This article was updated at 20:07 on Wednesday 26 April 2023 with comment from the Home Office
In the second part of our exploration of the fallout of the Shawcross review, we continue our conversation with Prevent Watch director Dr. Layla Aitlhadj. We’ve already demonstrated how Prevent views Muslims as objects of suspicion and danger. Muslims are surveilled and criminalised under the Prevent strategy.
Prevent Watch’s work shows how vulnerable people who are referred to Prevent are cut off from professional support. Here, we can see the more shadowy side of Prevent. If Muslims are already amongst the poorest communities in the country, it figures that further disenfranchisement from the state would compound their situations. Muslims are often in danger from a state that turns a suspicious eye on everyday activities and ascribes them sinister motivations.
Pre-crime replaces welfare
At its core, Prevent is a pre-crime strategy. It fundamentally operates on the principle that a terrorist crime may be committed. Dr. Aitlhadj gave an example of a case with Prevent Watch that lays bare the problems with Prevent as a pre-crime strategy:
It’s really difficult because sometimes people will contact Prevent Watch, for example, because the child has been referred or because someone in their family has been referred. And they genuinely actually want some support. They may want social services support, they may want children’s services to come and intervene. I had one mother, for example, who was really struggling with her son. She had gone through a divorce, she was getting remarried, and the son was really rebelling, her teenage son. And he was really rebelling to the point where he was throwing things around the house, and she really wanted to get support.
As the child had been referred to Prevent, the mother was left with fears about any support the family may receive:
But because she’d already had Prevent interference, which had resulted in social services coming, there was this genuine fear to try and get support, because, essentially, she felt she’d been told she’s not fit for parenting, because she’s Muslim. What if she was able to access support, and she didn’t feel that she would have been further criminalised, but rather supported?
When the Canary asked the Home Office about safeguarding concerns they told us:
If a person referred to Prevent is not at risk of radicalisation, then they are not a case for Prevent and they may instead be offered other forms of support.
If there is a risk of radicalisation, then they will be referred to a voluntary programme called Channel which is made up of a panel of local experts, including safeguarding experts.
However, Dr. Aitlhadj makes it clear that Shawcross himself doesn’t have much good to say – either about Prevent or Channel:
In fact, if you look at Shawcross’ review he is acknowledging that Prevent isn’t working on so many levels. He doesn’t really have anything good to say about Prevent or the Channel programme. He’s actually criticising these programmes throughout – so there is an admission there as well.
Further to this, Dr. Aitlhadj made a connection between when Prevent first came about and the welfare cuts happening at the same time:
If you look at 2015, when Prevent was introduced as a statutory duty, that was also the time when money was withdrawn from all of the local services, cuts are being made on youth services and youth groups and clubs at the same time as then dangling some money as part of a Prevent project – why would you do it with Prevent funding money? Why wouldn’t you do it as a normal part of the community?
Culture of criminalisation
Governments could choose to spend public money on local services that would make communities feel safe and supported. Instead, the state chooses to spend money on strategies which are built to turn suspicion on Muslims who may commit a crime. Prevent is not about community welfare or safety. Notably, when the Canary last asked the Home Office to respond to criticisms of Prevent, it said:
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.
Apart from anything else, this understanding of criminalisation is deeply and absurdly flawed. The criminalisation of communities doesn’t only happen through criminal records. If children and their parents see referrals to Prevent as a way to ultimately deny actual support, communities are left without any kind of safety net.
Whilst Muslims, who are often Black and Brown, are heavily policed anyway, criminalisation also comes in the form of stop and searches. Black and Brown men are much more likely to be stopped and searched. Officers might find nothing that requires further action, and people don’t get criminal records just from being searched. That has nothing to do with their criminal record, but is certainly a cultural process of criminalisation.
Change from the bottom up
The safety the Home Office mentions manifests rather differently for Muslim children. Dr. Aitlhadj put forward her ideas on what needs to change in order to overhaul a failing Prevent strategy:
We need to stop thinking that we’re going to take a top down approach in terms of changing Prevent, that somehow people in government are going to listen. I think the bottom up approach is the way that we need to change things. I think we’ve got to a point where the community at large have been empowered by a number of organisations, and as well as by Prevent Watch, to push back. You have parents pushing back, parents more willing to speak up about what has happened. So we’ve kind of ticked that box almost in a sense of the lower level in terms of community. And I think now the next level is that middle layer that sits between government and the community that are impacted by Prevent, and that middle layer is crucial for the implementation of Prevent.
