What is it?
Prevent is a key component of the government’s 2011 anti-terror strategy known as Contest. It builds on the previous Prevent strategy brought in by Tony Blair’s government after the London bombings in 2005. It has been widely criticised for casting all Muslims as a ‘suspect community’.
The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 enshrines elements of Prevent in law. It includes what is known as the “Prevent duty” which specifies that various public bodies have a duty to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. This came into force on 1 July 2015 for much of the public sector, including schools, NHS trusts, local authorities, childminders and probation services. Following some controversy over plans to ban outside speakers seen as “extremist”, the revised guidelines for HE and FE colleges came into effect on 21 September.
The government has advised that relevant employers must provide training to staff in the implementation of the Prevent duty. This is being rolled out across the public sector. Training ranges from e-learning, private or in-house trainers, to a government DVD and script based training programme known as WRAP (workshop to raise awareness of Prevent).
Channel is the government’s programme for dealing with those identified as at risk of radicalisation. These are individuals, often children, who have not committed any crime (they are in the “pre-criminal space” as the Prevent pundits put it), yet the police are centrally involved in monitoring these individuals and in putting together programmes to “de-radicalise” them.
Between April 2012 and April 2015 some 912 children were referred to Channel. Young children are being viewed through the lens of security and suspicion, with 55 under 12 year olds referred to Channel between 2007–2010. Children as young as three have been referred to Channel.
There has been widespread opposition to the Prevent strategy, its underlying assumptions and its implementation. UCU and NUS have campaigned over many years to stop lecturers and student unions being forced to spy on their Muslim students. The TUC this year passed policy opposed to Prevent. Other unions with policy opposed to Prevent include the UCU, NUT and NUS. Many Muslim organisations and civil rights groups, as well as Stop the War, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Stand Up to Racism have also spoken out against Prevent.
Key arguments against Prevent
1. Defending British values?
Prevent centres on tackling what the government calls “non-violent extremism” –i.e. no actual violent act may have been considered or admired.
The government defines extremism as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also include in our definition of extremism calls for the death of members of our armed forces.”
- This definition opens up a very ambiguous definition of extremism and includes expressions of political views that may not involve any invocation or support of violence.
- The idea that these values are intrinsically British –and not shared by others—is racist.
- It is pure hypocrisy to suggest that the British state has respected these values, given what is known of Britain’s foreign policy (Iraq, Ireland, Afghanistan, drone strikes in Syria, colonialism) and Britain’s domestic policy (racism throughout the criminal justice system).
This definition opens the Prevent powers to be used against political dissent that has nothing to do with terrorism (see below).
2. Prevent ignores the context of war and racism
The government model of radicalisation is based on a “conveyor belt” which involves vulnerable individuals being groomed by radical clerics / the internet / other associates and in which non-violent extremism leads to violent extremism and therefore to acts of terrorism.
This deliberately ignores the context of foreign policy, racism and war. In fact attempts to give political context are themselves cast as giving cover to terrorists in the form of justifying grievances.
As John Prescott has said: “When I hear people talking about how people are radicalised, young Muslims. I’ll tell you how they are radicalised. Every time they watch the television where their families are worried, their kids are being killed and murdered and rockets firing on all these people, that’s what radicalises them.” Even MI5 has concluded that there is no straightforward single pathway to terrorism.
3. Prevent targets Muslims
Most of the training packages for Prevent stress that it is about targeting all forms of terrorism, not just “Muslim extremism”. The Home Office’s WRAP DVD dwells at length on the case of a far right activist. However in practice Prevent overwhelmingly targets Muslims.
- Muslims made up 90 percent of those referred to Prevent’s anti-radicalisation programme Channel between 2007 and 2010, despite being less than 5 percent of the population.
- Prevent encourages racial profiling: Three schools in Barnsley, an area with a high level of EDL activity, published risk assessments earlier this year that stated that the schools were not prone to radicalisation and extremism as “cohort of pupils are white British majority” and many pupils “take a keen interest in British military work”. They also stated that “Staff continue to monitor BME (black and minority ethnic] cohort”. The risk assessments were taken from a template approved by the Prevent team at South Yorkshire police.
- The Prevent guidance specifies that it regards groups in Syria and Iraq and those associated with Al-Qaida as a greater threat than far right terrorism. It describes “Islamic extremists” who “regard Western intervention in Muslim-majority countries as a ‘war with Islam’, creating a narrative of ‘them and us’.” While socialists don’t agree that western foreign policy is driven by a war on Muslims, it is not surprising that many do see the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine in this way–and we must defend those with this view as a legitimate part of the anti-war and pro-Palestine movement.
- Prevent feeds wider racism. As UCU argues, Prevent “is discriminatory towards Muslims, and legitimises Islamophobia and xenophobia, encouraging racist views to be publicised and normalised within society.”
4. Safeguarding the vulnerable?
Much of the Prevent duty is being dressed up as a form of safeguarding – helping people who may be vulnerable to radicalisation. Many employers are incorporating the Prevent duty into their existing safeguarding procedures. Much training also asks public sector workers to look for signs of “vulnerability” and “radicalisation” in colleagues—in other words to be suspicious of each other.
