The British government’s strategy to battle extremism has been roundly lambasted – so why keep going with it?
I recently chaired a meeting of Waltham Forest Faith Communities Forum and was told of yet another example of Islamophobic graffiti on the outside of one of our mosques.
Here in Walthamstow, where I am a vicar, we have excellent relationships between our diverse religious communities, and it is painful to us when any of our faith buildings are subject to hate crime.
We stand together in solidarity when any of our communities are under attack. That is why I spoke recently at a local meeting to register my opposition to the government’s Prevent strategy.
Opposition to Prevent has grown since it became a statutory duty of the public sector in February 2015.
Several hundred professors and academics have signed statements expressing concern; opposition includes the National Union of Students, the National Union of Teachers, the University and College Union, the Muslim Council of Britain, and other Muslim and anti-racist organisations.
Most important of all is the growing opposition within the Muslim community itself.
The majority of Muslims in my community see Prevent as placing their families under suspicion. Nothing could be more damaging or divisive.
This is not a misapprehension on their part. The Prevent narrative, despite disclaimers, implies that every Muslim has the potential to be a violent extremist and that our mosque communities are potential seedbeds for radicalisation.
In my own borough the Waltham Forest Council of Mosques (WFCOM) has declared a boycott of Prevent and issued a strong statement, condemning Prevent as racist.
Safeguarding procedures and legal provisions exist for the protection of our youth, and the evidence is that Prevent is not only counterproductive but also serves to alienate those with whom we need to engage if we are to protect them.
This follows the racial profiling of Muslim primary schoolchildren under the BRIT project, which had the effect of stigmatising nine-year-old Muslim children as prone to violent extremism.
This has been compounded by press coverage of young people referred under the provisions of Prevent for expressing perfectly legitimate political or religious views. Some parents in my own community now warn their children not to discuss current affairs and political issues in class.
The WFCOM statement and the opposition to Prevent in the Muslim community should be treated seriously. Long gone are the days when we should be claiming to know better than the victims of racism as to what does or does not constitute prejudice and discrimination; nor should we take cover behind unrepresentative “think-tanks” that are themselves part of a Prevent industry.
Community resentment towards Prevent must also be seen in a wider context. Muslims in my community are subject to Islamophobia from the media and on the streets.
A local family was refused permission to fly to the United States on a visit to Disneyland with no explanation.
We regularly see headlines equating Muslims with terror, child abuse and “extremism”. We are witnessing a rise in Islamophobia and hate-crime, particularly against Muslim women.
In 2015, the Metropolitan Police recorded a 70 percent increase in Islamophobic hate crime in London, the figure being at 270 percent in some boroughs such as Waltham Forest.
Prevent cannot claim to be unjustly connected to these developments. It rests upon a barely concealed narrative of “a suspect community”.
It shares this narrative with more open expressions of Islamophobia in the media and political circles in Britain, Europe and North America.
Much of this narrative echoes the demonisation levelled against Jews a century ago. It is a narrative of suspicion and hostility that extends not only to Muslims but to refugees and migrants seeking safety from war and economic deprivation.
Prevent has gained support or acquiescence from many genuine professionals who are rightly concerned with safeguarding our young people.
Many are horrified by open Islamophobia, let alone hate crimes, and would not hesitate to confront it.
But this is precisely where Prevent is so damaging and divisive. All of us want to see action to prevent young people absconding to Syria or being drawn into violence.
However, safeguarding procedures and legal provisions exist for the protection of our youth, and the evidence is that Prevent is not only counterproductive but also serves to alienate those with whom we need to engage if we are to protect them.
More recently, Prevent shows ominous signs of becoming a vehicle for suppressing free speech and dissent in the public domain.
Meetings held on campuses to campaign against Islamophobia or Prevent are asked to provide a “neutral” chairman or an “opposing” view on the platform.
If this were to be applied to climate change or Black History Month meetings on Malcolm X or establishment political speakers, there would be uproar.
But “Muslim” now equates with “extremist” and such demands point to an Islamophobic culture that is taking a perturbing currency.
The attempt to suppress dissent has also extended to demonising opponents of Prevent in sections of the press – often laced with racialised slurs of the worst type.
Muslim organisations such as Muslim Engagement and Development, CAGE, and Prevent Watch have suffered media hysteria. This hysteria has also extended to the National Union of Students and the National Union of Teachers – both organisations have taken admirably principled positions on the issue.
This raises serious concerns for democratic debate, especially when the British government’s counter-extremism bill is seeking to remove the distinction between “extremism” and “violent extremism”.
Prevent has been branded by authoritative establishment figures as toxic and counterproductive. It has sown division and suspicion and has helped to fuel prejudice against the most disadvantaged and discriminated.
It has become a vehicle for undermining the very principle of free expression and criticism. It gives rise to Islamophobia in communities such as Walthamstow. We should demand its repeal before any more damage is done.
Reverend Steven Saxby, is the Canon of St Barnabas Church, Walthamstow, London, and Chairman of Walthamstow Faith Communities Forum.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.