The UK Prevent programme infiltrates schools, targeting students who express certain views.
If you are a British government policy assessor, trying to establish the merit of the counter-radicalisation strategy, Prevent, what would be your metrics?
The £40m-a-year programme ($57m), introduced by the Labour government after the 2005 London bombings and continued by successive administrations, was intended as a “soft” approach – relying on community engagement to help stop people getting drawn to violent extremism.
Since 2012, some 800 British citizens have joined Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria – and 600 have been intercepted on the way. Such alarmingly high numbers, you might argue, demonstrate Prevent’s failure to counter violent extremism.
But who could say if the figures would have been even higher without the programme? And, conversely, if the numbers were fewer, how could you demonstrate that this was down to Prevent and not to other factors? Success for the programme isn’t quantifiable in empirical terms, so you would have to measure it another way.
And that’s where the trouble starts – because there are so many signals to suggest that Prevent has failed, yet the government isn’t reading them. A recent signal came from the UK’s terror watchdog which earlier this month called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy because of fears that the policy is counterproductive, creating fear and mistrust.
There have been plenty of other warning signs, though. For instance, if you’ve set up a programme premised on community engagement, and communities start to publicly announce that they don’t want to engage with it, that might provide some clue to its effectiveness.
The government seems to think that people holding deeply conservative, hardline religious views are actually, potentially, violent - but however obnoxious and unpalatable, extreme views and extreme violence are not the same things at all.
Last month, the chairman of Birmingham Central Mosque (in Britain’s second largest city) called for a boycott of Prevent – and in December last year, the London borough of Waltham Forest Council of Mosques, which represents 70,000 Muslims, vowed to join the boycott, describing Prevent as a racist policy.
That same month, figures from the National Police Chiefs’ Council showed less than 10 percent of referrals to Prevent come from within the Muslim community – a miserable indication of the government’s ability to garner support for the programme.
Complaints over the years about the racism of the Prevent strategy are so prevalent that it has come to be seen as a surveillance programme for Muslims, that has been dubbed “MI5 Islam”. But what really tipped things over the edge is the British government’s new iteration of the strategy, rolled out last summer, requiring public bodies to help detect the signs of radicalisation – while remaining vague about what such signs may be.
Legally compelling hospitals, universities and schools to comply with this sort of monitoring is bad enough: doctors have protested over their ethical dilemma, lecturers have warned about it suffocating free speech.
But monitoring schoolchildren comes across as especially ludicrous and alarming. Of 1,681 referrals last year to Channel, the government’s de-radicalisation programme, 577 were children under 18 years of age – the youngest was a four-year-old.
With dozens of children currently in care because of fears that they are at risk of being radicalised at home, Muslim parents are understandably terrified that their children could be taken away from them over a comment made in a classroom.
As well as growing opposition from British Muslims and mosques, academics, nurses and other professionals, there have been doubts raised by several MPs, an ex-police chief superintendent, former terrorism advisers, the National Union of Students and Liberty.
Prevent has been so widely discredited, so often described as a “toxic brand”, that it raises serious questions as to why successive governments persist with the programme.
Of course, one element must be that to question the strategy would be to question so many premises on which our entire counterterrorism approach is based.
Time and again, counter-extremism workers have pointed to legitimate grievances over Britain’s hypocritical and deadly actions in the Middle East as a significant source of terrorism recruitment fuel – but which government is going to cede this point over foreign policy?
Instead, holding certain views about Iraq or the Palestinian cause while being Muslim is likely to get you placed on a watch list. Meanwhile, those engaged in efforts to counter extremism on the ground have urged that extremist views, however unpalatable, cannot be silenced because to do so drives conversations underground, where they cannot be exposed or challenged.
Terror experts say that there is no concrete causality between ideology and terror, whereas this does exist for other factors such as alienation, social cohesion or mental health. But cherry-picking potential causes – focusing on ideology, or religion – does damage in so many ways: Think, for example, of the social sabotaging that takes place when the government singles out Muslims as bearing responsibility for addressing violent extremism, instead of insisting it’s a problem we must all shoulder together.
And speaking of ideology, here is where the purpose of Prevent gets cloudy. A government strategy of engaging communities to help counter recruitment to violent extremism is, theoretically, a good idea.
But when that becomes a “counter-radical” or “counter-extremism” programme, it runs into problems – because who gets to define those things? The government seems to think that people holding deeply conservative, hardline religious views are potentially violent – but however obnoxious, extreme views and extreme violence are not the same things at all.
This is what British terrorism expert Anthony Richards has described as the difference between “extremism” of thought and “extremism” of method. He adds that this is not to give abhorrent ideologies a pass, but rather to suggest that there are better forums for countering such views than within the counterterror framework.
It is precisely this conflation that has been so problematic – because it means people with conservative views won’t trust you enough to help you counter violence.
And because it suggests that you are no longer countering terror, you have become the thought police – which makes a mockery of repeated insistence by David Cameron, the British prime minister, that the country’s “liberal values” are the best weapon against radicalisation.
That may well be the case – but those values must be deeds, not just words, for it to happen.
Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.