Every time a terrorist attack happens, it is safe to assume who will react in which way—far right-wingers are going to call for eradication of all Muslims; far left-wingers are going to try and convince us that Islam is a religion of peace, altogether with a handful of worried imams and high-profile Islamists, who love to assume the right that they speak in the name of all Muslims, pushing their right-wing agenda along the way.
Some well-meaning ignorant and not-so-well-meaning relativists are going to tell us that terrorists are just “crazy and evil people” or exasperated individuals who kill their compatriots because someone out there killed some other people in Syria or Iraq. And the media, such as Washington Post, is going to go on a confusing crusade of failed objectivity, wondering what the motive for an attack was that targeted children in Manchester—apart from, you know, a guy’s apparent proclivity for all things radical Islam.
While some parents are still identifying their children in the morgue, the final slap in the face is the advice from the media and the political establishment that we should “carry on exactly as before,” with multimillionaire celebrities barking about love conquering everything and the need for open borders out of their 24/7 guarded gated communities. And this keeps us somewhere in the status quo, where things remain the same and we get used to the possibility that we might die just anytime we go to a pop concert or take a train back from work. And while the right wing (and yes, Islamists are right wing, too) prospers in an atmosphere of division, blurred lines, fear, accusations, and distrust—any attempt at addressing terrorism on a grand scale is doomed to fail. The story of the British Prevent strategy paints a perfect example.
Grab Your Forks and Pitchforks—Gotta Prevent that Prevent
As soon as the British counter-terrorism strategy Prevent came out, needing to address the worrying presence of “home-grown” terrorists in attacks on British soil, as one would expect, forks and pitchforks were at the ready. The strategy was tirelessly lambasted by high-profile individuals, academics, and political activists, and their views were parroted by the left-wing British media without any scrutiny, leaving one seriously wondering if anyone took the time to actually read the text itself.
That’s how the article “Academics criticise anti-radicalisation strategy in open letter” went on to treat words in the letter as a source of unquestionable gospel, failing to address some of the signees’ dubious biographies and professional credibility on the subject. Among them, for example, was Asim Qureshi, leader of the Islamist group CAGE, who once spoke at a rally for the pro-caliphate Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, and spoke highly of “Jihadi John,” prompting Amnesty International to dissociate itself from the CAGE group.
Last October, The Guardian victoriously published an “I told ya” piece supported by a nine-month examination of Prevent and its sister program, Channel, conducted by the Open Society Justice Initiative. A study, which was again treated like an axiom, was done on a sample of 17 selected cases, concluding that the strategy was “potentially counterproductive and risked trampling on the basic rights of young Muslims.” Rightfully so, among these 17 cases, the problems were real—there was gathering information from Muslim primary schoolchildren without their parents’ consent, bypassing disciplinary processes during the attempted dismissal of a school dinner lady, a 17-year-old referred to the police by his college authorities because he had become more religious, and the cancellation of university conferences on Islamophobia.
The most notorious case was the story of a four-year-old child who “drew a picture of a cucumber while at nursery, told staff it was a ‘cuker-bum’ who misunderstood the word as a ‘cooker bomb’ and informed the child’s mother that he might be taken away from her.” None of these cases follows the guidelines of Prevent or Channel—it must not involve any covert activity against people or communities; the disciplinary procedures are clearly outlined, and nowhere does the document say that becoming more religious is a sole reason for terrorism or stifles Muslims’ rights to express their grievances about being discriminated.
Despite the fact that the study was based on a non-representative sample of only 17 cases, which were the obvious shortcomings of misinformed and uneducated first-response staff, the public conversation did not evolve into a healthy discussion about problems that might arise in the practical implementation of Prevent and Channel—it turned into a ride of lies and misinformation.
What Does Prevent Actually Say?
The Justice Initiative report went on to claim that Prevent stifles “the right to freedom of expression,” referring to its “structural flaws” such as “targeting of ‘pre-criminality,’ ‘non-violent extremism,’ and opposition to ‘British values.’” The author of the report, Amrit Singh, concluded that the program was “counterproductive.”
