Jay Edwards
(Former Chatham House Expert)

The release this week of a review of the Government's 'Prevent' counterterrorism strategy has once again raised the issue of how to prevent Muslims from becoming radicalised. The review of Prevent was announced in November 2010 amid strong criticism that it was alienating Muslims and not achieving its aims. Six months later, rather than rethinking Prevent, the government has strengthened the existing policy. The reviewed programme has been split into three objectives:

The Ideological Challenge

David Cameron's 'muscular liberalism' ideas have been stamped over the Prevent strand with the announcement that funding will be directed away from groups that do not support 'British values'. The difficulty this creates is that the government will continue to be accused of social engineering by promoting 'moderate' Islamic groups who support government policies over groups who may challenge mainstream thinking. Ignoring more 'extreme' Muslim groups may result in the organisations that do receive funding through Prevent losing credibility within the Muslim community. Young Muslims may then be attracted to violent radical Muslim preachers who are willing to discuss their extreme views. There is, of course, a balance to strike and local authorities must be very careful when choosing which Muslim organisations they decide to support with Prevent funding. The organisation must be able to create an environment in which Muslims can discuss sensitive topics openly while also strongly denouncing violent political action.

Supporting Vulnerable People

The review has stated that it will intervene to 'prevent vulnerable people being drawn into terrorist-related activity'. The word 'vulnerable' which was has already been used widely within the previous Prevent strategy implies a diminished capacity for rational behaviour. Research has shown that the main driver of Islamic terrorism in Britain is anger directed at British foreign policy in the Middle East. Assuming that people who disagree with British foreign policy are irrational and vulnerable ignores real issues that need to be discussed. The review claims the government will rebut claims about British foreign policy, although a more liberal stance may be required in order to understand and discuss alternative viewpoints.

Working with Key Sectors

The government has also promised to focus on identifying threats in prisons, universities and health services. This kind of strategy brings up issues around expecting public sector workers with no specialist training to monitor Muslims and point out individuals which they think might commit violence in the future. It also leads to mission drift whereby Prevent, a 'soft' strategy aimed at opening debate, crosses over into a 'hard' strategy aimed at finding and dealing with dangerous individuals. This crossover has been criticised in the past and can seriously reduce trust in public services if the community feels it is being monitored. It is the job of the MI5 and the police to monitor suspicious individuals. Prevent should be designed to encourage debate in order to prevent people from committing acts of terrorism, not to securitize Muslim neighbourhoods through greater local surveillance.

As expected the review has separated work on preventing violent extremism from work to promote integration, the former will be led by the Home office and the latter by the department for Communities and Local Government. This is a positive move and should make it easier for local authorities to run more focused Prevent programmes. However the government has had the opportunity to completely rethink the Prevent strategy but has instead chosen to strengthen the current one and denounce Islamic views that do not support 'British values'. Blurring the line between extremism and violent extremism does not create a space in which Muslims can discuss extreme issues. The resulting 'them versus us approach' retains the risk to further alienate Muslim communities and push young Muslims towards preachers who will debate taboo issues which the government has denounced.