Is the Independent Review of Prevent an opportunity or a trap?

Yahya Birt
Jan 22 · 3 min read
Not the Security Minister Ben Wallace

The Security Minister Ben Wallace in his statement spends only a sentence saying that the time is right to review the Prevent policy but then goes on to say good progress has been made in the last few years and that critics should either put up or shut up. But it is still unclear why the government thinks an independent review is now a good idea — it seems to be accepting one on the back of a House of Lords amendment of the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill through gritted teeth.

The review is an opportunity only if it has a wide remit to consider seriously whether the policy should be scrapped, and to do that the review panel has to be genuinely independent and must truly represent all voices — including critical ones. Not even Prevent’s most inveterate critics would claim that prevention is wrong in principle — but what they would insist upon is that five axioms should underpin a new alternate strategy:

(i) its prevention measures should be evidence-based and proven to be efficacious. The ERG 22+ indicators that currently underpin Prevent and in many respects inform the anti-extremism strategy are not evidence-based. The fact that an unproven epistemology isn’t only applied to Muslims does not provide a backdoor means of justifying it. A sound epistemology should provide verifiable metrics of success and failure — which have so far been absent. Without that, any prevention policy remains an ideological project.

(ii) it should not be based on the discriminatory profiling of certain communities (Muslim or otherwise) as this securitizes the relationship between citizens and the state. They are disproportionately monitored as “risky citizens” in danger of becoming extremists or terrorists. This goes against the democratic covenant of public service and the legal presumption of innocence between such citizens designated as “risky” and an increasing number of public institutions and civil society organisations, which are currently required to monitor and report them, creating a state-licensed surveillance culture.

(iii) Where no human rights have been breached, any alternative policy should not interfere with the normal functioning of religious communities. Government should pull back from its longstanding habit of breaching secular principles to interfere with Muslim institutions using the almost inviolate modern trump card of security. Certain vectors of Islamic reformism have been weaponized in the process, and deliberately so.

(iv) A rational prevention policy would not discount multi-causal factors at home or abroad whether at state or non-state levels. That Prevent is largely confined to addressing domestic non-state political violence immediately shows its ideological limitations and bias. Instead what ought to have been a healthy and open debate has instead been weaponised to the extent that constructive criticism has been labelled as extremism and is being actively penalised.

(v) An alternative policy has to be fully open to democratic accountability and scrutiny at all stages of policy formation, implementation and review, particularly by those communities most affected. To be open, it has to be properly transparent. While the government has begun to provide some figures on Prevent referrals, there are still problems with the way these figures are presented, and it is only a very small step forward in this regard.

If the review has a narrow remit to tinker with the existing policy, or has a panel that is not genuinely independent then it will be a trap. Ben Wallace’s bullish statement indicates that he sees it as an opportunity to silence critics. This does nothing to instil public confidence that the government is interested in really coming up with an effective alternate form of prevention but rather seems keener to defend the divisive status quo. As such, any community organisations wishing to submit evidence to the review should be very circumspect about playing into such tactics, and should weigh up the costs and benefits carefully.

Yahya Birt

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is a PhD candidate in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds. He is researching the history of postwar Muslim political activism in Britain.