Reimagining British Muslims
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Tuesday 18th September 2018

Thursday, October 15th, 2015

Prevent is one part of the British government’s counter-terrorism strategy. It began in earnest after the London bombings in July 2005. Tony Blair, as Prime Minister at the time, instructed officials to consider ways in which the Muslim community could be made a part of the British government’s counter-terrorism strategy. It is important to note that between 2001 and 2005 there was no official Prevent policy. The origins of this policy go back to the example of the Yemeni judge and scholar Hamoud al Hitar who challenged jihadis, being brought in front of him for trial, to a debate. He said to them that he would try to convince them that they were wrong and they should try and convince him that he was wrong; whoever lost the argument had to concede their position. He managed to successfully de-radicalise several individuals through this process. There was also a need felt at the time in 2005 that the Muslim community should be consulted to provide advice and support to the British government on how best to deal with radicalisation. Several working groups were established on topics such as mosques, women, youth, education, extremism and re-generation. These working groups were asked to provide advice to the government on how best to tackle radicalisation and its causes. The final reports from these groups contained over 70 recommendations, the majority of which were not taken up by the government at the time. This may have been for good reason in that the suggestions represented something akin to a wish list, many items of which it would have been inappropriate for the government to act upon. For example, the working group on mosques suggested that a document on good practice in mosques should be produced. It would clearly have been inappropriate for the government to do this. Nevertheless, the list represents an accurate account of what the Muslim community felt was required at the time. Several of the suggestions were funded by the government including anti-extremism forums and Muslim women’s discussion groups. Two of the more successful projects to have been funded at this time were Radical Middle Way and the Mosque and Imams National Advisory Board. The Radical Middle Way project was set up to provide an avenue for scholars who could help with the de-radicalisation argument. These scholars would be taken on speakers tours in cities throughout the UK. The Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board (MINAB) was set up to provide a forum for mosque organisations to come together to help support improvement in mosque governance.

Prevent, as a policy until now, had a national focus. There was a move then to take Prevent towards the local level and the best avenue for this was through local government. Local councils were selected presumably because they had large Muslim populations and they were given small amounts of money to encourage Prevent type work at the local level. This was begun in 2006 in pilot form and was then rolled out in 2007 across the whole country as a three year programme. The money was given directly to local councils and was designed to encourage co-operation between the police, local government and Muslim communities at the local level. The Prevent budget for these years was upwards of £50 million per year. It was during this period that the police also wanted to be involved in local Prevent work. The original idea was that policing was subsumed under the Pursue strand of the government’s counter-terrorism policy: the Pursue strand is about chasing individuals involved in potential criminal activity. The police at this time felt however that they could be more involved in the Prevent strand as well and it was during this period that Channel was begun as a project of Prevent. Channel was designed by the police as a way of dealing with individuals before they became radicalised. Any individual who had been flagged up as a potential threat would be referred to Channel where they would attempt to de-radicalise the individual. The case of Hasib Hussain, one of the July 7 bombers, was used as an example. He had written of violent fantasies in his school workbooks. If this had been spotted, the police argued, the July 7 attacks could have possibly been prevented.

Under John Reid as Home Secretary, the Home Office was re-organised – he famously described it as being unfit for purpose. The office for Security and Counter-Terrorism was set up to take control of all counter-terrorism policy in government. Charles Farr was drafted in to lead this policy and with Gordon Brown as Prime Minister and Charles Farr as head of OSCT, there was considerable engagement with British Muslim communities. It was also around this time that the Quilliam Foundation was set up as the world’s first counter-extremism think-tank. Ed Hussain, who had recently published The Islamist – his account of his time with Hizb ut Tahrir, and Maajid Nawaz who later published Radical – a similar account of his time with Hizb ut Tahrir – were the two leads for this organisation. This represented a shift from using scholars (such as in Radical Middle Way) to lead on de-radicalisation to using ex-extremists to lead on de-radicalisation.

There were however two problems at this time. The first was that the line between Pursue and Prevent became blurred. This meant that Muslims who were involved in Prevent began to feel uncomfortable as they felt it was being used more as a spying mechanism than a community engagement initiative. Secondly, this focus on the Muslim community made other faith communities uneasy about the attention that was being given to one particular community. Specifically, there was anxiety in certain parts of the Church of England about the fact that they were cut-out of involvement in a faith related policy.

