. PREVENT's cheerleaders fear intellectual scrutiny, for good reason | Ceasefire Magazine

PREVENT’s cheerleaders fear intellectual scrutiny, for good reason Analysis

Attempts to demonise serious intellectual critiques of the UK Government's counter-extremism programme are not just vacuous but dangerous, argues Dr Layla Aitlhadj.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, October 9, 2020 8:51 - 0 Comments


Snapshot of a police poster in Newcastle (Credit: David Byrne, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

That gifted children often attract the attention of school bullies is common knowledge and well-documented in academic research. This behaviour, however, is not confined to the school playground. Whether due to envy of another’s success or viewing someone as a threat due to their intelligence, bullying takes place at work and in other areas of life too.

Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that the “intellectual” voices challenging PREVENT, the UK Government’s counter-extremism framework, are now being targeted by the extremism commission and the pro-Prevent lobby. Recently, in an address to the Home Affairs Select Committee, Sara Khan, the Head of the Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE), announced that extremists were “intellectualising their hate”.

Though the ability of the CCE to invent new “threats” is a source of constant intrigue to those of us working for positive change and a world beyond PREVENT, this targeting of “intellectual” opposition is not an entirely new approach by the CCE.

“Intellectualising” is a broad term, like others the CCE has used

In 2018, the CCE pronounced that “the tactics of extremists are changing. This includes a new-found professionalism, an intellectualising of hate and the misuse of human rights language”.

Indeed, if one were to abstract this further, one could conclude that association fallacy and name-calling are not new in the realm of CCE power play either, and the list of damning labels just seems to keep growing.

Those who have voiced criticisms of Prevent have been called “extremists”, “Islamists”, “Salafi-Islamists” and even “terrorist sympathisers” in an effort to discredit any critique of what is a failing and toxic programme that has criminalised and marginalised many — not least students and scholars. But though we may scoff at them, these labels are problematic because they obscure and deflect legitimate criticism.

Consider the term “extremist”. The word has no stable meaning that can be legally applied to individuals. Rather, bias and imagination caricaturise its meaning through associations with terrorism. Yet, the vast majority of PREVENT critics are not shouting from the rooftops, inciting hatred or standing at the precipice of political violence. Rather, critics of the policy include academics and professors, professional unions and schools. Concrete examples include the Royal College of Psychiatry, Women’s Aid, and even several special UN rapporteurs.

The arguments advanced by these people and organisations, one can assume, are also “intellectual” in nature, not only due to their academic standing, research experience and societal value, but also simply as a reflection of the lack of intellectuality and reason that pervades PREVENT itself — in its public discourse, as well as the inner workings and false logic of the policy.

When Prevent is put under any kind of scrutiny it simply does not hold up to argument, and nor, for that matter, does much of the costly and voluminous “counter extremism” sector.

“Professionalising hate”, then, seems to stand in for those critics who are professionals. “Intellectualising hate” seems to apply to people who simply use facts and arguments to which the pro-Prevent, counter-extremism lobby has failed to adequately respond.

Leveraging a pandemic to increase funding

The lockdown has been difficult for everybody. Many have lost their jobs or are clinging onto what they have, making the best of what is a troubling and evolving “new normal”.

This approach to survival seems to have reached overdrive in the PREVENT industry. As the nation struggles to bounce back from the economic pains of the initial Covid-19 shock, those in the business of “counter-extremism” are doing their utmost to prove their worth to their parastatal funders.

Their feelings of redundancy are understandable; during the lockdown there was nothing to latch onto to conjure the old neo-conservative narratives of an “increase in extremism” or a “terrorism threat”, and the media lens swung to much more pressing priorities.  

The lack of evidence linking these two pre-criminal notions seemed suddenly very glaring (to those ordinary people paying attention to the CCE, that is). In a swift manoeuvre to cover this light in the path, the National Coordinator of Prevent gave a sudden bark from the shadows.

Stating that a decline in Prevent referrals did not mean there were no vulnerable people who needed support from Prevent, he delivered to the “counter extremism” sector a more heavy-handed concern: that the lack of referrals meant PREVENT did not have access to these people due to the “lockdown”.

It was a chilling pronouncement that sought to accentuate an assumption that has become all too banal: that the innocent are suspects by default.

But this supposed lack of PREVENT access to people is not a true reflection of the reality either, as many of our clients found. Several clients informed PREVENT Watch that they had been contacted in person and approached face-to-face by PREVENT officers, despite the “lockdown”. This is hardly the first time Prevent has operated in a way that seems above the law.

The problem with conjuring threats based on ‘anecdotal evidence’

In order to survive and flourish, the “counter extremism” sector needs to talk up threats. This, many have come to understand and, rightly so, to question. 

