Pathologising Religious and Political Expression
1.1 The Problem of Islamophobia and the Prevent Notion of ‘British Values’
The context for the introduction of Prevent and the wider CONTEST approach was, of course, the 9/11 terror attacks in the USA in 2001 (and the London bombings in 2005). In its Prevent strand, however, it was also responding to earlier civil disturbances in Northern English cities in the summer of 2001. These were widely described in the media as ‘race riots’, and subsequent official reports traced them to the fact that different communities in England were seemingly living separate lives.46 This was a contentious claim countered by academic research, as we show in Box 3.
The heightened concern over terrorism interacted with other anxieties over immigration. These would be fuelled by radical parties like UKIP, opposing both immigration and membership in the EU. This had a disruptive impact on electoral politics, especially in the period in which Prevent strategy was being extended, reinforcing its partisan character.
Box 3: Residential Segregation
Summarising the analysis of Gemma Catney47, William Shankley, Tina Hannemann and Ludi Simpson48 write,
“Using the ‘index of dissimilarity’ to measure the residential segregation of different ethnic groups, Catney (2015) conducted a comparison of segregation across different groups using data from the 2001 and 2011 censuses. Catney (2015) found that residential segregation across all groups has decreased and, overall, neighbourhoods are becoming more ethnically mixed. The results also show that ‘in over two thirds of districts, segregation decreased for Black Caribbean, Indian, Mixed and Black African ethnic groups, between 2001 and 2011’ (Catney, 2015: 109).
Focusing specifically on London, the results found that residential mixing increased in inner and outer London. In outer London, for example, segregation decreased by 12
percentage points for the Bangladeshi ethnic group and 11 percentage points for the Chinese ethnic group. Other large cities, such as Leicester, Birmingham, Manchester and Bradford, have also seen a decrease in segregation for most ethnic groups. In addition, there has also been an increase in residential mixing between the White British and minority ethnic groups.” (page 31)
The processes involved are straightforward: “The difference in segregation levels between different groups can be predominantly explained by their varying migration histories to the UK, with more recent groups being affected by chain migration and migrants moving to live near friends and relatives; whereas more established groups may have formed families whose children subsequently move out of areas of concentration.”
The events in the Northern towns had been preceded by a Report on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain from the UK’s leading independent race equality think tank, the Runneymede Trust (the Parekh Report).49 It argued that Britain was necessarily plural in terms of those who made up the national community, albeit that there were significant inequalities. The report proposed that British identity should be understood in terms of multiple histories of belonging, and that all communities had a right to participate in its definition. It also recommended that underlying inequalities should be tackled.
The idea of multiculturalism had a fragile hold on public discourse with politicians from both sides of the mainstream political divide – New Labour and Conservative alike – arguing that there was a need to affirm a unifying ‘Britishness’. When the Labour Government introduced a duty on schools to ‘promote community cohesion’, however, it did so in terms of affirming shared values that would facilitate positive interaction among children from different backgrounds.50 It also affirmed that community cohesion would be served by ‘tackling inequality gaps’ and “by promoting equality of opportunity and inclusion for different groups of pupils within a school”.51
What might seem to be a broadly positive approach was belied by the merging of community cohesion with Prevent, the counter-extremism programme. A strategy of winning ‘hearts and minds’ was directed primarily at Muslim communities and not at other communities in their attitudes toward British Muslims.52
This began a process of funding Muslim community initiatives provided they shared the government’s messaging, while organisations critical of the developing Prevent programme, were dropped.53 For example, it involved the creation of a National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group, a Young Muslims Advisory Group, and supported the creation of a Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board. Groups critical of the Prevent strategy were described as ‘extremist’ and, after 2011, the government pursued a policy of active disengagement, where it refused to enter into dialogue with these critical groups. The Muslim Council of Britain – which is the UK’s largest and most diverse national Muslim umbrella organisation –and MEND (an NPO that helps to empower and encourage British Muslims within local communities to be more actively involved in British media and politics), for example, were subjected to such treatment.
This was recently repeated by then Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, in a speech in July 2019 when he announced work on a comprehensive new Counter Extremism Strategy that would address what he called the “normalisation” of extremist views in mainstream groups.54
Despite the express concern of the 2011 Review of the Prevent Strategy with encouraging “full participation in our society”,55 the strategy of top-down co-option of community groups through the lens of counter-extremism via Prevent has developed apace. This is a threat to the democratic process, since it seeks to manage both the form of participation of the individual in the social fabric of Britain and what is expressed, and within a particularly narrow, politicised view of what is acceptable for Muslims especially, to express.
As Lecturer and British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Exeter University Narzanin Massoumi has argued, civil society can be understood as a domain of social movements that involve social solidarities and seek to influence government policies from outside institutionalised political arrangements.56 Under Prevent, the government has set up, or funded, civil society organisations within communities to promote its policies; that is, it has established quasi-social movements as an expression of state policy, rather than allowing them to function as a democratic challenge to it.
Our report will show that the mode of engagement with Muslim communities through Prevent is both intrusive and discriminatory. Indeed, it has been described as Islamophobic, leading to demands for a formal definition of the latter term equivalent to that for antisemitism.57 This has been accepted in local government and across political parties in Scotland, but not by the UK government (see Box 4).
Box 4: Division and Divergence in England and Scotland
Academic research and evidence show that the government’s Prevent strategy creates divisions and the scapegoating of Muslim minority citizens, at the same time as it lays claim to integration. But it is also creating damaging divergence within the UK political system. Although Prevent applies to the devolved jurisdictions (with the exception of Northern Ireland), many of its policies are specific to England as a consequence of devolved responsibilities. For example, there are no Prevent Priority Areas in Scotland, and there is no requirement in schools to teach ‘fundamental British values’. Yet the weight of the UK-wide Prevent duty nonetheless bears upon how Muslims are framed.
