if a four your old doesn’t share his paintbrush, he might be an extremist!

In 2016, after an investigatory visit to the UK, the UN Human Rights office made a scathing attack on the government’s Prevent programme saying it’s focus on non-violent extremism was too broad and that;

“…students, activists, and members of faith-based organisations related countless anecdotes of the program being implemented in a way that translates simply into crude racial, ideological, cultural and religious profiling, with consequent effects on the right to freedom of association of some groups. Environmentalists, anti-capitalist groups and some Members of Parliament have reportedly been provided as examples of extremists in Prevent trainings.

“This lack of definitional clarity, combined with the encouragement of people to report suspicious activity, have created unease and uncertainty around what can legitimately be discussed in public…the spectre of Big Brother is so large, in fact, 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.

“Even more disturbingly, the Government is considering using some aspects of the Prevent “non-violent extremism” framework as a model for its forthcoming Counter-Extremism Bill. For example, the Bill reportedly may authorise the issuance of civil orders to ban “non-violent extremist groups” – defined in vague terms open to arbitrary interpretation.”

“I urge the Government to carefully consider the negative unintended consequences of such provisions. It is difficult to define the term “non-violent extremist” without treading into the territory of policing thought and opinion. Innocent individuals will be targeted.”

2016 onwards – legislating against religious conservatism

What the UN describes as “even more disturbing” brings us to the latest government drive on Prevent. In recent years the government has tried to find a way to bring in to law civil orders such as “Extremism Disruption Orders” [EDOs] to give them power to ban individuals and organisations they say are “radicalised” because of their “vocal non-violent extremism” – an “extremism” that could simply be criticism of the British government. The government itself admits that EDO’s will go “beyond terrorism” and “eliminate extremism in all its form”.

As this parliamentary report states “the Government’s proposals rest on the assumption that there is an escalator that starts with religious conservatism and ends with support for violent jihadism, and that violence is therefore best tackled by curtailing or placing restrictions on religious conservatism. However, it is by no means proven or agreed that religious conservatism, in itself, correlates with support for violent jihadism. The aim should be to tackle extremism that leads to violence, not to suppress views with which the Government disagrees.”

“If extremism is to be combated through legal mechanisms, such as civil orders, clarity as to the definition of extremism will be essential. Currently, the Government defines extremism as the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values…the question then arises, what is an extremist: if someone denounces the judiciary for being Islamophobic, is that undermining the rule of law or is it the exercise of free speech? It is difficult to arrive at a more focused definition of extremism and it does not appear that the Government so far has been successful in arriving at one. It is far from clear that there is an accepted definition of what constitutes extremism, let alone what legal powers there should be, if any, to combat it.”

What is clear is that the government views religious conservatism (that could be seen as any view counter to the liberal, secular Islam that it promotes) as part of the problem and its aim is to legislate against it.

Muslims widely oppose Prevent

But the broad definitions the government uses have meant they have hit a legal brick wall when trying to expand the law. They have had to backtrack on the EDO’s and are now trying to find new ways to reach their objective, by ratcheting up pressure where they can and continuing to try and find a way to legislate.

For example, in 2016, the Queen Speech (in which she announces the governments planned policies and legislation for the year ahead) did not mention EDO’s but spoke to a more vague “civil order regime to restrict activity.”

This would be just as problematic. In fact, as the Defend Free Speech coalition concludes“the chances of coming up with a definition that does not criminalise those with traditional or challenging views, such as people of faith, outspoken academics or anti-fracking campaigners seems highly remote.”

The government is already demonising those with “traditional or challenging views” but they haven’t given up on trying to criminalise them too. It is still trying to find new and innovative ways to reach its objective of legalising the banning of “non-violent extremist” groups. In 2017, just five days before the UK general election there was a terrorist attack in London. Theresa May took the opportunity to say that “enough is enough” and that “things need to change”.

She unveiled an “enough is enough” four-point plan to tackle extremism. Criminalising non-violent extremism (the same policy she had been struggling to pass in to law for two years) was one of the four points. Except now she was saying “If human rights get in the way of doing these things, we will change those laws to make sure we can do them.”

It is also unclear what legal and political vacuum Brexit will leave, that could empower Theresa May to implement controversial new legislation. It may be that government again passes legislation that will be found to be illegal and overturned in the courts, but many of our organisations and individuals could be banned, legislated against and destroyed during that process.

It’s clear that this is the government’s intended objective. Whilst they find a way to overcome the hurdles to reach it, they are employing all other tactics available to them, to get as close to this banning as possible.

The Muslim face of Prevent

For example, as part of her “enough is enough” strategy May also set up the Commission for Countering Extremism headed by Sara Khan an unpopular establishment Muslim whose organisation Inspirereceives Prevent funding. Khan is a vocal supporter of Prevent policy, and her appointment has been slammed across the board.

Inspire provides Prevent training. In this articledescribing one of their sessions, Inspire shows a video of a teacher saying a pupil was “struggling to fit in and not sure, culturally, where she belonged … I am not suggesting she was going to support terrorism, but the opportunity was there if someone wanted to push her down that path.” It is this kind of “troubling behaviour” Inspire tells people to look out for; if you “struggle to fit in” you may be a “terrorist”.

Sara Khan

The appointment of Khan and the Commission is just another arm in the government’s drive towards legislating against the free speech of Muslims. Prevent relies on the Muslim figures and organisations that it funds to give it legitimacy, not to the Muslim community where Prevent has no credibility, but in the broader political arena that drives the argument for legislation.

These “Prevent-funded Muslims” become the Muslim figures that support government policy to the wider public, whilst disengaging and side-lining actual Muslim community opinion. These “Prevent Proxies” become the “Muslim voice calling for legislation.”

Experts say that Prevent is also based on embedded surveillance and intelligence network. This network of Muslims work towards labelling and isolating “radicals” in their host communities as I will evidence in the next section.

This article first appeared on Nargess Moballeghi’s personal website.

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