In February 2015 schools, local authorities and colleges in the UK became subject to something called “the Prevent duty”. Under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, this was a legal duty to “have regard to the need to protect people from being drawn into terrorism”.
In this age of high-stakes monitoring and the tyranny of Ofsted, that “duty” led to frequent cases of over-anxious staff reporting perfectly innocent behaviour as if it were dangerous. The Prevent programme itself was introduced by the last Labour government in 2006, in response to the 7/7 London bombing, and driven by the concern that atrocities were the work of “home-grown” terrorists.
At the time it was part of a four-pronged anti-terrorist strategy: “Pursue, Prevent, Protect and Prepare”. In 2006 the strategy was focused exclusively on Islamist terrorism and based on the principle that there was a decisive causal link between extremist ideology and violent acts. The strategy relied heavily on funding Islamic groups seen as “moderate” and able to act as a counterweight to the “extremists”.
In 2009 the focus narrowed to target Al Qaeda and the funding increased. At the same time an attempt was made to widen the definition of extremism to include “promoting Sharia law or failing to condemn the killing of British soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan”, but that was quickly withdrawn. In 2011, the Coalition government extended the definition of extremism to include non-Muslim groups, and in particular the far right. Funding was withdrawn from so-called “moderate Islamic” groups, on the not entirely unfounded basis that some of them were promoting much the same ideology as the “extremists”. So-called “British values” became the litmus test for what was deemed “safe”. Prevent was given a focus on protecting young people from grooming by jihadis and other extremists.
The left should unequivocally oppose everything that jihadists or far-right extremists represent. We oppose them not in a passive or abstract way; we want them stopped, caught and defeated. We want children and young people protected from efforts by such people to groom them and endanger their lives, just as we would want more and not less effort by the state to prevent child abuse, whether it is violent or sexual or through neglect. The Prevent agenda is, however, very unpopular across mainly-Muslim communities and on the left. The National Union of Students calls for a boycott and has produced a handbook on it. The largest teachers’ union, the NUT, is likely at its conference at Easter to pass a motion which calls for Prevent to be withdrawn. So, representatives of some of the most important groups and communities expected to make Prevent work dislike the strategy.
They are right to do so. For a start, there is no evidence that Prevent is successful in “preventing” jihadi recruitment. The number of young people travelling to Syria to join Daesh indicates the opposite. So none of the other problems with the strategy can be excused on grounds of ends justifying means. Muslim communities feel targeted. Until 2011 other forms of terroristic extremism went unmentioned. Even now the references to the far right appear fairly token. Many initiatives developed as part of Prevent increase the level of surveillance in our society, by encouraging people to spy on and suspect the worst of each other, or by the misuse of local state power. Prevent funds were used to fund all the CCTV cameras in central Birmingham.
The strategy is open to political abuse. Once its approach is embedded the state can easily recalibrate it to target direct action environmentalists, anti-fascists and the labour movement. Prevent undermines the relationships many public service workers, especially teachers, have with their communities, students and young people, and thus cuts against teachers gaining trust and being able to re-educate young people tempted by terroristic ideologies. Without doing anything significant to stop recruitment to terroristic ideologies, the Prevent strategy introduces or exacerbates a whole set of other problems. It should be withdrawn.
Socialists, however, should acknowledge that there is a real problem of jihadi-terrorist recruitment. There are useful ideas in the NUS handbook, but major weaknesses too. Against Prevent it proposes we ally with the self-styled “human rights NGO” CAGE. Omar Raii explained the problems with that in an article in Solidarity 390. NUS claims that Prevent diverts attention from “the government’s own complicity in nurturing political violence due to its recent foreign policy decisions as well as its long history of colonialism” and that, by focusing on terrorism, the government is guilty of redirecting attention to “the consequences of its actions”.
The logic here is that the terrorists are not really responsible for their own actions. They were made to do them by some recent foreign policy decision or by “the long history of colonialism”. This view simultaneously excuses and infantilises religious fascists. NUS dismisses what it calls “the conveyor-belt theory”, the idea that there is a decisive link between extremist ideas and acts of violence. But the evidence they cite against shows only that violence has multiple causes and that ideological predisposition is not enough on its own.
It is ironic that NUS should deny the link between the expression of reactionary ideas (extreme homophobia, misogyny, religious hatred) and the threat of violence. Too many student unions have sought to ban speakers they don’t like on grounds that the ideas represent a risk to the safety of various constituencies of students. So Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel and Dapper Laughs are too dangerous to be heard, but overt jihadi-terrorist ideas have no consequences?
We should oppose the Prevent strategy for the right reasons and alongside the right allies. We should also treat the danger to children as real and serious. Policies to deal with grooming, travel to Syria, and social media safety should be embedded in regular school safeguarding policies and training. Citizenship teaching should be reinstated in schools: it has been marginalised by government obsessions with tests, league tables, and core subjects.
More primary schools should be encouraged to discuss ideas, including through the teaching of basic philosophy. Prevent isn’t necessary to do such work. It does more harm than good, by closing debate down where it should be opened up.