There is no ‘Scottish exceptionalism’ concerning discrimination and prejudice toward Muslims and hostility toward immigrants.
However, in Scotland, there is an expressed political will to tackle it. In contrast to the situation in England, all political parties in Scotland accept a definition of Islamophobia as a “form of anti-Muslim racism that targets Muslims and those who are misrecognised as Muslim”. This is the starting point of the recent Report of the Inquiry into Islamophobia in Scotland by the Cross-Party Group on Tackling Islamophobia: Scotland’s Islamophobia, which was published in July 2021.58 Its conclusions about Prevent are unequivocal:
“Given the weight of evidence against ‘Prevent’, Schedule 7 and related counterterrorism legislation, the Scottish government should take steps to encourage the withdrawal of these and related strategies” (page 36).
This refusal to recognise Islamophobia and racism in policy follows strong lobbying by neo-conservative influenced think tanks like the Henry Jackson Society and Policy Exchange. Indeed, the former publishes an annual list of so-called ‘extremist speakers’ and the student societies that have hosted them,59 while the latter monitors university courses for evidence of moves to de-colonise the curriculum.60 Each also presents itself as an ardent defender of free speech on campus, attacking ‘wokeness’ and ‘political correctness’ (both tropes taken from radical right-wing narratives).61
Adding domestic terrorism to the concerns about community relations brought about a serious shift in emphasis away from community cohesion and integration in multicultural Britain, to national security – setting up a discriminatory paradigm through the public sector’s engagement with Muslims in particular. Indeed, the message of Prevent is that ethnic minority citizens need to assimilate to ‘British values’, which are seemingly defined separately from them and their unique contributions.
No longer ‘British’ enough
Sarah is a 27-year-old public sector worker who converted to Islam as an adult. Sarah met her current partner online, a fellow British citizen studying abroad, who had also converted to Islam. When she first informed her parents, they were concerned about their daughter potentially falling for a man who may be a known criminal, so they flagged their concern with the police.
This was then forwarded to the Prevent team without Sarah’s parents’ knowledge. Suddenly, Sarah was contacted by a member of the Channel intervention team. It was only at this point that she realised she had been referred to Prevent, and her details had been shared with Channel without her consent.
The referral led to a questioning of Sarah and her partner, which she describes: “I was questioned about my ‘British values’ and my partner’s ‘British values’ were called into question too. The irony is that Britain is a very diverse place.”
“It didn’t feel like they were questioning my British values at all; really the questions were all around my Islamic values. Even though none of those values, and particularly the ones they were asking about, contradict what happens day in and day out in Britain.”
“I kept having to justify myself even though I had done nothing wrong. Before my conversion to Islam, would somebody ever question my British values? Or would they accept that I am a British born and bred gal? But now, even as a British and English person who decided to practice the Islamic faith, my values are being called into question.”
“There is no marker for what ‘British values’ even look like. But the definition of being ‘against British values’ was clearly about me being Muslim. This is ridiculous given the official definition of Prevent talks about tolerance.”
This was illustrated most vividly by Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech in February 2011 to the Munich security conference.62 He declared that ‘state multi-culturalism’ had failed. Not only did some British Muslims live segregated lives, he argued, but they held values at odds with those of mainstream Britain. This orientation would be reinforced by the Casey Review into Opportunity in 2015 and the Government’s Integrated Strategies Green Paper in 2018.63
However, there has been no evidence for such claims; in fact, sociological surveys have consistently shown that the values Britain’s Muslims express are those of democracy, diversity, and religious tolerance (see Box 5).
Box 5: Evidence from Surveys
Saffron Karlsen and James Nazroo, of the University of Manchester’s Centre of Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE), have used the Citizenship Survey to address attitudes to ‘Britishness’ among different ethnic and faith communities.64 This showed that 90% of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians felt part of Britain. In particular, Muslims were more likely than Caribbean Christians to report a strong British identification and (along with Hindus and Sikhs) to recognise potential compatibility between this and other aspects of identity. As they put it, “many Muslims, and those with other minority ethnicities and religions, do not see a contradiction between being British and maintaining a separate cultural or religious identity”.65
Other studies have found a positive association between Muslim affiliation and positive national identities.66 Nor is this association affected by the intensity of religious commitments.
Importantly, there is a positive correlation between British identification and higher religiosity, the latter being part of behaviour deemed suspicious by Prevent. These associations have remained strong across the period since 2001.
Multiculturalism facilitates identification with being British on the part of citizens outside the dominant cultural and religious traditions.67 This is because ethnic and religious minorities associate ‘Britishness’ with a commitment to a plurality that recognises their different traditions.68 Indeed, Associate Professor in Ethnicity and Racism Studies, University of Leeds Yasmin Hussain and Paul Bagguley, Reader at the Centre for Ethnicity and Racism Studies (CERS) at the University of Leeds, suggest that where disaffection among Muslim young people exists, it is not because of the attractions of radical Islam, but because of disappointment in the realisation of their rights as British citizens, especially in the context of unequal opportunities and material disadvantage.69
There is little doubt that the Prevent policy of community engagement is disproportionately focused on British Muslim communities. For example, Prevent Priority Areas (PPAs) were identified to receive additional funding (local authorities must otherwise fund their responsibilities from within existing budgets). When initially set up, they involved areas with 5% or more Muslims, later revised to areas with 4000 or more Muslims.70 This was mirrored within PPAs with the identification of ‘priority neighbourhoods’ with a high concentration of Muslim residents. Following criticism of the Islamophobic nature of the allocation of funds for PPAs, it became much harder to extract any information about the areas in receipt of Prevent funding.
