This article was updated at 2:25pm on Friday 14 April with a comment from the Home Office
Community group Prevent Watch has released a report responding to William Shawcross’s review of the Prevent duty. The Shawcross review has been beset with leaks, criticism, and accusations of racism and Islamophobia against Muslims. And Shawcross himself has been a director of the neo-conservative Henry Jackson Society. During his tenure there, Shawcross famously said:
Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future. I think all European countries have vastly, very quickly growing Islamic populations.
Prevent: inevitable failure, compounded by the Shawcross review
Prevent Watch took the government to task with its People’s Review of Prevent. The project received support from Amnesty International, the Runnymede Trust, the Muslim Council of Britain, and many more organisations. Now that the Shawcross review has been out for some time, the Canary spoke to Prevent Watch director Dr. Layla Aitlhadj about the problems with both Shawcross and Prevent. Aitlhadj told us that the report was riddled with bad analysis and contradictions:
straight off the back of reading the report, we realised that there were certain contradictions there, there were certain areas in the report that just had not been picked up.
Prevent Watch found that the Shawcross review’s recommendations are “based on poor evidence and weak argumentation.” More than this, however, it also found that:
It [the review] declares itself to be motivated by liberal values and yet represents a most serious undermining of those values. It purports to support community cohesion, but it proposes to do so by making British Muslims second-class citizens. They are second-class citizens just in so far as they are to be subject to state scrutiny and their political activities and forms of self-organisation are to be subject to certification and validation by a state body.
Of course, the Prevent duty itself has its own reputation for being a tool to surveil and control Muslims. So the Shawcross review was never going to be a robust apprehension of something as Islamophobic and harmful as Prevent. Indeed, as the Canary reported in 2022:
Muslims have spent a long time warning that Shawcross’ review was always going to be a whitewash. We’ve spent even longer warning about the horrifyingly racist and Islamophobic policies of the past 20 years. We’ve also had to warn about the rising threat of what the Home Office call ‘extreme right-wing‘ terrorism.
Those warnings are going unheeded because it doesn’t matter which government has been in power over the past 20 years – institutions are always willing and able to surveil and criminalise Muslims.
Shawcross review and pre-crime
The review’s choice to call for a “renewed focus” on so-called Islamist extremism is characteristic of racist policy from the Home Office. Shawcross writes:
Prevent is not doing enough to counter non-violent Islamist extremism… Prevent has a double standard when dealing with the Extreme Right-Wing and Islamism. Prevent takes an expansive approach to the Extreme Right-Wing, capturing a variety of influences that, at times, has been so broad it has included mildly controversial or provocative forms of mainstream, right-wing leaning commentary that have no meaningful connection to terrorism or radicalisation.
Shawcross’ absurd claim that Prevent focuses too much on the “extreme right-wing” is an outright lie. In the previous decade, David Cameron, along with then-home secretary Theresa May, popularised the phrase “British values” in a counter-terrorism context. Their understanding of freedom and the rule of law as specifically British placed Muslims as notable outsiders – strangers to the rest of Britain. The 2015 introduction of the Prevent duty under Cameron’s tenure further laid the groundwork for casting Muslims as enemies within British society. Extreme right-wing ideologies are not cast as culturally abhorrent on anywhere near the same scale of anti-Muslim agendas.
This context is crucial for understanding that Prevent’s impact on British Muslims has seeped through every conceivable level of society. Prevent, at its core, relies upon the notion of pre-crime. That is, the attempt to catch criminals before they commit an offence. By its very nature, Prevent is seeking to prevent Muslims from engaging in acts of terror.
Aitlhadj explained to the Canary how the Shawcross review takes the pre-crime approach to understanding Muslim children who may be at risk of ‘radicalisation’:
William Shawcross talking about children in particular, it’s going to be Muslim children, of course, he’s speaking about how they should be dealt with in another respect, and they haven’t even committed a crime. They’re completely within the pre-crime space. And he’s saying, ‘actually, you need to treat them as though they are suspicious, because they have full agency’.
In this example, Aitlhadj examines how a pre-crime strategy views Muslim children. Here, she imagines the approach the Prevent strategy takes towards Muslims as potential criminals:
[Muslims] are not people who require safeguarding and support, and we’ve been pandering around to these people too much. And they need to be dealt with as being susceptible [to radicalisation]. So it takes the notion of pre-crime as something that is okay – it hasn’t happened yet, but they might be down this trajectory, and it really does criminalise it… they’re not being groomed, they have full agency.
