Prevent is a toxic brand that destroys trust without delivering tangible results.
Too many British Muslims either repudiate evidence of creeping radicalisation in families and localities, or refuse to acknowledge these realities. I am not one of them. Facing down facts with defensiveness does not change the truth.
Countless Muslims live quietly, productively and happily in the UK. But they cannot offset the huge damage and unease caused by jihadis and those who seemingly detest the society in which they live. They include plotters, conspiracy maniacs, killers, segregationists, religious nuts and religious supremacists. A report on the funders of such rebels with fearsome causes has, allegedly, been withheld by our PM.
After the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, there were Muslims who claimed the British state orchestrated the mayhem to frame Muslims. So, we have a serious problem. But have successive governments tackled these issues effectively – or just made them more entrenched?
On Wednesday (12 July), Professor Peter Morey of the University of East London and I ( in my role as a part time professor at Middlesex University) organised a meeting in the House of Lords to discuss strategy and make recommendations. The Conservative peer Lord Popat chaired the event and the Lib Dem peer Baroness Hussein-Ece was invited to share her views with a mixed audience of academics, activists, teachers, people from NGOs, a Muslim ex-commander at the Met (who backs Prevent), authors, psychiatrists and concerned Muslim citizens.
Prevent, in various guises, has been around since Tony Blair overreacted to 9/11. In 2011, the approach was reviewed by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. Two years ago this May, the Counter Terrorism and Security Act added yet more duties on to public institutions to ‘have due regard to the need to prevent individuals from being drawn to terrorism.’ For those who are unfamiliar with the policies, the aim is to get to younger people before they are turned by extremist ideas, and also to get public service staff to watch and report on pupils, students and other users of the services.
Not all Muslims are against the programmes. Sara Khan, who runs Inspire, a counter-extremism charity, strongly defends the approach and argues that hard-line Muslims deliberately misrepresent the aims and methods of those delivering Prevent programmes. Such resistors are in revolt against integration and demand exceptionalism . I respect Khan’s work, agree with her about some of the nasty campaigns and know that many young people have been ‘rescued’ who might have ended up in Syria or Iraq. Khan’s point about organised defamation is important and needs to be taken seriously.
However, the policy is doing vastly more harm than good. It is contaminating the social and educational environs. A teacher told me of a white parent who demanded action against an eight-year-old Muslim child who’d had said in the playground that she wanted to go to Syria and help its people. Because of the law, the teacher felt obliged to ‘interview’ the girl. ” I was so upset for her and me. Why are we doing this?”
An NUT representative spoke with much feeling at a meeting in May 2016: “The guidelines are unclear. This is really having a negative effect on student/pupil relationships. Self- censorship has entered schools. If difficult topics are no longer freely debated in schools, there is a real risk that young people will be pushed towards the internet and dangerous websites.”
I hear (though cannot confirm) there are now student informers who go into prayer rooms at universities and report back on conversations. Here’s the irony: with the recent terrorist attacks, Muslims did report their worries about the young men to the police and they were largely ignored. It seems that people who know are being bypassed and pressure instead is put on those who cannot possibly know or find out stuff for the state.
In 2016, a BBC correspondent concluded that “…despite millions of pounds, initiative after initiative, the strategy remains deeply controversial, impossible to assess and, if critics are right, fatally compromised and incapable of achieving its goals”.
A UN special rapporteur was even more sceptical: ‘By dividing, stigmatising and alienating segments of the population, Prevent could end up promoting extremism rather than countering it…When you have a sense that there is spying going on at every corner…it almost goes back to the communist days in the Soviet Union’.
David Anderson, QC, the independent reviewer of Prevent, warns the strategy is becoming “a significant cause of grievance”. The joint home affairs committee strongly suggests Prevent has become a toxic brand that needs serious rethinking.
Theresa May’s response is a new commission to fight extremism and “stand up for British values”, that most pathetic of political postures. Jingoism will not rebuild trust, but it may just alienate even more Muslims and endanger us all. She will not listen. She does not know how.