There was an disturbing editorial in The Times newspaper last week coinciding with the publication of the report by the select committee for Women and Equalities, which found that the government’s Prevent programme was compounding inequalities experienced by Muslims through its failure to separate integration policy from counter-extremism policy and thereby further entrenching notions of British Muslims as a ‘suspect community’.
In its report, the select committee noted: “Some of the most significant concerns we heard during this inquiry were about Government initiatives on integration being linked to counter-extremism. The Prevent strategy was cited as a significant source of tension.”
It recommended the Government “work to rebuild trust with Muslim communities by adopting an approach to integration which focuses on how it improves the life chances of disadvantaged communities rather than through the lens of counter-extremism.
“The Government must set out how it will address the challenge and work to achieve equality for British Muslims. This aim is distinct and should be separated from the Government’s work to challenge extremism.”
The Times editorial, which follows on from a news report in last Thursday’s paper about the select committee report, highlights the criticisms of the counter-extremism strategy and Prevent in particular but argues the problems with policy delivery “is not indicative of a fundamental problem with the strategy.”
The editorial goes on to list “three clear reasons to stick with Prevent.”
Firstly, the paper appears to affirm the “conveyor belt” theory of radicalisation claiming “by the time young extremists are dangerous enough to become known to police through ordinary channels of reporting, it is often too late to reverse the process of radicalisation. Teachers, by contrast can pick up on classroom comments and confrontations that suggest a pupil is being sucked into the vortex of fundamentalism.”
Forget that a high incidence of referrals to the Government’s intervention programme, Channel, come from the education sector and that published figures reveal that 80% of those pupils identified for referral do not end up requiring a form of intervention, the paper seems quite content to sacrifice the four fifths of people who are wrongly referred and on whom the impact of being singled out is rarely considered.
The second reason offered is that Prevent is intended to “stop further terrorist attacks on British soil.”
Here, the paper appears to confuse the ‘Pursue’ strand of the counter-extremism strategy with Prevent. Indeed, it admits as much by referring to the work of the “police and security services” in pursuing those intent on committing terrorist attacks on the UK mainland.
Moreover, the paper reinforces the particular criticism levelled at the Prevent strategy by committee chair, Maria Miller, by offering the Lee Rigby murder as an example of a terrorist attack in the UK since 7/7. If there was any doubt that Prevent is seen as targeting Muslims alone, it is evident here where the editorial omits potential terrorist attacks in the UK including former solider Ryan McGee, who built a nail bomb and vowed “to drag every last immigrant into the fires of hell with me” and Ian Forman, who sought to blow up two mosques in Merseyside labelling them ‘target 1’ and ‘target 2’, and not to forget the Ukrainian far right extremist, Pavlo Lapshyn, who planted three bombs at different locations in the West Midlands, one of which would have caused considerable damage had the Friday prayers not been moved by an hour to accommodate daylight saving, and who murdered Mohammed Saleem in Birmingham because he wanted to “spark a race war.”
The third reason offered by The Times is the argument that others are following the UK’s lead in rolling out Prevent-style programmes.
That bad ideas travel is not disputed but it is hardly a mark of ‘success’ to find bad policies replicated elsewhere. In the US, the Countering Violent Extremism programme has garnered much the same criticisms as Prevent in the UK; that it engenders racial profiling of Muslims and interferes with their free exercise of fundamental human rights.
The Times claims the problem of Prevent has been a “failure of public relations” and yet this is precisely the sort of superficial evaluation of the programme that infuriates human rights agencies and Muslim communities.
The Times would have us believe “The suggestion that Prevent involves an encroachment on anyone’s civil liberties is, therefore, plainly wrong.”
It goes on, “So is the claim that it stifles free speech.”
None of this coheres with empirical evidence about the impact, perceived and real, experienced by Muslim communities and the observations of the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, who argued in his UK country report: “The spectre of Big Brother is so large, in fact, that I was informed that some families are afraid of discussing the negative effects of terrorism in their own homes, fearing their children would talk about it at school and have their intentions misconstrued.
“By dividing, stigmatising and alienating segments of the population, Prevent could end up promoting extremism, rather than countering it.”
The Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, Nils Muiznieks repeated many of the same concerns as the UN rapporteur arguing that Prevent was “isolating” Muslim communities.
The Times editorial posits the notion that the failure of Prevent is a “break down in trust”.
This is a false rendering of the fundamental problems inherent in Prevent. It is an approach that has no basis in empirical evidence and which relies upon the co-option of Muslim actors into state structures whilst masquerading as “independent civil society” actors.
For too long, Muslims have put up with the suggestion that Prevent merely needs better marketing.
In the words of the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, the policy requires a full and thorough independent review not a rebranding exercise.