The UK’s Prevent strategy: A success or failure?
Prevent, the UK’s counter-radicalisation strategy, has received significant criticism since it was first established in 2003.
A controversial strategy
Earlier in 2021, an 11-year-old British Muslim boy was referred to the British government’s counter-radicalisation programme, known as Prevent. During a classroom discussion about money, the boy said he would give ‘alms to the oppressed’, which the teacher misheard as ‘arms to the oppressed’. The teacher subsequently referred the boy over concerns of radicalisation.
This case, alongside many others, has caused considerable controversy and raised questions around the efficacy of the counter-radicalisation programme. While Prevent has successfully identified and tackled early signs of extremism, criticisms of Prevent include accusations of institutionalised Islamophobia and the ‘chilling effect’ it has created in schools. This article will outline a brief history of the strategy and assess the debates on Prevent’s success to deal with radicalisation in the UK.
The origins of Prevent
Prevent was first established in 2003 as one of the four elements of CONTEST, the British government’s counter-terrorism strategy. However, the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005, which resulted in the death of 56 civilians, and the murder of Lee Rigby, a British Army soldier in south-east London in 2013, significantly impacted the British government’s approach to radicalisation.
A new, tougher variation of Prevent was developed in 2011 by the then Home Secretary Theresa May. It sought to deal with the growing threat of terrorism in the UK which the previous strategy had failed to effectively achieve.  In its current form, Prevent requires public officials working in schools, universities, hospitals, and local councils to report on individuals showing radical tendencies.
Prevent in action
In some regards, Prevent has been a success. Since 2011, 75,000 pieces of ‘unlawful terrorist material’ have been removed from the internet, directly as a result of Prevent. Prevent also refers individuals to a de-radicalisation process (known as Channel) that uses psychologists, social workers, and religious experts to support thousands of people who are vulnerable to extremist ideas. Arguably, such examples could be seen as important, and successful, steps in preventing terrorist attacks. However, Hannah Stuart, research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, says Prevent’s successes are hard to quantify.
On top of this, there are a variety of flaws within the strategy. One such flaw of the programme is how it ‘encourages well-meaning public officials to look for a threat where it doesn’t exist’. Such statewide surveillance could be seen in 2016 when a 10-year-old Muslim boy was referred to Prevent after misspelling that he lived in a ‘terraced house’ and writing a ‘terrorist house’. Moreover, nursery school staff who threatened to refer a 4-year-old boy after he drew a picture of his father cutting a cucumber with a knife, which staff believed showed his father making a ‘cooker bomb’, is another example of Prevent’s broad-brush approach.
As the above examples, and various others, highlight, one of the central concerns with Prevent is that it unfairly targets and stigmatises Muslims. Prevent has been condemned by several groups, such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and Prevent Watch, who are concerned about the strategy’s unequal focus on Islamist extremism. These concerns were validated by Home Office figures that showed in 2016, over 65% of initial Prevent referrals were for Islamist extremism.
However, Anjum Khan, a freelance Muslim mentor working for Channel, denounces fellow Muslims who suggest they are being unfairly targeted, as “political correctness gone wrong.” Khan argues that Islamic extremism has to be closely monitored because some Muslims are “willing to die for the cause.”
While this may have some truth to it, concerns remain around how Prevent chooses to closely monitor Muslim communities. Considerable Prevent funding has been spent on areas where a proportion of the demographic are Muslim. Much of this funding is dedicated to strategies of surveillance and monitoring of Muslim communities, encouraging non-Muslim members of society to be ‘vigilant and look for signs’. Consequently, Muslims are ‘viewed through the security lense of terrorism’. Aminul Hoque, a lecturer and author on British Islamic identity at the University of London, believes that, in making Muslim communities ‘suspect’, Prevent has ultimately “widened the schism” between Brits and the Muslim ‘other’.
Implications for education
Moreover, many politicians and human rights activists have expressed worry about the impact of Prevent on the education system. Education bodies now account for a third of the total of Prevent referrals and, in 2017, more than 2,000 young children were referred to Prevent by their teachers. However, Conservative MP Lucy Allan believes that the duty of teachers to refer students to Prevent is “undermining trust between teachers and pupils.”
Moreover, the MCB believes that, at times, Prevent is resulting in the self-censorship of young, particularly Muslim, children. A teacher at a London school made up of predominantly Muslim girls usually asked her pupils to pick a weekly news story to discuss. However, following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015, nobody raised the event and when the teacher asked why, the students said “Our mothers told us, ‘Don’t talk about that – they’ll put us on a register.’” As columnist Owen Jones explains, Prevent could lead Muslim pupils to feel “they are under even more suspicion than they already are – worse, that they are being spied on.” Therefore, important discussions on topics such as extremism, religious beliefs, or conflict, could be avoided and a ‘chilling effect’ on freedom of speech may well prevail in some schools.
Prevent: a success or failure?
As a result of years of criticism and controversy, in 2019, the government announced that the Prevent strategy was due to undergo an independent review. Initially, there was hope that a review may be able to rectify some of the strategy’s major flaws. However, William Shawcross, the UK’s top counter-terrorism officer who has made anti-Muslim comments in the past, was appointed to oversee the review. In response, key human rights and Muslims groups announced their boycott of the review.
Therefore, despite best intentions, unless changes are made to Prevent, the strategy
will likely continue to be widely perceived as discriminatory. An approach to counter-radicalisation that is focused on engaging Muslims, rather than unfairly targeting them, may need to be introduced. If this does not happen, then a divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’ looks set to continue and Prevent inevitably runs the risk of complete failure.
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