To think back to 2010, as the government prepared to conduct a review of their Prevent policy, experts were sure they were going to scrap it in the face of its hemorrhaging credibility. Instead, what we got is a new version of Prevent. Since then it’s been a decade - a decade of communities self-censoring and dealing with state sanctioned distrust.
The impact to these communities cannot be measured with statistics and single stories. But the stories demonstrate the life-altering damage these policies cause, and bring to light the urgent need to abolish them. Take Jack’s story - a mis-report led to the family being harassed by the police for years. Jack, previously described as outgoing, is fearful of going out, and no longer trusts his teachers. Jack’s parents commented, “We would never think that being anti-racist, anti-fascist or a socialist advocating peaceful protest or peaceful direct action would ever result in the police calling us extremist. Our children have never been exposed to violence or harmful experiences. To suggest that our political views required safeguarding and labelled as extremist was chilling”.
But this has been met with resistance from every corner of society. Despite facing significant loss in funding, organisations opted to stay away from the tainted brand of Prevent funding, and communities themselves refused to engage with those who accepted ‘dirty’ money in exchange for their safety. And yet, for all this resistance, we still see Prevent deeply embedded into our laws and fibres of society.
This article outlines some of the lessons that can be gained from this decade of resistance and considers what resistance can continue to look like going forward, in the hopes that we see the complete abolishment of Prevent.
Where it began
Launched in 2007 (following initial discussions post the 7/7 attacks), and with a budget of £140 million, the initial version of Prevent chucked money at communities. In-return, they were required to send the government data from within. This included details on what mosques individuals visited and even which street corners they hung around at. Initially focused explicitly only on the Muslim community, £60 million was invested into local authorities by 2009, distributed based on the number of Muslims in the population. In doing so, the entire Muslim community was placed under surveillance.
Many of us grew up with these seemingly innocuous investments - trips to the beach, learning to do first aid, sport tournaments. For example, Prevent funding was approved for a youth centre to provide recreational facilities and career advice. The bid also recommended the inclusion of free IT facilities as it was ‘good for monitoring which websites people were visiting’ and ‘intelligence gathering’.
Authorities were tasked with reporting how well they tackled extremism (National Indicator 35), particularly those mapped as being in ‘risk’ areas (read as those with higher Muslim populations). Two thirds of the councils initially refused to sign up, and were told by the government they were being “soft on terrorism”.
With most government funding now being channelled through Prevent, well known tactics of ‘divide and rule’ were implemented to ensure organisations had little choice but to comply. One women’s project noted “All the doors to obtaining funding for work with Muslim women were shutting and all the signposts were pointing to Prevent.”
The response from the community was one of distrust and animosity. Press conferences demanding the money go back to the government were even held. The money was described as “dirty”. Youth project managers reported their work being “discredited” if the community found out they were Prevent funded. Another manager noted “A lot of people are having to hide the Prevent name because of perceptions of young people.”
In 2009, the second version of Contest was announced. This new iteration was more directive, effectively criminalising political opinions if you were Muslim. For context, this was occurring at the time where many within the Muslim community were politised by the Iraq war. Many had opposed the invasion and were angry that the large protests had been ignored. Around 2008, heavy onslaughts to Gaza occurred, and once again politicised many youth who wanted their government to do more to intervene. This period saw mass mobilisation of communities, with many partaking in Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and attending protests.
Where youth workers had previously held discussions around foreign policy to talk through issues raised, they were now being asked to report these conversations. Primary schools and university campuses were also beginning to be included as part of the reach of the strategy.
Many organisations, such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), who had previously accepted Prevent funding, refused to continue complying. They fell from grace, now described as extremists themselves. In their wake, state-groomed outfits like Sufi Muslim Council, The British Muslim Forum and the Qulliam Foundation took up the mantel as the government’s Muslim interlocutors of choice. Having very little roots within the community, these organisations were shunned by Muslims across the faith spectrum.
By 2010, a review was scheduled by the Home Office of their anti-terror powers. The Commons Select Committee which examined the Prevent Programme concluded that “[Prevent’s] approach is contentious and is unlikely ever to be fully accepted by those it is most important to engage”. Given those delivering Prevent were becoming increasingly wary of the expectations on them to provide the police with information on people’s political opinions, and the community were becoming hostile to the programmes - it was expected that Prevent would be scrapped after this review.
A shift in direction: Prevent 2.0
Despite the criticisms, in 2011 Prevent was repackaged into a policy, with the new government making it more ideologically honed around values and the idea of integration. This was at a time when policing was being transformed in the UK: with austerity measures in place, there was an attempt by the government to fix social issues with securitisation. It was also around this time we saw the launch of the Hostile Environment and concerns being raised about the amount of CCTV in the UK. An EHRC report highlighted the links between stop and search and security cameras, suspicionless Schedule 7 stop and searches at borders, and counter-terrorism policies such as Prevent. Counter-terrorism, along with border control and ‘ordinary’ policing makes up the three pillars of policing in the UK. Ultimately, these are all tools used to control communities and critical politics, and had nothing to do with keeping anyone safer.
