Prevention strategy: local success but a national disaster

(Liban Obsiye — BSMG) Prevent is one of the four strands of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy, known as CONTEST. It was created on the back of the rise of terrorist threats and the 7/7 bombings in London which led to many London Transport users losing their lives and many more been injured.

The British government then and now strongly believes that Al Qaida-inspired terrorism is still the single biggest threat to UK communities and tackling this remains the primary focus of the national Prevent strategy. Although the new coalition government has yet to openly lend support to the strategy, the strategy is funded until early 2011 after which point its future is not certain. What is certain though is the controversy and intense debate it has caused within the many Muslim communities residing in the UK.

The Prevent strategy has five main objectives and they are as follows:

  • to challenge the ideology behind violent extremism and support mainstream voices
  • to disrupt those who promote violent extremism and support the places where they operate
  • to support individuals who are vulnerable to recruitment or who have already been recruited by violent extremists
  • to increase the resilience of communities to violent extremism
  • to address the grievances that ideologues are exploiting.

The Labour government who were behind the strategy, to their credit, recognised that there was a threat to community cohesion from other forms of extremist behaviour and rhetoric, especially those inspired by right wing anti immigration groups and it has committed other resources to enable local areas and Authorities to address these threats.

From the offset, the Labour government and its key executive cabinet members including the then Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith and Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw were united in their belief that local government and local communities should be at the heart of delivering the Prevent strategy.

The fact is that terrorism and radicalisation are difficult and sensitive topics to address generally but when the prevent strategy is aimed at only tackling and deterring British Muslims from engaging in extremism it becomes even more difficult.  This is because many of those opposed to the prevent agenda have argued that this strategy has led to a rise in Islamophobia, that it’s implemented in a inconsistent and racially aggravating way and that the British government is directly responsible for the rise in resentment as a result of its expansionist Foreign Policy in Islamic countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bristol City, like every other major city in the UK with a Muslim population, has received funding as part of the Prevent strategy to tackle and deter extremism. However, despite all the criticism that has been levelled at Prevent, the way in which it has been implemented and continues to be managed in Bristol is a good example of how it ought to have been done everywhere else in Britain. The Bristol approach has been successful primarily because the local Muslim communities were engaged from the start and the Prevent strategy was renamed Building the Bridge which most Muslims felt was more appropriate. This sensible, sensitive and human approach coupled with key employees, partners and Board members of Building the Bridge been Muslims themselves and Bristol community members, ensured that the strategy worked better than in most other UK cities.  

However, despite local effort and successes, the Prevent agenda has been implemented in an inconsistent way nationally. To be fair, it was doomed from the beginning because it was an ill thought out and reactive policy which undermined the entire purpose of community cohesion. Instead of deterring violent extremism and strengthening UK security,  Prevent has instead ended up stigmatising the members of an entire religious faith who were already under pressure before the 7/7 attacks in London as a result of the September 11th terrorist attacks in the USA.

Critics rightfully argue that the Prevent Policy was drawn up hastily and with very little meaningful consultation with the Muslim community which it targeted. The very community the Policy was aimed at appears to have been overlooked within the policy process, especially in the setting of the Prevent agenda and the Formulation of the policy itself. Some supporters of the Prevent agenda may argue that the Muslim Communities have been and were intended to be a partner from the off set in implementing the strategies locally. However, what those opposed to the Prevent policy have argued  is that only those Mosques and agencies that subscribed to the governments view of what Islam ought to be were funded and those who wanted to question the underlining issues such as the government Foreign policy and other causes of discontent, were marginalised. In addition to this, the Prevent agenda has become the focus of most dialogue between the Muslim communities in the UK and the national and local governments and this has stirred community tensions, strained community relations and has caused a great amount of mistrust between groups of  people who would have ordinarily worked together harmoniously in the past.

 The House of Commons Communities and Local Government committee in late March 2010, recognised the suspicion and division been caused by the Prevent policy. The Committee’s report on Prevent stated that the policy “is contentious and unlikely ever to be fully accepted in its existing form by those it is most important to engage.” The report went further by claiming that Prevent risks undermining positive cross cultural work on cohesion and capacity building to combat social exclusion and alienation in different communities across the UK. The Committee concluded, rightfully, by stating that the Prevent policy needed immediate government attention and hopefully this new coalition government will follow the advice of the Select Committee. 

The Preventing Violent Extremism programme in 2008-09, cost the taxpayer an estimated £140 million pounds. Most of the projects which were funded were carried out by local voluntary or charitable organisations and most of the funding went to programmes that ordinarily would have been funded by Local Councils Youth and Play budgets.  Many of these activities were and are at present, been delivered by Muslim groups in local communities and they include things like sports and field trips. However, rather than this giving the Prevent policy more legitimacy in the eyes of the Muslim communities, it has turned Muslim community organizations against those they have worked with for many years. 

Dame Anne Owers, the Chief Inspector of Prisons in the UK, today (Tuesday 8th June 2010) argued that the blanket treatment by staff of the 10,300 Muslim prisoners in England and Wales as potential terrorists is wrong and that this risks creating young men ready to embrace extremism when they are released. She made it clear that this degrading treatment as potential terrorists of Muslim inmates is prevalent and is rapidly growing within the Prison system. This is a clear indication that not only is there bias within the prison system but that this bias is been perpetuated by the Prevent policy both within the prisons and in wider society.

Bristol has made the best of a difficult situation. Those responsible for implementing the Prevent strategy in Bristol have tread carefully and have successfully navigated their way around a social and political minefield. They called on the community for their support and they have to some extent, built the bridge, by working directly with Islamic groups within the city to deliver the Prevent projects. There are those who will always say this is not enough but on the balance of probability, Bristol has done very well. However, despite the local success, it is important to remember that Prevent is part of a national policy which has been implemented poorly and with dismal national co-ordination. Prevent nationally has failed because it has overlooked the real reasons why young people may be radicalised and it has closed the door on all questions regarding the last administration’s foreign policy.

Young people today, regardless of religion, face similar problems and chief among them is unemployment and discrimination. This is aggravated in most cases by religious and racial discrimination which are arguably prevalent in the current employment market despite it been illegal and the prevent strategy does nothing more than add to these prejudices, especially when it comes to employment in certain sectors.

Prevent has been a costly social and financial mistake. It has divided communities and created a sea of mistrust that may take decades to repair. The fact is that no religion supports or advocates for terrorist acts against innocent individuals and Islam certainly is a religion embedded in peace. No matter who commits it, terrorism is a crime and it ought to be seen and dealt with in this way. At present Prevent has stigmatised established Muslim communities in the UK by insinuating that there are possible radicals among them who need to be turned from their potentially terrorist ways. By stigmatising a whole faith community as a potential threat to the British people, the Prevent policy has weakened Britain’s security defences where it was first envisaged to strengthen it.

Douglas Murray, the Director of the Centre for Social Cohesion, rightfully in his article for the Daily Telegraph newspaper, argued that Prevent has been “a textbook example of how to alienate just about everybody” and as a result if the Prevent policy was to become a victim of the coalition governments budget cuts, it will be welcomed with warm embraces by all those that genuinely care about community cohesion.

Liban Obsiye

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