As a ‘counter-terror’ agenda continues to justify US military interventions and state terror world-wide, what has happened on the UK home front?  When the UK’s New Labour government abandoned the ‘war on terror’ discourse under Prime Minister Gordon Brown, this change was deceptive. Its anti-democratic aims have been extended through a ‘counter-extremism’ agenda.

The government programme ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’ was established a decade ago to identify individuals vulnerable to extremist ideas, ostensibly to prevent ‘violent extremism’, i.e. terrorism.  The programme has received mounting criticism and widespread opposition, especially in the run-up to becoming a statutory duty for public-sector institutions in 2015. Amongst the many objections, the key term ‘extremist’ has encompassed an ever-widening range of indicators, e.g. modest dress, religious observance, and political statements, especially by Muslims.

Vaguely defining ‘extremism’, the Prevent programme has targeted more and more people for views which would otherwise be regarded as normal political debate. Targets have been broadened to potentially any oppositional activity. There have been many warnings that the programme undermines the trust necessary to identify potential terrorists and thus prevent terrorist acts.

Despite the growing opposition to the Prevent programme, its practices have been expanded. Beyond its official rationale, what drives the agenda?  As this article argues, state punishments and threats aim to incorporate various agencies (public-sector institutions, civil society organisations, and community groups) into a collective self-policing, thus suppressing dissent against UK foreign policy as well as against the Prevent programme itself.

Punishing ‘non-violent extremism’

For anti-terror and counter-extremism measures, a key basis is Britain’s legacy of colonial strategies for controlling recalcitrant populations. The strategy was conceptualised and promoted as ‘low intensity operations’ by a counter-insurgency expert, Colonel Frank Kitson.  He saw anti-colonial resistance as “subversion and insurgency”, which “can involve the use of political and economic pressure, strikes, protest marches, and propaganda, and … the use of small-scale violence”.  His counter-insurgency strategy emphasised ‘security’ measures such as systematic surveillance, intelligence-gathering, psychological warfare, and intimidation against entire populations in order to separate them from insurgents. Within such low-intensity operations, legal frameworks played a crucial role: “the law should be used as just another weapon in the government’s arsenal …”

A similar rationale has guided efforts at suppressing domestic dissent against UK foreign policy.  Given that violent acts and threats were already illegal before the Terrorism Act 2000, its powers have stigmatised and criminalised non-violent ones, as a basis for authorising various punishments without trial.  Such measures include: long pre-trial detention, harassment for displaying symbols of banned organisations, long detentions at ports under Schedule 7, etc.  Under its own statutory duty to implement anti-terror legislation, the Charities Commission likewise has been imposing punishments – e.g. disqualifying individuals from being a charity officer, suspending an organisation’s activities during long investigations – in turn making organisations more vulnerable to the denial or termination of bank accounts.

Complementing the legal-punitive powers of the counter-terrorism laws, a parallel administrative system was gradually built under the CONTEST strategy – including Pursue, Protect, Prepare, and Prevent strands.   A decade ago the Prevent programme was established “to reduce the threat to the UK from terrorism by stopping people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism”.  It has sought to counter the ideology of ‘violent extremism’ and the grievances which make it attractive (Cabinet Office, 2008).

In effect, this agenda targets everyone promoting such grievances, i.e. any political dissent. In 2009 this rationale was further explained by the Home Office chief of Counter-Terrorism, Charles Farr: namely, the government has targeted a large group of non-violent people who “create an environment in which terrorists can operate”. This criterion was later incorporated into the Prevent strategy and statutory duty (HM Government, 2015: para 77).

The definition of extremism has been conveniently vague. As eventually defined by the Prevent programme, this means hostility to ‘British values’, which in turn are characterised as: “democracy, rule of law, equality of opportunity, freedom of speech and the rights of all men and women to live free from persecution of any kind”. The definition conflates universal human values with those of Britain, while Britain’s foreign policy regularly contradicts them.

In people’s experience of the Prevent programme, an ‘extremist’ encompasses any Muslim in particular who highlights this inconsistency, or who criticises particular aspects of foreign policy, especially Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the UK’s support for this. Disguised as community engagement, Prevent was always police-driven, embedding counter-terrorism police officers within local authorities. Together they have identified ‘vulnerable’ youth for referral to the Channel programme for ‘ deradicalisation’.  Official ‘counter-extremism’ incorporates just a few Muslim groups which echo government policy, while excluding other voices.  On all these grounds, the Prevent programme has drawn vocal opposition from several Muslim organisations (e.g. Mohammed and Siddiqui, 2014).

From the rationale of pre-empting violence, countering ‘non-violent extremism’ warrants not only surveillance but also deterrence and prevention. Anti-terror legislation encompasses a broad range of executive powers, euphemistically called ‘non-prosecution civil executive actions’. Such punishments without due process include: withdrawing passports, imposing travel bans, even revoking citizenship – which in the most extreme cases has been a prelude to drone assassination (Woods and Ross, 2014).