Terms such as extremism and radicalism outlawed political ideas and views, particularly those that resisted occupation. Further iterations took on the criticisms of the policy only focusing on Muslims, and included far-right extremism to improve PR, along with anyone who had political views that showed dissent such as environmental campaigners, anti-war activists. But criticisms around the dangers of conflating mental health with extremism, spying on whole communities, and curtailing civil rights were ignored. Some student unions passed motions to not comply.
Catalysed by the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013, 2015 saw the policy adopted into law in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act as the so-called statutory ‘Prevent duty’. In particular, safeguarding was used to provide a friendlier face to the surveillance, in an attempt to make the policy seem vital for even nurseries and health care, and an extension of existing legal duties. Public servants (including teachers and doctors) weren’t simply requested to become spies, they were being forced to. Empowered by the state, armed with already existing biases, and compelled by the fear of being blamed if something went wrong, the number of referrals shot up after 2015. 7,631 referrals were made, 56% for individuals who were 20 years old or younger. Of these referrals, 381 individuals ended up being ‘supported’ by Channel (the government’s deradicalisation programme), of which all of them related to Islamic extremism.
And with it, so did the resistance. We saw resistance from every sphere that Prevent touched - communities, education and health care. For example, the Together Against Prevent campaign saw near 50 organisations from across various sectors pledge to “take no Prevent funds and support non-cooperation, wherever possible, with local Prevent programmes”. Hundreds of academics signed statements arguing the expansion into a statutory duty would have a "chilling effect on free and open debate and political dissent", adding that "it shifts attention away from grievances that drive individuals towards an ideology that legitimises political violence." The Royal College of Psychiatrists questioned the science behind the duty, and called out the harm it was causing.
While this widespread condemnation from every sector of society has been ignored or attacked by the government, they are an important tool in showing the collective resistance of those who are expected to then implement the duty.
More concretely, civil society organisations, trade unions, student and academic groups have organised workshops, campaigns and events, to organise against it. This includes motions passed in unions, Students not Suspect Tours, and Waltham Forest Council of Mosques boycotting the duty.
Despite the decade of resistance to Prevent 2.0, and the even longer resistance of Prevent in general, we have seen it continue to be embedded in law. When thinking about continued resistance, it is worth thinking about the lessons that can be gained from this period, and consider how we can re-strategies.
It has been a long struggle, and many actively organising have either become worn out or drifted to other areas of work. It would have been difficult to predict ten-years ago just how entrenched Prevent would have become within society - either from a policy perspective, or its impact on the grassroots.
With this in mind, often the narrative against Prevent focused on single issues, working in silos without connecting the bigger picture. For example, whilst the campaigning in the education sector is significantly ahead of other sectors, there was an overemphasis on the dangers Prevent presents to academic freedom, at the expense of talking about its impact on some of the most deprived communities in Britain outside of academia.
Similarly, communities focused on how islamophobic Prevent is and the individual stories. Whilst this works to humanise the impact of this duty, it also focused on the final outcome, moving attention away from the policies in place that allowed these referrals to even happen. It is true that Prevent is islamophobic, and this can be seen from where it started. But focusing on this makes it seem like a ‘Muslim problem’, and again ignores how it has expanded to envelop anyone who dissents - used against those who organise around Palestine, anti-racism, decolonisation and environmental activism.
Early iterations of organising focused on highlighting just how bad Prevent was, with key emphasis put on the surveillance element. Resistance was exemplified through the passing of motions or signing of petitions. Attendees of workshops could therefore have left the space feeling disempowered, unsure and fearful about what more they could do. Thousands attended these initial workshops and events, and with strategic planning, their collective power could have been utilised more effectively. This is an outcome of short-term thinking, assuming mass initial mobilisation will lead to the abolition of the whole duty. In reality, we needed a sustained movement that was broad in its response and actions.
Much of the opposition to Prevent has been at an institutional level, sometimes led by elected officers who had short terms in office, making continuity difficult. Overall, institutions - such as the NUS and Liberty - lend themselves to impacting policies at a governmental level. But to tackle a duty that impacts communities, it is vital the grassroots are empowered to lead the fight. This could include attending and protesting local council meetings until they defund Prevent, and demanding local community spaces, mosques and schools to boycott the duty.
Ultimately, many conversations fail to challenge the “conveyor belt theory” Prevent is based on - which assumes the way you think (pre-crime) can lead to terrorist actions. Many who organise around prison abolition will be familiar with the conversations demanding the alternatives - what should Prevent be replaced with? This question keeps the premise of Prevent intact assuming the logic underpinning it makes sense. Solutions must not start and end here, and must instead consider the vision of society we want to see, and consider what role the government has played in stopping that occurring.
There currently appears to be collections of work to dismantle Prevent directly - such as the student and staff coalitions formed at various universities, but it is hard to decipher if progress is being made. Clearly it is time for a re-energised and strategic collective to propel the movement forward.
A decade to go?