The logic of PPAs – its ‘spatialised Islamophobia’ – belies any claim of an equality of concern with extremism. Even where activities are the focus of community engagements, they are associated with white disadvantaged communities in areas with Muslim populations, indicating that far-right extremism is
addressed in the context of a perceived problem of Muslim integration. In Part Two of this report, we will show how the identification of risk is discriminatory and how this is built into the everyday practices of Prevent.
Our conclusion is: Prevent discriminates against Muslims. There is no evidence to suggest a problem of integration of British Muslim communities and no basis for regarding them and their families with suspicion.
No more ‘Islamic’ narratives in children’s books
Aliyah is a primary school teacher in a school with a large BAME demographic (approximately 90%). In 2017, she noticed that some books had been removed from her classroom by the headteacher while she was away. The books were classic children’s tales like Cinderella and Snow White, but they had been rewritten by children’s authors to reflect the diversity of different cultures and religions.
Aliyah was told that the head teacher had held a staff meeting while she was away. The head teacher had referred to Prevent and the Trojan Horse affair and had told staff that they can no longer use books or resources that push an “Islamic narrative”. The headteacher also told staff that the Asian staff should not all sit together during lunch because of ‘Prevent and integration’.
When Aliyah confronted the headteacher about the missing books from her classroom, the headteacher admitted that they had been removed due to Prevent and that the school needed to have more censorship with regards to reading and literacy. She said that it was not just Aliyah who’d had books removed, but other teachers had also had books removed from their classrooms.
Pathologising Religious and Political Expression
1.2. Countering Far-Right Extremism?
Neither New Labour nor Conservative governments have confronted far-right extremism directly. However, there is a difference between how its underlying causes have been understood by them. For New Labour, it was seen as a problem of disadvantage and deprivation. This was why its strategy of community cohesion was also directed at inequalities. These inequalities were also experienced by ethnic minority communities, albeit that this fact was weakly articulated. There were inequality gaps between socio-economic groups – class inequalities independent of race and ethnicity (and religion), for example – but also inequality gaps between ethnic minorities and others.
Into this space, however, the idea of a ‘left behind’ white working class has been inserted; they experience serious socio-economic disadvantage supposedly as a result of ethnic minority populations.71 The gap between them and ethnic minorities seemed both to be diminishing and to have been the focus of positive government policy for amelioration. It is this that has provided fertile ground for the far-right and a politics of resentment.72
Indeed, since 2010, first the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition and then Conservative majority governments have pursued austerity policies that have exacerbated socio-economic inequalities rather than reduced them.73 Significantly, when the duty on schools in England to promote community cohesion was replaced in 2014 with a ‘duty to promote fundamental British values’, reference to inequalities was absent (having already been removed from the Ofsted Inspection Manual in 2012).
Furthermore, the focus on Muslim communities in the Prevent strategy produced a number of predictable, but negative consequences. For instance, Professor of Youth and Policy at Huddersfield University Paul Thomas and his colleagues highlight that the seeming financial investment in Muslim communities as a consequence of PPAs created resentment amongst non-Muslim communities.74 It created the perception that Muslim communities benefited from ‘opportunities’ provided by Prevent funding that were being denied to others. Here, the mutually reinforcing and divisive relationship between the community cohesion approach and the ‘othering’ of Muslim communities is apparent.
The community cohesion approach could thus be seen as having had paradoxical consequences; it (re)affirmed the perceived ‘separateness’ of Muslim communities from ‘white British’ communities that had surfaced in relation to the riots in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham in 2001. This was further reinforced by the redescription of what were described as ‘shared values’ in the Duty to Promote Community Cohesion as ‘fundamental British values’, which created a formal asymmetry absent in the previous approach to community cohesion. Ethnic minorities – most especially, those who were members of minority religious communities of belonging – were now constructed as potentially in deficit with regard to their cultural and religious values, and their children in need of inculcation in mainstream ‘British values’ (see Box 6).
Box 6: Speech by Amanda Spielman (Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills and Head of Ofsted)
“Most children spend less than a fifth of their childhood hours in schools and most of the rest with their family. And so if children aren’t being taught these values at home, or worse are being encouraged to resist them, then schools are our main opportunity to fill that gap…”
“This, I believe, was where the so-called Trojan Horse schools failed. Not only were there issues with promoting British Values in many of those schools, but in some cases members of the community were attempting to bring extreme views into school life. The very places that should have been broadening horizons and outlooks were instead reinforcing a backward view of society.”
“One of [the] values as articulated in the definition of British values is ‘mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith’. It is a happy fact that almost every Church of England school we visit takes that value seriously.” 75
By implication, the issue of ‘Islamic extremism’ is associated with supposedly problematic individuals within communities that are also problematic, whilst ‘right wing extremism’ is associated with problematic individuals detached from their communities and wider, mainstream society. Indeed, even where activities are the focus of community engagements in PPAs, they are associated with white disadvantaged communities in areas with Muslim populations.
Reported for his interest in wars and the world
Joseph is a 14-year-old secondary school boy who was referred to Prevent following allegations about his social media account by a fellow pupil at school. The headteacher at the school called Joseph’s parents in for a meeting to discuss the allegations which included allegations that his social media account had images of guns and soldiers, and that he was a “bit of a loner”. Joseph’s history teacher also stated that he had a keen interest in wars and the Middle East.
It was revealed to Joseph’s parents during the meeting that a Prevent referral had already been made by the school.
“What shocks us is how a Prevent referral was made by the school, effectively penalising our son for his worldliness.”
