By Senior Campaign Agent Alasdair Fraser
The Government’s Prevent strategy, part of its broader CONTEST counter-terrorism policy, was developed under New Labour and reviewed under the coalition with an aim to “prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.” The strategy and its implementation have been criticised as “Islamophobic,” divisive, and counterproductive.
A 2011 Prevent document states it will: “…respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism and the threat we face from those who promote it; prevent people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure that they are given appropriate advice and support; and work with sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalisation which we need to address.”
Its primary mechanism for countering extremism and radicalisation is to work with institutions it believes are most at risk, providing guidelines for the handling of sensitive ‘extremist’ materials and channels for reporting suspect individuals.
The strategy lists organisations or “specified authorities” in Schedule 6 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 (the Act) and includes local authorities such as city councils, educational institutions such as nurseries and universities, and health and social care authorities such as the NHS.
Section 26 of the Act states that: “A specified authority must, in the exercise of its functions, have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.” However, its guidance document for Scotland explains that Prevent does not confer new functions authorities. Instead, authorities must place “an appropriate amount of weight on the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism”; although it does not offer well-reasoned guidance for how to achieve this.
What are ‘British Values’?
A major point of contention with activists and academics regarding the policy is the wording of its definition for extremism. Prevent 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”. However, while this may seem sensible at first glance, there is a sinister assumption about the homogeneity of British society (something that does not exist). The problem with defining extremism based on “British values” is that they change from person to person. For example, the deeply held values of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn are certainly not the same as those held by Britain First’s Jayda Fransen.
The Prevent definition for extremism becomes problematic when put into practice. Safe Campus Communities, a website which offers guidance for the implementation of Prevent in higher education, recently advised that British universities should “manage” Palestinian activism to comply with the strategy. Its list of “contentious topics” induces: “Vocal support for Palestine,” “Opposition to Israeli settlements in Gaza,” and “Criticism of wars in the Middle East”. In other words, most of the liberal Politics students who support a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict are “extremists.”
Objection to the strategy has been fierce. Last year, 26 organisations and senior law enforcement figures, including the Muslim Council of Britain, the National Union of Students (NUS), and the Index on Censorship penned a statement to the then prime minister David Cameron. It read: “We are a cross-section of British society who believe in the necessity of keeping our nation safe and secure. As such, we are gravely concerned that the proposed counter-extremism and safeguarding bill will feed the very commodity that the terrorists thrive on: fear.”
What has become apparent from the recent attack near Parliament in London is that it is not merely the reading of sensitive extremist materials that leads to radicalisation, but the combination of significant personal crisis, and a devious ideology that focuses that pain. Radicalisation is capricious, and a policy that is framed in such absolutist terms is certainly doomed to fail.
Image rights: Chris Beckett @ Flickr
In a feature for The Gaudie student newspaper, I examine how Prevent strategy was implemented at the University of Aberdeen, talking to prominent members of the faculty and student government and questioning the university administration.
Prevent policy trouble on UoA campus, by Alasdair Fraser in The Gaudie Student Newspaper (01.03.17), p. 6. https://alasdairfraser.wordpress.com/2017/03/08/prevent-is-here-to-stay-heres-how-it-works-at-aberdeen-the-gaudie/
Policy paper: Prevent strategy 2011 (7 June 2011), Home Office https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/prevent-strategy-2011
The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand, by Dr Maria Norris (LSE) in New Statesman (The Staggers)