The Independent View: A reformed Prevent could tackle extremism more effectively

The government’s counter-extremism strategy, Prevent, is often criticised. Some say it acts like a thought-police, criminalises Islam and over-securitises places like schools. Others claim there is not enough buy in from Muslim communities, that it funds non-violent Islamists to tackle jihadists, or that it is not the government’s job to challenge ideology. Neither criticism is absolutely fair, but as criticised as Prevent is, it undoubtedly serves an important function and is here to stay.

While all terrorists are extremists, the vast majority of extremists do not use terrorism as a viable strategy, and a liberal and democratic nation cannot and should not deal with all extremists in the same way as it deals with terrorists. But catching terrorists who “love death as you love life” is a difficult proposition for the police or the security services when they’re keen to go down fighting and cause as much destruction as possible while they do it. Only dealing with extremism once it becomes violent and illegal is a high stakes game where the penalty for losing is the death of large numbers of innocent civilians. Tackling extremism of all kinds before it becomes violent can reduce the civilian casualties, reduce the number of violent extremists that have to be dealt with, and has the secondary benefit of challenging non-violent behaviour that nonetheless has a negative impact on British society.

By changing just one thing, it could take a big step in the right direction to find answers to the structural and strategic criticisms above: separate counter-terrorism and counter-extremism as much as possible.

The Home Office is responsible for counter-terrorism and for the government’s legislative programme and there is a tendency, when there is a new problem such as with British foreign fighters in Syria or online radicalisation, to come up with new counter-terrorism legislation to tackle it. The Home Office is also responsible for the police and often gets them to deliver Prevent. The problem is, they also do much of the Pursue and Protect in the government’s CONTEST strategy and it is awfully confusing for both the police and the people with whom they talk, to know which bit they are doing when. The upshot is troubled relations between Muslim communities and the police, and over-securitised atmospheres in schools and colleges.

If Prevent was run by a tsar answering directly to the Prime Minister, sitting within the Department for Communities and Local government, it could lead the appropriate civil society-based approach to deal with the current challenges posed by radicalisation. It could train teachers and other frontline workers to deliver Prevent initiatives, thus avoiding the securitisation of schools and allowing the police to work more efficiently on hard-end counter-terrorism work, only entering schools if they had particular intelligence to suggest it were necessary.

The benefit for Prevent would be huge. It could be clearer about its terms of engagement, as it wouldn’t have the immediate-term national security focus of the police. This would get past the disastrous policy of giving Islamists public funds to tackle extremism. It could support institutions and individuals that have credibility in their own sectors rather than trying to back winners and find either the “most credible” Muslim or the “most moderate” Muslim (which, as the government has discovered, is not necessarily synonymous.)

It could more efficiently challenge extremism of all kinds. While the government has gone after jihadists, entryist Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood and revolutionary Islamists like Hizb ut-Tahrir have had a relatively easy run in London as long as they stayed away from violence. But they have retained and spread the same ideology that the jihadists spread using violence and terrorism, and this is precisely what Prevent should be challenging. Away from the police and the security services, who have been shown not to understand the ideological complexities of the beast they fight, the tsar could lead the charge to build institutional resilience against extremists, raise awareness of extremism, manage mentoring for those at various stages of radicalisation, stoke debate around ideology, champion counter-narratives to challenge the narrow worldview of extremists, and even promote “British Values” if deemed useful.

Prevent would then also be more able to adapt to current challenges. Rifkind jnr correctly identified last week that online extremism isn’t going be effectively challenged with censorship and surveillance, despite the suggestions of Rifkind snr’s Intelligence and Security Committee. Online extremism and radicalisation is certainly a big issue, but one that should fall under the remit of Prevent rather than the police, our statute book, or our security services.

Editor’s Note: All comments on this post will be pre-moderated

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* Jonathan Russell is Political Liaison Officer of the Quiliam Foundation.

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10 Comments

  • Geoffrey Payne 4th Dec '14 - 1:52pm

    The problem is that Muslims are being demonised and I think it would be useful if the government were to make a serious effort to mitigate that. Instead whilst the political parties are dancing to the UKIP tune, then government initiatives like Prevent – in itself badly named, will be treated with great suspicion. I am not sure about having a strongman Tsar to deal with this, we need to joint effort by Muslims and non-Muslims to work together and isolate extremism on both sides of the divide. There is a lot of good work being done in Hackney, although it is not plain sailing by any means.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Dec '14 - 2:25pm


    If Prevent was run by a tsar answering directly to the Prime Minister, sitting within the Department for Communities and Local government, it could lead the appropriate civil society-based approach to deal with the current challenges posed by radicalisation.