The Vulnerability Assessment Form for Joseph had boxes checked for vulnerability to both ‘far-right extremism’ and ‘Islamist extremism’. Joseph’s parents had the following to say:
“Prevent officers then tried to convince us that our son was ‘vulnerable to radicalisation’, which contrary to what we know about him as his parents. When we pushed back against the idea of Prevent, we then as parents were second-guessed and undermined.”
“Our son is an intelligent young boy with a keen interest in history. He is in the process of learning and discovering himself and the allegations made about his social media account by another school child were done so out of malice.”
AREA OF VULNERABILITY
(e.g Far-Right, National Action,
Combat18, Far-Left, A.L.F, etc… )
(e.g ISIS / DAESH inspired,
AQ Inspired etc…
(e.g IRA Realted PIRA,
CIRA, UVF, etc…)
The Vulnerability Assessment Framework is completed by Prevent officers based on information shared with them about an individual’s ‘vulnerabilities’ and whether they would be suitable for Channel. In Joseph’s case the officer checked both forms of terrorism, suggesting that he could be vulnerable to both ‘far-right extremism’ and ‘Islamist extremism’, suggesting that even those professionals involved in referring to Channel are confused.
Referred despite not understanding a far-right symbol
Daria is a 12-year-old secondary school girl of Eastern European descent. Daria comes from a disadvantaged family where English is not their first language, so they required assistance from community representatives when Daria was referred to Prevent.
The referral was made by her teacher when she noticed that Daria had been doodling symbols on her notebook that resembled those of far-right groups. Daria explained that she was drawing images that she had seen as part of an animation that she had watched and did not realise the significance or resemblance of these symbols to any far-right groups.
The representative of her family was extremely confused and said that when the teacher made this statement the adults looked at each other in shock as they too were not aware that the symbol being referred to belonged to far-right signage.
Instead of giving the child and family the benefit of the doubt, the teachers did not believe her version of events. They said that they were “shocked that a girl her age does not recognise far-right signage”.
Daria was referred to Prevent nonetheless.
This indicates that extremism is addressed in the context of a perceived problem of Muslim integration, and not as a problem of white British communities and their detachment from the ‘British values’ being promoted. Although the Prevent Strategy of 2011, as we have seen, indicated that ‘radicalising locations’ included families as one such space, this concern seems only to be applied to Muslim families.
This has been made clear in a study by Suraj Lakhani, a Senior Lecturer within the School of Law, Politics & Sociology at the University of Sussex, and Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham, Natalie James (who is also a Fellow and Head of the Counter-Extremism Research Unit and the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right), that was conducted into teachers and administrators responsible for the operation of the Prevent duty in secondary schools and colleges in South East England (Sussex).76
This is a region with a low proportion of ethnic minorities and respondents perceived that ‘Islamic extremism’ was a low priority. One respondent stated that “it’s difficult to regard Prevent as being a really high priority for this local area because of the demographics of the area…”77 However, when addressing attitudes that might be associated with the ‘far-right’, these were considered normal within the community and the home and, as such, it would be unfair to regard the young people at risk of radicalisation (see Box 7).
Box 7: Responses reported by Lakhani and James
“What seems to be almost quite clear, they are just repeating what they hear their parents say or what they hear on televisions. … And we don’t tell them off but we get them to challenge it, “So where is your evidence for this and where did you hear this from?” To get them to really think about it and for most of them it is a case of, “I don’t know, it is just what my parents say.” (R22 Interview, Teacher)
“What can you do with someone who is just viewing Tommy Robinson videos and repeating what is said there at school? It is hard. And I think that is when you get into all that attitudinal stuff and having to have conversations with parents and the parents may be supporting those views. And we have certainly had that.” (R6 Interview, County Council)
“There have been occasions where, I’ve had a boy there, I’ve been made aware of his social media account, he’s been making really nasty violence in terms of, the pages he has up there, so . . . First of all, [I went] to his father, talked to his father and showed him the evidence and his father was horrified, and he went on with that. We look on balance, whether this was something that we also should refer to Prevent.” (R8 Interview, DSL/DDSL)
Right-wing views as ‘normal’
The extent to which right-wing views are normal within the wider community, including among middle-class professionals involved in employment in the sectors enacting the Prevent duty is evident in a recent study from Birmingham University.78 This showed that Muslims were the second-most disliked group (after Gypsy and Irish travellers) and that support for prohibiting immigration by Muslims was 4-6% higher than for other religious groups. The survey also showed the significance of ‘illiberal’ liberalism, where hostility towards religion in general is associated with prejudice against Islamic belief. The authors write that “people from middle- and upper-class occupational groups are more likely to hold prejudiced views of Islamic beliefs than people from working class occupational groups”.79
Similar views have been endorsed by the current interim Head of the Commission for Countering Extremism, Robin Simcox (appointed by the Home Secretary to replace Sara Khan in March 2021). He had previously argued that it is necessary to push back against accusations of Islamophobia against Prevent and also to ‘double down’ on the policy of not engaging with its critics among civil society groups interfacing with Muslims.80
Shortly after his appointment, he argued that it was necessary, “not to confuse mainstream conservative political positions with the far-right. Certain far-right terrorists speak about the need to defend Western values and freedoms and warn that immigration undermines culture.
Yet while the far-right does indeed care deeply about such causes, so do vast amounts of other people… Meanwhile, the link between immigration and culture remains a live subject in Europe … Assessing those positions to be ‘extremist’ just because the far-right commandeers them is a surefire way to ensure that any policy designed to tackle this ideology will not command widespread support”.81
He didn’t like Mein Kampf, but was referred to Prevent for reading it
Noel is a 15-year-old secondary school child with a keen interest in history and politics. When his school found out he was reading Mein Kampf they asked his history teacher to question his motivations for doing so.
