The Prevent strategy has long been associated with a Manichean view of the world – an ideological struggle between forces of ‘good’ against impulses of ‘darkness’. This logic is so deeply engrained in the Prevent logic that any criticisms are automatically conflated with support for extremism.
Prevent, itself part of the UK Government’s 2006 CONTEST strategy, has undergone a complex evolution. The first stage of Prevent (2001-2006) focused on using a community relations approach to win the hearts and minds of Muslim community. The second stage approach (2007-2010) changed its focus in light of London bombings of 7/7, by aiming to tackle violent extremism. The third stage (2011-2015) made the move to tackling non-violent forms of extremism – thus conflating non-violent with violent forms of extremism. The fourth stage of Prevent (2015-2018) ensured that Prevent became a legal duty for all public sector organisations.
The question of Prevent has a number structural and ontological problems associated with it – this article focuses on five concerns.
First, the Prevent strategy views its duty to tackle radicalisation as a core duty. For example, one of its objectives is to ‘work with sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalisation that we need to address’ (HM Government 2015). Radicalisation as a concept is deeply problematic for academics, especially given that that it is often seen as a fluid and ‘ambitious term – a moving target which is declared ‘common sense’ by policy makers and the media, yet it is a total nightmare to operationalize as a proposed topic of research’ (Githen-Mazer cited in Horgan 2014, p.83). It has been argued that the genealogy of the concept of ‘radicalisation’ is a relatively recent one – with its roots in UK political discourse following the London bombings in 2007. Furthermore, concerns over usage of the term has led some experts on terrorism studies to argue, that the ‘current preoccupation with understanding radicalisation has not been helpful [in fact] it has come at the expense of a greater understanding of how and why people become involved in terrorist behaviour’ (Horgan 2014:7).
The second criticism is connected with the Prevent strategy’s insistence on the ‘conveyor-belt’ approach to radicalisation. As mentioned above, the Prevent strategy in its formative period focused on preventing violent forms of extremism. This can be seen reflected in a number of policy documents including a report published as late as July 2008 by the Department for Communities and Local Government, Preventing Violent Extremism: Next Steps for Communities. The Prevent agenda under its focus on violent extremism had two essential components. The first was the emphasis on tackling ‘violent extremism’ – as indicated in the title of the report. The second feature was rooted in a vision which put ‘real power in the hands of local people; enabling a community based and community-led campaign. Local authorities to play a role – supporting grass roots organization’s to deliver local solutions for local changes’ (page 12).
The ideological shift in counter-terrorism and counter-extremism thinking, witnessed a radical shift following the revised CONTEST strategy in 2009. This CONTEST II approach to Prevent viewed extremism as a linear process, which starts off with non-violent forms of extremism, such as holding particular views, which question the secular liberal consensus. These non-violent illiberal ideas on gender, sexuality and democracy could gradually lead to violent forms of extremism. The shift from violent extremism as enshrined in the CONTEST I logic to an emphasis on vaguely defined notions of ‘extremism’ in CONTEST II has been one of the controversial features of government’s counter-terrorism strategy. This was further reinforced by David Cameron’s focus on tackling non-violent forms of extremism through muscular liberalism. For Cameron, in his Munich security conference speech of February 2011,
[a]t the furthest end of those who back terrorism to promote their ultimate goal: an entire Islamist realm, governed by an interpretation of Shariah. Move along the spectrum, and you find people who may reject violence, but who accept various parts of the extremist worldwide, including real hostility towards Western democracy and liberal values.
Third, the relationship between Prevent and education has also given rise to a number of structural concerns particularly relating to the Channel Programme, the government’s multi-agency risk management initiative. Its central strand expects teachers (among others) to become ‘the eyes and ears’ of counter-terrorism policing by sharing information with a multi-agency partnership structure, including the Police. The Programme was initially introduced in April 2007, but it wasn’t until the revised 2011 Prevent Strategy and the 2015 Counter Terrorism and Security Act that it was given a strategic and central role in tackling extremism within schools. The Channel Programme is expected to focus on the pre-crime space – following signs of ‘extremism’ a referral is made, which is subsequently screened based upon a framework called the Vulnerability Assessment Framework (VAF). The key concern associated with VAF is that it draws upon Extremism Risk Guidance 22 (ERG22) aimed at spotting signs of extremism. VAF was developed based upon research conducted by Lloyd and Dean (2015) applying to the post-crime space, yet practitioners are expected to use the guidance within a pre-crime space.
Fourth, some of the above problems gave way to some of the ontological concerns regarding the Prevent programme. Perhaps the major problem is linked with the understanding and assessment of risk in contemporary society. For example, Prevent assumes a linear and often predictable understanding of risk from the pre-crime to the post-crime stage. As a number of thinkers (Sardar 2017) have pointed out – society is too complex, chaotic and contradictory for a linear understanding of risk. Moreover, Ulrich Beck (2002) and others have highlighted how, within complex post-industrial societies, risks are uncontrollable, uncertain and above all unknowable. In a recent study on the politics of Prevent, Thomas Martin (2019) has examined the ambitious claims made by Prevent in ‘crossing the temporal gap’ that exists between the present and the envisaged future harm. For Thomas (2019:87),
Radicalisation establishes a temporal framework that allows for an understanding of the process an individual might go through on the path towards violence. Yet a mere outline of this temporal framework does not itself identify who is a threat and who is not. Central to the problematic of Prevent is, therefore, the following question: how can potential to radicalisation be identified in present, such that the threat held for the future can be mediated?
Finally, the politics of Prevent draws upon the values discourse, which is usually defined in opposition to ‘Muslim values’ (Miah 2017) as an aim to achieve ‘ontological security’. Ontological security is a central component to the stability of modern societies and is located in the social fabric of society, which gives rise to individual sense of safety in the ‘world and includes a basic trust of other people [in order to] maintain a sense of psychological well-being and avoid existential anxiety’ (Giddens 1991, cited in Kinnvall and Nesbitt-Larking 2009: 310).
Ontological security operates both at an individual and social level and is very much connected with the everyday-life, which is predicated upon everyday, routines, interactions and practices. Prevent, especially within its mandatory legal duty under the Counter Terrorism Act (2015) uses the promotion of British values within schools to achieve a sense of ontological security. In doing so, this post-colonial melancholic (Gilroy 2006) understanding of British values, especially within the context of Brexit (Miah 2018) creates a sense of ontological insecurity amongst Muslims.
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Horgan, J. (2014) The Psychology of Terrorism. (London: Routledge).
Kinnvall, C., & Nesbitt-Larking, P. (2009, September) Security, Subjectivity and Space in Postcolonial Europe: Muslims in the Diaspora. European Security, 18: 3, 305–325.
Lloyd, M., & Dean, C. (2015) The Development of Structured Guidlines for Assessing Risk in Extremist Offenders. Journal of Threat Assessment and Management, 2: 1, 40–52.
Martin, T. (2019) Counter-Radicalisation Policy and the Securing of British Identity: The Politics of Prevent (Manchester: Manchester University Press).
Miah, S. (2017) The Prevent Policy and the Values Discourse Muslims and Racial Governmentality. In Mac an Ghail, M., Haywood, C. (2017) Muslim Students, Education and Neoliberalism: Schooling a ‘Suspect Community’ (London: Palgrave).
Miah, S. (2018) Brexit and Muslims in Postnormal Times, Third Text, 32:5-6, 632-637.
Sardar, Z. (ed.) (2017) The Post-Normal Times Reader (London: The Centre for Postnormal Policy and Futures Studies).
Shamin Miah is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Education and community studies at the University of Huddersfield.