In 2010, the new coalition government ordered a review of the Prevent policy. First of all they set up a near neighbours fund which would be managed by the Church urban fund. This was designed to support projects between faith communities throughout the country. Secondly, David Cameron in his speech in 2011 signalled a shift in Prevent policy towards what he termed “muscular liberalism”. The aim here was that certain strands of what was termed extremism would no longer be tolerated as a means of dealing with radicalisation. This was a reversal of counter-terrorism strategy which had attempted to use Salafis as a way of de-radicalising jihadis (since many jihadis are of the Salafi Islamic persuasion). David Cameron was of the view that Salafis should no longer be funded as part of the Prevent strategy. Organisations such as Street led by Abdul Haq Baker which operated in South London had their funding cut. Though there were widespread suggestions at the time of a drastic reduction in the Prevent budget, it remained at the time at £40 million per year.

The coalition government continued with this strategy of “muscular liberalism” throughout its five year term. Baroness Warsi denounced it recently as a strategy that has resulted in dis-engagement with the Muslim community. With the Quilliam Foundation as one of the key cheer leaders of this strategy, it does seem for all intent and purposes that the British government now stands effectively disengaged from its Muslim community as a direct result of its own policy. This would have been less of a problem were it not for the Arab spring and its consequences: consequences which in retrospect seem obvious. The masses in countries such as Egypt and Syria would seek democratic representation and the removal of corrupt regimes. The existing regimes would resist. A space for a revival of the Jihad movement would appear and the jihadis would regroup themselves to fight against these regimes. As the war in Syria developed, people who either went over to help the Syrians or fight with the Free Syrian Army then became people who went over to fight with the jihadis. The formation of the Islamic State and the progressive escalation of hostilities had brought us to as point where the Islamic State is threatening attacks in the UK. So we have moved from a position in 2010 where the threat level was low to a situation in 2015 where the threat level is much higher and there is an active threat of terrorist attacks in the UK. At the same time, the British government finds itself in a situation in which it has disconnected itself from its Muslim communities.

Prevent has come to mean different things but certainly in the Muslim community now, any association with Prevent can be deeply damaging towards an organisation’s credibility and effectiveness. This is because of what Prevent has come to represent. Prevent can be understood and implemented in one of three ways: community engagement, spying, reform. Prevent as community engagement is probably how Prevent began. The idea was that Prevent would be the policy through which the Muslim community would be engaged as a stakeholder with government aiming to ensure that all avenues towards radicalisation were dealt with. Prevent as spying is the notion of the police or other forms of the state being used as a way of keeping tabs on individuals who are suspected of having become radicalised. Teachers, health professionals and university lecturers are now being asked to keep an eye on their patients or their students as part of the Prevent policy. Presumably countless French teachers throughout the country now know the difference between Salman Auda and Ibn Baz. Prevent, as reform, is the notion that the government should only work with those that are essentially liberal Muslims because this position holds the view that non-liberal Muslims could be extremists and that this could lead onto violent extremism. Having back-tracked from community engagement, the British government today finds itself in a place where the Prevent policy is seen as a mixture of spying and reform of a muscular kind. As such, many parts of the Muslim community are seeking to keep some distance from Prevent. At the same time, we are living in a period of increased threat. It is certainly a question for the Muslim community to consider whether it can avoid working with Prevent during times of heightened risk. The British government should also, at this time, seriously review the effectiveness of the Prevent policy 2010-2015. Bearing in mind that this was a multi-million pound programme over a five year period, there should be some accountability of its effectiveness especially in the guise of muscular liberalism.

David Cameron has this year given two important speeches on Prevent and it is noted that he did not review Prevent having led it for five years, rather, he placed the blame of any extremism in the Muslim community on the community itself. However, with an annual budget of £40 million over five years, and presumably with hundreds of people working as prevent officers, it could have perhaps been more honest of the Prime Minister if he could have used the opportunity of both speeches to review the effectiveness of the Prevent policy as it currently stands. The situation in the Middle East will potentially get worse and the knock-on effects on the UK are serious. It is vitally important for the British state to have the most effective Prevent policy in place as soon as possible. There is no shortage of knowledge, experience, understanding and know-how in the Muslim community on how to deal with radicalisation. What is lacking is the political will.

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Dr. Atif Imtiaz

Atif has been involved in Muslim community life since the late eighties. He is a student of social psychology, his...
read more about Dr. Atif Imtiaz