By Miqdaad Versi
10 November 2017
“Winning hearts and minds” was the title of the government’s action plan to isolate, prevent and defeat violent extremism in 2007. Ten years later, hearts and minds are yet to be won.
The Prevent strategy (2011) and the subsequent Prevent duty (2015) – whereby public authorities are required to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism” – have instead become a “significant source of grievance” among students, teachers, academics, human rights groups and broader civil society, encouraging “mistrust to spread and to fester”.
In a year when we have suffered a series of terror threats, it is clear we need a counter-radicalisation strategy that is effective and has the trust of our entire society. The Home Office’s latest attempt to reverse the loss of trust over the past decade, therefore, is very welcome. In a new report, it has opened a small door into the inner workings of Prevent: who is doing the referring, what happens to those referred, who is being referred and for what reason?
There are, of course, significant limitations in the data provided: the lack of any faith or ethnicity indicators, age categorisation that does not allow one to distinguish between nursery, primary, secondary and tertiary education, and a limited data split explaining which groups had no action taken or were signposted to alternative services. In addition, case studies of most categories are sorely lacking – how, where and why are so many young children being referred to Prevent by the police?
Notwithstanding these limitations, the transparency has added to the evidence base, bringing with it useful insights, the ability to challenge and ultimately greater accountability.
For example, we can see that “Islamist” extremism makes up 65% (4,997 people) of all Prevent referrals – down from 70% in 2015 – and “extreme rightwing” extremism makes up 10% (759 people), down from 15% in 2015. Crunching the numbers, this means that Muslims have an approximate 1 in 500 chance of having been referred to Prevent last year, approximately 40 times more likely than someone who is not a Muslim. The threat, quantified by the number of terror arrests, is approximately five times greater from “Islamist” terrorism compared to “extreme rightwing” terrorism. This may explain concern from Muslim communities who feel disproportionately and unfairly targeted by Prevent.
This concern is only magnified when we see that despite the claim that the Prevent duty is solely about safeguarding, it is not applicable in Northern Ireland, even though the MI5 threat rating for Northern Ireland-related terrorism is the same as from international terrorism. A government official is reported to have told Gavin Robinson MP: “Don’t push the issue too far. It is really a counter-Islamic strategy,” after he asked why Northern Ireland was not included. The only non-discriminatory reasons for not applying the Prevent duty in Northern Ireland are either that it has a better system or due to the sectarianism inherent within communities, which would mean, for example, that a Protestant teacher wrongly referring an innocent Catholic child to Prevent might be deeply counter-productive.
Yet in the UK, the idea of referring innocent Muslims is not deemed to be equally counter-productive. A significantly smaller proportion of those referred for “Islamist” extremism are actually acted upon (16% are discussed at an early intervention multi-agency programme – a Channel panel; 5% receive Channel support), compared to “extreme rightwing” extremism (25% and 13% respectively), suggesting an over-referral for “Islamist” extremism. It is possible that some of this is due to them actually being signposted to other agencies, but the data is not publicly available to test that hypothesis.
Some flag-bearers of Prevent may claim that there is no real over-referring and in fact, the overall proportion of those referred with no action taken (37%), compares favourably to other forms of safeguarding (35%). However, this does not explain why a smaller proportion of “Islamist” extremists referred to Prevent are discussed at a Channel panel, compared with “extreme rightwing” extremists.
The assertion that Muslim communities appear to be at the forefront of reporting terrorism, is also supported by the data, as a higher proportion of referrals come from community, friends and family for “Islamist” extremism (10%) as opposed to “extreme rightwing” extremism (5%).
The biggest concern among many, including Conservative MP Lucy Allan, is how the Prevent duty is affecting education, undermining trust between teachers and pupils. The new statistics show that these represent a third of all referrals – forming the greatest source of Prevent referrals. Half of these are under the age of 15, meaning that more than 2,000 young children in a one-year period have been referred to Prevent. What this means is that teachers considered these children as having exhibited signs of radicalisation and that these children will have a permanent note on their record to that effect, even though they did not require further support. It is possible that some of these were signposted to other support services, but the data is not broken down to provide that information.
The over-referral of Muslims, the apparent disproportionate targeting of Muslims and the focus on young children are not just issues with the implementation but appear to be part and parcel of the design of Prevent. Why else would Ofsted use the example of a “hidden Qur’an in a child’s bedroom” as a very clear sign of radicalisation? Why else would there be no real concern by the Home Office when Bob Blackman, an MP, hosts an anti-Muslim extremist in the House of Commons citing the freedom to discuss views – a freedom not provided to universities for “Islamist” speakers?
Why else would there be a “crackdown on free speech” when it comes to issues of interest to Muslims, such as when a Palestinian Society was forced to cancelthe appearance of an academic in a discussion about boycotting, divestment and sanctions against Israel – a requirement not made of pro-Israel talks?
While there are clearly some community-based Prevent initiatives that have had a positive impact, and individual success stories that have understandably been promoted by the Home Office, there is little doubt that there are serious, legitimate questions about the Prevent strategy, which the latest figures corroborate.
Let’s regain trust and win the hearts and minds of Britons across all communities. Let’s have an independent review of Prevent.
• Miqdaad Versi, assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, is writing in a personal capacity