The UK government’s PREVENT scheme has been discussed at length in the context of how it would prevent a white supremacist terror attack such as those in Christchurch, New Zealand. However, as Dr Tarek Younis writes, the PREVENT policy has a number of serious issues, not least the fact that its success is unproven
In the wake of Christchurch, British news media have seen government officials triumph PREVENT, a nation-wide policy which hopes to identify and ‘intervene on’ pre-criminals before they develop violent intent. These officials do so without the least bit of irony – but all the gall – considering the government finally acquiesced to an independent review of PREVENT given widespread disapproval of the policy.
Perhaps these officials are as dismissive of this upcoming review as many are sceptical of it (rightfully, given its expansion post-review which I will explain below). Before I adorn a cloak of cold rationality to explain why PREVENT cannot prevent a Christchurch in the UK, I must admit: in the two years I’ve dedicated to researching PREVENT, nothing is more offensive to me, a Muslim researcher, than watching government officials appropriate Christchurch as a means of justifying their work. Some might think, ‘that’s only because of your bias’ or ‘anger clouds your judgement.’ Yes, I’m biased and I’m angry – but don’t be fooled: anyone who denies their bias or emotions is a charlatan of their humanity. I will return to bias at the end of this piece. Now that you know how I feel, let’s begin.
The PREVENT policy was conceived for Muslims. Not killers, rapists or ‘bad people’ – Muslims. At its inception, around the time of the UK’s illegal, devastating invasion of Iraq, PREVENT’s purpose was to prevent British Muslims from ‘breaking bad’ and radicalising. This decision was made before any major domestic attack took place on British soil (I say this as people erroneously believe PREVENT was conceived following 7/7 – it wasn’t). This begs the question: can this policy, with a raison d’etre to thwart the uncertain threat of British Muslim violence, be ‘translated’ to curtail White Rage? Could it prevent a Christchurch in the UK? We have to think in structures to answer this question: how was PREVENT conceived, how does it operate and what is its relationship to White privilege?
The PREVENT policy is not the brain-child of great thinkers, though I might forgive you for thinking this given its staggering expansion in the last eight years alone. No, PREVENT was a political decision which flourished into a political industry. Both words in ‘political industry’ merit some attention. For ‘political’, a study has documented how the UK government’s framing of radicalisation evolved in response to political incidents that took place under the Labour government. More research has shown how the ideological battle of ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of British Muslims expanded into a nation-wide, multi-agency surveillance infrastructure. PREVENT is thus the quintessential example of policy-based evidence, not evidence-based policy. When you think PREVENT, think politics preceding the scientific process and public consent.
As for ‘industry’, this is readily apparent by the sheer capital counter-terrorism (and thus PREVENT) guzzles from government spending, increasing up to £816 million next year, despite stringent budget cuts across all other public sectors in the wake of pernicious austerity. The ease by which funds are shuffled in PREVENT’s favour is best exemplified by the recent bid of Tower Hamlets councillors, who wanted to divert an additional £300,000 of their budget towards counter-extremism. Their request was made immediately following Shamima Begum’s citizenship deprivation, in the hope of stopping further second-generation Muslims from being made stateless and stripped from their second-tier British citizenship.
Oh, and services for vulnerable women are also having their funding cut in Tower Hamlets. Though the councillors’ bid ultimately failed, it unveils the spirit of the times: there’s a lot of money in the so-called “pre-criminal” industry. So much so, the Ministry of Defence recently endowed Cambridge with £70 million to research psychological warfare.
“How is PREVENT racist? The short answer is that it privileges Whiteness… Muslims (as in, people who look, act or sound Muslim) are readily associated with threat in the public’s imagination. Do White people get referred to PREVENT? Sure, but only when they have displayed enough behaviour to be associated with ‘Far Right’ groups
All this spending on counter-terrorism is happening while austerity takes its toll, ravaging every nook and cranny of public life, resulting in the closing of libraries and children’s centres, cuts to mental health provision and the deaths of homeless people in our streets. Unsurprisingly, it was just revealed that PREVENT is going to expand even further into the private sector, opening a whole new avenue of capital for the PREVENT industry – such as McDonald’s employees. Remember: this expansion takes place after the so-called independent review. In a neoliberal system, value is intrinsically associated with money. As long as the government keeps throwing money at PREVENT, it sells itself. Neoliberal logic is foolproof: if PREVENT wasn’t valuable, then why does it receive so much funding?
Speaking of a fool’s proof, where is the evidence PREVENT works? There is none–other than the government’s, which is the equivalent of asking the manager of a fast food shop if their burgers are good. That is why government officials can appear so breezily on the evening news following the deaths of 50 Muslim men, women and children, liberally professing their ultimate strategy in preventing ideological violence. A recent study by the Behavioral Insights Team has found that the vast majority of deradicalisation programmes are ineffective, yet they claim a 90% success rate in self-evaluation. Dr Antonio Silva goes on to say in the report that these well-intended projects “tended to work by chance.”
So, when a government official says they’re doing good work, maybe they are, maybe they’re not. All we know is that there is an obvious conflict of interest when a person is being asked to evaluate their own work. Here, I blame the news media: you never ask a fast food manager if their burger is good. That’s ridiculous. Ask the customers, or, if you have time, you can make Freedom of Information requests to ask how exactly those burgers are made in the back. But be warned: you’ll be rejected. No one wants to show you how the meat is made. Here’s the kick though: many who’ve seen or eaten the PREVENT burger admit it has a very familiar taste – racism. That’s why it pains me to see the government hoisting PREVENT in the wake of Christchurch.
How is PREVENT racist? The short answer is that it privileges Whiteness. The long answer is not difficult to understand: Muslims (as in, people who look, act or sound Muslim) are readily associated with threat in the public’s imagination. Do White people get referred to PREVENT? Sure, but only when they have displayed enough behaviour to be associated with ‘Far Right’ groups. In other words, White people are privileged in that their bodies alone will never be enough to conjure a threat of terrorism.
When the public hear the word terrorist, they don’t think of someone who looks like Benedict Cumberbatch – they’re thinking of a brown kid with the long beard. That’s why, when we speak of Islamophobia, we speak of racialisation; Muslims embody the threat, the backwardness, and the invaders (according to the Christchurch killer) among us. We also know racial prejudice towards Muslim-looking people is widespread in British society. In fact, the success of the Brexit referendum hinged upon the fantasy of securing the UK from those endless streams of Muslim-like immigrants. And the government is asking this post-Brexit society to have due regard in identifying and reporting pre-terrorists, based on their intuition? Black Mirror writers – take note.
If you needed more evidence of institutional racism, it gets worse: Spinwatch just released a dire report documenting the overlap between government counter-extremism efforts and the “targets, symbols and language used by the counter-jihad movements” in the Far-Right. In other words, counter-extremism/radicalisation policies, such as PREVENT, may in fact stoke the very Islamophobia it promises to address.
Given the widespread allegations of PREVENT operating upon a racist logic, coming from academics, NGOs, most large Muslim organisations and even the United Nations, the UK government has responded in a number of White-privileged ways:
1) We can prevent racism with better training (says William Baldet, regional PREVENT coordinator, see picture);
2) It’s not the policy’s fault, it’s a problem in implementation;
3) We’re employing more Muslims in PREVENT and counter-extremism, in higher positions, too;
4) We’re really pushing for the public to think about White bad guys, it’s almost 50% of Channel interventions.
Well, 1) no, you can’t train away unconscious bias and it’s shallow to think that training would solve institutional racism; 2) it’s very much a policy’s fault if it’s a statutory duty for the public, consisting mostly of good people doing their jobs, to think along racist lines; 3) Obama; 4) that doesn’t solve the issue that Muslims are ‘othered’ in public consciousness, it only makes it harder to talk about it, and government statistics do not at all reflect the impact PREVENT has had prior to the point of an ‘official referral’.
It is disappointing that PREVENT officials are given so much air-time to discuss Christchurch given the number of scholars who have dedicated their lives researching White Supremacy/Rage and ethnonationalism. This last point is especially important given the Christchurch shooter’s ethnonationalist justification. For what it’s worth, the Far Right is a political construction, and artifact of the ethnonationalism paraded openly in everyday politics. It was ethnonationalist logic which had Shamima stripped of her citizenship.
So, when PREVENT speaks of the Far-Right, it conveniently displaces the blame from the very fibres of British society to its fringes. It’s time we look beyond the Far Right as a political abstract somewhere ‘out there in the margins.’ We need to focus more on how ethnonationalism and white supremacist logics have become so normalised, they might even get you elected into political office. But those discussions are not happening when PREVENT have the mic.
“I’m angry because I believe we should be: PREVENT is taking more money and time from the public than it ever should have a right to, and at a high cost to the Muslim community. And I would kindly request the reader to call out the racism when a government officials say ‘some Muslim groups’ are undermining PREVENT’s image – this is blatantly dishonest”
One final note: one of the ways PREVENT operates is by explicitly making the strategy out to be one of the good guys. When Brexiteer politicians play the same card, ‘we must leave the EU for the good of society’, our collective eyes roll in the back of our heads. So, be mindful of their rhetoric: it’s unfalsifiable. If an atrocity occurs, government officials are on-air arguing there wasn’t enough PREVENT, and its critics should be ashamed of themselves. In the absence of evidence (but all the power) to instill shame, and given the wealth of personal accounts and academic research highlighting PREVENT’s flaws, there can only be one reason they the PREVENT officials are bolstering themselves as the heroes: it is a means of consolidating power in the absence of proof.
“Believe us, we’re doing a great job.”
Without evidence of success, the government has created a moralising society whereby supporting PREVENT is the right thing to do, and rejecting it is Christchurch-or-7/7–in-the-making. And that is violence. Let me return to bias: one of the reasons I maintain my anger, despite numerous edits from myself and friends, is to demonstrate one can very well be angry and critically informed, while government officials disguise their ignorance with self-glorifying pseudo-’objectivity’.
I’m angry because I believe we should be: PREVENT is taking more money and time from the public than it ever should have a right to, and at a high cost to the Muslim community. And I would kindly request the reader to call out the racism when a government officials say ‘some Muslim groups’ are undermining PREVENT’s image – this is blatantly dishonest. Unions, NGOs, and others have said the same thing about PREVENT. Critics haven’t undermined PREVENT, the government undermined themselves by sacking the scientific process and shelving the democratic will of British Muslims.
No, Mr. Government Officials. When you dismiss a decade of voices showing how PREVENT has vilified the entire British Muslim population and how white privilege is centred in your counter-terrorism strategy, and you still persist in its expansion, you’re not offering a solution to Christchurch. You’re part of the problem.
The views expressed in this article may not reflect those of University College London or the British Academy.
Bio: Dr Tarek Younis is a cultural and political psychologist with a PhD/PsyD in Clinical Psychology. He is a British Academy postdoctoral fellow, in the Division of Psychiatry at University College London, UK. His research explores the impact of the PREVENT policy in health settings and its impact on British Muslim mental health access. Other research interests revolve around the cultural and political dimensions of mental health (theory and intervention) at the intersection of cultural psychology and medical anthropology. He teaches on the impact of culture, religion, globalization, psychologisation and policy changes on psychological interventions.Follow @Tarek_Younis_