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Sun 5 December 2021

It looks likely that the Government’s review of the controversial strategy will significantly strengthen the programme as a means of hitting back against its many critics, argues Dr Richard McNeil-Willson

Despite longstanding concerns over the Prevent programme, its supporters steadfastly refuse to acknowledge any problems with it. As the findings of the Government’s review into the strategy loom, it is likely that there will follow a renewed attack on its critics.

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.

Concerns about Prevent are longstanding and numerous – including limited evidence of its ability to prevent terrorism, concerns around the creation of insecurity amongst minority groups, accusations of the stoking of Islamophobia and far-right extremism, and the erosion of civil and democratic rights. 

With the findings of the Government’s review of Prevent reportedly due before Parliament by the end of the year, indications are beginning to emerge as to whether any of these concerns have been taken seriously, and how counter-extremism will progress in the years ahead.

The first concern has been the effectiveness of the programme, with questions raised about whether it can be relied upon to stem terrorism.  

Prevent operates in a ‘pre-criminal’ space, aiming to deradicalise individuals often well before they even commit a crime. The problem with this approach is that it will always sit uncomfortably within the context of the law, while assuming that ideology is the key to stopping terrorism. If someone confesses a belief in values deemed to be ‘extreme’, they are on the path to violence and should be referred to Prevent; those who do not or no longer believe in these values are deemed ‘safe’. 

But there is scant evidence to suggest that such an approach works. The focus on ideological factors, as found in Prevent, ignores a host of other causes behind violence, and assumes a linear progression between thought and action. It also means that it is almost impossible to assess whether Prevent is having any positive impact – while pre-criminal approaches may be comforting for demonstrating an industrious response against terrorism, it is almost impossible to know if it is the right one. 


Extremism and Islamophobia

The most consistent critique of the strategy has been that it is enabling and emboldening Islamophobia.

Throughout its history, Prevent has focused overwhelmingly on Islamic extremism. Originally designed solely as an intervention in British Muslim communities, it has only recently been retrofitted to include some additional focus on the far-right. 

Initiatives have been introduced through Prevent which have sought to discipline Muslim communities and domesticate a British ‘moderate’ Islam, creating a framing of Muslims in the UK as a “suspect community” and as “conditional citizens”. 

With the introduction of the Prevent duty in 2015, public sector institutions – such as schools, GP practices, universities, hospitals and prisons – were required to report extremism, leaving schoolteachers and social workers to too often fall-back on stereotypes of who an ‘extremist’ is, and making young people fearful of exercising their rights to freedom of expression.

Prevent enables an association of Muslims with violence and mainstreams an assumption that Muslim communities are somehow particularly vulnerable to extremism and radicalisation. 

Yet, despite a growing chorus of concern from academics, civil society groups, activists and faith groups that Prevent is harming community cohesion, fuelling Islamophobia and leading to the far-right’s own anti-Muslim narratives, supporters of Prevent and the Government refuse to countenance the idea that there could be legitimate problems with the programme. 

When concerns are raised, critics are framed as “Islamist agitators”, “terrorist apologists” or “disingenuous”. Years of critical peer-reviewed academic research, interviews, activism and community work by highly qualified actors across the breadth of British society are often dismissed, attacked as a result of raising concerns. Even when Prevent’s supporters have admitted that some of its elements are inadequate, it is not the strategy that is deemed at fault, but the detractors.

The Henry Jackson Society think tank, for instance, has blamed “political correctness” and suggested that Prevent should focus even more on “Islamic extremism”. The organisation has been described as having an “anti-Islam agenda”, claimed that British university campuses are breeding grounds for “Islamic extremism”, and labelled several Muslim-led community groups “extremist”, according to a report by Georgetown University


The Prevent Review

The Government’s review of Prevent is being led by William Shawcross – a former director of the Henry Jackson Society who claimed that “Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future”, and whose appointment led to the review’s boycotting by more than 500 Islamic and other religious, civil society and human rights groups. 

It has been reported that one of the review’s recommendations will be for MI5 to be given greater control over Prevent, with teachers and faith leaders accused of being “too soft on suspected radicals”. 

In line with the views of its supporters, it is likely that Muslim community groups and civil society organisations will be lined up by the Government and the media as scapegoats, to take the fall for any of Prevent’s perceived limitations. Substantive questions over the programme’s suspect methodologies, negative impacts and core failings are likely to be framed as such groups either being under the sway of radicals or simply not believing in the strategy hard enough. 

No questions are likely to be asked about why so many prominent groups are opposed to Prevent. Consistent fears of Islamophobia will likely be swept aside. The multitude of Muslim and faith groups, academics, civil society organisations, activists, special rapporteurs to the UN, parliamentarians, national unions and human rights bodies – all of whom have opposed Prevent – will be framed not just as wrong, but as extremist and as directly responsible for its limitations. 

After months of speculation, it looks likely that the Prevent review will significantly strengthen the programme as a means of hitting back against its many critics. Whether this further entrenches the controversial strategy in British civil society, or unites more opposition against it, is yet to be seen. 

Dr Richard McNeil-Willson is a research fellow in critical extremism and counter-extremism at the European University Institute

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