From capturing bodies to capturing minds. Why the UK’s attempt to tell us that Prevent is ‘safeguarding’ will fail.

Sign saying "Counter Terrorism Response Level Heightened"
Layla Hadj

Dr Layla Hadj is managing director of CAGE. This independent grassroots organisation works for a world free of injustice and oppression. CAGE campaigns against discriminatory state policies and advocates for due process, the rule of law, and an end to the injustices of the War on Terror. In this guest post, Hadj writes about the implications of Prevent for the UK’s Muslim communities.

Prevent is the UK government’s counter-extremism strategy. It requires public sector workers to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. Those assessed to be ‘at risk’ or ‘vulnerable’ to ‘extremism’ can be referred to Prevent.

The policy was first introduced in 2006 by the then Labour government. Under the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (CTS), Prevent was made statutory.

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Since then, the government has been marketing Prevent as a form of safeguarding. This has led to an upsurge in the referrals of young people with a third of those referrals now happening through the education sector.

The rules of the game have been slyly extended

Over the course of the last 11 years, Prevent has been developed and built upon an Islamophobic core of state surveillance of Muslim communities. It has since widened this reach to any groups among the population who present a threat to the government’s interests. Groups that have found themselves falling under Prevent’s gaze include those campaigning around Palestinian liberation, against fracking, for free education, and more.

The ‘War on Terror’ was never designed to keep the world safe; from its inception, it was aimed at controlling and dominating Muslims and Muslim countries. 

From capturing bodies in torture sites like Guantanamo Bay to capturing minds through Prevent, the counter-terrorism sector is both immensely profitable and incredibly dangerous in the long-run. 

Although politicians and marketers claim that these programmes exist to reduce an “ever-evolving threat”, it has become apparent that the threat is not one of violence against the nation but rather one of revolt against oppressive rulers.

In a move to protect itself from criticism, the counter-extremism sector has made criticism of these two arms of the ‘War on Terror’ – the hot war abroad, and the cold war in the form of Prevent at home – potentially “terrorist”. 

The rules of the game have been slyly extended; first countering terrorism, to countering violent extremism, and then to countering non-violent extremism. In doing so, we are at a point where the government has effectively criminalised beliefs.

Prevent rooted in a war-driven necessity to silence opposition and dissent

The neoconservative doctrine of pre-emption, a key feature of the War on Terror, has driven a propaganda war that often accompanies military intervention, at home, against citizens for some time. 

The Home Office’s propaganda unit, Research Information and Communications Unit (RICU), which CAGE exposed in 2016, has been controlling and manipulating Muslim organisations to convey a state-scripted narrative on “extremism” and “radicalisation”, which continues to largely replicate the 2007 RAND report on Building Moderate Muslim Networks.  This blueprint has startling repercussions for controlling the perfectly legal beliefs and behaviours of other dissenting groups.

Inside the Muslim community in the UK, however, the agenda manifests as Prevent. Both RICU and Prevent further an agenda to keep Muslims within the confines of a state-approved Islam, while also creating divisions between Muslims in a good Muslim / bad Muslim narrative.

Those Muslims falling outside of the state-approved Islam are smeared as “extremists”. This has been whitewashed as ‘winning hearts and minds’ by various pundits, including former communities secretary Ruth Kelly

It is not ideology but politics that leads to political violence

Early versions of Prevent defined success as demonstrable “changes in attitude among Muslims”. However, there is no evidence to suggest that “attitude” and “belief”, often manifesting in “increased religiosity” (identified as problem areas according to Prevent), leads to an increase in acts of political violence. 

This is given added impetus when it is clear that the Prevent agenda conflicts with MI5’s profile of a “terrorist” by perpetuating an idea of a “pathway” to violent extremism, which is marked by “behaviours” and “beliefs”, rather than being driven by anger at foreign and domestic policy. This is a tragic but perhaps purposeful misalignment; it removes all accountability and need for change in policy from the powerful. 

This omission was even called out by the scientists who authored the “pathway” or “conveyor belt” theory, now comprehensively debunked in our “Science of Pre-Crime” report. Over 140 academics and experts, including Noam Chomsky, signed an open letter against the lack of scrutiny of this study. 

Unmoved by intellectual criticism and scientific evidence, the government grinds on its failing course; the “theory” still informs the counter-extremism narrative both here and abroad. 

Let’s redecorate! Why the “Prevent is safeguarding” rebrand will fail

Due to the widespread criticism of Prevent, the government has been pushing to repair the reputation of the policy by applying various types of plasters and sutures to desperately patch up a terminally wounded policy. 

In a flailing attempt to ‘sell’ counter-extremism, Prevent was initially marketed as a tool of “community cohesion”, then as a tool for “integration”, and finally, now, we are being told it is “a safeguarding tool”.

But this is an insult and danger to the very nature of ‘safeguarding’ itself. Prevent simply isn’t safeguarding, and no amount of smothering it with the safeguarding ‘bits and bobs’ will change what it really is: an attempt to refine public belief, primarily focussed on Muslims, but which is now being used to stifle all manner of dissent while ignoring – in fact still pushing – failed government policies here and abroad.