In practice, suspected extremists are now treated as terror suspects. By targeting ‘pre-crime’, special measures punish potential crime as if it were already crime.

In the updated Contest strategy, moreover, the government will counter online ‘extremist ideology’ by monitoring websites and removing ‘propaganda’. It will set up alternative platforms to challenge extremism using a network of credible commentators and groups to maintain appropriate content. There will be robust intervention in all institutions – schools, further education colleges, universities, hospitals, prisons – to ‘root out extremism’ along the same lines as the Prevent strategy.

Making Prevent statutory – and more contentious

Citing threats from Daesh, in 2015 the government proposed new legislation to expand its executive powers.  The Counter Terrorism and Security Bill (henceforth CTS Bill) extended punishments without due process – e.g. exclusion orders, seizure of passports, travel bans, internal exile and easier revocation of citizenship.  Such powers undermine basic civil rights and entrench the treatment of British Muslims as non-citizens (Webber, 2015).

Moreover the CTS bill made the Prevent programme mandatory for specific public-sector authorities such as schools, further and higher education bodies, NHS trusts and foundation trusts, local authorities, prisons, probation service providers, and the police. Failure to comply with the mandatory Prevent duty could incur disciplinary measures, especially for managers in these institutions (HMG, 2015c).  Critics warned that the programme was undermining the trust necessary to prevent terrorism.  The Bill provoked widespread resistance from university students, academic staff, and schoolteachers (e.g. NUS, NUT, UCU, all 2015).

While he was briefly the Labour Party’s Home Affairs spokesperson, Andy Burnham MP (now Manchester’s Mayor), denounced Prevent as counter-productive and advocated its abolition:

I do feel that the brand is so toxic now that I think it’s got to go… The Prevent duty to report extremist behaviour is today’s equivalent of internment in Northern Ireland – a policy felt to be highly discriminatory against one section of the community (quoted in Perraudin, 2016).

The Green Party joined in the attack.  Deputy leader Amelie Womack has argued that: “This idea of prevention and anti-extremism being injected into parts of our society… is simply driving a wedge between different groups – particularly Muslim groups – and the rest of society”.  A 2016 Green Party conference motion states that, as an alternative, “We would pursue community-led collaborative approaches to tackling all forms of extremism and not allow the disproportionate targeting of the Muslim community as evidenced by Prevent in its current form”.

Numerous testimonies demonstrate the intimidation of the referral process such as: police trainers moulding teachers’ attitudes through fear of Muslims; collecting names and political opinions of children through questionnaires without consent;  children being interrogated without their parents present; targeting children for innocent conduct and political views; parents becoming anxious about their child’s future after the allegations;  targeting parents for their religious views; and teachers over-referring children for trivial matters, under pressure to implement the Prevent duty (OSJI, 2016).

Statistics about the programme’s operational effectiveness have contradictory interpretations. Amongst individuals reported for suspected extremism, 80% lead to no follow-up action by the police. This indicates a five-fold over-reporting, according to critics. Those defending the programme invert the problem, arguing that the statistics demonstrate that the system screens out those who were wrongly identified and so works well. Lost in such arguments is the enormous damage done by making families fearful that their children will be taken away, frightening children, targeting entire Muslim communities, and undermining potential cooperation against terrorism.

Why are so many individuals wrongly identified? There are several contributory factors. The Prevent programme creates pressure on professional staff, especially their managers, who expect a regular flow of reporting and referrals of suspect individuals. The programme’s operation depends on collective self-policing through fear of punishment. These practices become yet another bureaucratic performance indicator, necessary to demonstrate that an institution is truly implementing the programme and so safeguarding those vulnerable to extremist influence. Potentially everyone becomes police or policed or both. Inadequate compliance may jeopardise professional careers or an institution’s standing with its funders, for example the Ofsted inspections, universally dreaded by staff in state schools.

The Prevent duty intersects with the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006. Although meant to protect children from abuse, it triggers intrusive Prevent measures which harass both children and adults. They are required to obtain Criminal Records Bureau checks for the most mundane activities.

The ‘safeguarding’ (another seemingly benign word) which it offers looks suspiciously like snooping and spying, followed by snitching, and culminating in measures which are only vaguely specified but seem to amount to some kind of ‘re-education’ process (Petley, 2015).

One local authority unintentionally parodied the programme as follows: “The Counter Terrorism Local Profile for York and North Yorkshire highlights the key risks to York as evidence of activity relating to Syria, presence of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), anti-Israeli/pro-Palestinian activity, hunt saboteurs, animal rights, anti-fracking, and extreme right wing activity” (BBC, 2016). As it further explained, “since 2010, local authorities monitor any activities where there is potential for community tension”. The ‘potential’ readily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy through preventive measures and fear of being stigmatised.