Although his history teacher reported back by stating that Noel “did not seem particularly impressed with Mein Kampf” and that they’d had different conversations about controversial topics, they still suggested that it may be an appropriate case for a Prevent referral.
The school then reached out to the Prevent lead to get advice on the threshold for referrals which subsequently led to the school making a Prevent referral. Noel’s parents said of their interaction when Prevent tried to get involved:
“They were very persistent; I eventually agreed to Noel having a Channel mentor, but I found the experience to be completely unrelated to how it was pitched with regards to Noel’s supposed vulnerabilities.”
“So, I told them that he would be exiting the programme and we stopped the sessions.”
Simcox suggests that this is similar to how Prevent treats the issue of Islam as a religion and distinguishes it from Islamism, but this is seriously misleading. Of course, there should be no suspicion toward religion, as such, but what are at issue here are political expressions. We can illustrate the distinction by reference to the Prevent Strategy 2011, where the focus was on ‘Islamism’.
It was stated that, “Islamism is a philosophy which, in the broadest sense, promotes the application of Islamic values to modern government. There are no commonly agreed definitions of ‘Islamism’ and ‘Islamist’, and groups or individuals described as Islamist often have very different aims and views about how those aims might be realised. Some militant Islamists would endorse violence or terrorism to achieve their aims. Many Islamists do not”.82 The wish to apply Islamic values in everyday life and in politics is not, as such, problematic, but the implication is that they should be subject to scrutiny under Prevent in case they become attached to militant and violent actions. By the same token, if some right-wing ideas can be ‘commandeered’ by the far-right, that should also make them a matter of concern under Prevent. They may be held as views to be pursued through democratic means, but they may not – and it is that which is the stated focus of Prevent.
It is a concern that someone so close to the formation of government policy on these matters is unaware of the distinctions and judgements that are expressed as intrinsic to it. This betrays Simcox’s – and by definition the CCE’s – self-positioning within right-wing politics as equivalent in status to what he attributes to ‘Islamism’.
In fact, the government has gone further than simply endorsing Islamophobia, as part of its right-wing policies; it has done so in a way that is itself extremist by the broader definition it applies to others. The ideology that informs its Prevent strategy is that the ‘normalisation’ of policies will reduce the risks of extremism. However, this has involved the normalisation of clash-of-civilisation narratives about immigration and the failure of Muslims to assimilate.
At the same time, the government increasingly mobilises a populist embrace of the common-sense ‘majority’ in opposition to different ‘minority’ positions opposing their policies, which they then describe as ‘extremist’. Significantly, they refer to this in terms of conducting a ‘culture war’. This conforms with the formal definition of extremism favoured by the Commission for Countering Extremism, where “extremism refers to the belief that an in-group’s success or survival can never be separated from the need for hostile action against an out-group”.83
Our conclusion is: Prevent is discriminatory in the way in which it approaches far-right terrorism differently from that of ‘Islamist’ terrorism in the guidance, training and application. Far-right extremism is seen as a problem of individuals rather than communities.
Pathologising Religious and Political Expression
1.3 Prevent and Freedom of Expression
One of Prevent’s most obvious impacts has been in the arena of freedom of expression, both in terms of speech, but also in terms of the freedom to express a religious identity.
According to the government, free expression is a cornerstone of democracy. Indeed, it is so concerned about the topic that it recently introduced legislation to protect it within universities – the Higher Education (and Free Speech) Bill.84 The then Director of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission made a similar argument for all education institutions, including schools, arguing that freedom of speech in education was the “foundation of an effective society”.85
Of course, there are some restrictions on free speech. It must be within the bounds of the law. For example, hate speech and incitements to violence are illegal (see Box 8).
On a more banal level, employers may place restrictions on speech and establish requirements to adhere to professional standards in the expression of opinions in the workplace.
The emphasis in Prevent on countering non-violent extremism, nonetheless, represents a major restriction on free expression outside these constraints. It invokes national security, but it does so without identifying any offence other than the fact of the speech itself. In this way, it represents itself as judge and jury of what constitutes ‘extremism’, a term it is willing to use against any and all political opposition. Indeed, Prevent has been widely criticised as a tool for disrupting political dissent.87
The government declares that its Prevent strategy is necessary to support democratic values – ‘fundamental British values’ – and to encourage participation in political life. It does so whilst also having declared that it would not engage with groups that it deemed ‘extremist’, nor provide them with any public funding for their activities with their communities; it stated, “we will not work with extremist organisations that oppose our values of universal human rights, equality before the law, democracy and full participation in our society. If organisations do not accept these fundamental values, we will not work with them and we will not fund them”.88 In this way, it operates in a partial way towards Muslim civil society groups, engaging with community groups from across other faiths, reserving its support only to those Muslim groups that support its policies.89 This is an inversion of the democratic relation between government and civil society groups. The functioning of civil society involves social movements that express social solidarities and seek to influence government policies from outside institutionalised arrangements.
Box 8: Article 10 of the Human Rights Act
“The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”86
When Martin Luther King quotes can be ‘hate speech’
Imam Mahdi is an Imam with a relatively high number of followers on social media. Following the Christchurch attack on a mosque in 2019, Imam Mahdi shared a video where he speaks about the white supremacy ideology behind the attack and the influence of media, politicians and leaders across the globe in furthering this ideology.
His speech spoke of standing united and referenced the teachings of Dr Martin Luther King as well as giving messages about virtue and kindness.
However, shortly after releasing his video, Imam Mahdi was informed that a Prevent officer wanted to speak to him. Imam Mahdi agreed to speak to the Prevent officer to see why he was of interest to them; they suggested that a referral had been made by someone who had viewed his video.
