Two reports published last week have again put the spotlight on Prevent. At the launch of the Citizens UK report entitled “The Missing Muslims – Unlocking British Muslim Potential for the Benefit of All”1, The Right Honourable Dominic Grieve MP, QC Chair of the independent group of Commissioners stated that there appeared to be an ‘induced paranoia” amongst Muslims in relation to Prevent. Jenny Watson, Vice Chair of the Commission further stated that she was surprised to hear the extent to which Prevent was mentioned by Muslims she engaged with, indicating that it bordered on an obsession. Researchers have recently tried to dig beneath this paranoia with the educational context and a second report published by academics from three British universities, looks at what the Prevent duty means for schools and colleges in England2. The researchers stated that in both the interview and survey data fairly high and widespread levels of confidence existed amongst educationalists around implementing the Prevent Duty. They stated that this had also ‘provided an opportunity to reinvigorate areas of work around equalities, diversity and anti-racism”. It further states that “The overwhelming majority of respondents had engaged with and accepted the core government message that Prevent should be understood as part of school/college safeguarding responsibilities.’ and that there was “widespread acceptance and repetition of the government’s message that Prevent relates to all forms of extremism.”
For transparency, I need to declare from the outset that I am a Prevent practitioner and I am proud of what I have achieved. I know of countless examples where vulnerable young people have been prevented from crossing the boundary into the criminal space, avoiding prison sentences and ruining promising careers. I have trained tens of thousands of young people and professionals who have often had little or no exposure to Islam, offering both reassurances about my religion as well as a demonstration of Islamic behaviour.
It goes without saying I have come across challenges to my work, very occasionally through the training and workshops I’ve delivered, but mainly through social media. Mostly of the ‘keyboard warrior’ variety who profess to know everything and anything. What isn’t quite so well known is that for about seven years I was a member of the Staffordshire Police Authority and part of the Strategic CONTEST Board. I have also had very personal involvement with young people who have been arrested on suspicion of terrorism. So, it’s only fair to say that I have, in some way, shape or form, been involved in this area of work for over 12 years.
So, what are the challenges? The clear majority relate to myths about Prevent promulgated by those who do not like Prevent and who I would classify into four following categories that are not mutually exclusive:
- Those who believe Prevent is poorly implemented and would like to see improvements and a stronger evidence base for its future development. However, they recognise that a Prevent type of programme is needed as it helps prevent some causes of terrorism that are a major cause of Islamophobia.
- Those who feel Government should not be introducing a programme that operates in the pre-criminal space as this should be left solely with Muslim communities to develop their own prevention programmes. A government sponsored programme, they believe, generates Islamaphobia.
- Those who do not want the government or Muslim communities to operate in the pre-criminal space or develop such programmes. They believe that if the government changed its foreign policy there would be no terrorists. The security services should be supported and be left to get on with their job without a Prevent type of programme that is little more than an excuse to spy on and stigmatise Muslims.
- There is also a small minority who are against Prevent because they covertly sympathise with the terrorists’ political aims.
I have for some time wanted to address some of the misconceptions that are commonly voiced by individuals, Some of these people may not fully understand how prevent works, but there are also those who vociferously lobby against the governments counter terrorism strategy, particularly the Prevent element. Some of their often repeated ‘observations’ include (in no particular order of importance);
- It’s all about Muslims.
- Prevent is based on a ‘conveyor belt theory’.
- Channel is a secretive, police led initiative that splits up families and criminalises people.
- Prevent stifles debate and infringes on our free of speech.
- It is based on flawed science.
- It refuses to acknowledge that foreign policy makes people vulnerable.
- So, it’s all about Muslims?
The Prevent strategy states: “The UK faces a range of terrorist threats. The most serious is from Al Qa’ida, its affiliates and like-minded organisations”. Of course, the most serious threat now comes from Da’esh and those inspired by Da’esh. Eighteen plots inspired by Da’esh have been disrupted since 2013 and three have very recently caused a tragic loss of life.
“Prevent will address all forms of terrorism but continue to prioritise according to the threat they pose to our national security. At present, the majority of our resources and efforts will continue to be devoted to preventing people from joining or supporting Al Qa’ida, its affiliates or related groups”. Bearing in mind the Revised Strategy was produced in 2011, it is important to note that there has been a significant rise in far-right extremism with 30% of cases supported by Channel nationally (50% in some regions) coming from far right related cases. We have also seen far right inspired acts of terrorism in the murder of Jo Cox in June 2016, that resulted in the proscribing of National Action, a far right organisation, and also the far right terrorist attack on worshippers at Finsbury Park during the month of Ramadan.