    Well, I suppose we have the Church of England, which started life as the state dictating to Christians what Christianity should be about.

    However, no I don’t think it is up to the state to dictate to Muslims what Islam is about. If the vast majority of Muslims reject what IS is about, and I have no doubt that they do, then it is up to THEM to tackle the false interpretations pushed by IS and the like. I’m afraid the “nothing to do with us” line often used isn’t enough, just as if Catholics were to say “Our religion doesn’t teach child abuse, therefore Catholics who abuse children aren’t proper Catholics, therefore the problem is nothing to do with us, therefore we’re not going to do anything about it” it would not be enough. There is a real problem within their communities (plural deliberate) of some of their number misinterpreting their religion in this way, therefore they need to tackle this problem head-on.

    Tackling this problem head-on perhaps means developing themes and ideas and practices in their religion which are true to its true teachings, and yet appeal to the young. But why should the state fund this, any more than the state should fund similar initiatives in Christian denominations?

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Dec '14 - 2:31pm

    Geoffrey Payne

    The problem is that Muslims are being demonised and I think it would be useful if the government were to make a serious effort to mitigate that.

    Sorry, I disagree.

    I think the problem is that Muslims have been patronised too much with a “there, there, nothing to do with you, not your problem” attitude from guilt-ridden liberals anxious not to be seen as “racist”. As a result, a complacent attitude has developed, there has not been the will that there needs to be to tackle the roots of this misinterpretation where it needs to be tackled, which is internally.

  • Whenever you hear that something is here to stay, you can be assured that it is time to go.

  • Majority of Muslims in UK are poor, education, financially, or politically and have low quality of life, irrespective of where they live both in muslim and non muslim countries. With only small minority doing well.
    Most Muslims understand that it does not matter, live decently or badly, world media’s propaganda is geared against Muslims. Yet we still care for neighbours, our fellow countrymen. We will not hate, but we do want justice in Palestine. By trading and financially supporting Israel, UK is partner in crime that Israel commits. How can we condem Russia in Ukraine, and in same breath support Israel.

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th Dec '14 - 10:42pm

    Sajad

    Most Muslims understand that it does not matter, live decently or badly, world media’s propaganda is geared against Muslims. Yet we still care for neighbours, our fellow countrymen.

    So long as they are Muslims. And the right sort of Muslim.

    What do you have to say, Sajad about the treatment of religious minorities in countries where Islam is dominant? Please read this report and tell me what you think about it.

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th Dec '14 - 11:31pm

    Geoffrey Payne

    Matthew – I don’t think these so called guilt-ridden Liberals have got anything to do with the sorry state of affairs that we have today

    I disagree. I explained why in the second paragraph of my reply to you. I believe that guilt-ridden liberals have encouraged this persecution complex which has contributed to this growth of extremist attitudes.

    I believe there is a huge amount of hypocrisy in those Muslims who go on and on about Palestine (and I boycott Israeli products because of what is happening there, so don’t accuse me of not caring about it), but have nothing to say about all those people in other parts of the world suffering because of the growth of this extremist and illiberal form of Islam which we are now seeing in MOST countries where Islam is dominant. As someone once put it “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th Dec '14 - 9:28pm

    Matthew Huntbach

    What do you have to say, Sajad, about the treatment of religious minorities in countries where Islam is dominant? Please read this report and tell me what you think about it.

    Sajad, have you read it yet? Please tell me what your comments are on it.

    I have great sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians. However, I am getting increasingly fed up with Muslims who go on and on about Gaza and the Palestinians, and use that as an excuse to suggest there is some worldwide persecution of Muslims, and yet have nothing whatsoever to say about all those places where it is the other way round, and it is Muslims persecuting non-Muslims.

  • Interesting post, Jonny. While I agree that Prevent needs a more prominent position in somewhere like the DCLG – and the idea of a tsar may be a good one – isn’t the strength of CONTEST in its four-pronged, exhaustive framework for preventing, tackling and limiting extremism & terrorism?

    The debate over the causality between extremism and violence is an interesting one, for sure. It reminds me of debates we had in IAIS of the difference between moderates and radicals – the former being non-violent and the latter violent. You could therefore have a conservative moderate, but one who rejected violent activism in favour of quietist propagation.

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