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Leading politicians and experts gathered to counter Prevent

5 JULY 2021

Criticisms of the Prevent strategy are mounting and becoming harder for the government to contest.


A fortnight ago, I attended a virtual roundtable discussion hosted by Afzal Khan CBE MP on why the government’s flagship Prevent counterterrorism strategy is not fit for purpose. As the current Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons and activist in the area of race relations, and a former police officer and former Lord Mayor of Manchester, his expertise and qualification to speak on this topic are unquestionable. There was an impressive array of speakers, ranging from representatives of counterextremism organisations to politicians and academics.


So, what did I learn about expert opinion on Prevent? 


Unsurprisingly, there was widespread consensus that Prevent is extremely damaging and requires fundamental reform — if not total repeal for a brand new counterextremism strategy — beyond just critiques on the ‘independence’ of the Prevent review, which is also highly concerning. The speakers at this discussion all backed up the serious, long-standing concerns I have had about Prevent.


Other organisations with expertise in this area highlighted the flaws with the government’s framing of terrorism. Nick Lowles, of the leading anti-fascism and anti-hate organisation HOPE not hate, stated that Prevent is not good enough for three main reasons: 

  • Prevent is ineffective with the mistrust issues it has with the very communities it needs to positively engage (such as the Muslim community);
  • There are major problems with the framing of far-right organisations and their tactics that hinder effective interventions;
  • The government’s idea of counterterrorism is much too top-down compared to the average person’s perspective, which is more along the lines of counterextremism and in terms of individuals. 


The combination of these three factors, he argues, is why it is an uphill battle to achieve a coherent strategy that has the trust of communities. I have frequently tried to draw attention to first-hand experiences I have both personally had and have heard of on the fundamentals of Prevent and its alienation and stigmatisation of Muslims — often to be confronted with abuse, threats, and added obstacles to my work. 


I was particularly interested to hear Dr Fatima Khan speak on this last point from an academic perspective. She emphasised that “Prevent gives formal and legitimised expression to Islamophobia”, citing a statistic that shows only 5.6% of Islamist referrals in the year 2018/19 were deemed appropriate — which therefore implies that nearly 95% of referrals were the result of inaccurate, harmful biases. I would love to be able to say that this surprises me, but I cannot honestly do so. 


These Islamophobic biases, which Prevent perpetuates and encourages practitioners to draw upon by giving them discretion on whether to referral an individual, represent, as the Director of Forward Thinking described, a blurring of the line between distorted beliefs and criminal terrorism — which carries with “a real set-back to the evolution of our society as a tolerant, transparent and democratic society”. Indeed, many Muslims have personally told me of their exhaustion and dismay at the discrimination with which they have been treated — in a country to which they have given so much. 


Now, I have often been countered with suggestions of my own ulterior motives and agenda. But what about this entire panel, who have lampooned “this pain and horror of the Prevent strategy” and promoted an alternative grassroots-focused review of Prevent?


What, then, is the defence against critics who have experience in law enforcement? 


Sir Tony Lloyd MP, who has had a long parliamentary career and was formerly the Police and Crime Commissioner for Greater Manchester as well as Interim Mayor of Greater Manchester, had much to say on questioning “whether Prevent is actually effective”. 


Former Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Met Police David Gilbertson raised a very important point about the framing and implementation of Prevent: whilst a select few senior police officials may have the required in-depth, nuanced knowledge of counterextremism to avoid discrimination, “there is a stunning level of ignorance at the shopfloor level in policing about these issues”. I have heard too many personal stories to be able to ignore the fact that we really do have a serious issue with Islamophobia in some parts of the police force, which Prevent only emphasises. 


What we learned, then, is that I am by no means a solo voice in criticising Prevent, and that experts from many different fields and backgrounds are contributing to the increasingly un-molehill-like mountain of evidence that Prevent has devastating implications for the Muslim community and is in fundamental need of reform. 


The government must act to prevent further societal divisions, racism, and radicalisation. If we sustain this pressure, the government will find it increasingly difficult to contest the legitimate criticisms of Prevent. I await with interest — but sadly little optimism — to see how the government will counter increasingly widespread scepticism of its flagship counterterrorism strategy.

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