The imminent, and overdue, death of ‘Prevent’

Of all the ill-fated initiatives and programmes introduced by the previous government in its attempt to "fight terrorism", nothing has been as disastrously counter-productive as the 'Prevent' strategy. As Rizwaan Sabir argues, this is a programme that was designed, and implemented, as a direct attack on the Muslim community as a whole. Its demise cannot come too soon.

Columns, Sabir on Security - Posted on Friday, September 3, 2010 20:58 - 2 Comments

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By Rizwaan Sabir

The post 7/7 “soft-approach” to challenging “extremism and terrorism within the Muslim community” became known as the ‘Prevent’ programme. I talk in the past tense because the policy, to all intents and purposes, is almost dead. The counter-terrorism review, which will disclose its findings at the start of 2011, will hopefully make this flawed and knee-jerk policy a thing of the past, and rightfully so.

The policy has been utterly counter-productive, awfully deceptive and has “securitised” the Muslims community unnecessarily.

When ‘Prevent’ was launched in 2006, it was heralded as a programme that would engage the Muslim community and work tirelessly, in conjunction with it, to counter the threat of terrorism; a phenomenon, it seems, that was understood by the New-Labour establishment to be a Muslim monopoly. However, rather than working with the Muslim community, the programme has been targeting all Muslims and doing what it was NOT meant to do – alienate and drive Muslims inward.

A leaked Association of Police Officers (ACPO) document quite categorically shows that the Prevent programme’s approach was not only targeted at those people that were “actively showing signs” of moving toward extremism or were extremists, as had been the stated intention under the programme, but was instead primarily used against young Muslims and the Muslim community as a whole. Claims by the government and the police that the programme was never about the Muslim community being spied upon is blatantly untrue. The document quite clearly states that the Muslim community needs to be targeted regardless of the political opinions or political beliefs of particular members happen to be, which is further evidence that the police, contrary to public claims, have been investigating and collating intelligence on Muslims that have done nothing illegal. In short, the police have been (and still are) involved in a witch-hunt against Muslims for no other reason than the fact that they are Muslim.

The justification for focusing the prevent programme on the Muslim community was best explained by the ACPO Coordinator of Prevent, Sir Norman Bettison, who explained to the 2010 ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’ Select Committee that “[b]ecause young Muslims are vulnerable to al-Qaida propaganda, it made sense to focus Prevent activity on the Muslim community”. However, there is no evidence to suggest that Muslim youths are more vulnerable to radicalisation than, say, white-working class youths targeted by far-right propaganda. It is a myth to suggest that young Muslims are more likely to carry out acts of violence because they have been exposed to Al-Qaida propaganda. Often enough, it could be argued that the complete opposite that takes place: the exposure to propaganda is more likely to drive them further away.

Interestingly, the latest survey conducted by Communities and Local Government states that 80% of Muslim respondents believe that the use of violence is “always wrong” when making a political protest. Compare this to the Hindu respondents, of whom only 76% hold that same view, in other words, a higher proportion of Hindus believe that violence is acceptable “sometimes” or “at all times” than is the case with Muslims. By its own absurd logic, should the government and police not have been targeting the Hindu community under Prevent too?

The conclusion of the survey must be repeated: Muslims are no more likely of adopting violence or justifying terrorism than other communities (Hindus or others) are, and to somehow suggest that this is the case is not only evidentially flawed, but also, to put it bluntly, discriminatory and racist.

For anyone who argues that Muslims are a threat to UK national security and therefore need to be robustly challenged and be subjected to draconian programmes such as Prevent, I would say to them: have a look at the figures from the 2009 Terrorism report produced by Europol, which sets the record straight about the range of threats that not only Britain but the entire European Union faces. I assure you, Islamist terrorism does not even compare to the other, mostly nationalistic, ‘variants’.

