Prevent culture appears in the British Muslim psyche as a nebulous but engulfing force, suffocating Muslims in all spheres of public life. The strategy was birthed into the British policy scene by the Labour Party in 2006, as part of a broader counter-terrorism strategy called CONTEST. It has three stated objectives – to stop people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism through challenging extremist ideology, protecting vulnerable people and supporting institutions where there are risks of radicalisation. While it is claimed that the colour of the ‘terrorism’ in question remains neutral, and although the diversity of categories of extremism have shown an increase in recent years, the policy is aimed disproportionately at Muslims and the threat of ‘Islamist’ extremism, with Muslims making up 44% of referrals in 2017-18, compared to their 5.7% share in the British population.
In this increasingly securitised context, and following a number of failed reviews by the government into this strategy, The People’s Review of Prevent was established. Borne out of a dire need to provide an independent review of the Government-led and Government-reviewed and approved Prevent duty, The People’s Review of Preventserves as a credible alternative to the forthcoming, derided Shawcross Review.
For a policy measure that, in practice, works on the assumption of innocent until proven Muslim, Prevent represents an absolute breakdown between policymakers and the communities they claim to protect and serve.
Historically, there has been only one review of the Prevent strategy, which led to its expansion in 2011, and a further extension of it in 2015 to detrimental effect on both British Muslims and wider social cohesion in the UK. The People’s Review of Prevent works to provide the missing piece of the glaringly lopsided puzzle, by centring the voice and experience of those communities it securitises, as well as centring research and evidence in its analysis – a novel approach in the context of the UK.
While the People’s Review includes a thorough and interrogative analysis of the whole breadth of the policy, it is its focus on children and families that I found most pertinent as a mother and Briton who now must make a whole range of absurd considerations in order to evade the vilifying lens of authority. The details of a policy that works to criminalise Islamic faith are sometimes too ugly and scary to comprehend and I often find myself deliberately skipping over articles that detail the surreal implications and sinister growth of a policy built around the Muslim identity, but which paints a picture that is so alien to it.
The idea that your most intimate connection – that with your child – is subject to the extent of pathologising that Prevent holds it to, feels like a chilling work of fiction. In Prevent we see the extent to which Muslims are dehumanised, and subject to the kind of breaches in human rights that most consider anachronistic to modern life. The People’s Review of Prevent is a very useful tool in fleshing out this macabre skeleton, as well as providing a much-needed interrogation of an approach and policy direction which is built on a woeful lack of evidence, it also helps to map out the far-reaching tentacles of Prevent in British law and institutions.
Although a policy, Prevent includes guidance and practices across a number of sectors involved in the delivery of public services, such as childcare, schooling, higher education, prison and health services. As part of its 2015 expansion, as well as a duty on public service institutions to report potential signs of non-violent extremism, it includes a duty on schools to teach fundamental “British values” including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs – thus degrading schooling to a security agenda. It is widely criticised by international agencies, academics, legal experts, local communities and institutions for acting in the exact opposite way of the values it purports to uphold, and causing further alienation and stigmatisation of the Muslim community.
The pre-crime space that Prevent makes legal room for is both speculative and highly intrusive of Muslims, particularly children and young people. Certainly, it is built upon a logic which treats Muslim belief as inherently anti-British – under the Prevent duty, an interest in Islamic prayer is seen as an indicator of potential extremism – and its institutional footprint would suggest the fear of a constant threat of ‘Islamist’ insurgence in the UK.
The Government announced its second review of Prevent policy in 2021, eventually headed by William Shawcross.* This decision led to 500 organisations and individuals, with a whole range of views on the policy itself, to boycott the review. A joint statement by those involved in the boycott stated their distrust of Shawcross as someone who has a long and proven track record of Islamophobia, the very premise of the review which seeks to strengthen a policy area that is already lacking in a sound evidence base, as well as the policy’s disproportionate focus on Muslims and demonisation of Islam. The appointment represents the latest in a long line of hostile political measures aimed at the Muslim community, the jewel in the crown of which is the Prevent duty itself.
While the results of the Shawcross Review is foreshadowed by his own political and professional background, and his regressive comments regarding Islam and Muslims, the People’s Review provides the kind of rigour and evidence base that this policy position is sorely lacking. Shawcross’ review has, rather controversially, not made public its’ submissions of evidence, continuing its dangerous pattern of dubious evidence base for this flagship anti-terror policy.
The scant data available on Prevent itself projects a dangerous constellation, as the People’s Review makes clear. The Home Office publishes statistics regarding formal Prevent referrals in England and Wales, showing how many were approved for Channel, an educative special programme which those deemed at risk are segued into. The People’s Review focuses on a harrowing snapshot of this data from 2017-18. Of the 7,318 Prevent referrals that year, 42% were judged to require no action, and 40% left the process and so were not judged to be at risk. 70% of those that reached discussion stage at Channel themselves did not proceed onto the programme. Of the 7,318 individuals, therefore, only 394 were judged appropriate for Channel – a mere 5% of all those formally referred to Prevent.