The Prevent officer then showed Imam Mahdi a video clip and said that although he agreed with most of what Imam Mahdi says in the video, the problem is that he posted it on social media and he could be accused of ‘inciting hatred’.
However, under Prevent, the government has set up, or funded, civil society organisations within communities in order to promote its policies; that is, it establishes quasi-social movements as an expression of state policy, rather than allowing them to challenge it.90 This is something described in political science as the practice of ‘astro-turfing’, where the political manipulation of a movement purporting to be ‘grassroots’, is disguised.91
At the same time, it directly opposes the legitimate political expression by groups that criticise it and will not engage in the very dialogue and debate that it claims is intrinsic to democracy. “Extremists”, it is claimed, “have attempted to coerce people not to participate in our democratic system or to subvert our democratic processes.”92 No evidence of coercion is provided. Indeed, the only instance given is that of a leafleting campaign in Birmingham during the 2010 general election, in which it was declared that voting was ‘haram’. This might be set in the context of the government’s own introduction of voter ID to secure the ‘ballot’ in a situation where, according to the Electoral Commission, just 28 votes out of 45 million in the 2017 election had concerns raised, while between 8.3 and 9.4 million eligible voters are not on the electoral register, and voter ID potentially exacerbates that situation.93
This is at the heart of the problem with the government’s counter extremism policy. It lacks a definition of ‘extremism’ that can tie it to any specific endorsement of violence. It relies solely upon a general idea that ‘extremism’ is a bad thing and presents itself as arbiter of to whom the label should be applied. Even the staunch advocate of the need to counter ‘extremism’, Sara Khan, accepts that there is a lack of clarity in the definition and that, when surveyed, “three quarters of the public respondents find the Government’s current definition of extremism ‘very unhelpful’ or ‘unhelpful’.”94 Her own idea is to append ‘hateful’ to the term ‘extremism’. It is unclear how that would help, since hate speech is already an offence and the problem that Prevent confronts is not with offences as such, but how to define precursor ideas as subjects of intervention, despite these ideas not being illegal. It is clear that the language of extremism can be used by the government to serve a general purpose of delegitimating any opposition to its policies – whether that be by activists within Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, or Occupy – but it is used disproportionately against Muslims.
This intensified following the introduction of the ‘safeguarding duty’ within Prevent in 2015, where educational institutions, including universities, must have policies and procedures for the vetting of all external speakers for their supposedly extremist views. The Student Rights section of the Henry Jackson Society, for example, publishes what it calls comprehensive digests of ‘extremists on campus’ and represents Islamophobia Awareness Month as “legitimising extremism”.95 Furthermore, it is not only government that refuses to engage with critical civil society organisations; it also seeks to encourage other public bodies to do the same.
Box 9. De-platforming a civil society organisation
The tools used to enforce this range from shutting down or placing restrictions on events through leveraging venue hire policies, enforcing speaker policies, manipulating health and safety policies, creating temporary licencing restrictions, and employing other regulatory manoeuvres. In most cases, the tactics have been covert and hard to prove, because counter-terrorism officers have approached venues informally to secure the cancellation of events, but in some cases, there has been an obvious paper trail; an example is the case of a recent refusal to host a well-known civil society group that advocates against Islamophobia (see Box 9).
This refusal was clearly due to the organisation’s stance against Prevent. In effect, the government argues that extremism is akin to ‘offensive speech’ – which means offending ‘British values’ – while at the same time arguing that free speech includes the right to give offence. Moreover, the approach is asymmetrical. On the one hand, there should be no ‘de-platforming’ of speakers in rejection of right-wing views to which the
government is sympathetic. On the other hand, there must be a de-platforming of views that it declares to be ‘extremist’, notwithstanding that the views are not illegal.
The definition of fundamental British values invokes a concern about some groups with a ‘vocal or active opposition’ to liberal values. But these values include that of individual liberty which includes free speech. The government purports to follow liberalism and promote its values globally.96 However, the liberal philosopher and MP John Stuart Mill, author of what might be regarded as the primary text on liberty and free speech, was clear about what this would entail, and it is the present government which is in conflict with the concerns he set out over a century ago.97 Those who are in power, or who represent majority opinion, are likely to respond intemperately to any challenge to their views. Those outside existing systems of power, representing minority opinions, are likely to proceed cautiously and in moderate language, at the same time as they are represented as extreme.
A mother’s overseas aid packages result in Prevent door-stepping
Tasneem is a 26-year-old mother who has actively taken part in various charity projects over the years. She has collected clothes for the Syrian Convoys; for example she makes Eid gift boxes for the children living in Syrian refugee camps.
Her children love to join in the fun of making gift boxes for the children. In 2016, Tasneem had recently moved home when she received an unannounced visit from two Prevent officers.
They explained that their job was to investigate people who they believe may be at risk of radicalisation and asked her about her political views and what her views were on the situation in Syria before suggesting that they were concerned that she was intending to travel to Syria.
Tasneem reassured them that she had no intention to travel to Syria, that she is helping refugees and trying to start a fresh life with her children. Tasneem relays her experience:
“They both went on to state they believe I am at risk of being radicalised and feel that I may be in fact planning to travel to Syria. The one officer then went on to comment that it looked like I lived ‘very basic’. This I took offence to, as I had recently moved house after very difficult circumstances.”
“After their first visit they came back again. The same two Prevent officers came to my home when I had visitors over, so I just spoke to them at the door. It was then that they asked me to join the Channel programme because they thought I was at risk of radicalisation.”
“I told them I was not interested, and I am not at risk of anything and that I would like to be left alone. Although they confirmed it was voluntary, they turned up at my door one more time which I thought was very harassing.”
