UK Security Minister Ben Wallace announced on 22 January that there would be an independent review of the Prevent programme, one of the four strands of the UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST. The announcement came after the House of Lords in December 2018 added an amendment to the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill calling for an independent review of the programme.
Wallace in his statement mentioned that the review would expect “those critics of Prevent, who often use distortions and spin, to produce solid evidence of their allegations”. Yet some of Prevent’s loudest critics are already dismissing the results of the review as a foregone conclusion and using this as a chance to call for the programme to be scrapped.
Among those championing the Twitter hashtag #EndPREVENT is activist group CAGE, which has previously said that Prevent is a “sophisticated attempt at social engineering that even the old USSR would have envied”. As our Institute’s new report “Narratives of Division” shows, CAGE is part of a small but vocal minority of activist groups that often use debates about Prevent to delegitimise the government in the eyes of Muslims. Our research found that the messaging of many of these groups had worrying overlaps with that of the banned extremist movement al-Muhajiroun. Within hours of the review announcement, representatives of these groups were among those calling for nothing short of the entire “toxic” policy being scrapped.
Another such group is Hizb ut-Tahrir, which says that Prevent “in practice has been nothing more than a means to spread hysteria and irrational fear of Islam and Muslims, while attempting to intimidate the Muslim community”. Meanwhile, the Islamic Human Rights Commission has distributed literature stating Prevent “criminalises Muslims as the government sees Islam as ‘extreme’ at its core”. These groups, it appears, have little intention of constructively engaging with the government to improve the system. Rather, Prevent remains a key trope in their divisive worldview, in which Muslims and the government are in a constant state of conflict.
As our Institute’s new report “Narratives of Division” shows, CAGE is part of a small but vocal minority of activist groups that often use debates about Prevent to delegitimise the government in the eyes of Muslims”
In fact, the UK is a trailblazer in creating a comprehensive, nationwide approach to identifying and supporting those who are vulnerable to radicalisation. As a 2017 study by the Aziz Foundation found, most educators who are at the front line of the Prevent duty recognise the need for something like it and very few question the legitimacy of the duty itself.
According to the head of UK counter-terrorism policing, Neil Basu, a record 700 terrorist investigations are currently taking place, highlighting the scale of the threat still facing the UK. This review is a chance to improve a system that Britain needs and to assess whether the current strategy is fit to tackle all the threats facing the country, both Islamist and far right. Government figures show that the number of far-right referrals to Prevent rose by 28 per cent between March 2016 and March 2017.
An independent review that has broad-based engagement from front-line practitioners and affected communities has the potential to improve both how the system is perceived and how effective it is. The stories of mistaken referrals that make headlines highlight key areas of concern surrounding the policy: that it affects children, disproportionately Muslim ones, and that practitioners are often ill equipped to make the judgement calls required to make the system work.
The 2017 “Missing Muslims” report by Citizens UK found that Prevent was a consistent topic of concern for Muslim communities—and greater trust in the policy would make UK counter-extremism more effective. Increased transparency about Prevent, its successes and its failures, as a result of a well-managed review, could help foster greater buy-in and demystify the programme.
This review is a chance to make sure Prevent continues to work in safeguarding the UK’s citizens from extremism. Let’s give it a chance.