‘Prevent’ and Communities: the ongoing gaps

How can we ensure differing approaches to preventing and countering radicalisation include effective critical community engagement? This was the question put to me by the conference organisers of the Counter Terror Expo at the Olympia in London, 3-4 May 2017. I was asked to prepare a talk to respond to this challenge. The following is the full text of the speech I gave on 3 May.

Many thanks, chair, the conference organisers and to you the audience for the opportunity to be with you here today. I have been asked to talk about Prevent and communities. That Prevent has received a negative reception is well documented. From various sectors within the academy, among civil society organisations (CSOs) and in the left-leaning press, there is a mismatch between expectations, application and understanding in relation to Prevent. Why is this the case given that Prevent has been in operation since 2006? Why is there a problem in relation to its delivery and impact when there is a clear and mutual recognition of the wider problems in relation to violent extremism that exist at the margins of communities?

In trying to answer these questions it could be said that, yes, there are indeed issues that need addressing in the light of the challenge violent extremism places on societies, but at the same time, there is a limitation in relation to the understanding of the problems and the projects introduced to try and deal with them. Without a doubt, Prevent is heavily invested in from different aspects of government policy-making and so it is not going to go away in a hurry. This is in spite of the accusations of securitising communities placed against it by members of the British Muslim community in particular and by scholars in the academy in general. There are crucial questions here, nevertheless. Where is the independent evaluation of Prevent programming to help in determining a better understanding or appreciation of its legitimacy? In addition, is there a political mismatch between what the government expects, wants and needs and what the affected communities expect, want and need?

Academics are concerned with the securitising of community differences agenda. Popular conceptions of Islam and Muslims are increasingly reduced to homogeneous notions in the wider imagination, but within the Prevent space, Muslim differences are recognised and ultimately policed, leading to accusations of securitising integration through securitising differences, where the idea of non-violent extremism is seen as a precursor to violent extremism per se. It is somewhat disingenuous to label non-violent extremism as a problem in itself when it arguably reflects a conflation between genuine instances of radicalisation and wider concerns in relation to conservativeness that affect a broader public policy concern, heightened in the light of globalisation, Brexit and widening social divisions.

Civil society organisations complain they cannot get conflict reduction or community capacity building funding unless their applications tick a counterterrorism or countering violent extremism box for what are important and necessary projects in their own terms, delivering positive social change. Local community oriented projects are unable to receive funding unless there is a clear notion that their activities are somehow reducing the proclivity or the potential for violent conflict among affected communities. This space is somewhat of a straitjacket on projects as well as donors who are compelled to apply concepts that are in the wider public policy imaginary, in particular where there is a significant level of investment behind them.

The left-leaning presses, including the Guardian and Independent, often discuss concerns about the wider global war on terror culture which stigmatises, vilifies and continues to demonise what are often marginalised communities at the periphery of society, facing all sorts of challenges of representation and participation. They single out Prevent as a particular challenge. With all of these concerns from different elements of society, why is there an ongoing mismatch, why is there the conflict between different actors, and why is there no attempt to try and bridge together these concerns and determine solutions in the interests of all?

First, the UK government is reluctant to publish in full its own data in relation to Prevent. There is inevitably a sensitivity in relation to the content, but the complete lack of openness leads to further charges. Academia is working independently of government research and policymaking in this area because they are unable to get access to original data. For CSOs, funding is limited in general and additional funding is unavailable unless there is a CVE component to projects and for organisations working in the conflict-reduction, peacebuilding, or pro-integration arena. Indeed, there is a general lack of confidence in the process, and in spite of the clear need to move forward in order to build community resilience.

Prevent should be a space for engagement, turning it into a more community-orientated focus while leaving the counterterrorism side of it fully in the background. Prevent has the possibility of engaging youth and women to break out of the negative situations they find within their own community settings, helping to determine community development in general and especially where there are risks in relation to young people’s lack of understanding of the open nature of Islam and being Muslim in particular. Prevent also needs a greater focus on the issue of far-right extremism, which is emerging as a particularly acute challenge in the current climate, growing as both a security threat and a social menace. There is also a wider debate to be had about the confluence of far-right extremism, based on a counter-Jihad discourse, which feeds off and further fuels Islamophobia, which then has the impact of radicalising troubled and exposed young Muslims looking for meaning in their lives. There is a political concern in relation to the legitimisation of populist voices who give succour to far right movements, too.

Is true that Prevent is often done badly. There is poor training, poor understanding and poor communications. Prevent needs to refocus on its key aims and undo the conflation between social policy and counterterrorism policy. While the threat of violent extremism rises, especially from the far right, there is an even greater impetus on the part of Prevent to better manage the problems and deliver the solutions. Unable to grasp the differences between conservativeness and radical violent extremism leads to all sorts of political fallout, such as the Trojan horse plot fiasco. It led to the closure of 21 schools because they were thought to have been taken over by Islamists with their own agendas of Islamisation of state institutions and the Muslim pupils who predominantly go to them.

If we can clearly understand that far right and Islamist extremism are two sides of the same coin, then why do we not treat them as similar problems with similar solutions? The reality is that policymakers focus on tweaking certain behavioural norms in relation to minority communities as an attempt to deal with a much more holistic problem. Without the structural changes necessary to improve equality of opportunity as well as equality of outcome, hyper-normalisation becomes the status quo, rendering Muslims invisible outside of the counterterrorism and CVE space.

Issues of ideology in relation to Islamist extremists come at the end of Islamic State recruitment processes, which starts with a focus on grievances and the humanitarian elements of Islam. In the recent past, it would have been the youth service or the social work realm that would have intervened in relation to young people experiencing difficulties in the transition from youth to adulthood, and all the challenges faced as a result of everyday life affected by deindustrialisation and globalisation.

The reduction in public services as a result of the policies of austerity have plagued Britain since 2010, combined with a completely unexpected new challenge in the form of Islamic State, which came to prominence in 2014. These have led to the UK government to take a direct focus on what is seen as the problem and the solution, arguably, taking matters back to a time when the general perspective on Islam and Muslims, specifically in the aftermath of the events of 9/11 and 7/7, were negatively focused on culture and identity. It leads to reactionary and dogmatic policies and programmes, demonising and vilifying a community of communities, shifting the attention away from specific challenges of liberal democracies in the current era, and projecting these concerns onto some of the most exposed and vulnerable groups in society.