In his op-ed for the same media outlet, academic and philosopher Tariq Ramadan wrote: “Prevent’s targeting of non-violent extremism and ‘indicators’ of risk of being drawn into terrorism lack a scientific basis. Indeed, the claim that non-violent extremism—including ‘radical’ or religious ideology—is the precursor to terrorism has been widely discredited by the British government itself, as well as numerous reputable scholars.”
Except that Prevent never says what Ramadan claims it says—it lists a number of empirically proven indicators, discussed by many reputable scholars. The guidelines say: “There is no single way of identifying who is likely to be vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism. Factors that may have a bearing on someone becoming vulnerable may include: peer pressure, influence from other people or via the internet, bullying, crime against them or their involvement in crime, anti social behaviour, family tensions, race/hate crime, lack of self esteem or identity and personal or political grievances.”
“This is made even worse when political expression is itself seen as a potential indicator of radicalisation. The struggle against violent extremism must simultaneously protect freedom of speech, particularly when practiced by Muslims,” Ramadan went on to muse. Prevent opponents made a lot of noise about “stifling of freedom of speech,” making it sound like asking someone to respect British values is veiled racism. What does the document say?
“We define ‘extremism’ as vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also include in our definition of extremism calls for death of members of our armed forces, whether in this country or overseas.” It seems that this definition is a basic social contract in one democratic society, and any member of that society can criticize its country’s domestic and foreign policies without even coming close to this red line—but if one feels it’s impossible, maybe Prevent is not the one in the wrong here.
“There is no single route to terrorism nor is there a simple profile of those who become involved. For this reason, any attempt to derive a ‘profile’ can be misleading,” it is concluded in the document which, once read, sounds nothing like what its critics make it out to be.
Does Prevent Work?
Make no mistake—Prevent is a sloppy job. Despite being decently outlined, that’s what it is—a mere outline that falls short of addressing a serious, complicated phenomenon that requires a multidimensional approach in all spheres of society. Looking at British Police statistics, of the 7.500 referrals in the 2015-16 period, only 10% were assessed as having a “counter-terrorism” vulnerability. In those cases, intervention took place in form of anti-radicalisation programme Channel. More than half of referrals were related to Islamic extremism. A large percentage were teenagers, and a shocking number of 610 referrals were children under 10, implying an obvious lack of education, nuance and sensibility among first-response staff in schools. This problem was detailed in The Ofsted report, concluding that many providers “see the Prevent duty as little more than a ‘tick-box exercise’ and do not regard it as an important part of their responsibilities towards learners.”
The problem was that majority of well-publicized backlash wasn’t aimed at improving strategy, given that none of its critics suggested an alternative—the backlash was aimed at strategy existing in the first place. With its “structural flaws”, Prevent is what you make of it, but interestingly enough, some people made something good out of it—yet it barely made its way into headlines.
In 2015, the British government engaged with 372 mosques, 385 community organizations, and 156 organizations. That same year, the number of community-based projects almost doubled compared to 2014, with 130 community-based projects reaching over 25,300 participants, and a local coordinator network engaging 2,790 institutions and nearly 50,000 individuals. The program has been creditet for disrupting around 150 attemts at joining conflicts in Iraq and Syria.
One of the campaigns was dedicated to visiting hundreds of Muslim women in nine cities across the UK, teaching mothers theological counter-narratives to extremist ideology, and advising them on ways to keep their children safe from radicalization. “We delivered this campaign because of the high demand; these same women did not feel that ‘representative’ Muslim organizations or mosques were providing them with such support. At the same time we knew that without the government’s support through Prevent we would not have been able to deliver this campaign,” wrote Sara Khan, co-director and co-founder of Inspire, a counter-extremism and women’s rights organisation, in her London School of Economics and Political Science op-ed.