Saying that, the general public cannot be blamed entirely for believing that the threat from “Muslims” or “Islamic terrorists” is higher than from other religious or political groups. After all, the media have been unabashedly and irresponsibly “reporting” on Islamic terrorism and Muslims before the dust of the World Trade Centre had even settled. It is thus hardly surprising that anti-Muslim crimes are on the rise and people are so quick to justify draconian anti-terror measures and policies against the Muslim community at large. The government claims its own policy is infomed not by media speculation but by “intelligence”. It seems that the intelligence which has been leading the Prevent programme is coming from the same ‘Scooby-Doo school of intelligence’ that gave us, to name a few choice examples, the 45 minute WMD claim, the report that a house in London was producing Ricin (it wasn’t) and about the alleged manufacturing of a ‘chemical weapon’ in Forest Gate (that never existed). Using the “intelligence tells us” pretext is hardly an intelligent move and is thus unlikely to gain any sympathy from those who are at the receiving end of those policies and actions that are based solely on it.

Despite the insistence of the government and the security-apparatus, Prevent was introduced solely as a Muslim-policy and has been focused on trying to utilise any avenue to acquire information and community intelligence on the Muslim community. The direct interventions that have taken place, which have sometimes affected non-Muslims too, have merely been token gestures rather than genuine attempts at preventing violent extremism.

Furthermore, the request for the disclosure of the number of Prevent interventions, broken down by religion and ethnicity, under the Freedom of Information Act have all been refused by every police force in England and Wales; fuelling the belief that interventions under Prevent are disproportionately targeting Muslims, hence the staunch resistance to making the information public. The recent case of ANPR cameras being installed in two predominantly Muslim areas of Birmingham under the pretext of combating drug-dealing and anti-social behaviour, is just one more example of the constant disproportionate attention that Muslims continue to receive under the Prevent banner.

Trust, transparency and honesty are three notions that should be at the forefront of trying to combat every threat, including the very small threat that issues from those who believe in using violence out of religous convictions. Sadly, though, it seems that the implementers of the Prevent programme had opted to put these principles aside and, instead, allowed ignorance and incompetence, coupled with pathetic attempts at “intelligence gathering”, to dictate matters.

The official verdict in 2011 is thus being eagerly awaited, and will undoubtedly be the final nail in the Prevent coffin. Once the programme has been rightly scrapped, the Muslim community can begin to think about how to “un-securitise” itself. In the meantime, the new government and the police should start to think seriously about how they intend to rebuild trust and transparency with the Muslim community, a trust that is currently at its lowest ever level. Whether they will have the vision and political will to act, is something only time will show.

Rizwaan Sabir is a human rights activist and doctoral researcher at the University of Strathclyde. He is researching the role of Islam in British and Scottish government policy, with a special focus on counter-terrorism. In May 2008 he was detained for six days as a suspected member of al-Qaida for being in possession of primary research literature. He was released without charge. His column on counter-terrorism and security appears every other Friday.

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Steven Harkins
Sep 3, 2010 16:02

This is a really good article and an excellent critique of the Prevent programme. Good to see this legislation going the way of ID cards.

Tom
Sep 4, 2010 2:14

People need to start demanding a proper investigation into the 7/7 attacks. There is copious evidence that individuals high up in Britain´s intelligence services and the services of other countries had, at the very least, prior knowledge that an attack was planned.

Peter Power, head of Visor Consultants, a company specialising in ´crisis and emergency management strategy´ said in two seperate interviews, on ITV news and BBC Radio, on the day of and the day after the attacks, that he had been hired to plan a scenario which envisaged simultaneous bombings at the exact underground stations that were bombed at the exact time they were bombed. Impossible without prior knowledge.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKvkhe3rqtc

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sEbUQiYOGjU&feature=related

Add that to the reports that Benjamin Netanyahu received a warning which was strong enough to convince him not to attend a conference in the city that morning and there is strong evidence that someone with considerable clout knew the bombings were going to take place.

We need a proper investigation.

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