Whose speech is dangerous?
For Mill, the danger of policies like Prevent would be that they lead to the suppression of dialogue and free expression; “unmeasured vituperation employed on the side of prevailing opinion, really does deter people from professing contrary opinions, and from listening to those who profess them. For the interest of truth and justice, it is far more important to restrain this employment of vituperative language than the other”.98
The government argues that Prevent is popular with the wider public, who regard it as contributing to their safety. We doubt this claim, but, in any case, it misses the point about the value of free expression in a democracy. State vituperation of ‘extremist’ speech in the guise of Prevent has a chilling consequence on free expression, especially for British Muslims, whether in schools, further and higher education, or in broader public life.
Individuals – school pupils, students – can be referred under Prevent for statements that they make, whether these involve the endorsement of religious values, or express support for Palestinian rights, or charitable fund-raising for Syrian refugees. This necessarily has a detrimental effect on free expression where individuals feel vulnerable to an arbitrary reporting mechanism and involvement of a safeguarding lead and the local safeguarding panel. Muslims are disproportionately vulnerable to securitisation in this way, and they report being advised by parents and friends not to speak out on contentious topics. This has a potentially isolating effect.
As a White British non-religious female university student reported: “I think Prevent is, if anything, preventing discussion. And if you don’t display what radicalism stands for, what it is, how are you supposed to uncover, how are you supposed to prevent people from going [to Syria] or from falling for it?”99
Mum of 8-year-old questioned about attending a peaceful protest
Adil is an 8-year-old schoolboy whose parent was called into the school to meet with the headteacher to discuss her son’s “concerning views”.
The parent went to the meeting, but it was only upon arrival that she realised that two social workers were also present. They began the meeting by telling her that Adil had written on a drawing of a mosque saying, “Muslims are better than Christians”.
However, the comment itself was not the focus of the meeting; they began to question the parent about a rally that the parent had attended with their child some time previously.
The parent reported the interview as follows:
Social worker: “What was this protest about exactly? Can you explain in detail?”
Parent: “The protest took place in 2014 and was regarding the conflict between Palestine and Israel; it was in particular to do with the lack of media coverage from the BBC.”
Social worker: “So what was the need to take the children?”
Parent: “This was a peaceful protest; there were many other children there from different races and religions too, who were peacefully protesting to stop killing innocent children. That was the reason I took my children to the protest.”
Social worker: “So am I right in saying you were protesting against our government?”
Parent: “It was a protest to raise awareness of the major issues that weren’t being covered by the media.”
Social worker: “So did you not think that this would instil hate for the government in [your son]?”
Parent: “Go and ask my child what the definition of ‘government’ is and what it means. He wouldn’t have a clue as he’s just turned 8!”
Headteacher: “I believe your child goes to the mosque. Why does he go there?”
Parent: “Both the children go there every day after school to learn Arabic and to be educated on Islam.”
Social worker: “Is your father involved in any political group or party?”
Parent: “No, my father is not involved in any political group or party.”
The parent stated that they were all very cordial and she answered the questions and thought that it was the end of proceedings, until the social worker said she wanted to tell them “about the next stage”.
The social worker said that the matter had been referred to PREVENT, which acts to prevent radicalisation.
Schools are encouraged to present ‘both sides’ of a contentious issue such as Palestine, but there is little understanding that this means that, in principle, each side can be legitimately taken and embraced separately from a classroom debate about their respective merits and the arguments and evidence associated with them. The requirement to have both sides presented is also one-sided. The requirement is enjoined only where views which contravene mainstream opinion are concerned. Indeed, support for Palestinian rights, as expressed in solidarity symbols, is treated by schools as potentially ‘antisemitic’, or ‘extremist’.
Research conducted by the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded Islam on Campus Research Group, found that students and staff self-censor their discussions to avoid becoming the object of suspicion and are sometimes discouraged from exploring, researching, or teaching about Islam.100 Research by the NUS found that one in three students were concerned about Prevent on campus and it impacted their willingness to speak in class, seek mental health support and decide whether to politically participate in their students’ union.
What is also at issue is how British Muslims are presented within Prevent as a community under suspicion and as a potential risk to others on the basis of their perceived ‘Muslimness’.
The same research, for example, shows that students who see Prevent as essential to protecting the security of universities are significantly more likely to affirm negative views of Islam and Muslims than those who are more moderate or critical regarding Prevent. (2021: 50-52). Negative generalisations about Islam and Muslims can be sustained by support of the government’s counter-terror narrative.
Writing in the online magazine, CapX (an offshoot of the Centre for Policy Studies), in October 2020 Will Baldet asked, “Why have we let Islamist agitators dominate the counter-terrorism discourse?”101 Baldet is one of seven Regional Prevent Coordinators in England and a key spokesperson for Prevent.
But just how do critics of Prevent dominate the discourse when all mainstream media is behind the government’s policies and negative reporting of British Muslims is so pervasive?102 How is the widespread support for Prevent that Baldet claims demonstrated? The report by the consultancy, CREST Advisory, shows something far more interesting than what Baldet claims on its behalf (see, Box 10).
Baldet argues that, “with an increasing number of studies finding majority support for Prevent, it becomes incumbent on politicians and authentic critics to engage in a more nuanced and honest dialogue”.104
Box 10: Crest Survey
Most of the respondents to the CREST survey had not heard about Prevent (just 45% of Muslims and 32% of the wider public had heard of it); instead, they were asked their views about the problems Prevent is claimed to address.103
The report shows that British Muslims have very similar concerns about terrorism as the wider public. And they show similar commitments to British values, not least because those values are understood also to be Islamic values. Equally importantly, they think Britain is a good place to be a Muslim because of their experience of freedom of religion.