The statistics are all the more ominous when the reality behind them remains how disproportionately they are aimed at Muslim children – who under a Prevent referral, through twisted irony, are not considered as having committed an ‘offence’, and therefore can be interviewed by the police and counter-terrorism officers without any protections, such as having a parent present at interview. In the same year, children under 15 made up 27% of all referrals, but just 5.6% of those referred proceeded on to Channel. Young people aged 15-20 made up 29% of all referrals, and just 7% proceeded on to Channel. Almost a third of all referrals come from schools, while referrals from English universities is very small – just 15 students were assigned to the Channel programme in 2017-18. These figures are all the more perverse due to their ostensive roots in the supposed safeguarding of children.
It is also important to note that these statistics present the tip of an alarming iceberg; the report highlights a feature of Prevent which remains hidden from public view and Government statistics – these figures we see are of course formal referrals which tell us of cases which are already some way into the Prevent process. They, therefore, represent a sea of wider intervention, intrusion and subsequent trauma, for which statistics are not available. Regardless of whether a referral meets the threshold for Channel, social services often become involved in these cases due to them involving children. The report also reveals how the threat of intervention by social services may be used to coerce an individual and their carers into accepting entry onto the voluntary Channel programme.
Case studies into children’s experience of the process are incredibly uncomfortable to read, as the disturbing and invasive nature of the process is made apparent. Often it is the voice of the parent or child that provides the common sense and human voice to a Kafkaesque and brutal process.
In one instance, a child who is described by his mother as pale and dry-lipped on the day of the intervention, describes it as the worst day of his life, for which he still gets flashbacks. The mother sensibly questions why her underage son is interrogated and the focus and effort is not to investigate a supposed ‘radicaliser’ the Prevent Officer presumes exists.
Despite the fact that no actual crime or unlawful act has been committed in relation to all of these statistics,, what the People’s Review of Prevent makes painfully evident is that it is a self-maintaining and self-justifying set of practices and therefore these figures do not reflect a need for the programme, but rather it’s overbearing character. In twisted, counter-terror logic it is a self-reinforcing mechanism.
In the Duty to Promote Community Cohesion, what was once described as ‘shared-values’ under the Labour Party, is rebranded as ‘fundamental British values’ by the Conservatives. Implicit in this is the construction of minority communities as potentially deficient in cultural and religious values, and therefore the idea that Islamic extremism is associated with problematic individuals from problematic communities – where right- wing extremists areis associated with individuals detached from their communities.
Again the lens of pathology focused firmly on Muslims and their belief system.
The local bureaucracy of Prevent, which is both wide and extensive, includes those who have historical duties with regard to safeguarding individuals from harm – such as teachers and social workers. Due to the national security prerogative of Prevent, these duties are extended beyond the welfare of the individual to the welfare of the wider public.
Non-violent extremism resists definition and is not intelligible to the very public that are expected to police and support it. This creates a risk-averse culture of reporting based on obscure parameters which are open to interpretation. The natural consequence of which is increased referrals, which as well as causing harm to those caught up in this process, also lead to widespread capture and retention of data of non-criminals on criminal database.
The Prevent duty and it’s multi-sector presence, and reliance on pre-criminal definitions does little to actually safeguard the public from acts of violence.
This security ethos is fully incorporated within childcare, education, youth services and health provision. According to Home Office statistics, over a million individuals have been trained under the duty as of 2019. They are obliged to surveil pupils and students and other users of services for indications of extremism. This means bringing children and young people under an extraordinarily extensive net of surveillance. Reports go onto safeguarding leads who decide whether or not to report the individual onto the local Prevent panel, and then a possible voluntary participation into a year-long Channel programme of education.
Furthermore, the review exposes how Prevent co-opts language of safeguarding, as intelligible to practitioners, but discourages practitioners from using their own expertise and professional judgement.
The safeguarding of the individual is no longer a priority, and the practitioner is encouraged to pass details of individuals with potential concerns onto counter-terror officers. Indeed, given the wider picture of public services and cuts and budget shortages, professionals often face ethical dilemmas as Prevent referrals receive the kind of immediate attention and focus that is necessary for more acute mental health and safeguarding issues. Statistics reinforce this view – . In 2017-18, 40% of those discussed at a Prevent panel were redirected, and 615 of those who had proceeded for consideration for Channel support were redirected to other services.
Where police are involved the contradictory nature of the programme is exemplified as the pre-criminal nature of the policy means they are brought into a process which is technically independent of them. If we follow the referral process through its chain of design, the contradictions increase. While the tools used to assess potential violent extremist thought are used in assessments by non-professionals, up until the Prevent-referral stage, they are then the concern of counter-terrorism professionals who are trained in national security and not individual safeguarding.