“Prevent must deal with all forms of terrorism “
The Strategy further recognises that “There have been allegations that previous Prevent programmes have been used to spy on communities. We can find no evidence to support these claims. Prevent must not be used as a means for covert spying on people or communities. Trust in Prevent must be improved”.
Prevent does rely on identifying individuals who may be vulnerable to being targeted by extremists. This is not spying. This is in fact no different to the work that has been done in schools, colleges and communities in supporting people around gangs, child sexual exploitation, female genital mutation and forced marriages for example. There is nothing wrong with adopting a conservative form of your religious beliefs as long it is within the law. There is no evidence that a conservative form of Islam leads to terrorism. In fact, many of the terrorists have limited theological understanding. The security services spy on individuals who are a threat, not on vulnerable individuals. Perhaps some Muslims who have been wrongly accused, have been at the receiving end of badly delivered training or believe their freedom of expression has been curtailed, do feel stigmatised. My personal view is that nothing stigmatises Muslims more than a terrorist attack committed in the name of Islam by individuals who call themselves Muslims.
- Prevent is based on a ‘conveyor belt theory’
Despite the rumours, Prevent is not based on a so called linear “conveyor belt” theory. Prevent training around radicalisation is publically available. It can be easily accessed as both face-to-face training or via an e-learning package and puts forward the Government’s understanding of radicalisation. It references those circumstances or factors around an individual that might “push” them towards a group or ideology that is attractive to them. There are also “pull” factors that might include people or messages that are communicated in such a way that others find them appealing. These individuals may be at a point in their life where they feel that they want to be part of a movement, something bigger, more meaningful or significant, that gives them a sense of purpose, identity or belonging. Interestingly the only time I have ever heard reference to a conveyor belt theory is when elements of the anti-prevent lobby use this to discredit the strategy.
- Channel is a secretive, police led initiative that splits up families and criminalises people
I listened to the mother of a now deceased British Da’esh fighter speak last year 3. She spoke of her horror at discovering that her son had left home and gone to Syria. Shortly after, she discovered that her son had been killed. She described how she had wished someone had picked up the changes in her son and referred him to Channel. She wished he had had the opportunity to listen to ‘the other side’ instead of just the propaganda he was being fed via social media. “I don’t have the luxury of knowing where my son is buried let alone being able to go and pray by his graveside’. It’s not Channel that splits up families – it’s the evil divisive ideology of the far right and Da’esh that do that. Channel is a voluntary multi agency scheme headed by the local authorities. The panel includes representation from many sectors including education, housing, police, social services and prisons, as they all have a part to play in keeping people out of the criminal justice system. Channel works by ensuring that the individual who wants support has a mentor to work with, who can guide them away from the influences they have come under, who can ‘channel’ their energy towards more constructive matters. It is an open and transparent process. Ask those who have been involved.
Successful interventions drawing people away from extremism and terrorism can come in the form of an Imam, or former far right activist, mentoring a young person to get them to see how they’ve been manipulated into viewing the world through a binary lens. But supportive interventions could also include counselling or family support. Each case is different. Those working on Prevent understand the complexity of radicalisation and the need to consider each case carefully to be sure that those who require support are steered away from ruining their own lives and potentially those of their families and others. I have in my mind the comments from one mother who “thanks God” for the support her son received after he had viewed extremist material online and indicated support for Daesh. Let’s make sure we don’t let down families like this.
- Prevent stifles debate and infringes on our freedom of speech
The Prevent strategy makes several references to freedom of speech including:
“We remain absolutely committed to protecting freedom of speech in this country”
“Challenging ideology is also about being confident in our own values – the values of democracy, rule of law, equality of opportunity, freedom of speech and the rights of all men and women to live free from persecution of any kind”.
“We are completely committed to protecting freedom of speech in this country”.
“Universities and colleges have an important role to play in Prevent, particularly in ensuring balanced debate as well as freedom of speech “
Freedom of speech is something that is protected in our laws, it is a privilege that comes with living in a free and democratic society. For our educational establishments, freedom of speech is enshrined within Section 43 of the Education (No 2) Act 1986 that states “Every individual and body of persons concerned in the government of any establishment to which this section applies shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers”.
Prevent does not stifle debate nor infringe on freedom of speech, indeed it is necessary to allow extremist views to be aired for them to be challenged and to allow intervention if necessary. Lord Justice Sedley stated in 1999 that “Free speech includes not only the offensive, but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome, and the provocative, providing it does not tend to provoke violence”. Freedom of speech cannot be taken in isolation and if views are being expressed that are breaking other laws, whether that’s incitement to commit violence or equality laws, challenging ideologies becomes a collective responsibility. Where our further and higher education institutions are concerned, it is vital they protect academic freedom. However, they also have a duty of care to their students and “must safeguard vulnerable young people from radicalisation and recruitment by terrorist organisations “.