But they do have serious concerns about Islamophobia (this is so especially among Muslim women), about unfair representations of Muslims in the media, and about the far-right.
These findings are in line with the survey results we presented in Box 6.
That honest dialogue would, in fact, show that it is right-wing agitators that dominate the counter-terrorism discourse.
Government advisers such as the new interim Commissioner for Countering Extremism, Robin Simcox, have urged the government to push back against concerns over Islamophobia. Leaks from the Shawcross Review also suggest he believes that Prevent has focused too much on right-wing extremism and should redouble its attention on ‘Islamist extremism’.105
In fact, Shawcross, Simcox and Baldet all advocate policies that make Prevent unacceptable to British Muslims (once they are alerted about its specific features) and which pay no attention to their concerns. This is so, despite the fact that British Muslims exhibit a greater commitment to the values that ostensibly are at issue, frequently regarding them as Islamic values.
Education worker ‘furious’ at Prevent trainer who says Mandela is a ‘terrorist’
Nura encountered Prevent in a job at a primary school, where she works as a welfare officer. She is known for being knowledgeable about legal and government issues and a source for the community beyond the school, not just for the students. She attended a mandatory Prevent training alongside other school staff from her school and another school.
She did not know ahead of time what the training was about. The trainer presented virtually on the Prevent policy, as it pertains to education. The first indication that the training was not normal was when the trainer asked if they considered Nelson Mandela to be a freedom fighter or a terrorist.
Nura said that he had been fighting against apartheid and was a freedom fighter. The trainer said he was both a freedom fighter and a terrorist. Nura speaks of other concerns:
“Soon [the trainer] linked the far-right attending [a] rally, with protest for Palestine. I said, oh my God. I’m a law-abiding citizen, [but] this means that I am in their eyes a radical. That shook me.”
“When I interrupted the presentation at the mention of Palestine, to silence me she said ‘Oh, I’ll give you some time at the end.’ I said, ‘No, I need your contact details.”
“I was fuming … What’s the next step? ‘You don’t belong here’ – that would be the next step. ‘You don’t belong here. We’ll strip your citizenship of you. You don’t belong’.
”Nura notes she specifically asked for assurance from the trainer that children and/or their families who attended rallies for Palestine would not be penalised or labelled as radicals.
She received an email response from the trainer, but she could tell it was not written by her.
Rather, it appeared to be written by a solicitor and copy and pasted from a larger document.
Now she worries for her students, for all people who are fighting injustice, including those attending rallies for justice for Palestine. Nura is concerned about the future, and how different ways of voicing your disdain for injustices could make people a target.
Free expression requires the active encouragement of difficult or controversial discussions around faith, identity, and politics. As Professor of Society and Belief at SOAS University of London Alison Scott Baumann puts it, let us free speech from its terrors.106 Prevent has the opposite effect.
Let us be clear what is at issue. A healthy, functioning democracy cannot simply be about the will of a majority, but also the protection of the rights of ethnic, religious, and political minorities. With the claim that the measures are popular with a majority, the government is acting to reduce the rights of minorities. In this context, British Muslims are presented as a scapegoat, a default position that enables an increasingly authoritarian government whose policies are suffused with Islamophobia.107
Our conclusion is: Prevent undermines free expression by defining as ‘extremist’ views and actions which are a normal part of a healthy and functioning democracy.
Sajda Mughal OBE
7/7 survivor & countering extremism champion speaks about Prevent
As the leader of an organisation embedded in the local community, with a significant engagement of Muslims, I have had direct experience of the Islamophobia inherent in Prevent – within its framing and as demonstrated by those that implement it.
Perhaps the most disturbing for me personally was the lack of transparency regarding the purposes of Prevent and information I was asked to provide. When I worked with Prevent, I was asked to share personal details of participants in our programmes with no explanation as to why – which I refused.
After many years of sending Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, I had to conclude that there is an entrenched unwillingness to disclose anything but the bare amount of information.
Regardless of which public authority receives the request, there is an observable sense of hostility or silence that seems to greet the most superficial but well composed request for information.
Prevent is also funding entirely inappropriate projects, led by people who possess little, if any experience in community engagement. Instead, they are consultants from corporate or police backgrounds – and they often have personal connections with local Prevent teams.
There are also organisations funded by Prevent that have expressed views that contradict Prevent’s public ethos, including one person who has published views in favour of a far-right extremist who has also sent abuse and threats to a well-known female politician.
By far the most concerning impact of Prevent is on children and mental health. Muslim children are being taught to stay silent about their beliefs, which then encourages others to develop their own misguided prejudice. This is against children’s rights as outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the UK is a signatory.
The Memorial in Hyde Park for the victims of the 7th July London Bombings
In the realm of mental health, I was shocked to discover that my local mental health NHS trust was involved in a pilot scheme to “embed” mental health professionals as “consultants” in the SO15 counter-terrorism team in the MET police. This is being done often far from public view.
Education and healthcare are supposed to be safe spaces for children and adults, where a certain amount of confidentiality is necessary for the best support to be provided in an atmosphere of trust.
There is also a prevailing toxicity within Prevent. Any criticism or concerns are met with orders to stay quiet and threats to have funding withdrawn.
Only those projects willing to toe the line, or those who have personal connections to Prevent co-ordinators, receive proper support. When I began speaking out, I was subjected to personal threats, abusive language and other forms of threatening behaviour both inside and outside of Prevent meetings.
Eventually, my funding was withdrawn after I refused to comply with their demands and refused to stay quiet. I am still to this day subject to hateful rumours and smears.
It is clear, from my experience and from the current “review”, that those in charge of Prevent have little desire to consider any views that differ from their own.