Let’s prevent extremism by engaging communities, not isolating them

Imran_AwanImran Awan

This article is part of a series on the legacy and future of Prevent.

The Prevent strategy was revised by the coalition government in 2011, with a number of significant changes being made as part of an effort to correct what were seen as defects in New Labour’s approach to combating terrorism.  While some of these are welcome, the new strategy still constructs British Muslims as a ‘suspect community’, argues Imran Awan. With the new Tackling Extremism and Radicalisation Task Force now claiming further changes need to be made to Prevent’s delivery, a new focus on the role of engagement  is necessary.

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Following the tragic murder of British soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich this year, a number of serious questions have been raised about the UK coalition government’s Prevent Strategy and its ability to stop and prevent people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. The Prevent Strategy 2011 has three main objectives: first, to tackle the ideological causes and challenges of terrorism (including threats from extremist groups and individuals); second, to prevent people from being drawn into terrorist-related activities by ensuring advice and support measures are provided to people who are deemed at risk of extremism; and finally, to promote partnerships between institutions working together to tackle the causes of extremism.

The Prevent Strategy 2011 notes that:

Preventing people becoming terrorists will require a challenge to extremist ideas where they are used to legitimise terrorism and are shared by terrorist groups. It will also require intervention to stop people beginning to move away from extremist but legal groups into proscribed illegal terrorist organisations.[1]

Indeed, the Woolwich murder and other recent planned acts of terrorism – such as in February 2013,[2] when three men in Birmingham were convicted for plotting bomb attacks – have convinced UK policymakers that the policy needs to be strengthened. For the British Home Secretary Theresa May, the key areas of reform need to include addressing the world of online radicalisation and the role of institutions such as universities in tackling extremism.

The 2011 Prevent Strategy is limited to providing communities with measures to help ‘work together to challenge online extremism’, but does not expand on the methods required to help communities do so. A new group, the Tackling Extremism and Radicalisation Task Force (TERFOR), first met in June 2013 and has recently completed a review of Prevent policy. It consists of a special committee chaired by Prime Minister, David Cameron, and includes senior ministers and security personnel. This new taskforce has made it a priority to tackle online radicalisation by examining measures such as pre-emptively censoring and taking down websites that are deemed to be extremist, that teach people how to make bombs or other weapons, or that feature speeches inciting racial or religious violence (even if these are likely to simply reappear with a different domain name).  The government also hopes to go further, by keeping track of internet users browsing such material in order to prevent people like Roshonara Choudhry – who stabbed her local MP, Stephen Timms, in 2010 – from being radicalised over the internet.[3]

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“Crudely implementing counter-terrorism policies can have devastating effects on ordinary people’s lives.”

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Higher education institutions such as the University of Nottingham play a more prominent in the coalition’s Prevent strategy

For instance, measures such as the Communications Data Bill would allow the government the power to store details of internet users’ communications and browsing history for a year, without having to obtain a warrant. (A warrant would still be required for the police to read the contents of emails and other communications.) Such measures show the fine line between trying to prevent people from visiting certain websites and controlling access to online material. Such counter-terrorism measures can easily become heavy-handed and impinge on personal liberties. The Terrorism Act 2000 and the Terrorism Act 2006, for example, have created a number of controversial offences to do with prosecuting people for downloading and publishing material deemed to be encouraging terrorism.

Personal liberty must be of paramount importance otherwise we risk seeing more cases like Rizwaan Sabir, the former University of Nottingham student who downloaded an al-Qaeda training manual from the US Justice Department website as part of his PhD research on counter-terrorism. He was arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000 for downloading extremist material and was held for seven days without charge before being released. In 2011, Sabir was paid £20,000 in damages by Nottinghamshire police following his arrest, arguing that the police had violated the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Human Rights Act 1998, as well as falsely imprisoning him. The police settled before the case went to trial.[4] Although Sabir was vindicated in the end, the case demonstrated how crudely implementing counter-terrorism policies can have devastating effects on ordinary people’s lives.

