The government's Prevent strategy is failing: based on flawed studies, rather than tackling radicalisation it entrenches the idea that Islam is a 'danger' to British society, alienating Muslims and fracturing communities. At the root of this is a neoliberal conception of 'normality' which is individualistic, de-politicised and rigidly secular.
The last decade has witnessed a dramatic shift in the way political, media and social discourses position the Muslim community in British society. Muslims have moved from being positively embraced as law abiding and peaceful, to being perceived as an existential threat to Western societies since the Rushdie affair and, even more so, 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings. Muslims in Britain today face added layers of discrimination for being not just a minority, but a minority considered at risk of radicalisation. (1)
The securitisation process established in the aftermath of the 7/7 attack in 2005 created a counter-terror agenda that has not only significantly restricted the civil rights and liberties of British Muslims, but has also reframed interfaith and interracial relations. Societal debates, fuelled by the highly negative depiction of Muslims in the media, have further contributed to creating fractures between different communities. (2) Enabling factors such as the refugee crisis, the volatility of the Middle East, and terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda and, later on, ISIS, have reinforced this process, contributing to the standardisation of extraordinary counter-terror measures that have a significantly negative impact on the Muslim community. (3) The Prevent programme is at the heart of these counter-terror measures. This article examines Prevent in order to show that it discriminates against Muslims, fails to achieve results, reduces community cohesion, and contributes to a process of enforcing neoliberal norms, rather than upholding British values.
The Statutory Prevent Duty's limitations
The Prevent programme was introduced in 2003 as part of CONTEST, Britain's counter-terror strategy, and revamped in 2011 as a consequence of the change in government and a shift towards tackling non-violent extremism as part of the broader war on terror agenda. The 2011 Prevent strategy introduced an ambitious, yet vague, objective of responding to the ideological challenge of terrorism by preventing people from being drawn into terrorist networks and ideologies. (4) Increasingly concerned with the dangers of home-grown terrorism, British policy-makers posited the idea that preventing radicalisation was as important as pre-empting terrorist attacks and, while plenty of provisions were in place to forestall acts of violent extremism, very little had been done until that point to tackle non-violent extremism. (5)
While the idea of tackling radicalisation has merits, Prevent has failed to operate within a non-discriminatory framework. It has failed to move beyond the framework of the Structured Risk Guidance (SRG) and Extremism Risk Guidance 22+ (ERG 22+), the studies underpinning the entire strategy, which almost exclusively focus on Islamist terrorism. (6) Rather than tackling radicalisation, Prevent has normalised Islamophobia, targeting Muslims, often without evidence of criminal activity, and institutionalising a misconstrued image of Islam, alleging that the divergence between Islamic and 'British' values signals extremism. (7)
Prevent starts from the assumption that radicalisation is a linear process (an assumption for which there is little evidence), (8) and that it is possible to identify someone on a trajectory towards acts of terror and target intervention at that person through processes of de-radicalisation via the Channel Programme. The programme is discriminatory: of the 7,361 individuals referred to Prevent in 2015/16, 4,997 were referred for 'Islamist extremism', but only 5 per cent went on to receive Channel support for de-radicalisation--meaning that the remaining 95 per cent were eventually not considered to be at risk of radicalisation. (9) In 2016/17, of the 6,093 individuals referred, 3,704 (61 per cent) were again referred for Islamist extremism, but only 184 (4.9 per cent) went on to receive Channel support. (10) Thousands of Muslims are inappropriately targeted by the programme each year.
In July 2015, Section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 made Prevent a statutory duty, compelling specified authorities to have 'due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism'. (11) The new provision, which represents a significant extension of the initial Prevent strand of the CONTEST strategy, effectively relies on public bodies such as schools, universities, hospitals, and councils, to identify individuals considered at risk of radicalisation and to refer them to authorities to initiate a process of de-radicalisation.
The Prevent duty has received broad criticism for lacking empirical evidence in support of the ERG 22+, which was never validated by the normal process of independent peer review and scientific scrutiny due to its national security status. (12) As a result, in September 2016, over 140 experts and academics criticised Prevent in an open letter to the Government, in which they wrote:
We are concerned with the implementation of 'radicalisation' policies within the UK Prevent strategy, internationally referred to as countering violence extremism. Tools that purport to have a psychology evidence base are being developed and placed under statutory duty while their 'science' has not been subjected to proper scientific scrutiny or public critique. (13) The Statutory Prevent Duty has brought into light all the limitations of the government's counter-terrorism strategies, as well as the inherent difficulties in understanding and tackling terrorism within the pre-criminal legal space in place today. It has added a bottom-up element to the traditional top-down securitisation process, effectively coercing public sector workers into a counter-intelligence role, turning public places into places of scrutiny, and squashing, from above (government) and below (society), minorities considered at risk of radicalisation. The adoption of a legal system based on pre-crime has created a nation of potential suspects, and the Statutory Prevent Duty has created a nation of potential police officers, with dire consequences for community cohesion. (14)
The government's counter-terrorism strategy relies on one fundamental foundation: a perceived ideological clash between Muslims and non-Muslims. This has resulted in the creation of structures aimed at containing Muslim political agency. By 'Muslim political agency I mean, as Qurashi puts it, an 'engagement with politics that is based on an Islamic discourse, symbolism and practice'. (15) Because over the past two decades extremism and terrorism have been strictly associated with Islam in the public discourse, public sector workers are being trained by the government to control and discipline Muslims who articulate their identities on the basis of their faith. This constitutes a shift from preventing crimes to policing beliefs, thoughts and practices. (16)
This trend is further evidenced by the difficulty in defining what extremism is. In the 2011 revised Prevent strategy, the Government has described it as the 'vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs'. (17) This vague definition, however, provides space for highly subjective interpretations of what British values actually are, while 'othering' those perceived by the public as being 'un-British'. Since the values listed in the 20ii Prevent strategy are in fact universal values, or at the very least values with a much wider reach than simply Britain, and thus are not an indicator of an individual's 'Britishness', public sector workers with limited expertise in the field of counter-terrorism are forced, consciously or subconsciously...