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Sat 17 April 2021

Dr Fahid Qurashi explains widespread concerns in the Muslim community about the review of the controversial counter-terrorism strategy

More than 550 Muslim organisations, academics, scholars, and community organisers from across Britain have launched a campaign to boycott the Government’s review of the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy that is being led by William Shawcross. 

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 is one of the four elements of the Government’s ‘CONTEST’ counter-terrorism strategy.

The appointment of Shawcross to lead an independent review of Prevent has been heavily criticised because of his past statements about Islam, and a terms of reference with a narrow set of objectives, which shows disdain for those harmed by it. The terms of reference suggest that the review will be limited in its scope and will focus on how well Prevent has been integrated into the public sector as part of safeguarding agendas and as a legal duty.

Most troubling, a key objective of the review is to find ways to respond to criticisms and complaints – reinforcing concerns that this is a rubber-stamping exercise.  

Since 2015, millions of UK public sector workers have been obliged to complete Prevent training courses that outline indicators of radicalisation and ways to report suspicions about individuals. These courses imagine radicalisation as a process and describe it metaphorically as an iceberg, of which terrorism is just the small tip. 

A ‘War on Terror’ framed by the 1% doctrine (even a 1% chance that a suspicion about someone might be accurate) means that all suspicions are targeted. For this reason, Prevent training courses encourage vigilance, for indicators such as behavioural changes, that might signal a person is being radicalised, and encourage trainees to report all suspicions.

It means that Prevent is speculative in nature, designed to regulate potential future actions on the basis of suspicion and informed by a range of nebulous indicators – such as a desire for excitement and adventure or being at a transitional time of life. Such a framing of radicalisation puts counter-terrorism into the space of ‘pre-crime’ and pre-emption, in which the aim is to predict and pre-empt a crime from occurring. 

With this framing of radicalisation, mass referrals are an inevitable outcome. Every year, thousands of people are referred over concerns of radicalisation and, in the most recent figures, almost 90% of the referrals were subsequently not deemed to be at risk of radicalisation. The consequences of this dragnet have been a stifling of freedom of speech through the use of vaguer terms, such as the Commission for Countering Extremism’s “hateful extremism”; an undermining of academic freedom; and embedding surveillance and intelligence-gathering in Muslim communities. 

Of greater concern to the Muslim communities targeted and harmed by Prevent is the Islamophobia at its heart. From its inception in 2003, Prevent has explicitly targeted Muslims so that they are disproportionately referred to Channel – Prevent’s counter-radicalisation programme. In so doing, Prevent associates Muslims and Islam with terrorism in the public’s mind and, when this is combined with the pre-emptive nature of the strategy, it justifies surveillance and intervention across a whole faith community, which is now seen as suspect. 

Consequently, despite its ‘colour-blind’ framing, Prevent disproportionately stigmatises Muslims. The surveillance gaze which stretches from police and counter-terrorism officers to teachers, lecturers, nurses and doctors – who are expected to act as agents of the state – not only makes policing more intimate and frightening but it also means that everyday concerns around Muslim parenting, schooling and teenage angst are seen as potential security concerns. This subverts relationships with pupils and patients that are meant to be based on public service and mutual trust. 

Recent attempts have been made to neutralise criticisms of Prevent’s Islamophobia by emphasising an increasing number of far-right referrals. This seems to be little more than a public relations exercise, as Prevent is organised around a ‘Muslim threat’ in the ‘War on Terror’. Calls for an independent inquiry into the strategy have been based specifically on the grounds that it discriminates against Muslims and therefore has an Islamophobic character. 

But the appointment of Shawcross, who has made stigmatising comments about Muslims and the narrow focus of the review, continues previous attempts to reinvigorate Prevent.

Calls to scrap Prevent have come from all quarters, including from the former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation Max Hill QC, and a UN Special Rapporteur

This boycott aims to send a message: that Prevent’s harms must be addressed with a people’s commission – with a good number arguing that concerns can only be resolved by its abolition. 

Dr Fahid Qurashi is a lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at Staffordshire University

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