Accordingly, the UK government’s new taskforce must ensure that it does not label all Muslims as potential targets, because this will only further stigmatise and marginalise Muslim communities in the UK.  The version of the Prevent strategy developed by the coalition government in 2011 did try to make sure the focus was not solely on Muslims but also on the threats posed by the far right, which is something that should be welcomed. However, only time will really tell whether we are able to see that shift in practical terms. Such a change would stand in stark contrast to the version of Prevent developed under Labour, which was focused exclusively on British Muslim communities and which has a seriously damaged reputation as a result. While terrorist attacks remain a concern, we should not give up our civil liberties for such protections. This type of Orwellian society will only lead to further unnecessary powers given to the police and the state.

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“The coalition has  tried to make sure the focus is not solely on Muslims but also on the far right, but, only time will tell whether we are able to see that shift in practical terms.”

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The perception of victimisation of Muslim communities does appear to be a real concern, and the Prevent Strategy 2011 notes this as problematic. The following extract of the Prevent Strategy reveals the government’s current viewpoint:

It is realistic to accept that some problems have arisen, notably from the feeling of some parts of the community that they have been victims of state ‘snooping’. Also, there has been some controversy about the extent to which the public sector should engage with possible extremists, albeit with the purpose of achieving the greater public good.[5]

It must be noted that Prevent is operationally separate from Pursue which is about discovering and stopping terrorist attacks in the UK. But a central problem with both Pursue and Prevent is that, although the Muslim community is not homogenous, police and state measures to prevent extremism have created an element of racial profiling. Pantazis and Pemberton’s[6] argument that U.K. counterterrorism legislation has led to the construction of Muslims as the ‘new suspect community’ makes for a compelling case. Among other things, the present analysis reinforces and adds additional detail to Pantazis and Pemberton’s findings by demonstrating that the coalition’s 2011 Prevent Strategy continues to reinforce the label of the ‘new suspect community’ being the Muslim community.[7]

Institutions tackling extremism

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The on-line sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born Yemeni religious leader killed in 2011, are alleged to have influenced UK-based militants

The Prevent Strategy 2011 targets institutions by providing information, toolkits, and advice on how they can identify would-be extremists. This has also contributed to the creation of the suspect’ community, particularly within mosques where many questions remained unanswered concerning how the Prevent policy is viewed. For example, the Prevent Strategy 2011 has created a number of courses and language training programs run within British mosques that aim to work with local community-based organisations and local imams toward tackling extremism, and is therefore focused on reaching out to institutions where there is a risk of extremism. This has the potential to damage police–community relations within Muslim communities and further reinforces the label of a ‘suspect’ community.

The problem therefore with the current strategy is the increasing sense that most of the Prevent programme is used to solely engage with Muslim groups and use Muslims to play an active role in the affairs of preventing extremism in their community. This problem manifests itself when trying to draw a distinction between ’extremists’ who may be actively engaged in voluntary work within the community and law-abiding Muslim citizens who are also making a contribution to wider civic engagement in the local community.

A related problem with the strategy and the creation of a ‘suspect’ community has been the blurring of the strategy’s main aims, which risks linking counterterrorism with community cohesion and community development. The 2011 strategy did make the case for de-linking community cohesion and Prevent.  However there are always questions about whether the new Prevent Agenda will be tangled into the web of cohesion policies. Many of these community services are offered by local councils tasked with mainstreaming Prevent initiatives. The Prevent Strategy creates problems where the government shoehorns certain counterterrorism projects into a community-based approach that adopts community cohesion and builds community resilience as a means to tackling extremism.

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“The coalition’s Prevent Strategy risks making universities police their students in a much more difficult arena.”

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The Prevent Strategy 2011 has now made universities more accountable when it comes to combating extremism. The Home Secretary Theresa May suggested that universities had become ‘complacent’ in tackling forms of radicalisation and extremism on their campuses:

I think for too long there’s been complacency around universities. I don’t think they have been sufficiently willing to recognise what can be happening on their campuses and the radicalisation that can take place. I think there is more that universities can do.[8]

Government rhetoric that institutions should take a more leading role in preventing extremism has now been extended also to further education colleges, university societies, and student groups. In doing so, it risks making universities police their students in a much more difficult arena. The notion that lecturers might possibly act as intelligence sources to gather and disseminate evidence concerning their students risks loss of teacher–student trust. Although lecturers should inspire students and promote learning, teaching, and research, the government’s focus on university complacency risks making student (and teacher) experience at universities more tense and difficult.

