Safa Reza discusses the PREVENT strategy and the harmful implications it has for wider society.
What is Prevent?
Prevent is a nationwide policy that is, ostensibly, about safeguarding people and communities from the threat of terrorism. It is one of the four arms of CONTEST, the Government's counter-terrorism strategy.
Under the Prevent policy, public servants, including doctors, teachers, librarians, and nurses, are encouraged to actively seek ‘signs of radicalisation’ in their dependents and clientele. If they see a number of signs (of which there are many) they are obliged to refer the person concerned to the programme, where they will be assessed as a threat to society and indelibly marked.
Veiled in Secrecy
So why is Prevent unacceptable? The notion that Prevent works to reduce radicalism and extremism within society strains under even the most charitable interpretation of the policy. Under scrutiny, it is clear that Prevent fails to prevent radicalism and, arguably, exacerbates it. If a policy goes through continuous iterations and revisions, each time becoming worse at accomplishing its mission, one must start to question its true driving motivations. Whilst we are repeatedly assured of the effectiveness of Prevent by politicians, the lived experiences of those subject to this tyrannical policy and statistics around its effectiveness paint a wholly different picture.
All this raises three pertinent questions:
Is Prevent effective, even if fundamentally unsound?
Is Prevent ethical?
Is Prevent justly legal?
On all three counts, the answer is no.
The Count of Efficiency
Consider the count of efficacy, Prevent fails at its own stated means of predicting and preventing radicalism.
For a start, assessing Prevent’s efficacy is purposely difficult due to the opacity around its methodology. Prevent’s origins are said to be from a clandestine journal of Criminology that set out a radicalisation prediction model comprising 22 factors, tested on a small sample of adult male American prisoners. The paper itself stated the model’s lack of predictive power. Transparency is integral to science, so how can we trust scientists refusing to publish their data-sets or modelling assumptions?
Yet, even after the author’s own admission of the model’s brokenness, the signatures of 230 British academics, lawyers and public figures against its adoption and numerous failed peer-reviews, the British government persists in its reliance upon the 22-factor ‘Extremism Risk Guidance’ (ERG22+) model.
Using the nebulous criterion as set out under the ERG22+, most UK citizens can, at some point or another, be deemed “radical”. For example, the broad and vague guidelines posit that those who have a need for “excitement, comradeship & adventure”, “need to redress injustice” or a “need for identity, meaning & belonging” have succumbed to radicalism. These ‘factors’ are clearly so broad as to be useless and easily susceptible to biases held by Prevent practitioners. For example, consider young people, who, in the process of growth and maturity are feeling out the contours of their moral and political beliefs, could easily be defined under the parameters of the guidelines. Given that the ERG22+ model is vague and ill-defined, it cannot in good faith be used as a measuring stick for radicalism.
This absurdity of this prescribed model is highlighted by the application of the ERG22+ factors to real-life scenarios, for example, the referral of a schoolboy for wearing a pro-Palestinian badge, or the referral of a four-year-old boy for drawing a picture of his father cutting a cucumber.
Further questions arise: Why did the scientifically literate British government base Prevent on pseudoscience?
And why won’t they publish the datasets used to train their model?
More specifically, why did they rely on an American sample of prisoners to predict radicalisation of free British citizens?
How can we, as a society, countenance the use of a model that has a 95% chance of producing a false positive? (That is, wrongly incriminating an innocent person as a terrorist.)
The Count of Immorality
The Prevent strategy is incoherent and dangerous as it relies on both the judgement of a pseudo-scientific model (through the factor-method) and that of unqualified laypeople (the public that is tasked with making referrals on the basis of the pseudoscience). It is this duality that makes Prevent dangerous. Prevent’s pseudoscience stirs complacency and misplaced confidence in the assumed well-meaning public that they are acting for the benefit of society. The British government’s reckless outsourcing of morality to machines and statistics is evident elsewhere in ‘gang matrices’ and stop-and-search strategies.
By letting our policies and actions be guided solely by statistical modelling (even if valid) is to put bystander apathy on auto-drive. Statistical models work with the implicit assumption that the past is equal to the future thereby reinforcing existing biases, as demonstrated by predictive policing experiments in America. In Prevent we are, as a society, delegating the responsibility of judging who holds ‘good beliefs’ and ‘bad beliefs’ to people who are not trained psychologists or criminologists and largely have no experience and understanding of the process of radicalisation. To do so is to set the general public up for failure whilst deluding them that they are succeeding. All the while, successive Governments have neglected the existing body of knowledge that can resolve these issues effectively.
The architects of Prevent need to consider its second and third-order consequences, specifically the notion that its indirect effects outweigh any direct benefit. To understand this they must simply ask Muslims how they feel about Prevent, and they will respond in excruciating detail about the hot gaze of the Government on every aspect of their lives, from where they go, to what they say, to who they meet, without any justifiable reason. They will tell you how, at the doctors, the library, the school, and the workplace they feel they are judged on the basis of their religion (which may, or may not, play a significant role in their lives). They will talk about their leadening hearts at the message from successive governments, left or right, that: ‘You [Muslims] have a capacity to commit violence that you cannot control, moreover, you are not aware of it, and therefore we will have to protect society, and you, from your dangerous self.’