Some of the risk factors specified include:
- Substance and alcohol misuse
- Peer pressure
- Influence from older people or via the Internet
- Crime and anti-social behaviour
- Domestic violence
- Family tensions
- Race/hate crime
- Lack of self esteem or identity
- Grievances (personal or political)
- This encompasses a huge number of people who are not in any way connected to terrorism or “extremism”. So the perceived risk of radicalisation is extremely subjective and open to abuse. This breeds an atmosphere of suspicion and provides an almost endless list of identifiers that can be used to label suspect individuals or groups (i.e. Muslims).
- This approach potentially deters children and other vulnerable people from seeking help, support or medical advice for fear of being labelled as at risk of radicalisation.
- Many inappropriate referrals are being made to Channel: 80 percent of Channel referrals between 2006 and 2013 were eventually rejected by Channel panels, showing that many referrers are finding threats where none exist.
5. Preventing dissent
There are many recorded instances of how Prevent is being used to crack down on dissent:
- Lancaster university’s student union president was targeted by police for displaying
pro-Palestinian posters in her office.
- Prevent officers were involved in shutting down a conference on Islamophobia at Birkbeck university in December 2014.
- Police in West Yorkshire told over 100 teachers attending Prevent training that they should consider environmental protesters, anti-fracking campaigners and anti-capitalists as potential extremists, citing Green MP Caroline Lucas as an example.
- In The Muslims Are Coming, Arun Kundnani describes how a teenager was targeted by Channel after attending a pro-Palestinian demo and warned to keep away from his new associates – who were revolutionary socialists, not radical Muslims.
6. Crushing open debate
- The MCB reports numerous examples of children being afraid to discuss issues at school for fear of being labelled extremists as well as parents trying to coach their children not to speak about their beliefs or religious practices in public.
- Many academics and others have argued that Prevent undermines free speech and shuts down debate, therefore making us all less safe.
Case studies on how Prevent and Channel are already being used in schools
These case studies were collected by the Muslim Council of Britain and submitted to the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation in July 2015:
- One schoolboy was accused of holding “terrorist-like” views by a police officer due to possession of an Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions leaflet. “Free Palestine” badges were deemed “extremist”.
- Teachers confirmed to the MCB that they were trained to find out the views of young children by making them do presentations on sensitive topics – a parent told the MCB how a young child was asked to do a presentation on Syria, to find out the parents’ views.
- A young child in south London was referred for signs of radicalisation after he was asked to write a piece on British foreign policy and he mentioned the history of the Caliphate.
- A two year old child in east London who has a diagnosed learning disability, sang an Islamic song and said “Allahu Akbar” spontaneously – he was subsequently referred to social services for “concerning behaviour”.
- Two college students were stopped by a lecturer who noticed that they had made way for two female students and lowered their gaze. They were reported to the senior management team for concerning behaviour.
In another recent case, a 14 year old from north London was hauled out of class to be questioned by a child protection officer after he discussed “eco-warriers” and “ecoterrorism” as part of a topical debate in a French lesson. He was questioned, without his parents’ knowledge, about whether he was affiliated to Isis.
Other problems with Channel
- Unlike other forms of safeguarding, Channel is not transparent and doesn’t involve any mechanisms for appeal.
- It is not publicly accountable – information about the programme is very scarce and shrouded in secrecy.
- The police are centrally involved, even though those involved are by definition not criminals.
- Referrals of children and young people take place without consent or discussion with their parents.
- Accounts of contact with Channel and Prevent suggest that information gathering extends to families, friends and other associates of individuals who are not suspected of any criminal action.
What to do?
The exact forms in which Prevent can be challenged will vary.
- Challenging Prevent is part of a process of building opposition to state Islamophobia and racism within the workplace.
- Build a collective approach to Prevent in our workplace / sector.
- Resist external trainers—they are not a condition of Prevent. Staff and students at one college managed to stop training being delivered by the Quilliam foundation.
- Insist on the primacy of discussion and debate including in the training sessions themselves (see motion). Argue that political views of ‘trainers’ are simply that – they are contested and do not constitute ‘expertise’.
- Push for presentations on Islamophobia and racism for staff and if appropriate, students.
- Be prepared for flashpoints and new campaigns to arise as Prevent is implemented.
- Look for allies—Prevent cannot be challenged solely within the trade union or workplace, let alone simply the training sessions themselves. There has already been important resistance from students, parents and the Muslim community. Work with Stand Up to Racism and other anti-racist campaigners and Muslim groups in the area.
- UCU’s very helpful guide to branches on Prevent: http://www.ucu.org.uk/media/pdf/8/i/Prevent_duty_guidance_Jul15.pdf
- Short report on the implementation of Channel from the Institute of Race Relations http://www.irr.org.uk/news/still-spooked/
- The Islamic Human Rights Commission is developing resources on Prevent. Reports from their recent conference on Prevent are available at http://www.ihrc.org.uk/news/event-reports/11499-event-report-preventing-violent-extremism-conference-
- A Decade Lost: Rethinking Radicalisation and Extremism produced by the Claystone think-tank looks in depth at the flawed thinking behind the government’s view of radicalisation.