Why is the Prevent strategy deemed controversial?
Prevent is one of the four Ps that make up the UK government’s post 9/11 counter-terrorism strategy, known as Contest: Prepare for attacks, Protect the public, Pursue the attackers and Prevent their radicalisation in the first place.
Much has been said about the strategy and not a week goes by without an article in the news and it is difficult to separate the facts from fiction.
Critics claim it stifles free speech or disproportionately targets Muslims, which has led to some calls for it to be scrapped or reformed.
Ghaffar Hussain — a community resilience manager based in the London Borough of Newham — answered some questions about Prevent and tackled some of the myths about the ‘controversial’ strategy.
What is Prevent?
Prevent is one strand of the British government’s counter-terrorism strategy called Contest, which was largely a response to the 7/7 bombings and the rising tide of home grown terrorism we have all witnessed since. Prevent operates in the pre-criminal space and seeks to work with those vulnerable to extremist influences as well as creating general awareness around the dangers of extremism.
The strategy’s primary aims are to safeguard vulnerable people from extremist influences and to upskill frontline workers so that they are able to fulfil their duty of care and safeguard those they work with.
Since 2005 around 45 major terror plots have been thwarted in the UK, that’s an average of four plots on the scale of 7/7 every year since 7/7. Furthermore, over 850 British nationals are believed to have travelled to Syria/Iraq, many of whom have joined ISIS.
This number doesn’t include the many that have been prevented from going or those that have instead travelled to join terror groups in Somalia or Afghanistan. Hence, Prevent seeks to tackle a very real and growing problem that has huge implications for all of us.
What is the role of a Prevent officer?
‘Prevent Officer’ is a term usually applied to those that either work in local authority or police Prevent teams. Prevent is delivered at a local level by teams within local authorities who engage with a wide variety of statutory, voluntary and community based partners.
It is the responsibility of local Prevent teams to implement the strategy and be the primary source of contact for Prevent related issues. This often involves delivering WRAP (Workshop to Raise Awareness of Prevent) training, delivering Prevent themed projects and offering guidance to other partners and stakeholders.
Are you able to say what responses you get when delivering any Prevent training?
On the whole Prevent training is received very positively by the vast majority of attendees and our feedback forms support this conclusion. Most of the people we train are statutory partners who are keen to learn about Prevent as a policy area and radicalisation as a phenomenon. Given the nature of the subject matter there will always be a wide range of views around the causes of extremism and what makes people vulnerable.
However, most people accept that extremism is an issue that needs to be tackled in a structured and coordinated manner, hence the need for the Prevent strategy.
Does Prevent disproportionately target Muslims?
Prevent targets all forms of extremism and seeks to tackle extremism as a broad phenomenon rather than just a single manifestation. However, the threat picture varies depending on where you are in the country. Each borough and each region will have its own profile and, therefore, local Prevent strategies are tailored to meet local needs.
Furthermore, we are hostage to local, national and international developments since they can influence and shape the national and local threat level. Thus, Prevent messaging at a local level is targeted at anyone who is vulnerable to any form of extremism.
Nationally, the biggest threat is currently from Islamist-inspired extremism and that has been the case since the 7/7 bombings. The emergence of ISIS and their announcement of a caliphate was also a huge boost to extremists who support their warped ideology.
However, far-right extremism is also on the rise and in an age in which globalism vs. nationalism seems to be the predominant political cleavage, far-right groups are well positioned to take advantage of anti-globalisation or anti-immigrant sentiment. In fact, 25% of referrals are now from the far-right; this is up from around 10% a few years before.
Does Prevent stifle free speech?
Prevent certainly does not seek to stifle free speech, on contrary our project work and engagement with educational institutions seeks to open up discussions around extremism related themes. I would argue that the net effect of having a proactive strategy like Prevent is more speech and not less since the projects we support stimulate debate, discussion and the sharing of different points of view. In fact, teachers are expected to open up such discussions in classrooms by OFSTED.
In my experience of helping teachers to do this I have witnessed many lively and interesting discussions take place and not seen much evidence of speech being stifled. I accept that such discussions may make some pupils feel nervous but that is part of the challenge and that is why there is a need to upskill people in this area.
It would be an absurd situation if we stopped talking about extremism because some people are nervous about the topic. Some people feel nervous about anti-racism and anti-FGM discussions too but that is not a reason to stop campaigns that tackle these issues.
What is the conveyor belt theory of radicalisation and does Prevent support the theory?
The Turkish-American scholar Zeyno Baran used the term ‘conveyor belt’ to reference to Hizb ut Tahrir in a 2004 report published by the Nixon Centre. Her exact quote was: “Even if Hizb does not itself engage in terrorist acts, because of the ideology it provides, it acts like a conveyor belt for terrorists.”
Those that use the term ‘conveyor belt theory of radicalisation’ to criticise Prevent assume that there is a school of thought that suggests all those involved in extremist groups are on a linear trajectory headlining towards terrorism. However, this claim is simply false, no such school of thought exists and, more importantly, the Prevent strategy does not rely on such a theory.
The Prevent strategy document states:
“We judge that radicalisation is driven by an ideology which sanctions the use of violence; by propagandists for that ideology here and overseas; and by personal vulnerabilities and specific local factors which, for a range of reasons, make that ideology seem both attractive and compelling.”
In other words, Prevent does not rely on a mythical ‘conveyor belt’ theory of racialisation and accepts that radicalisation can be a complex and personal process that can involve a wide range of factors.
Critics of Prevent have also said that the term ‘non violent extremism’ is vague and encourages referrals, alarms universities and strengthens those who see Prevent as an attack on civil liberties or on the Muslim faith.’ How does Prevent define extremism?
Non-violent extremism is merely any form of extremism that isn’t directly calling for violence as a means of achieving political goals. Inciting hatred of other groups in society, based on set characteristics, or campaigning for the curtailment of others basic rights are examples of non-violent extremism.
It should go without saying that non-violent extremism is deeply problematic for any society since it creates division, stirs community tensions and instigates hate crime. Hence, it needs to be challenged even if it does not lead to violence.
Criticism of government policy or strong views on geo-political developments does not constitute extremism if it is not accompanied by hatred or dehumanising language towards other groups of people. For example, critiquing the decision to invade Iraq is very different from supporting jihadist factions in Iraq who seek to attack British soldiers and Iraqi civilians.
Whilst there is a deliberate attempt to conflate legitimate political opinion with Prevent’s definition of extremism, it is important to reiterate that Prevent does not seek to police political debate. Prevent is only focused on those views that call for political violence or hatred of other groups in society.
It has been suggested that teachers are referring children to Prevent because they fear their schools will otherwise be marked down by Ofsted. It has also been said that children who have been taken on anti-badger-cull marches or Fathers4Justice demonstrations are being suggested for referral.
Is that really the case?
I have not seen any evidence to suggest that referrals are being pushed by OFSTED, nor have I seen any evidence that children who go on legal demonstrations are referred to Prevent as a result. I certainly have not come across such cases in Newham. When these kind of wild accusations are made the burden of proof lies with those making the accusation; it is impossible to prove a negative in the absence of evidence.
What I have seen evidence of is Prevent being blamed for general safeguarding referrals that go straight to the police and have nothing to do with Prevent teams. There is clearly a political campaign to undermine Prevent that often invokes non-Prevent related stories to attack Prevent. There is a debate to be had around the implementation of Prevent but we can only do that if we agree to stick to the facts.