- It is based on flawed science
Prevent’s understanding of radicalisation is based on Government research on individuals that have engaged in terrorist activity. It is clear there is no single socio-demographic profile, or pathway, that leads an individual to become involved in terrorism. These cases tell us that the process is based on several factors coming together that convert radicalisation to terrorism.
Firstly, background factors: aspects of someone’s history or situation that might make them vulnerable to involvement in terrorist activities. Examples can include involvement in criminality, a failure to integrate, disrupted childhoods, and growing up in an extremist subculture.
Secondly, initial influences that help push an individual towards a terrorist group. The most significant are parents, siblings and friends engaged in extremist activity as well as terrorist influencers and extremist ideological material. There has been an increasing move by terrorists to use the internet and social media to brainwash people using sophisticated propaganda. Daesh’s propaganda has been prolific.
Thirdly, ideological opening: before becoming involved in terrorism, individuals need to be receptive to its ideological message. This ideological opening can be because the individual’s experiences make them sympathetic to the terrorist narrative. For example, an individual may become disillusioned with their previous beliefs, leaving them vulnerable to terrorist ideology, or because they are naive, lacking the theological or ideological knowledge to counter terrorist ideology they have been exposed to. For some individuals, involvement in terrorism meets, or promises to meet, important psychological needs: the need to belong, the need for self-esteem and the need for meaning and purpose. The overwhelming majority of people who have these background influences above do not go on to engage in terrorist activity – this is because they have protective factors or obstacles that stop them becoming engaged in terrorism. These factors can either compete with terrorism (e.g. a strong family life that already satisfies the individual’s need for belonging, self-esteem and purpose) or conflict with it (e.g. part of a friendship group that would be lost if the individual became involved in terrorism).
Overlaying the above is the fact that the radicalisation process is overwhelmingly a social process and centres on networks of influential extremists and propagandists. It is about ‘who you know’ and group bonding, peer pressure and indoctrination are necessary to encourage the view that violence is a legitimate response to perceived injustice. The internet has reduced the barriers that exist in the real world for certain groups to become involved in extremism and provides radicalisers the capability to connect and convince a greater audience who would otherwise not have been reachable.
- It refuses to acknowledge that foreign policy makes people vulnerable
One of the greatest myths about Prevent is that the government’s understanding of what causes people to become radicalised omits any reference to the international context or foreign policy. This mistaken belief exists even though the 2011 Prevent strategy states that: “Support for violence is associated with an aspiration to defend Muslims when they appear to be under attack…Issues which can contribute to a sense that Muslim communities are being unfairly treated include… UK foreign policy”. Former Prime Minister David Cameron said this about the role of foreign wars back in 2015, “I am not saying these issues aren’t important. We could deal with all these issues and some people would still be drawn to Islamist extremism”. And that surely must be right. Lots of people care deeply about, and are angered by, foreign military interventions but there must be something more fundamental going on in someone’s life for them to believe that this justifies murdering innocents.
I would encourage people to do three things. To keep an open mind; fact-check and ensure what you are hearing is not ‘fake news’, such as cucumber bombs, terrorist houses or Palestinian conversations causing Prevent referrals. Talk to people who work in Prevent. It’s not perfect and there will be mistakes made. Constructive feedback and engagement is necessary for any improvement to happen. And finally, if you feel strongly that Prevent should be scrapped, ask yourself: what do we replace it with and how do we stop vulnerable people from being drawn into terrorism of all forms and destroying lives? Sadly as we’ve seen from recent events, the challenge from terrorism is likely to be with us for some time. Safeguarding vulnerable people and protecting our country is a job for us all.
- ‘The Missing Muslims – Unlocking British Muslim Potential for the Benefit of All’. Report by the Citizens Commission on Islam, Participation and Public Life. https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/newcitizens/pages/1261/attachments/original/1499106471/Missing_Muslims_Report_-_Electronic_copy.pdf?1499106471
- ‘What the Prevent duty means for schools and colleges in England: An analysis of educationalists’ experiences’ by Joel Busher, Tufayl Choudhury, Paul Thomas & gareth Harris. July 2017 https://pure.coventry.ac.uk/ws/portalfiles/portal/11090509
- My Son the Jihadi by Nicola Benyahia New York Times 8th July 2017 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/08/opinion/sunday/my-son-the-jihadist.html