United Kingdom

'Our criticism of Prevent is based on facts, not myths'

Asim Qureshi responds to Nazir Afzal's critique of those campaigning against UK's counter-extremism strategy Prevent.

Prevent is an exercise in intelligence gathering and not a 'soft intervention' method as it has been marketed to the public, writes Qureshi [Reuters]

Dear Mr Nazir Afzal,

I write this open letter to you as you have thought it appropriate to publicly comment on the work of those campaigning against UK's counter-extremism strategy, Prevent, without having the courtesy to engage us first.

In an interview with The Times, you accused the Muslim Council of Britain, CAGE and the Prevent Watch of undermining the UK's fight against "terror" by  "peddling myths" about its controversial anti-extremism programme. I am not entirely sure what you meant by this, and I am surprised that such a baseless accusation came from a former chief crown prosecutor who is considered to be one of UK's most prominent Muslim lawyers. Usually we hear such baseless accusations only from the Murdoch press, right-wing tabloids and those who are either funded by or invested in the success of Prevent.

In this letter, I will attempt to dispel some of these so-called myths for you. My hope is that, as someone who might claim objectivity, after listening to what we have to say, you will feel the need to ask the same questions that we have been asking since the beginning of Prevent.

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Prevent's disproportional impact on Muslims

First of all, it is an undeniable fact that Prevent disproportionately affects the UK's Muslim communities.  According to the former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson, only 25 percent of referrals to Prevent are from white, far-right groups - the rest of the referrals to this programme are from the UK's Muslim communities. Currently, about 50 million whites and three million "Muslims" are residing in the UK.

Let us take 1,000 referrals as a sample:

75 percent of 1,000 out of three million "Muslims" in the UK = 0.00025

25 percent of 1,000 out of 50 million population of "whites" in the UK = 0.000005

(I refer to this group as "whites" as a large proportion of far-right comes from this community)

This means that in a sample of 1,000 Prevent referrals, the ratio of a Muslim referral to a non-Muslim one is 0.00025 : 0.000005 or, in other words, 50 : 1.

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Ipso facto, a Muslim in the UK is 50 times more likely to be referred to Prevent than a non-Muslim. Perhaps you can understand how these statistics indicate that Prevent Strategy is discriminatory towards Muslims.

Also, do not forget that this statistic takes into account only those who have been actively referred to the programme. There are many undocumented cases in which teachers, police officers and figures of authority question Muslim children on their views about their religion and community, without any further action. Members of UK's Muslim communities speak of reverberating negative effects of this policy and this constant interrogation.

Pertinent here are the words of Marc Dullaert, the founder of KidsRights:

"… Muslim children in the UK face increased discrimination following recent anti-terrorism measures. Accordingly, the Index advises that counter-extremism measures such as the Prevent Strategy be re-assessed to ensure that they do not have a discriminatory or stigmatizing impact on any group of children."

Prevent encourages intelligence gathering within communities

Second, Mr Afzal, you should remember that Prevent is an exercise in intelligence gathering and not a "soft intervention" method as it has been marketed to the public. Authorities encourage community members to refer their friends, colleagues, family members and neighbours to Prevent if they behave "suspiciously". This strategy creates an environment of distrust within communities, and leads to a high number of baseless, unnecessary and traumatising referrals.  

Any respect for the rule of law must be accompanied with a respect for holding the state to account, which is precisely what we, as communities and individuals who are directly affected by the Prevent strategy, are seeking to do.

We have voiced our concerns about Prevent's counterproductive focus on intelligence gathering many times before and the right-wing media and pro-Prevent groups have criticised us because of this. But after the Manchester tragedy, we have been proven right because Home Secretary Amber Rudd personally confirmed that Prevent is primarily an exercise in intelligence gathering.

As she was answering a question about the possible correlation between policing cuts and the intelligence failures that allowed the Manchester tragedy, Rudd confirmed that they do not "collect intelligence through policing".

"We get the intelligence much more from the Prevent strategy," she said.  "It is not about policing so much as engaging with community leaders in the area."

Rudd's answer was the clearest indication to date that the government views - and utilises -  Prevent as an exercise in gathering intelligence, and not as a soft intervention approach.

A small group is not responsible for disaffection with Prevent

You, Mr Afzal, seem to think that anti-Prevent campaigning groups such as CAGE are alone in their opposition to this controversial anti-extremism strategy. While it is flattering that you think that a few Muslim organisations are able successfully to hold government to account, the reality is very far from this.

UN bodies, NGOs, unions, academia, teachers and healthcare professionals have been supporting us in our opposition to the Prevent strategy. Just like us, they also see that Prevent is not working. 

This is not just about numbers, though. This is about effect, and the psychological impact that programmes such as Prevent have on communities who feel they are under suspicion. As Sir Geoffrey Bindman wrote last year: "We must recognise that government counter-terrorism policies like Prevent are helping to create this climate of hostility, sowing fear, division, mistrust and prejudice by reinforcing racist stereotypes, stigmatising Muslim communities and in effect encouraging ethnic profiling."

In that vein, I would very much recommend a new book, What is Islamophobia? by Narzanin Massoumi, Tom Mills and David Miller, who rightly help us to understand the wider impact of counterterrorism policy:

"We regard the state, and more specifically the sprawling official 'counter-terrorism' apparatus, to be absolutely central to production of contemporary Islamophobia - the backbone of anti-Muslim racism."

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The opposition to Prevent within Muslim communities is also widespread. A formidable group of individuals and organisations, from a variety of theological positions, oppose Prevent. Critics of Prevent include names that cross sectarian divides, such as Shaykh Asrar Rashid, Professor Tariq Ramadan, Shaykh Abdul Haqq Bewley, Shaykh Zahir Mahmood, Shaykh Abdassamad Clarke and Shaykh Shams ad Duha. UK's Muslim communities are by no means behind the Prevent strategy, although they are, of course, keen on the idea of meaningful prevention.

The concerns raised by all of these groups and individuals are not simply based on anecdotal evidence. Their critique of Prevent is the culmination of a great deal of experience, expertise and knowledge.

Prevent disproportionately targets Muslims, forces them to gather intelligence within their communities and eventually moves beyond a voluntary programme into coercion. Also, the "science" that allegedly legitimates Prevent is still held in secret.

Mr Afzal, you may still disagree with our criticism of Prevent and you may even believe that it is successful. But what stops you from pushing for the science behind the Extremism Risk Guidance 22+ (pdf), the research that is the backbone of the Prevent strategy, to be released to the public?  Surely you can see that the lack of transparency surrounding the foundations of Prevent is creating an environment of distrust.

By questioning Prevent's opaqueness and lack of epistemology, we are not showing signs of extremism or undermining UK's fight against terror. On the contrary, by holding the government to account we are upholding British values more than the entirety of security legislation that has been brought in since September 11, 2001.

So, Mr Afzal, I will end this letter to you by saying that, if you want to be an honest broker for communities in the UK, you should question the Prevent strategy alongside us.  Because you cannot satisfy us, or the public, by simply saying that the "government knows best" - especially after they have got it wrong on so many occasions over the years.

Any respect for the rule of law must be accompanied with a respect for holding the state to account, which is precisely what we, as communities and individuals who are directly affected by the Prevent strategy, are seeking to do.

Yours sincerely, 

Asim Qureshi 

Asim Qureshi is the Research Director at CAGE, a UK-based advocacy organisation working to empower communities affected by the War on Terror. He has a background in International and Islamic Law and is author of the book Rules of the Game.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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