Narratives govern us, so should it come as a surprise then, that when the public are repeatedly told that “Muslims are dangerous because of their religion,” that they will eventually succumb to this script. How can Muslims be trustworthy, if they are told they can’t be trusted, and are treated in an untrustworthy manner by the government under Prevent?
Prevent perpetuates a dangerous myth that suggests that all 2.6 million British Muslims are walking powder-kegs, that secretly harbour horrific views, and that they should be treated as such. However, the reality is British Muslims are just as concerned with the threat of Islamic terrorism as the rest of the population. For example, the Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi, was reported to the authorities on five separate occasions and had been banned from his local Mosque for his violent views. Jon Clements, the director of CREST, following a report into the attitudes of British Muslims, said:
“It is apparent from our research that British Muslims are, broadly speaking, no more 'in denial' about Islamist extremism and the threat it presents than the population as a whole.”
Furthermore, Sara Khan, the lead commissioner for countering extremism, said that the voices of British Muslims were being
“drowned out by the extremists on both sides.”
The Count of Legality
Prevent is not only ineffective but should arguably be illegal.
The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, Prevent’s legal basis, strikes an inharmonious chord with the Equality Act 2010 – by treating Muslims de facto unequally under the law. By the Governments own admission, “Only Islamist extremists were included in the analysis [of the ERG22+}”, showing scant regard for the rising threat of far-right extremism in the UK.
This potential for illegality manifests in three ways: First, Prevent’s disproportionate targeting of Muslims, with well-documented negative unintended consequences (such as a Muslim family being wrongfully arrested at gunpoint for a Prevent officer’s misinterpretation of a toddler’s drawing
Secondly, a careful balance must be struck between the effective prevention of radicalism and individual liberty. The Prevent guidance, as it currently stands, is over-prescriptive, expansive and vague. It perpetuates a cycle of fear and distrust between Muslims and Non-Muslims. The government should make a concerted effort to legislate for clarity, oversight and reform of the programme so that it may be held accountable and subject to scrutiny.
The third and final point is that Prevent operates on the de facto presumption of Muslim guilt before innocence. This is evident in the strict surveillance Muslims are under from the very people they place their trust in – the teachers, the doctors, the librarians, the nurses, and social workers – without any evidence of wrongdoing. Furthermore, each Prevent referral, whether it holds merit or not, is added to the PCM database, and the individual concerned is not notified of this. Other agencies, however, are able to request the information on this database.
For the skeptics, here is empirical evidence of the first fault of Prevent: A 2014 Freedom of Information Request found that 57% and 67% of referrals to Prevent were of Muslims, in spite of them forming just 5.6% of the population. Of those referred, a rising proportion are children under the age of 10. Throughout 2007, under 2% of referrals were under the age of 10, by 2016 this number rose to 8%. For those under 18, the numbers are starker, hovering around 50% from 2007 to 2016. It is unconvincing when these startling figures are dismissed as due to an increased threat from terror in general.
The number of referrals for International Terrorism under Prevent has increased 35-fold from 2007 to 2016, yet the number of arrests has barely doubled over the same period, according to the Home Office. As these are only referrals, the number of people under surveillance for the simple fact of their religion will be, in all likelihood, magnitudes higher.
The architects of this policy may say: ‘No harm done’. But What is truly meant is: ”No visible harm done according to our indicators”.
Prevent Will Only Enable
“Islam inherently inhibits the path to progress and freedom”.
– Boris Johnson
When the leader of the nation is a well-documented Islamophobe and the Daily Mail and The Sun excel in whipping the public up into a frenzy, how can we be surprised when small children are then repeatedly and unreservedly referred to Prevent? When Muslims are portrayed negatively in 78% of stories in the Mail On Sunday and 59% across the media, it comes as no wonder that the majority of Prevent referrals are Muslims, and most are false-positives leading nowhere.
From this perspective, Prevent looks a lot like vigilantism and vigilantism is the opposite of justice. This contravenes the very spirit of the UK as a free country built upon a strong foundation of democratic values, where one is innocent until proven guilty. Prevent instead extols the virtues of punishing Muslims (and other minorities deemed ‘risky’) for crimes they haven’t committed.
Prevent reinforces an ‘oppressor and oppressed’ hierarchy by tasking people who are not Muslim to be wary and on the alert when in contact with Muslim people. This is the brunt of Prevent’s negative consequences and it is akin to vigilantism; people are not only expected but actively encouraged, to report Muslims to the authorities for perceived wrongs. This strategy has proved ineffective and also has also created a reality in which Muslims could be reported by their peers through a sense of vindictiveness, racism, and a whole other host of reasons that do not pertain to ‘combatting terrorism”, but still face serious consequences. It is for these reasons that the government is obliged to conduct an independent review of the Prevent strategy.
A divide is created, by Prevent, between Muslims and non-Muslims and the population at large become suspicious and fearful of all Muslims. This suspicion and fear are then only reinforced by the media, certain public figures and negative stereotypes. And we all know how that ends.
Safa Reza is a writer who focuses on economics and justice.
He can be contacted via his blog: https://blackbayat.wordpress.com/