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From prying plumbers to snooping social workers

United Kingdom

More harm than good


Waled*, aged 31, was working at a youth centre in Hammersmith, London, when the centre decided to accept funding that the local authority was making available under the Prevent programme, one of the elements of Britain’s anti-terrorism strategy. It was 2009 and the youth centre was under ‘terrorism’ scrutiny, so the funding was a way to stay in the game.

‘Faith-based youth provision services were always struggling financially, so it was just an opportunity for them,’ Waled explains now.

The government claims that the Prevent programme is designed to ‘engage’ the Muslim community, but many have grown sceptical and see it more as a surveillance programme.

‘The criteria for [the funding] was really looking at how to put together a project or an event that could identify young people who may have extremist views. No doubt about it, we all walked away feeling it was an intelligence-gathering forum,’ says Waled.

Thirteen years after 9/11, the ‘war on terror’ continues. The Prevent programme was first introduced by the then Labour government after the 7 July 2005 London bombings, with the aim of identifying those at risk of radicalization for early ‘intervention’.

Under the programme, those reported as ‘individuals at risk’ are referred to a multi-agency panel and assessed. Referrals have increased steadily. Recently released figures show that their number nearly doubled between April 2013 and the end of March 2014, compared to the same period the previous year, a rise which coincided with the aftermath of the murder of soldier Lee Rigby by two British Muslim men.

Only 20 per cent of those referred on by Prevent have been deemed ‘individuals at risk’ by the multi-agency panel.

Tougher measures

After the radical Islamic group IS released two propaganda videos in which a man in a British accent beheads American journalists Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff, the British government raised its terrorism threat level from substantial to severe, and laid out new counter-terrorism measures.

These include new proposed powers to make it easier to revoke passports from British citizens and those with dual nationality, and to prevent suspected British terrorists from returning to Britain.

It is believed that around 500 Britons have travelled to Syria and Iraq, some of whom are fighting in the ranks of the IS – a group that is known to have decapitated, buried alive, raped, enslaved or expelled hundreds of Iraqi Yazidis, Christians and Shi’a minorities.

Muslim leaders across the board have condemned the actions of IS and have tried to isolate the group’s interpretation of Islam from that of the Muslim community. Some influential British imams have issued a fatwa that ‘religiously prohibits’ British jihadists from joining IS.

British Prime Minister David Cameron recently stated: ‘It is not enough to target those who preach violent extremism – we need to go after those who promote the extremist narrative and life view that gives the terrorists and the men of violence support for what they do. It is not unlike the cold war, where we did not just pursue those who wanted to do us such harm, we also had to challenge all those who gave them succour.’

More harm than good

Some in the Muslim community claim Prevent has done more harm than good, and that the strategies used have contributed to radicalization.

The programme has been implemented in schools, doctors’ surgeries and social services and 37 per cent of referrals made between April 2007 and the end of March 2014 were of people under the age of 18.

A pilot programme that ended last June in the Greater Manchester county saw two social-housing providers – Mears and Adecco – train their staff on how to spot and report violent extremists, from managers and social workers to repair and maintenance workers.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, writer, educator and former chair of the Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella organization for over 500 mosques, schools and associations in Britain, says the problem runs deeper – particularly after the new coalition government reviewed the Prevent programme.

The government claims that Prevent is designed to ‘engage’ the Muslim community, but many have grown sceptical and see it as a surveillance programme.

‘Unfortunately, most of the Muslim community wasn’t made part of [the review],’ he says. ‘It’s based on a “conveyor belt” theory, meaning that a young Muslim could be initially radicalized, then go through the process of nonviolent extremism, then violent extremism, and could end up as a terrorist. We once again criticized this because there is no evidence; experts, in fact, say the opposite: that there’s no linear line between radicalization and the act of terrorism.’

According to this ‘conveyor belt’ theory, many mainstream Muslim organizations such as the Council of Britain could be considered nonviolent extremists, and the government has virtually cut any form of dialogue with them.

‘There’s a feeling in the community […] that we are seen as Trojan horses or a suspect community, coupled with the media’s sensational headlines. Young Muslims feel the brunt of it because they are not like the previous first generation [of immigrants], who would keep quiet. We are also worried about our young people going to Syria, but we know these young people don’t come from the mosque.’

Cage, a civil liberties group campaigning on behalf of British Muslims affected by the ‘war on terror’, have claimed that Prevent is nothing less than a modern-day version of McCarthyism, targeting anyone accused of being a communist sympathizer. On this point at least, the civil liberties group and David Cameron agree.

*name has been changed


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