Moreover, the reporting of suspected ‘extremists’ draws on and reinforces Islamophobic stereotypes.  And the entire procedure generates fear – that individuals may be reported for anything they say, that students may be disciplined for refusing ‘deradicalisation’, that people may be stigmatised over a lengthy period, that parents may lose their children, etc. Given that many students feel intimidated, there is a danger that “people do not seek help when they are struggling with their mental health (making them more unwell), or that those who do seek help are made vulnerable to surveillance and punishment” (NUS, 2015). In short, punishing people makes them more vulnerable.

Constructing ‘extremist’ threats

The large-scale reporting on suspected ‘extremists’ generates its own evidence base, in turn justifying the programme. This circular logic is integral to the entire ‘war on terror’.  When journalists questioned whether President George W. Bush was always targeting real terrorist threats, his advisor responded:  “You journalists are living in ‘the reality-based community’”. By contrast, “We’re an empire now. And when we act, we create our own reality”.  This self-fulfilling agenda bypasses sceptical questions about whether counter-extremism measures are ‘workable’ or truly target extremism – a flexibly expandable category.

Monitoring ‘extremism’ and ‘radicalisation’ establishes more performance indicators, while also stigmatising the term ‘radical’. Once meaning a critical inquiry into the source of societal problems, the term becomes pejorative. Indeed, Arun Kundnani (2009) argues, “the concept of radicalisation has become the master signifier of the late ‘war on terror’”. Potentially everyone is drawn into monitoring and policing each other, e.g. by avoiding any discussions or events that might ‘trigger’ suspicion. All this serves a wider agenda of reinforcing conformity within the educational system:

When radicalisation is explicitly positioned and policed by schools and other educational institutions as the equivalent to sexual exploitation, crime, drug abuse and child neglect, then it is not surprising that both academic studies and media reports have found that some students are becoming fearful of speaking out and being labelled as radical. (Sukarieh and Tannock, 2016: 34).

There has been scant official response to these criticisms. As William Davies (2016) says about neoliberalism more generally, punitive measures have “a relentless form that acts in place of reasoned discourse, thus replacing the need for hegemonic consensus forma­tion”. Empty affirmations of good intent are repeated ritualistically: “power now seeks to circumvent the public sphere, in order to avoid the constraints of criti­cal reason”.

Why? The state’s aims cannot be explicitly acknowledged or justified, especially in the case of the Prevent programme.

The use of counterinsurgency theory and practice in the UK’s ‘war on terror’ blurs the distinction between Pursue and Prevent, coercion and consent, and, ultimately, civilian and combatant. This challenges the liberal claim that counter-terrorism policies, especially Prevent, are about social inclusivity or ‘safeguarding’ and that the UK government is accountable to the people (Sabir, 2017: 202).

Safeguarding resistance

In sum, the Prevent programme has been rightly criticised as counter-productive for curbing terrorist threats and thus as ‘unworkable’ in that pragmatic sense.  Yet this argument depoliticises the problem as a cognitive deficit of government, which therefore needs better experts.  Any effective opposition instead must identify the real driver.

Let us return to the original question: Given widespread complaints that the Prevent programme is counter-productive for preventing terrorism, what drives the UK counter-extremism strategy?  Its practices imply answers contrary to its espoused aims.  Its routine punishments and threats aim to incorporate various agencies (public-sector institutions, civil society organisations, and community groups) into a collective self-policing of ‘extremism’. This conveniently undermines democratic rights, suppresses debate on UK foreign policy, and diverts blame elsewhere.

By turning Muslims into a suspect community, the state extends low-intensity operations to potentially everyone. Such practices spread mutual distrust and deter political dissent, as regards UK foreign policy as well as the Prevent programme itself.

For truly preventing terrorism and safeguarding vulnerable individuals, many critics ask for alternative means. These have been developed by many Muslim groups, but their efforts are undermined by the state’s agenda (Faith Matters, 2015).  Likewise efforts by schools to safeguard children there.

Since the government announced plans for making Prevent statutory, opposition campaigns have raised slogans such as ‘Educators, not informants’, and ‘Students, not suspects’ (NUS, 2015). They aim to build support for individuals who refuse complicity and contest the procedures. This resistance needs safeguarding through visible, consistent solidarity. This can also help to provide the basis for undermining the routine punishment which drives the entire ‘counter-terror’ regime.

Towards ‘an effective and genuine Security Union’, the EU has an agenda to extend similar programmes, e.g. “to prevent more people from being radicalised and ensure that those who already are enter de-radicalisation programmes” (CEC, 2016).  Wherever governments try to impose administrative punishment and collective self-policing, critics can cite the UK’s negative experience.  According to a report for the European Parliament, such counter-extremism programmes “generate a feeling of suspicion that is unhelpful to the relations between the state and Muslim communities across Europe”. Moreover, pro-active administrative practices and pre-emptive judicial powers have “potentially damaging effects in terms of fundamental rights” (EP, 2014).  Indeed, the ostensible aims are contradicted by the effects and the implicit aim to suppress political dissent.


A slightly modified version of this article was first published on Open Democracy.

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