. The latest Prevent Review is a political charade, we must boycott it | Ceasefire Magazine

The latest Prevent Review is a political charade, we must boycott it Analysis

The UK government’s latest review of its Prevent strategy is not only a political facade but a trojan horse to expand the programme. We must be united in our call for disengagement from it, and to demand nothing less than Prevent’s abolishment, argues Na’eem Ibn Farooq.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Wednesday, February 17, 2021 13:59 - 0 Comments


UK communities targeted by the Government’s Prevent counter-terrorism strategy have expressed dismay at its latest proposed ‘review’. It is not hard to see why. This ‘review’ is an expensive and wasteful exercise, a piece of political theatre. Indeed, previous ‘reviews’ and revisions have been little more than vehicles for bolstering Prevent’s arsenal of tactics, thus serving to extend and deepen the policy’s reach and harm.

Since 2006, when it was first promoted as a deradicalisation ‘fund’, the Prevent strategy has undergone several mutations, all consistently aimed at criminalising Muslims and disrupting dissent. Rather than genuinely keeping us safe, Prevent’s core function is to effectively protect the interests of a small political elite, and to uphold an ideology of neo-imperialism. This core function saw Prevent becoming a statutory duty under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act of 2015.

As a result, all public sector workers, including teachers and doctors, are now legally obliged to report any signs of ‘vulnerability’ or ‘extremism’ in others, under the false banner of ‘safeguarding’ them. Seeing through this facade, many public sector workers have vocalised their astonishment at being forced to implement a discriminatory policy that is eroding the trust of people under their care.

With ever greater segments of society being targeted, it is unsurprising that such criticisms, and now resistance, to Prevent have grown substantially over the years. Muslims, who initially experienced its harms, were the first to warn of its danger to society at large. Other groups soon followed suit, with much of the resistance centred on Prevent’s censorship of dissent and alternative ideas.

As the popularity of UKIP surged over the course of the past decade, the Conservative Party shifted to the right, leaning on traditionalism, racism, and nationalism to hold onto power. Sadly, these notions have been infused into the rhetoric of ‘British values’, a highly politicised term against which ‘extremism’ is now judged. Beyond its utility as a tool to shut down dissent, the concept of ‘British Values’ has served as a galvanising narrative — harking back to ‘Old Empire’ and ‘Old Britain’ — which ostracizes ‘otherness’ and distracts from the root causes of grievances raised by citizens.

Internal critiques: Furthering Prevent

Since its inception, Prevent has encountered both internal and external critiques. Internally, certain Prevent and Channel practitioners believe its scope and implementation “require improvement”. However, considering such internal ‘critics’ invariably profit from the counter-extremism industry and thus rely on its continuation, it is not surprising that their ‘critiques’ only go one way: towards bolstering Prevent.

Take the example of one such internal ‘critique’, which is that Prevent wrongly focuses on “softer threats (i.e. young people), rather than the more concerning “hardened” threats (i.e. mature adults). Another critique questions the ‘voluntary’ nature of the Channel programme, arguing that those who need Channel support the most, can, and sometimes do, reject its ‘help’.

Both of these supposed ‘critiques’ – likely to receive prominent attention in any ‘review’ – lead to the same conclusion: that Prevent and Channel need to be extended and toughened up, in line with the mantra of “muscular liberalism” that drives them. The first critique suggests a greater targeting of adults whilst the latter implies engagement with Channel should no longer be voluntary but compulsory.

The use of such ‘reviews’ to extend Prevent is not unprecedented. The ‘independent’ Lord Carlile-led review published in 2011 found the existing Prevent strategy to be “flawed”. Subsequent strategy updates were pivotal in morphing Prevent’s mission from ‘promoting multiculturalism’ to furthering ‘muscular liberalism’, a development which has been damaging for all of us. One way this shift was achieved has been through widening counter-extremism’s security frame with the introduction of vague terms such as ‘extremism’ and ‘British values’, and the reframing of others, such as ‘safeguarding’. 

Over the years, far-right extremism and other ideologies and movements of discontent or protest have also been incorporated into Prevent’s security frame. This has been used to counteract accusations that Prevent was discriminatory against Muslims, and to co-opt unwitting support within their communities.

Another damaging aspect of Prevent is its adoption and adaptation of COINTELPRO tactics. With the shadowy assistance of the Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), more Muslims were brought in to ‘implement’ Prevent and complementary programmes within their communities. This was after a House of Commons review labelled Prevent as “toxic” and called for its re-branding and the recruitment of more Muslims in efforts to combat ‘Islamist extremism’ — the logic being that Muslims are more equipped with the theological knowledge and cultural background to counter arguments presented by such ‘Islamist extremists’. This directly echoed RICU’s claims that the most “credible” “conduits” to “de-radicalise future terrorists” were family members, friends, community figures, religious figures, political figures, professionals and celebrities.

