This article is part of a Public Spirit series on The implications of the counter-extremism agenda.
The need to prevent young British Muslims being attracted to the ideology of ISIS has gained an extra sense of urgency with regular stories about teenagers travelling to Syria. Despite nearly a decade of implementing Prevent and the expenditure of millions of pounds of public money – there is very little evidence to suggest that it has succeeded in its intended outcomes.
As many critics have pointed out, the policy has been fundamentally flawed in its conceptualisation and undermined in its delivery. If it was designed to make Britain safe from terrorism – it has failed and has arguably increased the threat. If it was intended to reduce the number of young British Muslims becoming radicalised and travelling to places like Syria – it has failed. If was to stop British citizens from becoming terrorists – it has failed. If it was meant to create meaningful partnerships between the state and Muslim civil society it has also faltered by not being able to develop trust.
As signalled in the Queen’s speech of 2015 announcing the government’s intention to introduce new counter-extremism measures, the most recent iteration of the Prevent policy is intended to “promote social cohesion and protect people by tackling extremism.” We were told by Cameron that the new laws would target a “poisonous extremist ideology”, because the UK has been a “passively tolerant society for too long.” The latest package of measures includes powers to issue Banning Orders to target extremist groups; Extremism Disruption Orders to give law enforcement agencies the ability to stop individuals engaging in extremist behaviour, Closure Orders so the police and local authorities can close down premises used to support extremism. Furthermore, the media regulator, Ofcom, will be able to implement tough measures to act against satellite channels that broadcast ‘extremist’ content and Employment Checks will enable employers to identify whether individuals have extremist tendencies and bar them from working with children. All of these measures are a continuation of the government’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, introduced in March this year, obliging public sector employees such as university lecturers, teachers and even nurseries to monitor and report on young people who display signs of “extremism.” The measures are controversial for various reasons and have the potential to curb freedom of speech by enforcing an opaque definition of ‘extremism’ that singles out one ‘suspect’ minority community. These plans are not only highly problematic but are resulting in absurdities such as a three year old being accused of radicalisation and a Staffordshire University postgraduate student of counter-terrorism being suspected of terrorism.
There has been widespread opposition to these policies even from within Government: as demonstrated by Sajid Javid’s objection to expanding Ofcom’s powers and Sayeeda Warsi’s warning that these steps risk creating a “Cold War” with British Muslim communities. Other critics have compared it to an Orwellian nightmare that threatens the possibility of committing “thought crimes”, by those holding certain types of beliefs instead of actually breaking the law – a situation where dissent is restricted, regulated and could lead to arrest or imprisonment. One of Britain’s most senior ex-police officers has labelled Prevent a “toxic brand”, while many student groups, teaching unions, academics and civil liberty groups have criticised these policies and have argued that the government could face legal challenges on human rights grounds.
British Muslim young people feel a deep sense of inequality whilst feeling unable to voice their concerns, or express dissent, for fear of being accused of being “un-British”
Yet, we have collectively failed to understand the perspectives of young Muslim Britons. Recent studies such as the Muslim Youth Helpline’s British by Dissent (2014) report found that British Muslim young people feel a deep sense of inequality whilst often feeling unable to voice their concerns, or express dissent, for fear of being accused of being “un-British.” Media coverage that demonises and criminalises these young people, frames them in negative terms and associates them with criminality, religious extremism and terrorism, can result in the internalisation of these stereotypes and can lead to Islamophobic hate crimes. Despite all of this, the recent Muslim Youth Speak: Ten Years On (2015) report noted that the vast majority of Muslim young people were peaceful and deplored the abhorrent actions of violent extremist groups like ISIS. They also thought that there was a failure of current and past governments to acknowledge the role of politics and policies in fuelling such violence and that issues such as drugs, gangs, unemployment and racism posed an equal or more immediate and real threat to their families and local communities.
