The government is set to review its much criticised Prevent counter-extremism strategy, however in his first column for Media Diversified, Basit Mahmood asks will they actually listen to the real-life experience and concerns of members of the Muslim communities most affected?
Note: the featured image above is a stock photo.
Earlier this week, the government’s security minister, Ben Wallace, announced a review of the controversial counter-extremism strategy, Prevent. After years of resisting the pressure to do so, on the surface it would appear that the government is keen to address the concerns of communities like my own, who have long criticised its corrosive impact on trust and community cohesion.
However, asking critics of the scheme, which include students, teachers, human rights groups, and academics, to provide evidence of their claims whilst simultaneously calling such evidence ‘distortions and spin’, leaves one wondering if the commitment is really there to review the policy itself, rather than just to place the entire focus on its critics.
I’ve seen first-hand the impacts of Prevent on my own hometown and the Muslim community that lives there.
It has undermined the trust of those people who are at the forefront of helping to defeat extremism, whilst at the same time helping to develop a climate of fear, in which students and children bottle up their views and opinions on issues, for fear of being labelled extremist. Fear is the very environment in which extremism thrives.
“The students were able to refute and challenge their ideas, not because of the Prevent scheme, with the government’s own counter extremism strategy in its infancy, but because they were able to discuss such ideas in the open without fear of being labelled extremist”
To give an example, of the ‘evidence’ the government has called for, I recall how the now banned Al-Muhajiroun group led by extremist preacher Anjem Choudary, stood outside my sixth form college, handing out literature and attempting to speak to students.
The students were able to refute and challenge their ideas, not because of the Prevent scheme, with the government’s own counter extremism strategy in its infancy, but because they were able to discuss such ideas in the open without fear of being labelled extremist.
The student-teacher relationship which is so crucial in allowing students to develop their ideas, to be challenged and taught right from wrong, is crucial in the fight against extremists who wish to brainwash young people. It was in the classrooms that students could openly talk about issues such as Israel and Palestine, the war on terror and a whole host of other social and political problems, without fear of being labelled extremist, whilst at the same time being taught why violence and extremism was not the answer. It is this that meant that they could confidently challenge extremist narratives.
Fast forward a few years later, and I know of students too afraid to voice their opinions in school, parents telling their children not to talk about politics, worried they may be reported for being extremist, simply for offering legitimate dissenting opinions.
It is this environment, in which people are afraid to talk, in which young people bottle up opinions and no longer trust adults and teachers, that is most conducive to extremism. Extremists thrive on fear and isolation.
Muslim Women for Peace march at Luton Carnival in 2017
The fear and mistrust is such, that when for example a new youth club opens or a new initiative designed to get young people off the streets comes in, many are quick to question where the funding has come from, if its Prevent related, and if all organisations want to do is a ‘keep an eye on them’.
I sometimes find myself wondering if I would have developed the same passion for politics and social injustice, if I knew that whenever I offered a criticism of the society in which I lived and had every right to do so, would be viewed as ‘suspect’.
“Behaviours that are totally harmless, have come to be viewed as ‘signs of radicalisation’, such as Ofsted using the example of a child hiding a Quran in their bedroom or increasing interest in religion from students who weren’t so religious before, a normal process”
The Prevent strategy has even resulted in a 4-year-old in Luton being referred over concerns about extremism. For many such e.g. may be an extreme case, yet it causes further anxiety and mistrust. Muslims have a 1 in 500 chance of being referred to prevent, 40 times more likely than someone who is not Muslim.
Behaviours that are totally harmless, have come to be viewed as ‘signs of radicalisation’, such as Ofsted using the example of a child hiding a Quran in their bedroom or increasing interest in religion from students who weren’t so religious before, a normal process, as some students grapple with their identity and who they are as they get older.
Often I hear people scream what’s the alternative? The alternative is to work with grassroots Muslim organisations who are and always have been at the forefront of tackling extremism. Data clearly shows that they are at the forefront of reporting potential terrorists. The Prevent scheme has become toxic and many do not trust it.
We need a counter extremism strategy that is effective and has the trusts of all groups of society, for without it, we will only be undermining our own battle against extremism. We need a review of the policy, not just its criticism.
Basit Mahmood is a freelance journalist and columnist for Media DiversifiedFollow @BasitMahmood91