Liam Duffy, extremism researcher at the Civitas think-tank in London
The fight over the independent review of the Prevent strand of the British Government’s overall Counter-Terrorism Strategy, known as CONTEST, has been a predictable one.
The Prevent Strategy was launched in 2003, and intends to help divert people who are at risk of radicalisation or vulnerable to being recruited to a terrorist group away from this dangerous path.
Prevent has become a statutory duty in many areas of British life. From teachers to nurses, people with responsibilities for potentially vulnerable people are given training in recognising the signs of trouble, and how to refer these individuals to the support systems they need to prevent them getting involved in extremist and criminal activity.
A “Preventing Prevent” lobby, has arisen in the UK, which argues that Prevent turns professionals like teachers into spies and threatens free expression. These arguments, absurd as a matter of fact, are put forward in bad faith by a network of groups support extremism, while pretending to advocate for human rights. Their real aim is to weaken and ultimately eliminate the anti-terrorism laws in Britain to make it easier for them to spread extremist ideas.
The usual suspects from this lobby, who have led the calls for a review to be held, were always going to protest if their preferred candidates weren’t selected to carry out the review. This is because, again, their aim is not to reform and repair Prevent, but destroy it. For example, a key group in the lobby is CAGE, which has repeatedly defended and represented known extremists and terrorists, and has called for the repeal of all counter-terrorism legislation introduced since 9/11.
The outrage with which these people greeted the appointment of Lord Carlile as Independent Reviewer of the Prevent programme was therefore not surprising.
To anyone vaguely familiar with the world of counter-terrorism policy, the appointment of Lord Carlile is a no-brainer. Having spent ten years as the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, there can be few better qualified to lead such a review. This is why the news has been so uncontroversial outside of the usual suspects.
Prevent providing individuals a voluntary ‘off-ramp’ if they are becoming involved in terrorism, before it is too late, would seem positive. Giving people the option not to ruin their own lives and the lives of countless others without criminalising them is a perfectly healthy and legitimate thing for a democratic state to do, and under normal circumstances would be roundly applauded.
But Prevent has become a key battleground for extremists seeking to sabotage Britain’s counter-terrorism efforts. The irony is that the demands for Prevent to be scrapped are a key part of what resulted in the initiation of independent review in the first place, and the subsequent appointment of Lord Carlile, which will strengthen a policy this lobby was trying to repeal.
So, while the Home Office has been accused of whitewashing the review before it has even begun, those who whitewash and minimise the ever-present and looming threat of terrorism can hardly be considered sincere and good-faith interlocutors in our collective response to terror.
Naturally, Conservative peer Baroness Sayeeda Warsi was quick to denounce the announcement, telling her 150,000 Twitter followers that Lord Carlile does not have the “trust of the communities that have been on the receiving end of the excesses and mistakes of Prevent”.
Considering the average man or woman on the street has likely never heard of Prevent, and that many of the supposed “excesses” of Prevent have been shown to be misleading at best and frequently manufactured, it is questionable what such levels of trust would look like, or if they are even attainable.
Furthermore, claims that anyone has the trust of, or can speak for, any one community should be treated with great suspicion.
Firstly, do we want a legal expert who is well-versed in counter-terrorism legislation, or a self-appointed community leader (gatekeeper) and spokesperson to deliver such an important review?
Secondly, is it actually possible to “represent” a community, particularly one as diverse and multifaceted as Britain’s Muslim population? It seems doubtful, but Islamist groups have made their living in Britain by laying claim to ‘the trust of Muslim communities’ and demanding engagement on that basis.
Among the things Lord Carlile was criticised for by Warsi was having previously defended Prevent. She claimed this was evidence of his lack of independence. It should of course be unsurprising that someone with such a distinguished history in counter-terrorism has commented on the most public-facing strand of counter-terrorism policy. Moreover, it is also difficult to see how the anti-Prevent lobby would have accepted anyone who didn’t openly want to tear down Prevent — hardly an ‘independent’ position.
Predictably, the next stage was accusations of Islamophobia. Lord Carlile had previously worked with Policy Exchange to push back against the proposed APPG on British Muslims’ proposed definition of ‘Islamophobia’ — something Warsi herself was heavily involved in.
If Baroness Warsi wants people to take her definition of Islamophobia seriously, she may wish to stop playing so fast and loose with the accusations against those to whom it clearly does not apply. Instead of being used to protect Muslims in towns and cities across the UK with understandable fears, the charge is once again being deployed against think tanks, journalists, and historians who dare to challenge a the orthodox narrative of Islam.
And then a coalition of ten organisations released a joint statement claiming that the appointment had undermined the review’s “integrity and credibility from the outset”. A quick glance at the groups in the coalition shows yet again the likes of CAGE and Mend — not known for their credibility or integrity on extremism — and organisations like Just Yorkshire.
Just Yorkshire previously released an immensely flawed report on the Prevent Strategy and criticised the support for Charlie Hebdo magazine following the January 2015 terrorist attack as arrogating “values of freedom and liberty to some mythical notion of Western moral superiority”.
A spokesperson for Liberty also said of the appointment: “The Prevent strategy chills free speech, encourages discrimination and presses public sector workers into becoming unwilling agents of the police and security services. It has caused untold damage to the communities it targets.”
In other words, as much as they might protest Lord Carlile’s appointment as biased, a balanced examination of the Government’s efforts to combat radicalisation is not what this coalition seeks. Rather, they wish to undermine and ultimately destroy the Prevent Strategy.
These are some of the small number of groups whose activism and scare stories so successfully ensure that the words “Prevent Strategy” are invariably preceded by “controversial” in the press coverage. This is a shame and it is long past time the journalists uncritically printing their talking points did the most basic background checks on these critics.
In appointing Lord Carlile of Berriew QC, the Government has selected an immensely qualified and forensic professional for the daunting task of reviewing a much-maligned and misunderstood piece of the jigsaw in the UK’s counter-terrorism efforts. The most encouraging thing is that the government has not run the fool’s errand of attempting to placate people who cannot be placated. It will be important to bear this in mind when the review is eventually published.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.