This middle layer, according to Dr. Aitlhadj, is made up of professionals who are positioned as agents of the state:
And these are the professionals who are expected to act as agents, essentially, of the state. That’s your teachers, your social workers, your doctors, who initially did come out and speak about how dangerous this is, and how they didn’t want this placed on their shoulders. I feel like a lot of the unions and professional bodies have gone a bit silent – initially, they were very supportive. As one teacher or as one medic, you’re not going to jeopardise your role in particular, you might try and push back a bit, but the minute you see that actually upper management have pushed back and potentially telling you that you’re going to lose your job and that you’re being disciplined, and then you don’t have the support of your unions and your professional bodies, that can be really difficult.
Dr. Aitlhadj urged professionals to use their moral judgement:
We know people have to do their legal duty, because currently, right now it is your legal duty. But there have to be ways in which you can use your professional judgement and your moral judgement and not by default, refer everything to Prevent, because that is what is happening now.
The treatment of Prevent as a safeguarding tool – when it is actually a counter-terrorism tool – is a horrifying reality for Muslims.
Professionals are, of course, interested in behaving with responsibility and accountability. However, in practice – because of legal obligations – professionals refer children to Prevent instead of engaging social services, support from the education sector, or compassionate responses.
If children are constantly faced with suspicion by doctors, teachers, and other adult figures in their lives, how is that anything but a culture of criminalisation?
Costs of Prevent
From part one of our analysis of the Shawcross review and the Prevent strategy, the Home Office also told the Canary:
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.
When the Canary asked the Home Office if it considered the likes of Amnesty International, the Runnymede Trust, and Liberty – all of whom have criticised Prevent – to be spreading misinformation, it told us:
We welcome any constructive challenge to the Prevent programme, including how we can work effectively with all communities that we serve to ensure that Prevent is an effective safety net against radicalisation. Regrettably, some organisations continue to spread misinformation about the programme, which mischaracterises its objectives and operation.
This is dangerous, because it could mean that an individual who really needs support is not referred, or does not engage with the process, and therefore goes on to harm themselves and others in the name of hateful terrorist ideologies.
Of course, it’s no accident that Dr. Aitlhadj is very familiar with how critics of Prevent are shut down. In reference to our discussion about safeguarding, Dr. Aitlhadj said:
The rebuttal to anyone who went against Prevent or criticised Prevent was that we were being unreasonable, and that this is just safeguarding. Once safeguarding and national security became intertwined to the point where people can’t even recognise Prevent anymore, they’re just calling it safeguarding. It became impossible to criticise Prevent without being seen as somebody who goes against safeguarding.
Instead, Dr. Aitlhadj argued that Prevent is actually harming children:
There are harms that are being caused as a result of Prevent, and therefore you can’t possibly be safeguarding as a teacher, as a social worker, or anyone else. Your duty of care is to that child, particularly when it’s to children and not to adults. And I think that’s what I find so shocking is, this is happening to children, and it’s become normalised. If you’re for safeguarding, then you have to, by default, be against Prevent based on what we’ve seen.
Prevent is not officially referred to as a safeguarding tool. However, that is often its function for the middle layer of professionals that Dr. Aitlhadj refers to. Muslim communities and human rights organisations have long been raising the alarm about Prevent. It rather appears that if professionals’ roles in Prevent were accurately characterised – as the work of counter-terrorism officers – many would be horrified. As Dr. Aitlhadj explained, professionals are indeed being asked to do the work of counter-terrorism:
And even worse is that you’re being asked to be a counterterrorism officer. But you’re not following any of the protocols that would then safeguard that child if they genuinely had to deal with a counterterrorism officer because of real suspicion. So it’s even worse, you’re being asked to act in this limbo state and almost bypass any of the safeguards that would be in place.
All of this is a choice. The state could choose to provide support for an increasingly marginalised community. It could better fund and equip teachers to be able to engage with, and safeguard, their students. Or, it could stop bringing the NHS to its knees, and give medical professionals a shot at helping Muslim people. It could even invest in welfare that actually serves communities, and makes people feel safe. Instead, it’s throwing money at a counter-terrorism strategy that has repeatedly been shown to be an abject failure.
As ever, the cruelty is entirely the point.
Featured image by Jorge Dominguez/Unsplash