David Cameron has warned that the UK’s counter-radicalisation strategy Prevent “will not survive” unless the government addresses anti-Prevent narratives.
In a new report for Policy Exchange, the former Conservative prime minister has warned that “delegitimising counter terrorism is, in essence, enabling terrorism” and accuses those who don’t defend Prevent of being “guilty of a form of ‘passive tolerance’, whereby society fails to interfere in minority communities for fear of appearing racist.”
Prevent is one of four pillars of the UK’s counter terrorism strategy, and is designed to encourage families, faith leaders and local authorities to flag concerns about individuals who they deem as being at risk of becoming radicalised. The programme is controversial, with many Muslim groups arguing that it disproportionately targets the Muslim community and fosters Islamophobia.
In their report, Policy Exchange argues that “Islamist campaigning groups” and allies have perpetuated a false narrative about the programme and the government have “made bedfellows” with some organisations who reject the principles of countering extremism.
One of those groups named in the report is the Muslim Council of Britain, which Policy Exchange says has been “consistently critical of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy” and circulated unsubstantiated claims.
The Muslim Council of Britain strongly denies this.“Policy Exchange has consistently led efforts to discourage cooperation between the authorities and the Muslim Council of Britain,” a MCB spokesperson said.
“It is therefore laughable that the Policy Exchange should now claim that we are the ones discouraging cooperation because we are exercising our democratic responsibility to scrutinise bad policy.”
The government launched an independent inquiry in 2019 in order to address the controversies surrounding Prevent. The inquiry has been beset with its own issues and has now missed three separate deadlines for reporting, with the last one passing in December 2021.
The first chair, Lord Carlile, was forced to stand down following a legal challenge on his appointment. The second and current chair, William Shawcross was appointed in January 2021 but has faced criticism over comments he made regarding Islam, leading to several Muslim and human rights organisations to formally boycott the review.
Despite today’s Policy Exchange report strongly critising the Muslim Council of Britain, they did not join Amnesty International, Big Brother Watch and Liberty in the boycott.
“The MCB has always repeatedly and loudly opposed to all form of terrorism,” the MCB spokesperson told PoliticsHome. The majority of referrals into Prevent now relate to extreme right-wing radicalisation – accounting for 46% of referrals in the year ending 31 March 2021 compared to 22% concerning Islamist radicalisation.
However, the numbers for terror related arrests still suggest the biggest terrorist threat to the UK remains Islamist. In the 12 months to December 2021, 50% of all counter terrorism arrests were related to Islamist extremism, compared to just over 40% relating to the Extreme Right Wing.
These figures bear out the argument that the low referral rate pertaining to Islamist radicalisation is due to a reluctance from some Muslim organisations to cooperate with Prevent.
“It would be reasonable to expect the proportion of Muslim Prevent referrals to be approximately equivalent to the proportion of terrorism-related arrests, investigations, and plots that involve Islamists. But this is not the case,” Policy Exchange argues.
However, the picture is complex with right wing terrorism. In March, CSW's sister title PoliticsHome reported that three out of four late stage disrupted terror plots last year related to extreme right-wing terrorism, and out of 20 children Counter Terrorism Policing arrested, 19 were linked to extreme right-wing ideology.
Regardless, the report calls on the government to withdraw funding and engagement from organisations that they argue disseminate false information about Prevent. Critics argue this would amount to a fundamental failure of the scheme to engage with groups who may be at higher risk of radicalisation.
The government maintains they take all accusations of discrimination under the Prevent programme seriously.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Campaigns that seek to undermine the Prevent programme are irresponsible and dangerous. Eroding public trust in this way could discourage the referring of vulnerable people to the support they need, to protect them from a path toward radicalisation. It also threatens to undermine the brilliant work of dedicated professionals, who work tirelessly within communities to keep them safe from extremism.
“It is always right that we learn lessons and improve our approach. That is why an Independent Review is in progress to assess how Prevent works, the impact of the programme, and how we can continue to develop our approach to protect people from radicalisation in future.”
Laura Hutchinson is Head of UK BI and political intelligence at Dods. This article was first published by CSW sister title PoliticsHome