Having passed a decade since the outcome of its last review, Prevent is undergoing another review this year, led by Willaim Shawcross who described Islam as “one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future”. In March 2021, 550 Muslim scholars, community leaders, civil society organisations, mosque councils and national and regional bodies signed a statement condemning Prevent and the government’s appointment of Shawcross, and pledged to boycott the review. 17 leading human rights groups have also declared their plans to boycott the review. In a joint statement, they announced that they would instead be conducting a parallel, civil society-led review that “properly considers the harms of Prevent”.
This is the first time a review of Prevent has been boycotted by such a cross-section of society. As has been the trajectory of the last 15 years, the review is likely to lead to things getting worse. With the signs of unity forming around resisting Prevent, it is vital to consider how we can strategies going forward and what are some key collective demands that can be made.
Decouple surveillance from welfare and safeguarding: the co-option of safeguarding has been key in sanitising Prevent’s image, making it welcome into our schools and health care provisions. A recent report shows the merger of counter-terrorism with support services has damaged the relations of trust on which they depend, worsening outcomes for patients from ethnic minority backgrounds. This leads to less welfare and support to those who need it. Our most vulnerable require care that is not compromised by the policing agenda and we must reject this language of ‘duty’ and ‘care’.
Defunding Prevent for local authorities and public services, refund community services: Over the last 5 years, the government has spent an average of £43.6m per year in funding for the Prevent programme. Interestingly, the government did not reveal further breakdowns of where this funding went, claiming “some charities may be concerned about reputational damage both generally and within the vulnerable communities they are engaging with, if they are publicly linked with Prevent. Therefore, there is a significant risk that fear of having their identity unilaterally disclosed via FOI would make some charities less willing to work with Prevent“. With austerity measures making it very difficult for charities to secure funding, many have felt forced into using Prevent or other counter-terrorism funding streams (such as Building a Stronger Britian Together fund) as their only source of funding. Whether done publicly or in secret, community organisations are being adopted as a wing of policing, and shaping community-based projects through a dangerous lense, and and, of course, communities continue to be spied on. Youth initiatives, language support and health care programmes for young parents have all been impacted - and these are all vital services for our communities. We must demand that funds are made available without these additional strings attached.
Win back our right to dissent and protest: At its core, Prevent attempts to curtail dissent. It targets, for example, those who have “the desire for political and moral change”. In doing so, it is not possible to even organise against it effectively without risking your career or studies. We have recently seen further assaults to our civil rights - such as the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill. Worryingly, this Bill applies the same “pre-crime” logic to criminalise youth who appear to be ‘violent’. Massive responses to this Bill in the form of #KilltheBill protests have seen initial discussions pushed back. However, the Bill is still currently progressing through Parliamentary stages. Similarly, the Online Safety Bill continues to use the language of protection whilst curtailing what we can discuss online and allowing further surveillance. Connections must be made between these laws, and connections must be made in our resistance.
As we await the results of yet another review, there is potential for a re-energised movement against Prevent. We have already seen the biggest ever coalition boycott, led by grassroots, community based organisations and a call for a People’s Review of Prevent.
The last decade has seen Prevent go from being focused on providing money and suggestions on what communities should do, to enforcing surveillance practises in every part of social life. This has been met with much resistance with varying levels of successes. This socialising of surveillance has been one of it’s strengths - it is so far-reaching and plays to the biases and fears of workers. And yet, it is also its greatest weakness. It is the people, and not the state, that can make or break Prevent.
The state will of course apply its coercions - its funding, its naming of organisations as ‘extremists’, its sanctions. But we too have the opportunity to apply our own force. Together, there is real hope to finally abolish Prevent.
Prevent is one strand of the British Government’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy (CONTEST), introduced by the Labour government during the 2000s. The strategy is made up of 4 ‘P’s - Pursue, Prevent, Protect and Prepare. It is the Prevent strand of CONTEST which has received the most attention. This is because it most directly affects everyday life in Britain.
Prevent claims to be responding to “the ideological challenge of terrorism” and preventing people being radicalised towards terrorism. It exists in the so-called ‘pre-criminal space’ – dealing with cases that aren’t criminal, but that are supposedly on their way to becoming so. ‘Successful’ cases (those that have identified someone as being ‘vulnerable’ to being drawn into terrorism) are then referred to Channel. This is a number of panels to ‘support’ individuals through a de-radicalisation plan.
The Prevent duty is a statutory requirement to implement Prevent measures, from the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015.
You can find out more here.
Hajera Begum is part of تحریر // Tehreer, a 6-month writing group housed within The Rights Collective which supports writers who identify as South Asian to develop their own voices in writing about social justice. She works to increase access to Higher Education for refugees. She is part of Nijjor Manush, an independent campaigning organisation that aims to educate, empower and organise Bengalis and Bangladeshis in the UK. She also organises with Abolitionist Futures, a collaboration of community organisers and activists in the UK and Ireland who are working together to build a future without prisons, police and punishment. Twitter: @haj_eraa
Article co-edited by Taimour Fazlani, a mentor for the تحریر // Tehreer 2021 cohort. Taimour runs Expert By Experience, a volunteer-led anti-imperialist platform that creates a dialogue around mental health in South Asian communities through an intersectional and critical lens.