This new sharp focus upon universities is problematic in that it makes universities part of the overall Prevent Strategy 2011, and risks leading to state interferences and government-sponsored tactics of getting lecturers to look out for signs of extremism. In a time of austerity when universities are facing huge budget cuts, this in turn could lead to universities shouldering police’s burden in countering extremism, which again risks a loss of student trust in the role of higher education and its lecturers. It should also be noted also that the coalition government has made the argument that no one should engage with ‘Islamists’ of any nature, meaning that universities are under increasing pressure to monitor external speakers attending debates and talks.

Conclusion

The Prevent policy has traditionally caused anger and resentment among many Muslim communities. Its impact upon British Muslims and the view that they have become the ‘new suspect’ community should not be underestimated. The examination of its problems given above suggests that the government clearly needs to develop a better understanding of how to prevent people from following a path of extremism that does not tarnish a community. This requires a stronger research evidence base that can help improve understanding of the causes of extremism.

The Prevent Strategy 2011 should do more to challenge and understand what makes someone become an extremist, and begin a process of engagement that can help remove the ‘suspect’ community label that has been associated with the Muslim community.  According to Theresa May, the previous Prevent policy was flawed because it failed to identify the threat from extremism. However, the problem with counterterrorism policies, such as the 2011 Prevent Strategy, concerns its potential to profile activities and people as extremists or terrorists without a robust evidence base.

Following the Woolwich attacks, the government has an important decision to make with its current Prevent strategy. Do they make a wide range of reforms? Or do they examine the evidence in more detail before making any more changes? It does appear that the role of online radicalisation and the work institutions do to tackle extremism will be at the forefront of any further work on Prevent. Let’s hope the new policy takes the role of engagement as a key measure for further work in this field.

Imran Awan is the Deputy Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University.  He is an expert on Muslim communities, cyber hate, counter-terrorism and policing issues. He is the co-editor of the books ‘Policing Cyber Hate, Cyber Threats and Cyber Terrorism’ (2012) and ‘Extremism, Counter-Terrorism and Policing’ (2013).  He has been invited by the Office for Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism to a Prevent Seminar held in London to discuss government policy on how best to prevent violent extremism.  In 2011 Imran was invited by the Equality and Human Rights Commission to take part in a review of UK Government Counter-terrorism legislation and the impact it had upon Muslim communities. He is the Founder and Director of the Ethnic Minority Research Network in Criminology and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, the Guardian, the New Statesman, Al Jazeera and the Independent.


[1] HM Government 2011, ‘Prevent Strategy’, Home Office: 24, https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/97976/prevent-strategy-review.pdf [accessed 10/10/2013]

[2] BBC News, ‘Birmingham men guilty of mass bomb plot’, 21 February 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-21534048 [accessed 8/10/2013].

[3] Vikram Dodd and Alexandra Topping, Roshonara Choudhry jailed for life over MP attack, The Guardian. 3rd November 2010 http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2010/nov/03/roshonara-choudhry-jailed-life-attack [accessed 11/10/2013].

[4] Sam Jones, Student in al-Qaida raid paid £20,000 by police, The Guardian, September 14 2011, http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2011/sep/14/police-pay-student-damages-al-qaida [accessed 10/10/2013].

[5] HM Government, Prevent Strategy, op. cit., p. 3.

[6] Christina Pantazis and Simon Pemberton, “From the ‘Old’ to the ‘New’ Suspect Community Examining the Impacts of Recent UK Counter-terrorist Legislation.” British Journal of Criminology 49 (5), (2009): 646-666.

[7] Imran Awan, “I Am a Muslim Not an Extremist”: How the Prevent Strategy Has Constructed a “Suspect” Community, Politics and Policy, 40 (6), (2012): 1158-1185.

[8] Duncan Gardham, “Universities Complacent over Islamic Radicals, Theresa May Warns.” Daily Telegraph, 5 June 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/terrorism-inthe-uk/8558499/Universities-complacent-over-Islamic-radicals-Theresa-Maywarns.html [accessed 10/10/2013].

The image of the University of Nottingham’s Trent Building is included courtesy of David Newton and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The image of Anwar al Awlaki is included courtesy of Muhammad ud-Deen and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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