It is fifteen years now since the then Labour government set up the Prevent programme back in 2003 as one of the four key strands of its overall CONTEST strategy (Pursue, Prevent, Protect and Prepare) to try and reduce the threat of terrorism, yet it continues to remain highly controversial especially amongst UK Muslims.
Over the years there have been a number of widely publicised questionable referrals made to Prevent which have served to increase suspicions about its purpose. That sort of publicity understandably damages the standing of Prevent and contributes to increasing fears amongst other Muslims about how they and their children too might perhaps be suspected of being extremists by over-zealous officials.
It would be a mistake, however, to allow unfortunate referrals to overshadow the necessity of the Prevent programme in the first place. Mistakes are bound to occur. In ordinary police work not every line of inquiry for a suspected crime leads to an arrest. Not every arrest leads to a criminal charge. Not every charge leads to a conviction. And not every conviction is safe. We are all human beings and human beings are fallible.
So, as Will Baldet, co-ordinator, Prevent Leicester, comments in a video about Prevent: “If inappropriate referrals are being made then I would want the training to be improved. What I don’t think is appropriate is that you abandon a strategy because somebody in the strategy has made a mistake. What you do is hone and refine the strategy.”
Back in 2010, I met with the then head of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, Charles Farr. Farr argued that the government had – quite rightly – set up anti-knife, anti-gun and anti-drug programmes to try and dissuade young people from getting involved in activities that might harm themselves and harm others. He said it would be untenable, therefore, if the government did not also have a programme to dissuade people from getting involved in terrorist activities. The government, regardless of its political complexion, has a primary duty of protecting its citizens and Prevent needs to be viewed in that light.
Earlier this week, the Home Office released figures for the year ending March 2017 which showed that suspected far-right extremists constituted 16% percent of those who had been referred to the Prevent anti-radicalisation programme. This was an increase of a quarter over the previous year’s figures. As we discovered earlier this year at the trial of Darren Osborne – the man who attacked worshippers outside Finsbury Park Mosque – he had, according to the judge, been “rapidly radicalised over the internet by those determined to spread hatred of Muslims…Your use of Twitter exposed you to racists and anti-Islamic ideology…In short, you allowed your mind to be poisoned by those who claimed to be leaders.”
In his parting speech in February 2018, Mark Rowley, the former head of counter-terrorism policing, warned “against the rise of the far right as he revealed that four extremist rightwing plots had been thwarted in 2017.”
Would we not want to see attempts made to engage with others like Osborne, whether they are suspected far-right activists or Muslims or whoever else, well before they get to the stage of actually carrying out terrorist attacks? That is the purpose of Prevent.
Roshan Salih, the editor of the 5 Pillarz website refers to Prevent as constituting “state Islamophobia” in the video I have linked to above. That criticism seems rather overdone and unhelpful. Let’s be frank about what a referral to Prevent actually means. It means that your case – if it is deemed to be a cause for concern – will be assessed by a panel which will include local police officials and local authority figures and they will discuss whether your case may benefit from intervention in the form of mentoring etc that might perhaps be useful to you. It is hardly waterboarding, right?
It is true that some of the Muslims associated with promoting the Prevent agenda are viewed with concern by the wider UK Muslim community as not being sufficiently independent. Certainly their lionising by journalists such as Nick Cohen, John Ware and Andrew Gilligan – who are not viewed as being exactly friendly to UK Muslims – continues to damage the Prevent brand. At the same time the reluctance of the government to engage with organisations that by all accounts do genuinely have significant support amongst UK Muslims, such as the Muslim Council of Britain and MEND, adds to the impression that the government is only willing to talk with Muslims that are sufficiently deferential and pliable.
And yet…the safety of the UK and our fellow citizens should be a concern for all of us. We should not refrain from co-operating with those tasked with maintaining our security. At the same time, it is absolutely right to raise any concerns we have about how Prevent is operating. And the government and authorities should be seen to be engaging with those concerns seriously with a view to improving the effectiveness of the Prevent strategy.