Assistant Commissioner in the Specialist Operations of the Metropolitan Police Service, Anil Kanti “Neil” Basu, in what appears a coordinated move with Sara Khan, announced that during a pandemic, these “threats” were “real”.

To back up this remarkable yet frequently repeated statement, Basu cited “anecdotal evidence”, which, he claims, “suggested” there were more youngsters to fear nowadays. Due to lockdown, he said, these young people were becoming “extreme” while locked away. There was, apparently, increased talk of violence. All anecdotally, of course.

Anecdotal evidence generally relates to personal accounts. However, here Basu has related his personal account of purported cases which, he claims, demonstrate an alleged increase in “extremism”. But where is the evidence to support these statements? Where are the actual, verified, cross-examined cases that would demonstrate this supposed “increased talk of violence”?

When I asked the National Coordinator of Prevent, Nik Adams, in 2018 at The National Security Summit to produce this “anecdotal evidence” in support of PREVENT, the response was that “understandably it is hard to get these people to come forward because they feel vulnerable and are frightened”. When I tried to follow up, I was quickly shut down as the Chair, Sir Paul Stephenson, moved on when he realised who I was.

I couldn’t help thinking of how these people could feel frightened despite having the UK government behind them, yet it was obviously impossible for the PREVENT purveyors to imagine how our clients — with nobody behind them but small community-funded organisations — would feel.

But here is the fundamental difference: As a caseworker, I am a firm believer in citing the accounts of our clients when necessary. We do so because the PREVENT lobby and policy is constructed to protect itself within an environment of non-transparency that has made gathering case studies important to show the human cost of the policy. Gaining any hard data is very difficult, and criticism or challenge results in being labelled an “extremist”. Thus, it is a self-reinforcing policy, with little transparency or humanness.

As an example of how PREVENT works hand-in-hand with police to create a wall of protection for both sectors, one of our clients has spent 5 years fighting to remove their child’s data from the Met police database following a “misinformed” PREVENT referral and has only now won their case. The Judge in the case conceded that the impact of the PREVENT interference had been underestimated.

The hard facts and testimonies of this case are available for legal procurement and assessment — and indeed were used in court. In other words, Prevent Watch cases are open to scrutiny, both legal and academic, and we call on “professional”, “intellectual” academics to scrutinise these testimonials.

The same cannot be said of Basu’s alleged “anecdotal evidence”. There is the very real possibility that PREVENT’s “anecdotal evidence”, which has so far not been reliably cross-checked with statistics and objective academic research, is being used to buffer policy decisions and justify terrifying incursions into impacted communities. Considering this profound societal and legal impact, the “anecdotal evidence” simply must be cross-checked and interrogated.

There is also the question of the PREVENT lobby’s double standards. When the government’s review of PREVENT was announced by Ben Wallace, he demanded that critics show “solid evidence” or shut up. Surely this level of interrogation of evidence should also be demanded of PREVENT’s cheerleaders, such as Basu?

Unfortunately, there is a very slim chance of this happening, as those of “intellect” well know — which is why much of the PREVENT “review” so far appears to be set to be a gathering of great taxpayer expense and not much promise.

Is PREVENT making “intellectuality” criminal?

As those who have experienced bullying understand, perpetrators of false associations about them, and those who seek to dismiss their reasonable arguments from a position of political domination, are afraid of them because intellect, sooner or later, always trumps brute force.

As such, those who oppose or seek to rigorously challenge PREVENT must continue to add intellectual weight to the evidence gathered by organisations such as ours, and to do so through a variety of different methods of research and interview — anecdotal or otherwise — so that we stay ahead of the game. Documentation, cross-checking with statistics, and verification are key.

We should not be afraid to present our arguments. It does not take much effort, and should be done with courage and clarity, simply because the arguments put forward in favour of PREVENT are lacklustre and often easy to diffuse with the evidence we have. 

This is not only the job of those coming from “intellectual” positions, however. It is also the job of those who experience the brunt of PREVENT unjustly — the two voices must work hand-in-hand, and with vigour, for PREVENT’s attempts to corner both are a troubling sign of things to come.

Campaigning for Vote Leave in 2016, Michael Gove reflected the post-truth Trump era when he casually remarked that “Britain had enough of experts”. The Brexit intellectual quagmire Britain was thrust into persists to this day. When evidence-based arguments and academic research are cast in a criminal light, then the people of Britain must stop and consider where exactly the priorities of the “counter extremists” lie — and whether, as citizens, they want a country of bullies, or a country of brains.

Layla Aitlhadj

Layla Aitlhadj is the Director of Prevent Watch, a UK based NGO that supports people impacted by the Prevent duty.

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