Beyond Prevent and the Trojan Horse scandal

Zin Derfoufi

Since the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition set out its intentions to direct counter-terrorism policies towards ‘non-violent extremism’ in 2011, the Prevent strategy has pivoted away from community engagement and towards a stronger focus on the alleged risks of young people being ‘radicalised’ by their own community. It was not until after the Birmingham Trojan Horse affair that this new agenda was fully implemented, with a legal duty placed on all those providing public services – employees in education, health and mental health and social work, etc – to monitor service users and report individuals who may be a cause for concern to local Prevent panels.

As this article argues, this has further securitised British Muslims instead of empowering them and recognise their ability to challenge violent narratives. This shift toward targeting so-called ‘non-violent extremists’ reinforces Prevent’s problematic assumption that young Muslims are inherently vulnerable to violent extremism due to ideas that are widely held within their communities which, despite being non-violent, promote detachment from British society and, therefore, makes young people unable to resist engaging in violence.


Yet, a large body of research shows that it is various anti-terror legislation and policies that are the primary source of discontent. Much of this research focuses on high volume encounters – notably stops and searches, detentions at ports, and Prevent – and highlights a sense of frustration among Muslim communities with the constant questioning of their identities and the role of counterterror policies in sustaining wider societal prejudices over their ability to integrate into British society.

As these are high volume encounters that routinely draw large numbers of Muslims into the focus of counterterrorism, they can be viewed as a litmus test of the relationship between those communities and state authorities. Research shows that these measures promote a sense of the state not being interested in the priorities of Muslim communities nor of their lived experiences as victimsof crime or of the types of anti-Muslim racism in society that are partly sustained by the racialised assumptions of counterterror and counter-’radicalisation’ policies. This sense of injustice is reinforced at the structural level as political violence from the far-right and secessionist groups hardly feature within these measures, despite Europol’s constant warnings over the threats posed by them.

Impact on democracy

The UK’s Prevent strategy is consistently highlighted as a tool for undue state control over civil society. In 2010, a UK parliamentary committee criticised national and local government for using Prevent-related funding as a means for “social engineering”, arguing “There is a sense that Government has sought to engineer a ‘moderate’ form of Islam, promoting and funding only those groups which conform to this model”. Although the main community funding schemes were discontinued after this report, a recent study with activists and campaigners across different political causes (both Muslim and non-Muslim) suggests that this practice remains the case with government funding more generally and is creating a climate where organisations in receipt of funding are under pressure to censor critics of counterterror policies and foreign policy, particularly critics from Muslim backgrounds.

Censorship and a ‘chilling effect’ on freedoms are two specific impacts often cited by research in this area. This includes censorship of teachers, health professionals and other public sector staff who express professional concerns over whether their legal obligations to monitor service users for signs of ‘extremism’ is compatible with the relationship of trust needed to promote the wellbeing of their service users. Awareness of how critics are targeted by Prevent has created a ‘chilling effect’ among wider groups of professionals, campaigners and members of the public who engage in self-silencing out of fear of being sanctioned too and, in the case of Muslims, creates anxieties over being able to express even the most basic aspects of their religious identity.

The first study into Prevent’s structural impact on civic space shows that anti-racism, environmental and international solidarity campaigners from non-Muslim backgrounds are now also being targeted by Prevent. It reveals how these groups are being censored across different spaces and that a chilling effect is widely felt as a direct consequence of the securitised climate created by Prevent. Ultimately, Prevent is an example of how counterterror policies are themselves harming democracy rather than protecting it. This is highly problematic because protest movements contain narratives that can robustly challenge violent narratives and in ways that are far more credible than government-led approaches.

Supporting community-led, counter-terror initiatives

Survey-based research into the attitudes of British Muslims alongside community facing professionals – notably doctors and teachers – show a consensus exists on terrorism being a real problem, but these surveys also highlight a sense that counterterrorism policies are failing to address it in a proportionate way. This could explain why Muslim communities and civil society actors are cooperating to challenge terrorism independently of the state. Whether it is British, Dutch, Norwegian, North American or other community of Muslims in the west, a growing body of evidence reveals strong anti-terror narratives already exist in Muslim communities, despite being the primary target of state-led counterterror policies.

However, counterterror policies are undermining community-led initiatives, partly due to local and national government practices that result in groups who align themselves with government policies being supported while those of a more critical stance being discredited and unsupported. It is well-known within grassroots counterterror activities that “those who provide the most invaluable support in drawing people away from violent extremist groups generally come from the demographic or community that is under suspicion”. It is, therefore, important to learn from the mistakes of the past and protect civic efforts to counter violence. This requires national and local government bodies to recognise the value of a broad range of community groups that are operating independently of government and drawing upon their own expertise to tackle violence.

A version of this article was sent as evidence to an inquiry of the European Council’s Parliamentary Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination.

Zin Derfoufi is a lecturer in Criminology and Sociology at St Mary’s University, London. His research blends psychology with sociology to understand why and how people engage in serious violence, and how local communities organise to counter violence. He is an independent advisor to various civil society and community-led groups as well as local and national policing bodies.

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Derfoufi, Zin 2022. ‘Beyond Prevent and the Trojan Horse Scandal’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (2):