Prevent campaigners threaten to sue Home Office for libel

protesters hold a sign saying "End Islamophobia" Prevent strategy Shawcross
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This article was updated on Thursday 2nd February with comment from Dr. Layla Aitlhadj

The Prevent review, already beset with boycotts, could be in for more troubles. Prevent Watch, a community group that supports victims of the programme, is now warning the Home Office of a defamation action. The group sent a formal letter to the Home Office expressing its concern at having been named in the review.

Prevent is a policy from the Home Office that forms part of their counter-terrorism strategy:

The aim of the Prevent strategy is to reduce the threat to the UK from terrorism by stopping people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.

Human rights organisation Liberty explained how the ‘Prevent duty’ fails to tackle so-called ‘extremism’:

The definition of extremism under Prevent is so wide that thousands of people are being swept up by it – including children engaging in innocuous conduct, people protesting climate change, and a nurse who began wearing a hijab.

In fact, more than nine out of ten Prevent referrals in 2017/18 didn’t require any de-radicalisation action.

Read on...

The upcoming review of the strategy is a commitment from the government. However, as the Canary has previously reported this review is being led by William Shawcross. As we’ve noted before, when he was the director of the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society, Shawcross 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.

Why do Prevent Watch think they’re mentioned?

It’s been repeatedly documented that Muslims have been targeted and surveilled by this racist strategy. So, Prevent Watch has very good reason to think it might be mentioned in this government review. Back in the summer of 2022, the Guardian got its hands on a leak of the review. One of the things that came up was:

In Shawcross’s draft review of the Prevent programme, he argues that its purpose must be refocused and says its first objective, to tackle the causes of radicalisation and respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism, “is not being sufficiently met”.

It argues that the programme must re-engage with individuals who are not yet posing a terror threat but who can “create an environment conducive to terrorism”.

In plain language, Shawcross continues to shift government and policing strategy towards “pre-crime.” That’s when groups considered ‘likely’ to commit a crime are targeted before any such crime has even happened. Dr. Layla Aitlhadj, director of Prevent Watch, spoke to the Canary about what needs to happen next for the Prevent programme:

What is required for the Prevent strategy remains very clear – that it is scrapped in its entirety and that the harms caused society and the pre-crime policies that it has embedded across institutions be actively undone.

Worryingly, however, also amongst the leaks of the review was Shawcross’s view that:

Prevent is too focused on rightwing extremism and instead should focus more on Islamic extremism.

Now, the Guardian reported that Aitlhadj:

believes it is likely their organisation has been named in Shawcross’s review as one of those critical of the Prevent programme who are responsible for spreading Islamic extremism, a claim which, if it is made in Shawcross’s review, she says is seriously defamatory.

Dangers ahead

The danger, as Aitlhadj alluded to, is that by purely being critical of the Prevent strategy, individuals or organisations can be seen to be spreading “extremism”. Given that Prevent Watch exists to support people who’ve been harmed by the strategy, it would be difficult for it to do its vital work without being critical of Prevent. Aitlhadj insists that the group won’t let its work be halted, and told the Canary:

To smear organisations, and particularly Muslim organisations who raise legitimate concerns about Prevent, is an embodiment of how Prevent seeks to silence Muslim political participation and freedom of speech and association…The smear tactics against those like Prevent Watch who speak up about the harms of Prevent are deliberate and aim to induce fear among other organisations and individuals.

We will never be silenced by such tactics.

The report was initially due to be published in 2021, but has yet to materialise. Aitlhadj made it clear what the Home Office needs to do next:

They should not only remove any defamatory statements in the Shawcross report, but they must ensure the contents are within the stated purpose of the independent review, and publish their report without further delay, to avoid liability and allow for public scrutiny.

Prevent Watch’s letter to the Home Office is a test for this government. Will it be open and honest about what’s in the review? Will it avoid attempts to punish critics of the Prevent strategy? However, it’s not going to do any of those things because it’s simply the latest in a line of decades-long policies that have targeted Muslims in Britain. Muslims are still demonised and seen as potential extremists, no matter what. Prevent Watch’s brave stance against the Home Office deserves to be applauded and amplified.

Featured image by Wikimedia Commons/Lorie Shaull via CC 2.0, resized to 770×403

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