Last night I did a rare thing. I felt I had to. I switched on the television to watch segments of Newsnight, Question Time and This Week, all of which focused on the implications raised by the Manchester attack. It was a ‘Prevent’-fest.
On these programmes were people from all backgrounds, variously emotionally and intellectually invested in either criticising or upholding the ‘Prevent’ programme. This blog is an attempt to provide greater clarity on the nature of the reasons why there is little consensus on this sensitive policy intervention and how it might be possible to move forward.
Most British Muslim communities, in general, feel under considerable pressure because of a host of structural and cultural factors that add to their specific and general instances of marginalisation. In the absence of clear lines from anywhere, for these communities, ‘Prevent’ is effectively policing views, perspectives and radical politics so as to moderate, modify and subdue what are concerns affecting many people. The problem has grown to the extent that Muslim communities feel little confidence to comment on either foreign or domestic policy in factors associated with radicalisation, for which they see a clear link. Concerns around with mental illness and other related issues are also there less likely to come to the fore. These Muslim groups are also somewhat aggrieved by a sense that government only wishes to securitise, while not providing any other support by way of investment in communities or economic and educational opportunities more generally.
Simultaneously, another wing of the British Muslim community profile vehemently supports ‘Prevent’. It does so based on its own particular ideological and political predilections. Among these groups, there is a fundamental dislike of deeply loaded theologically narrow perspectives on Islam infiltrating what are pious but culturally and religiously diverse groups. The origins of today’s radical Islamism are from particular Gulf States whose take on Islam is so outmoded and dysfunctional to the extent that its overarching claims in relation to the ideas of Islam are root concepts in contemporary global Islamic radicalism. Such pro-‘Prevent’ groups tend to be middle class, educated, and with women taking a particular lead role. Given the awful conditions of mosques in certain parts of the country, there is a genuine need to improve female participation. Hence, some of the activities of the pro-‘Prevent’ lobby see it as a route to female empowerment, but one needs to be careful here as there is clearly a significant body of British Muslim women who seek and achieve female empowerment without any reference or need for ‘Prevent’.
There is also a particular problem with ‘Prevent’ in that it is state owned and managed. It has now become a statutory duty on the part of public sector organisations to uphold the principles of ‘Prevent’, safeguarding vulnerable people while channelling those seemingly on the path towards violent extremism. Furthermore, ‘Prevent’ training is delivered by trainers often with limited understanding or appreciation of the nuances of the religion, the communities associated with it or the problems of violent extremism and terrorism per se. Police officers can confuse what are legitimate religious practices with ideas that these are violent tendencies on their own. Overall, the UK government does not do enough to speak about its own flagship community engagement/deradicalisation initiative, leading to a lack of awareness of the details. It leaves any reporting on the programme led by more vociferous voices who tend to be either hugely critical or immensely supportive.
In this confusion, a number of principal community interest groups are not talking to each other but past each other. As social science academics tend to be left leaning in general, there is a tendency on the part of scholars to debunk the whole framework because they cannot get access to case study material to carry out independent evaluations or work directly with government on research in this field in any real way. Therefore, in carrying out sociological and political science research in this field, it is only perspectives that are speaking loudly. Civil society organisations are dealing with all sorts of problems in relation to delivery of community projects that have genuine grass roots application to them, fully cognisant of the issues within communities and society more generally. They rarely get any other support, and are often working in a charged environment were popular opinions on Islam and Muslims remain wholly negative.
Undoubtedly, there have been some wins because of ‘Prevent’. In particular, in stopping up to 150 people from leaving the country to join the Islamic State (however, over 800 people left to join the Islamic state in the last few years and the ‘Prevent’ programme has been in operation since 2006). There are many examples of female empowerment, where mosques have been able to restructure their management and delivery so as to be more inclusive and developmental. Young people continue to find a middle path successfully negotiating the challenges of liberal secular democracies, on the one hand, and the regressive, black-and-white, and live-or-die fascinations of a form of extremist ideological thinking that is wholly alien to the vast majority of British Muslim communities, on the other hand.
‘Prevent’ suffers from many issues. Perhaps they can be resolved. Ultimately, the issue is that radicalisation is not a linear process, nor is it a specific outcome of communities, of government or societies, but rather as a universal process involving many different spinning plates. These rapidly moving parts affect how the journey towards radicalisation is enacted or not, but it also affects the ways in which solutions are generated, delivered and communicated. It is possible to move forward progressively, however if important constituents in this arena do not share spaces to allow fluid and meaningful interactions to occur, the current debate will continue to be pushed forward by polarising voices with divergent interests. It pulls people apart, destabilising community relations, allowing vulnerable people to slip through the net, with the radicalisers only too keenly aware of the immense opportunities that lay before them.
There is no doubt that something needs to be done to bring back from the precipice individuals at the margins of communities on a path towards self-annihilation but how it is done remains contentious. In some ways, one could see the perpetrators of acts of terrorism as somehow victims in their own right. That is, for reasons to do with the workings of society in more general terms, and in the ways in which minority identities are shaped in a space where differences are routinely challenged. Combined with a sense of persecution in relation to a global faith community at the hands of selfish interests in different parts of the world, young people with a chequered history and a troubled life are vulnerable. If the focus is on vulnerabilities it avoids the stigmatisation that is directed at entire communities and faith groups. It allows practitioners and policymakers to appreciate the holistic dynamics that are important in understanding and limiting violent extremism. It allows different sections of British society to coalesce around themes that embrace the human condition as a collective, avoiding the deleterious consequences of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality.