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Prevent Problems

18/11/2009

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the other major theme that appears to be on everyone’s minds in Britain’s Muslim communities is focused around the belief that the UK’s “Prevent” counter-terrorism strategy is in fact a vehicle for spying on Britain’s Muslim communities. This is not an entirely new concern – one can see earlier expressions of it amongst the almost complete lack of trust in the British government that can be found, in particular when considering the counter-terrorism strategy, amongst communities in the UK.

The recent spate of worries have been set off by a report released by the Institute for Race Relations (IRR), which looked in detail at the Prevent program (Prevent being the forward looking aspect of the 4 P’s of Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy which seeks to prevent people from choosing a path to terrorism). In particular, press attention was grabbed by the salacious details of how the government was using programs funded under Prevent to gather intelligence on communities. The scandal around this was spurred on when Ed Husain made some comments that proved a gift for the Guardian’s Vikram Dodd, giving him the eye-catching headline:“Spying morally right, says thinktank.”

Reports have long been bouncing about of the intelligence community pushing community workers in a variety of ways (one report from the Independent showed how Somali youth workers were being harassed into helping the Security Service), and I have heard first hand reports of tales of community workers being asked for intelligence information. Similarly, an official report by the Audit Commission & Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of the Constabulary (HMIC), entitled Preventing Violent Extremism: Learning and Development Exercise, done for the Home Office and Department for Communities and Local Government in October 2008, highlighted that “partnerships need to collect and process information from staff so that vulnerable individuals and communities can be identified.”

And more generally, have we all forgotten about the infamous “Operation Rich Picture” by which the security services sought to map out Britain’s Muslim communities and thereby understand them better? The point here is that I am surprised by how much of a splash this has made, though admittedly some of the more egregious cases should be highlighted and frowned upon. None of this is of course to excuse it, but I think the furor is masking a bigger picture issue.

As Prevent has expanded out to becoming Preventing Violent Extremism and from being one of four strands to being the central focus of counter-terrorism, it has started to grow beyond what one might usefully describe as its practical parameters. One of the deleterious side-effects of this is that it has slowly turned everyone into counter-terrorists, as it evolved from being program to counter terrorism to being something which was seeking to remodel a substantial portion of our society. Not only does this mean that a wide community of individuals beyond traditional security services need get involved, but also that an ever expanding pool of money was guided towards a specific community in an ever-broader fashion (a recent Newsnight report put it at £140 million).

On the one hand, a case can be made that years of underinvestment needed to be redressed, but at the same time, this focus appears to have also had the impact of exacerbating the community cohesion problems that the money was in part meant to fix. But within this also lies at the core of the problem: work which should be defined as social work is being re-defined as counter-terrorism.

The problem with Prevent is that it would appear as though we have long lost our way in understanding exactly what Preventing terrorism is about any more. In the quest to understand and fix this, the solution has been to push the program out to an ever expanding circle of individuals as we move further and further back up the radicalization chain (though I hate linear descriptions of radicalization). This has had the added problem of confusing what everyone’s roles within this are.

Police need community intelligence to be able to do their jobs; but this should be obtained through confidence building, rather than bluntly milked from community workers. It is unlikely to be helpful to the cause of countering terrorism, or policing more generally if the current trend continues. Programs seeking to redirect youngsters from a radical path should stay firmly within a local community and civilian remit – putting them in a police direction has implications which will naturally make community workers less comfortable with using them.

More generally, however, Prevent needs to be re-focused. A tighter remit needs to be drawn up which separates out the social work being done under a Prevent banner – to work that should once again be done under its proper heading. Instead, Prevent work should remain firmly focused on countering-terrorism, as in de-radicalizing prisoners, stopping young men making contact with extremists, and lessening the appeal of jihad. Making people more integrated into British society, helping them get jobs or training, giving them a more positive outlook, and making sure they are accepting of other religions are all important things, but not things that should be tagged as counter-terrorism work.