So how come this amount of engagement (in the aforementioned case, the engagement was obviously deeply sensitized and respectful toward Muslim women) came down to NGO research on a mere 17 mishandled individual cases, which was expressly used to judge the success and productivity of the entire strategy—opens a question whose interests are genuinely concerned.
Whose Interest Is it to Prevent Prevent?
“I have lost count the number of articles, academic blogs and assumptions that are made about Prevent, in particular that the ‘Muslim community’ opposes it. Not only is the use of the term ‘Muslim community’ problematic—ignoring the rich diversity in thought, belief and practice of Britain’s three million Muslims—but it is also simply not true that all Muslims do oppose Prevent,” says Sara Khan, pointing out that many Muslim organizations don’t feel comfortable about voicing their support for the strategy. “Many of these Muslim groups, doing important counter-narrative and CVE work, are vilified because of the opposition by Islamist groups to this area of work. They are labelled as ‘native informants’ and ‘sell outs.’ These counter-radicalization groups, including my own, have been declared ‘apostates’ ‘government spies’ and ‘traitors’ by Islamists precisely because of our anti-extremism work,” she said.
A similar sentiment was voiced by Maajid Nawaz, founding chairman of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank that seeks to challenge the narratives of Islamist extremists. “It’s true, Prevent is suffering from a serious brand deficit, it is suffering from an image problem, partly because there’s an ideologically driven ‘preventing Prevent’ lobby, committed to undermining any form of counter extremism strategy. This motley crew of dogmatists consists of islamist sympathisers, far-left agitators, and then on top of that, well meaning liberal multi culturalists and also understandably scared Muslim community groups. These groups, the last two having good intentions and first two having slightly less good intentions, I’d say nefarious intentions, have gathered around opposing Prevent and attempts to try and get this scheme scrapped. These groups are in effect like climate change deniers, they have to accept the very real fact that extremism exists, it’s real and it’s all our responsibility to do something,” he said in his LBC radio show.
Back in the day when Ulrike Meinhof or the IRA were active, nobody really had reservations about what their ideology was, and nobody really believed that, because they did what they did, every Irish person, social justice activist, or labor union member was out to bomb the ever-loving life out of them—but now when we are dealing with terrorism that draws its power from Islamic fundamentalism, we are stuck with those who will either blame all Muslims or those who want to pretend that the problem inside the Muslim community does not exist.
That is how any reasonable discussion dies at the very beginning—in the absurdity of perpetual discussion about basics. The idea that terrorism is a multidimensional phenomenon and that it doesn’t happen just because someone is poor, just because someone is discriminated, just because someone believes in Allah, just because someone is evil—scares us because we are still not aware that our society is more complicated than it has ever been and that dichotomies that once existed are now obsolete.
Islamists in the West know how to use this to their own gain. Their goal is to sell a social and political alternative to liberal democracy, and selling it is that much easier in a climate where Muslims feel like they don’t belong in their respective societies or fear that these societies are out to get them. Claiming that Prevent was a strategy designed to target all Muslims was a perfect example. The problem the Islamists have with the intellectually driven and honest conversation about terrorism and its connection to extremism is not that they like terrorists. It is that the lack of blur, confusion, division, and fear removes the thin veil off their own assortment of outdated, non-democratic, and questionable ideas.
The multidimensional nature of terrorism is what gives people with an agenda power to use it as a tool for their self-promotion—and the most successful players so far, apart from terrorists, have been far right-wing politicians and their brothers in everything except faith—Islamists. The left-wing media, trying to convince people that the patterns they see around them mean nothing, don’t seem to get the hunch that people are tired of nurturing this cognitive dissonance.
The spiral goes so deep that even the nail bomb killing children at a pop concert isn’t a wake-up call. What’s important, after all, is that a boogeyman Prevent was prevented. For those who fought it with so much passion and vitriol—they got one less problem without it. The rest are going to have to learn to live with 99 problems they are left with, hoping for the best while they sing along with Ariana Grande at the next concert, carrying on exactly as before.