The Prevent strategy aims to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. Many European countries run similar programmes, yet, arguably, none are as controversial as Prevent is in Great Britain. Critics say the policy fosters Islamophobia and stifles free debate and dissent; that the brand is so “toxic” that it has become counterproductive.
But is Prevent as controversial as some campaigners would have us think?
New results of a survey on how the public view Prevent would suggest that claims of racism and toxicity are overstated. The Home Office-commissioned research interviewed over 2,700 adults in England and Wales from five key groups – the general public, British Muslims, students, schoolteachers, and healthcare professionals. The aim was to better understand public knowledge and attitudes towards Prevent, including between different groups who may have reported concerns or who work in a Prevent sector. All participants had some knowledge of Prevent.
Overall, most people reported a positive view of Prevent. Almost three in five (58%) of the public polled said that their overall impression of Prevent was favourable, compared to just 8% who viewed it unfavourably. (With a net favourability of +50%, Prevent scored far more highly than either the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition in recent polling!) There was no significant difference across the groups regarding favourability, with the same proportion of British Muslims (58%) reporting a positive view of Prevent.
The research also indicated that greater understanding of Prevent was likely to lead to increased levels of support. Respondents were asked how well they knew about Prevent, with the results showing a near-linear relationship between level of knowledge and favourability. In fact, four in five (80%) respondents who reported knowing the strategy “very well” had a favourable opinion of it.
Safeguarding was one of the main reasons why the public reported a favourable opinion towards Prevent. Half (51%) of those who had a favourable opinion said that Prevent “safeguards vulnerable people” with similar proportions believing that it offers “early intervention” (46%) and that “it helps keep the public safe” (44%). Teachers and healthcare professionals overwhelmingly saw Prevent as just one part of a broader set of safeguarding responsibilities (e.g. gangs, substance abuse).
There were some interesting differences among the groups around favourability. British Muslims were most likely to have a favourable opinion about Prevent because “it’s better than having nothing in place to stop people becoming terrorists” (47%) rather than because of anything positive about the strategy. However, a third (34%) of British Muslims polled selected “It encourages debate” as a reason for having a favourable opinion, compared with 23% of public respondents.
The polling confirms a gap between what is said about Prevent, the perception of what British Muslims and the public think about it and what they actually think about it. In recent years, an increasing number of studies have found majority support for Prevent or something like it. A 2016 ICM survey of more than 3,000 British Muslims commissioned by the think tank Policy Exchange, for example, found majority support for range of measures to counter extremism and radicalisation, including those that require government intervention, and almost half (49%) believed that Muslims themselves should do more to combat extremism in their own communities.
Research from Crest Advisory that polled 2,000 British adults last year found little evidence to support the claim that Prevent is a toxic brand that has alienated Muslims. When offered a neutral explanation of Prevent, four in five (80%) British Muslims offered either unqualified (47%) or qualified (33%) support for it. Over a third (36%) of British Muslims said they supported the principle of Prevent being focussed in large part on Muslims communities due to the threat of extreme Islamist terrorism, with a further 38% saying that while they also supported this principle, they had some concerns about it. One in eight (13%) said they would not support this approach. The results showed that by and large British Muslims’ views echoed those of the general population.
Even an ostensibly anti-Prevent paper led by academics at SOAS included a national survey of over 2,000 students that found that 75% of student supported Prevent in some way as opposed to 9% who opposed the strategy. Thirty percent of students agreed that “Prevent is essential to protecting the security of our universities and combatting terrorism”, while 45% agreed that “Prevent can be helpful in tackling these issues but can be damaging to universities if not implemented sensitively”. By contrast, only 9% agreed with the statement “Prevent is damaging to university life and other approaches should be taken to tackle security concerns and terrorism”.
Overall, British Muslims and the public are much more comfortable than is commonly believed with Prevent. However, these recent findings do not match the rhetoric. In fact, detractors of the Prevent strategy can be found among politicians of all stripes as well as within the public sector, academia and student unions.