The truth is that Prevent was never designed as a safeguarding tool and does not stand up to scrutiny in relation to the requirements and purpose of safeguarding. 

This is why much of the criticism of Prevent comes from traditional safeguarding communities such as teachers, doctors, and social workers. 

Dr Charlotte Heathe-Kelly notes that the introduction of the Prevent Duty as a form of safeguarding protection in the NHS has led to “professional dissonance” and that there is an “imperfect fit between [Prevent] and other forms of safeguarding expected of the NHS”.

Chief social worker for Birmingham city council Dr Tony Stanley summed it up when he described Prevent as “a social surveillance project with perverse outcomes for social work and the people we work with”.

When ordinary people speak about the government trying to remove their children

At CAGE we have documented a number of cases where clients have stated that the multiagency-led interventions by Prevent, social workers, and counter-terrorism officers were always led by the police and/or counter-terrorism officers. 

This incursion took place in their homes, within the delicate arena of family affairs and relationships often involving children. In almost all cases we documented, except for those that are still ongoing, the government had to concede that the children were coming to no harm, despite attempts to remove them from their parents. We documented this in our Separating Families report.

One client said of the process:

I felt like it was my religion and belief that was on trial. It was not about whether I was caring for the children properly. The whole thing was led by the police. I saw on the form, the referral was made by counter-terrorism police, SO15.

This is not an unusual statement – we hear it all the time. 

In the most basic of terms, safeguarding as we traditionally know it takes into consideration, at the heart of it, the interests of the individual concerned, particularly children. 

With Prevent it is not the individual at the heart of its feigned “concern”, but rather the interests of the state. 

Prevent is dangerous to society because it is a tool of intelligence-gathering

Prevent doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is one of many counter-terrorism initiatives that use extraordinary measures to intrude into and gather details on people’s lives and beliefs.

Much like Schedule 7 stops where you are not accused or suspected of any crime, Prevent operates in a space that is pre-criminal and the initial referral is based on the discretion of one of the many public sector organisations you encounter daily. 

Alarmingly, this ‘discretion’ is encouraged to be based on a person’s gut feel, which is best verbally expressed by the prominent neoconservative Michael Gove: “you know it when you see it”. The dubious Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE) has gone even further than this. Unable to settle on an adequate legal definition of “extremism” it has suggested that those that won’t cooperate with counter-extremism are themselves, extremists. 

This circular argument would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous since it will have two important consequences. Firstly, it will precipitate the disengagement of individuals from the public sector. And secondly, it creates a society where suspicion and division between people of even minor differences are the order of the day. 

In an attempt to dress down these uncomfortable truths, proponents of Prevent have argued it is not surveillance.

This whole myth was dispelled in 2017. When questioned around the Manchester tragedy, Amber Rudd confirmed that police do not ‘collect intelligence through policing’, but rather:

We get the intelligence much more from the Prevent strategy.

The truth hurts, but it is necessary to face it so we can find solutions

The problem with lying or any kind of deception is that the truth is always exposed. Nothing is truer when it comes to the attempted re-modelling (branded as “reviews” or “reinventions”) of Prevent. 

The whole policy is, at its source, utterly corrupted, since it is really about mass re-education by the state, for the state. It is shocking to see that in the UK, in 2019, children and adults can be sent for what is essentially “re-education” via the Channel programme of Prevent. 

This is disturbingly similar – though Prevent is hidden behind various layers of niceties – to the re-education of those in Syria who oppose the Syrian regime, and also the situation of the Uighurs in China; these Muslims all face re-education to conform to state-acceptable views. 

China and Syria are really just two particularly hard-edged crystallisations of the Prevent strategy.

When the independent review was announced, security minister Ben Wallace used the opportunity to say that good progress had been made (despite no evidence of this whatsoever), and then quickly added that critics should either put up or shut up. 

We know that the inferences made in these remarks mean that critics of Prevent will be and have been smeared as “terrorist sympathisers” or “extremists”. 

These labels are so versatile for these champions of the state that they have even been hurled at Her Majesty’s opposition.

Pro-Prevent advocates always try to shut down critics by asking what the alternative to Prevent is

Prevent doesn’t need to be replicated in an alternative policy.  We do not need new programmes or thought police to tell us what to believe in and stifle dissent. 

We need to deal with the underlying causes of why people feel both able and compelled to commit acts of political violence. 

In order to do this, the government must accept that the problem of political violence is a political problem and therefore will have remedies that lie only in deep and lasting policy changes.  

It is interesting that some pro-Prevent advocates claim there is no alternative. This a phrase famously associated with Margaret Thatcher. This phrase was revived by David Cameron in the justification of austerity – the same austerity that has helped Prevent to thrive and become a lucrative business.

As things stand, Muslims have been the canary in the mineshaft in the context of Prevent. It’s impact, however, is spreading to broader communities. This is a desperate effort to intercept any criticism that it is discriminatory. Prevent’s tentacles have reached deep into civil society and are edging into the private sphere. There is an urgent need for a whole society effort to roll-back this dystopian reality.

Featured image via Elliott Brown/Flickr

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