Thu 9 July 2020

Hardeep Matharu explores why those in the Muslim community believe that the Government’s controversial counter-terrorism strategy is doing more harm than good.

Since its inception in 2003, criticism and controversy has followed the Prevent strategy – an arm of the Government’s counter-terrorism framework.

For many in the Muslim community, it is viewed as a sinister policy that is inherently racist; a form of social control and intelligence gathering; deliberately, disproportionately applied to Muslims.

None of which the Government agrees with.

But, to explore further why the Muslim community hold these views, I interviewed those working in three organisations specialising in Prevent in their day-to-day work, as part of Byline Times’ investigation: ‘Radical Thinking: Inside Prevent’.

According to the Home Office, Prevent aims to “safeguard vulnerable people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism by engaging with people who are vulnerable to radicalisation and protecting those who are being targeted by terrorist recruiters”.

It operates in the ‘pre- or non-criminal’ space, with those deemed necessary of deradicalisation after being referred under Prevent undergoing a process known as Channel – a panel tasked with helping the individual. Since 2015, a statutory duty has required all public sector workers to spot signs of radicalisation and make referrals.

According to the Home Office’s latest statistics, 7,318 people were referred under Prevent in 2017-18, but just 18% of those made it to Channel panels. 82% required no further action or were directed to other support services.

Of the 394 individuals who received Channel support, 45% were referred for concerns relating to Islamist extremism, while concerns relating to right-wing extremism resulted in 44% of the referrals.

It intrudes into the space of ideas. So it has to interrogate you about your life and world view, even if this is not fully formed yet, in order to discover whether or not you’re problematic.

Dr Asim Qureshi, Cage

The Home Office has said that, since 2012, “more than 1,200 people have been successfully supported by tailored mentoring and support provided through Channel”.

Announcing a review of Prevent in January, Security Minister Ben Wallace said the policy “is not about singling out any particular group or ideology but is similar to other forms of safeguarding, carried out every day by social workers, teachers and police”.

However, those I spoke to – who regularly interact with Muslims impacted by Prevent – strongly disagree. For them, the entire genesis of Prevent, in the wake of 9/11, is flawed and alienating the very people it says it wants to help.

The Non-Existent “Cooker Bomb”

In 2016, a four-year-old boy was asked by his nursery teachers to explain a drawing he had made of his father cutting a cucumber. It showed a “cooker bum” the boy explained, mispronouncing its name. For the staff, alarm bells went off. They started the process of referring the child – who they believed was referring to a “cooker bomb” – under Prevent.

Another child, a nine-year-old boy, sat in an opticians room to have his eyes tested last April. He became upset when the optician started to ask him odd questions that had nothing to do with his eyesight. Like who the country’s Prime Minister is. How many paragraphs of English he could write. Or whether the boy had “English girls” such as Chloe, Rebecca, Emily and Barbara in his class. The optician later admitted to the child’s father that he had recently received Prevent training.

Anna Sekular, who works at Prevent Watch, a support service for people who have been impacted by the policy, told me that – of the 500 cases the organisation has dealt with since it began in 2014 – half of them have involved children.

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“You cannot for sure tell how these children, for example, will be impacted in the future by these processes and what they’ve gone through, but what we can say, from what we’ve seen, is it’s very damaging,” she said. “This needs to be recognised and accounted for.

“Prevent operates, in our view, in a very Islamophobic framework. Muslims are a large chunk of those referred and that just shows how, essentially, the policy allows for Muslim children to be viewed through a securitised lens. You’re quite clearly seeing Muslim children viewed in a very, very different way.”

She said Muslim parents have taken to telling their children not to communicate much with their teachers over issues such as bullying at school, as they believe they are looking for reasons to suspect them.

There is all sorts of activity which could be deemed ‘undesirable’ and that’s our concern – that it’s not for the Government to dictate what or what isn’t acceptable in a free, democratic society.

Dr Shazad Amin, MEND

As well as the “traumatic” impact Prevent has on Muslim children, Ms Sekular said that the Muslim adults she has helped also live in fear; experience a loss of trust and confidence in authorities; suffer from mental health issues including paranoia, PTSD, depression and anxiety; feel isolated; and believe in the need for self-censorship.

What they think about jihad, the Taliban, Syria and the Middle East; how often they pray; and what they would do if they disagreed with Government policy are just some of the questions they have been asked as part of a Prevent referral.

“It is very concerning and alarming to us that the real human cost and impact of Prevent is being completely dismissed,” Ms Sekular told me.

‘Entire Legislation Based On One Prisons Study’

Dr Shazad Amin, a psychiatrist and CEO of the anti-Islamophobia organisation MEND (Muslim Engagement and Development), said it is not opposed to the Government having a counter-terrorism strategy, but that Prevent is “inherently racist and Islamophobic in its process”.

“The way this is often framed is a classic good versus evil story,” he said. “If you’re on the side of the Government, you’re good and you want to catchy nasty people who want to kill us. And, if you’re on the side of those criticising it, you must be bad and pro-terrorist.

“We are obviously supportive of a counter-terrorism strategy to protect the public, particularly because Muslims are often in the firing line – not only are we more likely to be part of the casualites, we also take the blow-back. So, we have a greater than average interest in ensuring that we have an effective counter-terrorism strategy. However, it has got to be fair, intelligent and based on evidence.”