Pre-crime strategies like Prevent presume full agency and power at all times, for all Muslims. In order for such a thing to happen, there needs to be a cultural belief that Muslims are figures of suspicion because they always hold the potential to be terrorists. Underpinning this presumption is that Islam itself harbours something sinister. Repeated governments have, over the years, created a culture of criminalisation that only views Muslims as being in a constant state of pre-crime.
Right-wing terrorism: go read Pride and Prejudice
In yet another characteristic example of Islamophobia, far-right extremism isn’t understood in the same way as Islamist extremism. Aitlhadj explains:
This is where [Shawcross’s] argument is flawed… I don’t see how you could separate the two and say, well, actually, you have agency if your belief is that you’re doing it in the name of a religion, but you don’t have agency if your belief is because you’re doing it, I don’t know, because of any type of grievance that you may have.
In other words, if Muslims are extremists, it’s because of their religious beliefs. However, if people are right-wing extremists, the situation is different. Aitlhadj continues:
You see that in the way that right-wing terrorism is dealt with. Somebody who’s convicted with a terror offence and is far right. The sentence that is handed down is to go and read a book on Pride and Prejudice or something. Wow. Okay. Also, they just need an education, they need a re-education, whereas if you’re convicted for an Islamist terror offence, then your sentence has to be really harsh, because you’re a risk, and you’ll always be a risk.
There’s a path back to being a functioning member of society for right-wing extremists. It’s possible for them to have been tricked, or groomed, or have otherwise fallen into right-wing extremism. For Muslims, however, under this model, we don’t just hold the potential for terrorism – it’s something we can never shake off.
Enter the Home Office
We reached out to the Home Office with these conclusions and they told the Canary:
Prevent does not criminalise children. A referral to Prevent does not result in a criminal record and such criticism is unfair on those frontline professionals who are working to keep children safe, from the radicalisers who seek to exploit them.
Islamist terrorism is the most significant threat to the UK. Working with Muslim communities, who overwhelmingly reject these violent ideologies, is crucial to our approach.
However, anti-Prevent campaigners are frustrating this approach and encouraging disengagement, by spreading misinformation, such as that in this article.
Once again, the Home Office have taken measured and legitimate criticism and blamed said critics for being “anti-Prevent.” As detailed above, many human rights and social justice organisations see Prevent for the racist and Islamophobic tool that it is. Disagreeing with the government line on an issue as fundamental as this one is not “misinformation” – it’s speaking truth to power.
After all, Prevent’s central function is supposed to be to stop terrorism. However, it doesn’t seem to have achieved much aside from criminalising and surveilling Muslims. So, is it even possible for Prevent to ‘work’? Aitlhadj said:
I don’t think Prevent has ever been shown to work. I don’t think Prevent can ever work.
Both Prevent and the review of Prevent can be safely categorised as resounding failures. As Aitlhadj concluded:
You don’t really need to look at it too critically to see where it’s failing. I don’t think it makes a blind bit of difference to the Home Office that it’s a very poor report. I think the reason why Shawcross was chosen in the first place was because they knew that he would be someone who would write a report that they wanted to see. They weren’t ever going to appoint somebody who was not going to produce the report that they wanted. And that is a report that they wanted.
Shawcross fulfilled his function in reviewing Prevent. He succeeded in further legitimising the Home Office’s use of Prevent as a tool of surveillance and control.
Prevent is merely another part of the landscape where successive governments embed the role of Muslims in Britain as strangers and enemies of the state. Muslims are simultaneously terrifying and able to be apprehended by pre-crime strategies. Except – Prevent is failing in every way. It can only fail, because its focus and scope are fundamentally flawed. The very conception of “terror” in a contemporary context is built on a racist understanding of Islam and Muslims. Prevent concerns itself with stopping terror, when really we should be dismantling the racist construction of terrorism itself.
If anything can be taken from this debacle, it’s that Prevent endangers the privacy, wellbeing, and humanity of Muslims. The strategy functions wholly to endanger Muslims under the guise of protecting non-Muslims.
In part two of our examination of the Shawcross review’s aftermath, we’ll look in more detail at the impact of Muslims being seen as a danger, and we’ll hear from Aitlhadj about safeguarding in a hostile environment.
The Home Office had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.
Featured image by Felton Davis/Flickr via CC 2.0, resized to 770×403