Why Opposition to Britain’s 'Toxic' Counter-Extremism Policy Is Growing

The policy known as 'Prevent' has long been the most controversial facet of the British government’s counter-terrorism strategy.

What kind of teacher accuses a four-year-old who mispronounces the word “cucumber”—a Muslim four-year-old, that is—of saying “cooker bomb"? What kind of society produces such a teacher? Welcome to 21st-century Britain, where after 10 years of the government's counter-extremism policy Prevent, paranoia and racism have become civic duties.

Introduced in the wake of the 2005 attacks on the London transport system, Prevent has long been the most controversial facet of the British government’s counter-terrorism strategy. The status of “suspect community” has been all but officially bestowed by government on Muslims: in the earliest days of Prevent, the amount of counter-extremism funding allocated to local authorities was calculated in direct proportion to the size of an area’s Muslim population.

As well as being reliant on ethno-religious profiling, Prevent is based on the dubious idea that future terrorists can be spotted and stopped long before they commit acts of violence, or even break the law, while still in the so-called “pre-criminal space." The pseudo-scientific academic theories of “radicalization” underpinning this notion are not backed up by serious empirical evidence. Nonetheless, they have been enthusiastically embraced by policy-makers, keen to focus attention on ideology since it helps to explain away key political factors contributing to terrorism, such as British foreign policy. Prime Minister David Cameron has said that combating what he calls “Islamist extremism” is the "struggle of a generation."

British police, intelligence and security agencies have long been running paid informants, spies and infiltrators in Muslim communities. But in 2015, something changed. In an attempt to quash the growing resistance to this discriminatory policy, the government passed the Counter Terrorism and Security Act, making Prevent mandatory for the first time. More importantly, because ministers believed that “there should be no ‘ungoverned spaces’ in which extremism is allowed to flourish,” it transformed public sector workers like teachers, university lecturers and doctors into, effectively, agents of the state. All are now legally obliged to “prevent people from being drawn into terrorism."

In this intense atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust cultivated from the top-down, cases like the cucumber story have emerged thick and fast. A teenager in a London school was questioned about Islamic State after using the phrase “eco-terrorism” during a debate about environmental activism in his French class. A university student enrolled on a course about global terrorism and conflict was suspected by a librarian of showing signs of radicalization for reading materials related to his course. Another downloaded reading material his whole class had been asked to analyze and ended up being interrogated by Special Branch counter-terrorism police.

Cases like this demonstrate that it is almost certainly institutionalized Islamophobia—rather than what former Prime Minister Tony Blair dubbed a “problem within Islam”—that accounts for the disproportionate amount of Muslims among soaring numbers of people referred to counter-radicalization programs since the new law.

What the British government didn’t count on was the growing opposition movement this would generate. In fact, by seeking to coerce professionals into policing those in their care, it inadvertently helped to broaden and galvanize resistance to Prevent. In March, the National Union of Teachers unanimously passed a motion calling for Prevent to be scrapped. Rejecting the government’s attempt to wrap the new duty in the language of “safeguarding the vulnerable” teachers condemned Prevent for causing “suspicion in the classroom and confusion in the staffroom”; they said it tears apart the fabric of trust vital to education and to society as a whole.

The national lecturers’ union and National Union of Students already had a policy of boycotting Prevent. At a major anti-Prevent conference in London earlier this month, NUS president-elect Malia Bouattia said that Prevent “thrives on paranoia” and must be abolished. Another long-time critic of Prevent, academic Arun Kundnani pointed out that the discourse of extremism was being used to repress dissent of all kinds, pointing to an event held by “David Cameron’s favorite think tank,” Policy Exchange, which used the terminology of "street extremism" to describe left-wing protest against cuts and tax avoidance. Prevent has also been used to shut down a theater performance and anti-fracking campaigners as well as Green Party politicians have been monitored as “extremists."

Victims of religious profiling under Prevent also spoke out, including Rahmaan Mohammadi, who was questioned by police at his school for wearing a “Free Palestine” badge. He emphasized that Prevent was being used to silence critics of Israel by classifying them as “extremists,” a claim supported by the contents of Prevent training materials leaked to advocacy group Cage which showed that caring about Palestinians had been profiled as a potential sign of extremism.

But perhaps the most significant sign that the Prevent policy is starting to unravel was the presence of Jahan Mahmood, a former Home Office adviser on counter-terrorism policy, at the conference. Once charged with helping to implement Prevent, Mahmood said he had come to realize the damage Prevent was doing and concluded “it cannot be reformed."

His words came hot on the heels of criticism from an astonishingly mainstream array of influentials. Despite flailing around in its hunt for a legally sound definition of “extremism”—which has proved elusive—the government is pressing ahead with plans for further legislation outlawing what it cannot define. In exasperation at this attitude, even the police chief in charge of Prevent, Simon Cole, has warned that it risks creating “thought police.” Other top cops like Dal Babu and Peter Fahy have branded Prevent “toxic” and spoken of a “drift to a police state.”

Meanwhile university heads, including a former director of public prosecutions, have voiced opposition on the grounds that Prevent has a chilling effect on academic freedom. Both the UK’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, David Anderson, and the Council of Europe’s human rights monitor have expressed grave concerns, joining the UN special rapporteur on the right to freedom of assembly, Maina Kiai. In a damning assessment, Kiai spoke of the “spectre of Big Brother” and warned that the government “has a negative view of civil society as a critical partner that can and should hold government accountable.”

Just days later, it emerged that the government had indeed been seeking to manipulate civil society by secretly outsourcing the production of anti-extremist “counter-narratives” supportive of the Prevent agenda. A government department called the Research Information and Campaigns Unit (RICU) was revealed to have been working through a communications agency called Breakthrough Media to disseminate certain messages through the mouths of Muslim civil society groups it believed could "carry HMG's [Her Majesty’s Government] messages into hard-to-reach communities."

The handmaidens of Prevent linked to this anti-democratic covert propaganda campaign include the Quilliam Foundation. Alarmingly, Quilliam staffers signed a statement organized by the Gatestone Institute, a virulently Islamophobic New York think tank. It may have been these links that led to them being excluded from a counter-terrorism summit held by President Obama in Washington last year. However, the UK’s Prevent policy, with which Quilliam has been intimately involved, has provided the model imported to the U.S. as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) by the Obama administration. Programs are slowly being rolled out in three U.S. cities, Boston, Minneapolis and Los Angeles, and though the First Amendment may provide greater protection for free speech, evidence suggests the religious profiling aspect of the scheme will be identical.

As opposition to Prevent in the UK goes mainstream, even its biggest defenders within government have not claimed that the strategy has actually accomplished its aims. In fact, last year Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May declared the threat level in Britain “unprecedented.”

So what has Prevent achieved? A decade of mass surveillance and fear-mongering has “radicalized” the mainstream political establishment, Arun Kundnani believes, and fostered the far-right at the same time. It will be hard to turn around. But grassroots campaigning along with pressure from the top is finally starting to crack the longstanding cross-party consensus; the leftist leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, and his shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham have spoken out against Prevent.

Given these developments, Cage outreach director Moazzam Begg, who was formerly detained at Guantanamo Bay without charge or trial for three years, confidently declared in London that it will soon be time to “hammer the nail in the coffin” of the hated Prevent policy.

Hilary Aked is a London-based freelance writer and a PhD student at the University of Bath researching the pro-Israel lobby in the UK. 

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