Case studies in the report reveal a chaotic system run by confused agent and all involving children demonstrate they are questioned alone. In one instance a child was asked under interview to recite the Qur’an, and in another the police in question told concerned parents of a child interviewed that as a police officer they needn’t operate within the conduct of a police officer, as a criminal case wasn’t being investigated. The inevitable consequence of a ‘see it, say it, sort it’ funnel. A conflation of Islam with terrorism, and the supremacy of a surveillance state, outside explicit legal safeguards and the mechanisms of local review and accountability, are depressingly laid bare.
The nature of how Muslim communities are securitised are also apparent in a Freedom of Information act carried out by the People’s Review, which garnered 44 Prevent Priority Areas, in which 73% of Muslims in England and Wales lived – compared to 31.5% of the population as a whole. The Government appears to acknowledge that through this wide-scale profiling of Muslim communities. Many Muslim children and their families will be necessary victims to an orchestrated campaign of suspicion. This despite the fact that terrorism offences are committed by individuals, mostly men, between the ages of 18-30.
Prevent’s assessment factors are concerned with engagement and intent – they incite normal ideas and behaviours, particularly for young people who will be exploring and asserting their identity. A case study which exemplifies this tortured logic consists of a young boy who was reported to Prevent for taking a book out of the school library. This book which the school had on its own shelf, became dangerous in the hands of a boy due to his religion alone.
And while the relative increase in referrals concerning right-wing ideology are evident, there are also attempts to pathologise other social justice movements such as Black Lives Matters and climate change activism, as well as animal-rights movements, under the designation of ‘mixed’ type ideologies. Political opportunism is at play here, to posit pre-crime concerns that can come under the remit of Prevent.
Due to this securitising of safeguarding, there are multiple data collection points for each referral, starting from the earliest stage of the process compromising on the data rights of those entrapped in this process. Integral to Prevent is the collection and distribution of a significant amount of sensitive and personal information about individuals. The web of data, stored on a number of national and local police and security databases, is all the more sobering due to the risk-averse climate which puts professionals under pressure to appear compliant and show due diligence.
Relevant data protection laws contain a working ambiguity that can be exploited by Prevent Panel members – the fact that the Prevent process is defined as voluntary is used to affirm permission for data being recorded and shared – despite the mostly coercive nature of referrals.
One case study which illustrates just how involuntary they can be, is from a mother to three young children accused of being at risk of radicalisation who describes the harassment she faced from a Prevent Officer requesting an interview with her children, despite admitting they didn’t suspect the mother herself to be the source of risk. The Officer threatens to escalate the matter through social services, and evoke an assessment that would result in an interview with her children alone. The harassment continued for six weeks.
Despite the fact that 95% of cases in the year in question left the process, their data – often derived from leading questions in interview and decontextualised onto databases – remains on record as though these individual continue to be a risk. This means, the data of more than 50% or children that are referred to Prevent, who have committed no crime, remain on databases alongside criminals with no distinction being made between them. Disclosure applications have to be made to each body separately, even though parents are often unaware which bodies will be recording information.
There is evidence to suggest this data is shared more widely –one young boy faced interrogation from a prestigious sixth form he was due to attend, in regards to a Prevent referral two years prior. The sixth form went on to rescind his offer and a note on his file contained a recommendation from the Prevent Officer that the information be shared with future sixth forms.
As well as breaches of data rights, Prevent could also be said to breach the rights of the child – the UNCRC claims a “potential discriminatory, racial or stigmatising impact’ of the UK’s counterterrorism and counter-extremism policy”. Concerns also centre on children’s rights to freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion as well as Prevents compliance with children’s best interest. The ongoing discussion of how Prevent undermines parents’ rights is also mentioned in the report.
The People’s Review of Prevent demonstrates how disregarded Muslim rights, voice and experience is in British policymaking. Both the shape of the policy landscape today, and the absence of any real engagement with Muslims or Islam as a belief system, demonstrates the blanket treatment of all Muslims as worthy of suspicion.
Muslims are both alienated from the process – the protection of the British public, which is constructed as being decidedly free of its Muslim citizens, comes at the expense of all Muslim rights. Prevent is all the more perverse as it purports to hold and propagate a liberal approach of tolerance and freedom, and suppress illiberal views – while doing the exact inverse. A position that is more sinister due to the imbalance of power, given Muslims are an increasingly silenced minority within the UK. Once again, Muslims find themselves on the acute end of policy decisions that will ultimately go on to impact society at large in a drift towards authoritarianism, censorship and while the ideas of the powerful prevail. If the de-facto criminalisation of Muslim children hasn’t woken up the British public, what will?
Mariya is a 33-year-old mother of two young girls with a background in Policy and Research and Development in the voluntary sector. She has written and illustrated a children’s book titled The Best Dua which is available internationally and in the UK. IG: @muswellbooks