UK’s Prevent programme failing to engage Muslims
London - Prevent, a controversial British government anti-terrorism programme, appears to be failing to engage the Muslim community, which is largely ignoring it, with some boycotting the initiative amid claims it alienates Muslims and could push some down the path of terrorism.
Prevent, one element of a four-part government counterterrorism strategy, aims to respond to the ideological challenge posed by terrorism and extremism, providing practical assistance to people deemed at risk of radicalisation.
Some form of the programme has been in force in the United Kingdom since 2007, although Prime Minister David Cameron’s government has significantly beefed it up. This culminated with the Prevent Duty going into effect July 1, 2015, which made it legally incumbent on key bodies, including schools, universities and hospitals, to “recognise and respond” to any “signs of radicalisation”.
“Prevent is about protecting those who might be vulnerable to the poisonous and pernicious influence of radicalisation… We must work with the overwhelming majority of British people who abhor the twisted narrative that has seduced some of our people,” UK Security Minister John Hayes said.
But with no lower age limit for those who can be referred to the programme and questions about what “signs of radicalisation” teachers and others are supposed to be on the lookout for, many Muslim and non-Muslim organisations, including the National Union of Teachers and National Union of Students, expressed reservations about Prevent.
Mosques and Muslim associations have reacted with suspicion towards the programme, warning it could increase the sense of isolation and alienation felt by some Muslims and make it more likely they would be radicalised.
“It [Prevent] contains the implicit assumption that Muslims are less able to function in an open democracy than other people, more susceptible to totalitarian impulses and that they are more open to be incited to violence. It sends a very negative message to the community and is likely to increase Islamophobia,” former Muslim Council of Britain Secretary-General Farooq Murad said in 2011.
While a number of Muslim associations expressed reservations of the initiative, Waltham Forest Council of Mosques in East London — one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse boroughs in London — announced an outright boycott of Prevent.
“Prevent is an ill-conceived and flawed policy. It is racist and overtly targets members of the Muslim faith,” a statement from the council said.
According to estimates from the Office for National Statistics, Waltham Forest in East London is home to about 280,000 people, some 60,000 of whom are Muslim. Waltham Forest Council of Mosques spokesman Irfan Akhtar described the borough as a “testing ground” for Prevent, warning of the dangers of the government’s counterterrorism initiative.
“Prevent is a one-way street that points the finger at Muslims and Islam and ignores dialogue and engagement,” he said. “Of course everyone agrees with the buzz words the government throws out about tackling extremism but in practice Prevent opens up a way for discrimination against Muslims.”
“There are case studies of families being harassed based on what a 4- or 5-year-old has said. It is totally unacceptable. Prevent is pushing people to shy away from practicing their religion. This policy is discriminatory and makes people fearful about speaking out about their religion.”
There are also questions regarding how teachers or doctors can be expected to differentiate extremists from moderate Muslims, particularly when the “signs of radicalisation” used by the government are so broad as to include boys growing a beard, girls wearing the hijab and even students becoming more studious.
“The teachers we spoke to are reluctant to get involved with Prevent because it is not their job to spy on their students. It breaks down the relationship of trust that is needed in the education sector,” Akhtar said, adding that the Waltham Forest Council of Mosques had been invited to talk to the borough’s teachers’ union.
While the Waltham Forest Council of Mosques, which represents at least eight mosques and religious associations, has announced a boycott of Prevent, figures from the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) indicate that many other mosques across the country are refusing to engage with the anti-terrorism initiative.
A report published by Britain’s Times newspaper in late December indicated that less than 10% of Prevent referrals were from within the Muslim community. Of the 3,288 referrals to Prevent in the first half of 2015, 280 — 8.6% — came from within the Muslim community, data released by the NPCC indicated. The remaining referrals were made by public bodies, such as schools and social services.
But in a complex situation, even these figures are not without controversy with the NPCC subsequently coming out to challenge the report. “The figures may not accurately capture the nature of the original source because in many cases members of the community will report in the first instance to the police,” NPCC spokesman Chief Constable Simon Cole said.
Questions also remain about the narrow scope of the figures, with the NPCC yet to release data for the second half of 2015, which would coincide with the Prevent Order and statements from Prime Minister David Cameron directly linking terrorism and non-violent extremist ideology.
Still, for one East London mosque authority, there is sufficient cause not to cooperate with the government and boycott its anti-terrorism strategy. “It scares the children about practicing their religion for they think they could be flagged up as an extremist. We want to get rid of the stereotyping,” Akhtar said.