Most Muslims who lent their public credibility and profile to Prevent, largely did so in the belief they were doing their bit to address ‘extremism’ in their communities. They did this without understanding the full impact of the policy and its far-reaching harm against fellow Muslims who fell short of the programme’s paradigmatic requirements. Consequently, this has had the effect of dividing communities and severing long-established and beneficial bonds of public trust in organisations and government. This also saw the rise of “infrastructures of embedded surveillance”. These developments laid the groundwork for a new method of dominance: that of feigned “care” and “partnerships of mutual benefit”.

In short, internal ‘critiques’ have been used during various ‘reviews’ and revisions to entrench Prevent even further into communities, laying the groundwork for the wholescale deployment of the programme into the public sector, including education and healthcare.

External critiques: A veneer of diversity

External and independent critiques of Prevent, coming from groups outside of government, have been selectively and very mildly tolerated, and have been used to offer a veneer of ‘diversity’ and ‘robust discourse’ to various reviews.

Meanwhile, the core criticism against the strategy, namely that the entire Prevent programme, from root to branch, is discriminatory and deeply damaging, is always side-stepped. Suggestions that Prevent should be abolished in favour of deeper structural change that builds genuine trust and public security are ignored. 

This is despite the many testimonies from those most negatively impacted by Prevent. Take the example of the Muslim teenager who was interrogated by staff and referred to Prevent after uttering the word “eco-terrorism” during a class discussion, or the child referred for mis-pronouncing “cucumber” as “cooker bomb”, or the child referred for discussing the popular video-game Fortnite. The list goes on.

Hold these up against the case of Ahmed Hassan, who was referred to Prevent and the de-radicalisation Channel programme but no action was taken, and who later attempted to blow up Parsons Green station. When comparing these sets of cases, it is evident Prevent and Channel are ineffective as tools for predicting political violence, and have no predictive validity as recognised by the academics who led the study on extremism risk factors used to determine vulnerability in the context of Prevent.

Such indifference to evidence is unsurprising, given that it is well established that one of the core functions of Prevent is to gather intelligence. Nor does it seem to matter to the government that numerous UN Special Rapporteurs have labelled Prevent as “inherently flawed”, with one 2017 UN report stating that Prevent’s vague and broad guidelines gave the authorities “excessive discretion” resulting in “unpredictable and potentially arbitrary” application.

Within further education, the National Union of Students (NUS) has called for a boycott of the programme and its abolition due to its inhibition of speech, thought and belief in young people. One survey found that one in three participants disengaged from political debates altogether due to a fear of being reported to Prevent, while more than two in five students felt unable to express their views freely as a result of the programme.

This was especially felt by Muslim students, many of whom reported being negatively impacted by Prevent during their time at university, leading to “increased feelings of discrimination and alienation”. Such feelings are deeply counter-productive to building trust, intellectual development, social integration and pluralism within society.

Health professionals have raised similar concerns over Prevent damaging carer-patient relationships, as well as toxifying workplace environments, with Human rights groups warning the strategy “fosters a culture of self-censorship”. Numerous academics have also joined the chorus against Prevent, contesting the strategy’s rationales, and arguing that it marginalises parts of society and has a “chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent”.

To date, ‘reviews’ and revisions have ignored these arguments and observations as well as sidestepped deeper questions about Prevent’s true purpose. Instead, they have helped deepen the insidious entrenchment of a policy that is increasingly unwelcome in Britain. 

Why we must boycott the review

Several independent voices have admirably called out Prevent for what it is: “a framework focused overwhelmingly on surveillance, censorship and ‘strategic communications’”. In other words, a façade whose core purpose is the maintenance of a select elite’s powerbase.

While external critics are acutely aware of Prevent’s inherently discriminatory basis and its long term damage to British society, it took the appointment of Shawcross for many to unite in a boycott of the review. However, many have yet to cultivate the required degree of scepticism with regards to the theatrical nature of all Prevent ‘reviews’, not just those led by Carlile or Shawcross, and thus do not appreciate the danger that endorsing any such spectacle poses.

To make a boycott of the review a reality, justified outrage at Shawcross’s appointment must focus on the fact this review is an attempt to bolster a dying but nonetheless aggressive ideology of the ‘old Britain’. Critics must strive to convince the public that a vision of ‘current Britain’ or ‘new Britain’ is not only better, but that it can more than adequately hold its own, with no need for Prevent or counter-extremism. To achieve this, we must be united in our uncompromising call for disengagement from this ‘review’ charade, and to demand nothing less than Prevent’s abolishment.

Na'eem Ibn Farooq is a researcher at Prevent Watch.

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