The Government has long described its Preventing Violent Extremism programme (hereafter ‘Prevent’) as “a community-led approach to tackling violent extremism”. But all is not as the Government would have us believe. This is why Arun Kundnani’s comprehensive 2009 report Spooked: How not to prevent violent extremism has proven itself so useful.
Far from downplaying the threat of terrorism, the author of this report (and its funder, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust) were clear that the Spooked study was undertaken to help “apply democratic and human rights standards to counter-terrorism programmes”. It is with this in mind that we should consider the report’s conclusions:
“What we found was that there are strong reasons for thinking that the Prevent programme, in effect, constructs the Muslim population as a ‘suspect community’, fosters social divisions among Muslims themselves and between Muslims and others, encourages tokenism, facilitates violations of privacy and professional norms of confidentiality, discourages local democracy and is counter-productive in reducing the risk of political violence. Moreover, there is evidence that the Prevent programme has been used to establish one of the most elaborate systems of surveillance ever seen in Britain.”
This decidedly worrying conclusion was the result of Arun Kundnani’s six-month research project, which drew upon existing policy and academic work, freedom of information requests, a programme of interviews and a roundtable discussion. In total thirty-two interviews were conducted with Prevent programme workers and managers in local authorities, members of local Prevent boards, voluntary sector workers engaged in Prevent work and community workers familiar with local Prevent work. Hence the study serves to provide much useful information about the history of Prevent that should help us view Prevent’s ongoing roll-out within our communities and schools.
Although I would recommend that all local community workers and teachers read the full Spooked report, which can be found online, in this short article I simply wish to give a flavour of some of the ideas revealed by anonymous interviewees based more locally. For a start, it is troublesome that many interviewees were unclear as to who had access to the data they collected in their Prevent work. A person involved with Prevent in the Midlands said:
“Depending on who you ask, there are different answers to the question of information sharing. I think there is a serious issue around data gathering on participants. Young people won’t be aware of what is being collected on them – there isn’t any accountability. Even organisations don’t know how data will be used. This is a common concern among potential participants.”
Moreover while the Government likes to say that Prevent is about tackling all forms of extremism, this is not how people involved with its implementation view it. One community activist explained how other people were saying: “Look the money only goes to Muslims.” Indeed, it seems that as a direct result of focusing significant resources on Muslim’s one consequence has been the creation of animosity across other groups. Another community activist from the region said:
“Other communities – Hindus, Sikhs, the Black community – are upset that Muslims are getting all this money, even if Muslims themselves don’t want to be put in this situation or be labelled. I have had councillors from other communities saying it is unfair. So, in this way, Prevent reinforces negative attitudes. It does not help to bring about good relations or community cohesion.”
Yet another voluntary sector worker in the Midlands pointed out:
“People feel that Prevent is aimed only at the Muslim community and is labelling them. If you look at the government’s guidance, you will see there is just a cursory paragraph which talks about preventing all forms of extremism. This is all very well but, in real life, money is only going to the Muslim community. That is not right. The money should tackle all forms of extremism, like the BNP for instance.”
But despite these apparent problems, local Muslim groups often felt forced into accepting funding from the Prevent programme. This no doubt is a problem that has intensified in recent years, with total local authority funding for all local service provision having been slashed by 40% since 2010. Tragically as one manager of a voluntary sector organisation in the Midlands put it:
“We had no option but to apply for Prevent funding because of other sources drying up, leaving us in a poor financial situation. But lots of people won’t touch this money with a bargepole. People in the Muslim community have held press conferences saying that the money should go back to the government.”
AFTERWORD: In 2014, Arun Kundnani published the book, The Muslims Are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism and the Domestic War on Terror, which provides the first comprehensive critique of counterradicalization strategies.