All too often discussions of religious extremism among young British Muslims fail to properly understand religious ideas and vocabulary. The word ‘radical’ is often vaguely defined and interchanged with terms such as ‘Islamist’, ‘Salafi’ and ‘Jihadi’ with little regard for what these terms actually mean. The failure to understand issues of religion, race and gender has also resulted in the problem of violent extremism being conflated with halal slaughter, gender segregation, face veils, honour killings, FGM and child sex grooming. There is also a failure on the part of self-styled counter–extremism think-tanks and projects that claim to be de-radicalising Muslim youth, who – despite a large body of research indicating otherwise – prefer to reduce the multiple and complex processes of radicalisation to primarily ideological factors. The reality is that the very small numbers of young people who travel to Syria do so because of the interplay of a set of push–pull dynamics. Push factors include racism, Islamophobia, and social exclusion while religious ideology, thrill seeking and the appearance of a successful religious utopia act as pull factors.
government seems intent on focusing on the symptoms rather than the causes of violent radicalisation
The government seems intent on continuing this failure by focusing on the symptoms rather than the causes of violent radicalisation. While extremist ideologies need to be challenged, our government’s polices potentially perpetuate the sources of grievance that vindicate extremist narratives. Criminalising thought and restricting speech will not address the root causes of terrorism; it is more uncomfortable for governments to acknowledge that their policies may play a role in radicalising some young British Muslims. Supporting authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and invading others, rendition, excessive policing tactics, pre-charge detentions and unnecessary and intrusive surveillance only serve to alienate and generate further resentment among Muslim youth and push some to seek refuge in religious utopianism.
Stifling dissent is not going to prevent young Muslims being drawn to extremism
Surely a more effective approach would be to develop evidence-based strategies in consultation with the diversity within Muslim communities including those organisations and groups that are critical of Prevent – rather than only with those who are in agreement. Stifling dissent is not going to prevent young Muslims being drawn to extremism. Universities, schools, colleges and mosques need to maintain safe spaces to debate, critique and challenge the arguments being presented by violent extremists and only clear cases of incitement to violence should be reported to the police. Now that really would be radical.
Sadek Hamid is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow based at Liverpool Hope University. His work has focused in the areas of British Muslim young people and religious activism. He is currently writing a book on British and American Muslim attitudes towards the concept of Jihad. He is author of the forthcoming Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism, I.B. Tauris, (2016), editor of British Muslim Youth: Between Rhetoric and Real Lives, Ashgate (2016) and co-editor of Youth Work and Islam: A Leap of Faith for Young People (Sense, 2011).
To cite this article, please use the following reference: Hamid, Sadek (2015) ‘Prevent: Failing Young British Muslims’, Public Spirit (October 2015: http://www.publicspirit.org.uk/prevent-failing-young-british-muslims/)
 Between 2008 and 2011, combined Prevent funding from the Home Office, Department for Communities and Local Government and Foreign and Commonwealth Office came to £186,760 million, see O’Toole et al (2015) ‘Governing through Prevent? Regulation and contested practice in state-Muslim engagement’, Sociology, Online First: http://soc.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/02/19/0038038514564437.full
 Zaheer Kazmi. The United Kingdom’s Extreme Anti-Extremism Policy: Why it Won’t Work. Foreign Affairs, 5th August 2015: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-kingdom/2015-08-05/united-kingdoms-extreme-anti-extremism-policy?cid=soc-tw-rdr
 HM Government (2013) Tackling Extremism in the UK: Report from the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Tackling Radicalisation and Extremism (December 2013: p. 1).
 Chris Allen. ‘The Curious Incident of the Muslim Student in the University Library Who Was Reading a Book (Which Clearly Meant He Was a Terrorist). Huffington Post Thursday 25th September 2015: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/dr-chris-allen/staffordshire-university-muslim-student_b_8192362.html
 Ahmed, S. and N. Siddiqi (2014) British by Dissent. The Muslim Youth Helpline (MYH): http://www.myh.org.uk/sites/default/files/Research%20Report%20BBD.pdf
 Shaffi, et al, (2015) Muslim Youth Speak Ten Years On. Leeds Muslim Youth Forum. 2015.