‘A distasteful and dangerous path’ was just one description for PREVENT, the government’s new deradicalization strategy, as speakers from journalism, politics and education gathered on 25 June at an event called ‘PREVENT: tackling extremism or criminalizing dissent?’, organized by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
Held at Amnesty International’s packed London auditorium, the evening began a process of coalition-building, set to challenge the murky road of new anti-terror tactics in which Britain seems to be engaged.
PREVENT is a strand of Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy, which has had various mutations since the terrorist attacks in London on 7 July 2005. What’s new is the statutory duty recently placed on an already overworked public sector to monitor and report those suspected of being ‘drawn into terrorism’.
Widespread fears include the risk of institutions being drawn into a tangled web of vague definitions, in what lawyer Simon Natas has described as a ‘huge, ramshackle, decentralized apparatus’.
Fraught with dangers of over-reporting, the new doctrine focuses on the prevention of nonviolent extremism which has the clear-as-mud definition of ‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values’.
Ironically, the values are listed as democracy, law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.
Advocacy group CAGE has said that ‘PREVENT has no peer-reviewed evidentiary basis showing a link between violence and ideology’, and has produced a phenomenal report detailing the harrowing on-the-ground impacts the measure will have.
Raza Nadim, from the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK (MPACUK), says: ‘we have to look at this in terms of the wider context. What began as a community-led project under the Labour government soon clearly became surveillance. The fact that it has been made statutory means it has backfired spectacularly.’
Giving the example of hundreds of security cameras installed in Muslim areas in Birmingham using PREVENT funding, Raza Nadim is adamant that the strategy further alienates Muslims, with more and more people scared to air legitimate grievances.
Discussing the simplistic conveyor-belt theory of the nonviolent extremist morphing into the terrorist, and the focus on religious ideology which ignores wider economic, political and social factors, Nadim is frank: ‘The government talks about Muslims, but not to them; and Muslims talk about the government, but not to them. We now have the worst counter-terrorism strategy ever.’
In 2007, a study commissioned by then-London-mayor Ken Livingstone revealed that 91% of Muslim-related articles which appeared in the British press during any one week were negative.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s latest blunder, accusing Muslims of ‘quietly condoning’ extremist ideology, was quickly translated by the Daily Mail into ‘PM: UK MUSLIMS HELPING JIHADIS’ and is just one example of the ignorance pervading the current discourse.
The elephant in the room
Describing a generation of Muslims who have grown up in the wake of the terrible 7 July 2005 bombings, seeing their faith attacked, Nadim is frank: ‘Are you surprised they don’t feel like they have a stake in society? They feel hated.’
In 2010, former head of British intelligence agency MI5 Erica Manningham-Buller claimed that ‘our involvement in Iraq, for want of a better word, radicalized a whole generation of young people.’
Asked about the elephant in the room, Nadim reminds me that the perpetrators of the gruesome 7 July attack and the murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich in 2013 all cited British foreign policy.
‘When Muslims mention foreign policy, the government is flippant. They ridicule our opinions and refuse to discuss it. You can engage young Muslims and teach them they can have input and change things. They need to be talking to Muslims about foreign policy.’
He continues: ‘I want to stop terrorism, but the government doesn’t listen to Muslims like me. Their way hasn’t worked and more people have gone abroad [to fight]. Try my way for a year, talk and listen to them. Deal with the fact they face islamophobia and people can’t say the government hates us. You would see such a change. We’ve lurched so far down this draconian way, we’re so fractured, can we heal these scars?’
While elements of PREVENT’s framework focus on religious symbolism and ideology, concerns are of the potential of stifling free speech for all.
‘The government talks about Muslims, but not to them; and Muslims talk about the government, but not to them. We now have the worst counter-terrorism strategy ever’
Could we be saying goodbye to our collective freedom for dissent? Is it the end of the ability to voice criticisms in public spaces or on social media? Will there be a domino effect in everything from trade unions to environmental activism? What about public marches criticizing Israel’s violations of international law, like we saw last year? Are we saying goodbye to debate and freedom to test controversial and unpopular opinions in schools and universities?
What happens in education ripples through society. Will we all pay the price for this new legislation?
Having attended two PREVENT training days, Reverend Stuart Jennings would rather see the strategy in the hands of the police than politicians. He describes his duty of care as Chaplain to two universities.
‘All sorts of strange groups come on campus, targeting disorientated new students. They may be religious, far-right, or simply want money and see the campus as a chance to target vulnerable individuals. They isolate them from the societies they’re part of and it’s up to us to recognize the signs when people stop taking part in their usual social interactions.’
Describing the expectation on schools as ‘a bit sinister’, he is concerned at linking the monitoring of extremism with child protection. ‘When does people discussing views different to yours become extremism? It can become a game of Chinese whispers. In a court of law, this would be thrown out because it’s not specific enough.’
He adds that he would like to see PREVENT working with interfaith groups in cities. ‘It’s a lot harder to be taken in by these caricatures if you know people and their families. It has good potential, but it has to be co-operation and not an implementation.’
‘Is my son going to be in trouble for watching Russell Brand?’
Despite a busy Ramadan schedule, Azad Ali from MEND made time to chat about PREVENT. Discussing the demonization of British Muslims and recent comments of Scotland Yard commander Mak Chisty, who suggested shunning Marks and Spencer could be a sign of radicalization, Ali made a serious point: ‘This is stupidity, but because he’s a senior police officer people take it on board.’
He added that PREVENT is causing so much fear and confusion among the Muslim community that some parents have sought legal advice.
‘On one hand, you have people telling kids to broaden their horizons and ask questions. You can imagine what pressure they’re under; the innocence of a 5-year-old has gone. They’re between a rock and a hard place. What kind of people are we creating? Is my son going to be in trouble for watching Russell Brand?’
Ali wants to see Muslim children taught that they belong to society, that it’s their country and if there’s something they don’t like, they have the right to question it.
‘Foreign policy is a taboo subject. If you go back in history, sex was taboo in schools. You know, babies just popped out – now it’s foreign policy you can’t criticize.’
Asked if there is a way back from this mess, he was hopeful. ‘We’re not at a point of no return. There’s a new generation every year; the quicker we do it, the less damage we do to the future.’
In a chilling example of PREVENT doing the opposite of what it wants to do, Ali added that if children feel they can’t question things, there’s a likelihood of them being attracted to groups who will answer their questions, however badly.