When it comes to evidence, Dr Amin said there isn’t much – which is one of the biggest concerns critics have.

When someone is referred under Prevent, they are assessed against 22 ‘Extremism Risk Guidance’ factors – purportedly measuring radicalisation under the Government’s ‘vulnerability assessment framework’.

The risk factors, however, were developed from a study conducted for the Home Office by two forensic psychologists, Christopher Dean and Monica Lloyd – then working in offender management for the Government – based on interviews with around 40 convicted extremists in prison and on license in the community.

Although the report’s authors stated that its “demonstrated reliability and validity remains the main limitation”, Dr Amin said the Home Office used it as a “definitive piece of research”. The study’s data has never been published.

“You have a piece of Government legislation which is based on one study and a statutory obligation now on millions of public sector workers based on one study,” he said. That’s really concerning.”

The policy allows for Muslim children to be viewed through a securitised lens.

Anna Sekular, Prevent Watch

On the vagueness of the 22 risk factors, he said: “There is all sorts of activity out there which could be deemed to be ‘undesirable’ and that’s our concern – that it’s not for the Government to dictate what or what isn’t acceptable in a free, democratic society. Normal Muslim activity is being framed as ‘dangerous’ and being referred under Prevent.

“And what we don’t know, and the Government hasn’t been clear on, is – if you are referred under Prevent, even if it’s a false referral and there’s no case to answer, where does that data go? Are you kept on a database, who is it shared with? Is it shared with future employers?

“It’s a way of regulating behaviour, apparently operating in the ‘pre-criminal’ space – which is an interesting idea in itself.”

Dr Amin said recent increases in the number of right-wing referrals under Prevent does not lend weight to its credibility because it is “no solution to a flawed policy”. “The fact that it applies to other groups as well is not the answer,” he added.

In any case, the statistics suggest that Muslims – despite being a minority in the UK – are still 50 times more likely to be referred under Prevent than non-Muslims.

“It’s fairly obvious that Prevent came about after 9/11,” Dr Amin said. “Of course, in any piece of legislation, the government can’t say ‘we are targeting one community’… But, if you look at how it operates and the people it applies to, it would be fairly obvious to any independent, fair-minded person that it is primarily targeted at the Muslim community.”

Non-Preventative: Shutting Down Debate

For Dr Asim Qureshi, research director at advocacy group Cage, Prevent is also “a racist programme in its conception, in its development and in its application”.

“The starting assumption is that there is a problem and that, in particular, Muslims are a problem,” he told me. “Muslims can’t have complicated views about life and the world they live in. That’s all pathologised.

“The Government is saying they can prevent somebody who, in the future, may be on a pathway to terrorism. That requires an assessment being made of how a person poses a risk and we understand that risk by pathologising the community – that has to be attached to superficial markers such as your name, cultural things you exhibit such as the hijab or a beard, or rolling your trousers up to a certain height, and so many other cultural cues that separate you from wider society and place you within a threat matrix.

“If you then give guidance to all of your public sector workers that their own potentially bigoted views can be used as common sense to identify who is a problem, you’re going to have an increasing number of people being referred because it’s now a statutory duty and all the teacher, the doctor, the dentist, can do is look for these signs based on a vague understanding of what they think is problematic, but isn’t necessarily so.

“It’s all so subjective that actually it opens itself up to all manner of abuses.”

Prevent is not about singling out any particular group or ideology but is similar to other forms of safeguarding, carried out every day by social workers, teachers and police.

Security Minister Ben Wallace

With no quantitative data published by the Government demonstrating how successful Prevent has been at stopping terrorism, Dr Qureshi said the Home Office is asking the public “to trust us” – which he said is hard to do “when we’ve got hundreds of cases which are miscarriages of justice”.

Regardless of this, “if you are going to safeguard somebody from becoming a future terrorist, how do you actually know that they were going to become a terrorist in the first place?” he added.

Dr Qureshi said that, despite Prevent being referred to by the Government as a form of safeguarding, it “intrudes into a completely different area”.

“It intrudes into the space of ideas,” he told me. “So it has to interrogate you about your life and world view, even if this is not fully formed yet, in order to discover whether or not you’re problematic. But, just the mere intrusion is a violent encounter and already sets up a vertical relationship with the state that is problematic.

“People don’t come out of that process thinking ‘thank God Prevent came along’. They come out terrified that the state can ask them about things that they haven’t even formed an opinion about themselves.”

In his opinion, the Prevent strategy is not needed because the Muslim community itself already takes responsibility for protecting its members from becoming radicalised. But, the policy is shutting down debate within the community in places such as mosques, he said.

“We need our imams to be talking about that stuff because otherwise if they don’t who are the kids who are disenfranchised going to learn it from? They’re going to go online and try and find that from different areas. So, this climate of fear already debilitates our ability to give guidance to our communities in the way that they need it.”

A Review Providing Answers?

During the course of conducting these interviews, the curious nature of some of the underlying principles of Prevent really struck me – such as the evidence on which the risk factors are based, the apparent regulation of behaviour the policy is directed at, and the basic question of: how can potential future risk be identified in the present in a fair and objective way?

The Government is due to announce further details of what form its independent review of Prevent will take. Whether any of these questions will be addressed, remains to be seen.


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