Former co-chair of the Conservative Party, Baroness Warsi, for example, believes that “Prevent is targeted towards British Muslims and British Muslim kids” and has said that it “has further alienated communities rather than deradicalised them”. Speaking in Parliament this year, Labour’s Diane Abbott, a former shadow home secretary, said the strategy’s reputation is “so toxic” that it is “alienating communities and ultimately making the fight against terrorism harder”. Labour MP for Coventry South, Zara Sultana, went further, claiming that her experiences of the effects of Prevent at university included the targeting of Muslims and the erosion of civil liberties. Dal Babu, a former chief superintendent with the Metropolitan Police, has also said that Prevent became increasingly mistrusted.
Student and academics too have mobilised against Prevent. In 2016, one of the largest teaching unions in the UK passed a motion calling for Prevent to be scrapped over concerns that it causes “suspicion in the classroom”. The year before, an open letter in The Independent, signed by hundreds of academics, said that Prevent “sows mistrust of Muslims” and would have “a chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent”.
How do we account for this discrepancy between public discourse and actual public opinion? One possibility is the outsize influence a small number of voluble Islamist critics, some of whom can be shown not to have acted in good faith. As the former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism, Lord Anderson, told the Home Affairs Committee: “it is quite possible that some of those attacking Prevent (not, of course, all) are motivated by a wish not to promote harmony but to sow grievance and division”.
In recent years, newspapers and even some politicians have reported misleading stories of Prevent uncritically – despite one case involving a child who had alleged abuse by a relative, while in another a subsequent legal claim was dismissed by the court as “totally without merit”. These cases were promoted and shared by Islamist agitators: CAGE, Mend and Prevent Watch. Such groups believe that Prevent is an ‘imperialist’ policy designed to divide and conquer Muslims by criminalising normative Islamic faith and practice. As one prominent agitator said, “the whole purpose of this strategy is to de-Islamise, is to reduce, our Iman [‘faith’], reduce our practice”.
Former Guantanamo Bey detainee and Cage Outreach Director Moazzam Begg even managed to link the fire at Grenfell Tower to Prevent: in an extraordinary video message filmed in the days after the tragedy, Begg said that Prevent demonised Muslims and that the government cared as little for the people who had died in the fire as it did for “our people” in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. It is no surprise that former Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Mark Rowley, has criticised CAGE representatives for “characterising Prevent as an ‘attack on Islam’”.
Unfortunately, such hyperbole may have had an effect on the debate; research from the University of Bristol has shown that much of the anti-Prevent campaign rests largely on these “myths”.
However, there is nobody who would argue that Prevent is perfect. Helpfully, then, the latest ICM research points to several areas which must be improved. One in seven British Muslims (15%) had an unfavourable opinion of Prevent, double the proportion among the public (8%) and higher than for any other demographic. With regards to free speech, while the majority of students (57%) and teachers (53%) disagreed with the view that Prevent has negatively affected freedom of speech in the classroom, almost one in five (23%) teachers and one on ten (12%) students agreed that the strategy has led to a ‘chilling effect’ on conversations with students. Most common among the minority of respondents with an unfavourable view of Prevent was the idea that it is “being applied poorly” (34%), followed by that it “changes the role of education and healthcare workers” (31%), that it’s “not effective” (30%), that it “targets certain communities” (24%), and that it “impinges on free speech” (23%).
The concerns raised echo those found elsewhere. While Crest found widespread support for Prevent and the principles behind risk-based targeting among British Muslims, much of the support was qualified. Of those who expressed “some concerns”, the most commonly expressed was “people associate Islam with terrorism” (59%), followed by “it means all Muslims are treated as suspects” (53%) and “it is unfair on innocent Muslims” (52%). These concerns were shared by the public.
It is difficult to know how much of this is the result of anti-Prevent activism and misreporting and how much is the result of personal experience and unequal treatment. Nonetheless criticisms and concerns about Prevent deserve to be heard without fear or favour.
The good news is that this new research comes ahead of the new Independent Reviewer of Prevent appointment, expected imminently. That means there is an opportunity for the Government to hear the experiences of people who have been impacted by the strategy and to identify and learn lessons from aspects of Prevent which have not been successful. It also means there is the opportunity to examine the motivations of the vocal minority of detractors and to identify and respond to their narratives which can have the effect of undermining Prevent.
Above all, this new research is a timely reminder that attempts to portray Prevent as an anti-Muslim agenda rejected by the whole community, misrepresent the views of both British Muslims and the wider public.