A spirited debate this evening at King’s College London highlighted precisely why the issue of Prevent remains so important in today’s terrorism and CVE realms. It was discussed as part of a seminar exploring the role of education in countering terrorism; asking whether peace can be taught.
Firstly, Prevent, part of the British government’s wider counter-terrorism strategy. Prevent has a stated aim to ‘safeguard people and communities from the threat of terrorism’. Whether or not it actually succeeds is a matter of much contention among academia, policy-makers and grassroots actors in local communities. Many would argue that it actually worsens the very problem it aims to fight against.
Tonight’s panel was asymmetric in terms of the speakers and their stances on Prevent. Only one of them, Abu Ahmed, a representative of the Home Office, was there to speak on behalf of the policy, while the rest were champing at the bit to rip it apart. And rip it apart they did.
Ahmed argued that Prevent saves lives. But this rang hollow despite what initially should sound like highly commendable outcomes. As an audience member was quick to point out, everything said about Prevent approaches the extremism issue from a standpoint based on the effects. Very little is said about tackling the causes.
Although Prevent claims to tackle all kinds of extremism, there’s a disproportionate focus on Muslims. No-one in their right mind could deny this fact. Ahmed showed some slides featuring photos of young Brits who had become radicalised and committed crimes as a result. The photos showed almost all brown faces. It was telling when Ahmed pointed out the white far-right extremist in the bottom corner, saying ‘you probably haven’t heard of this one’. Yet this man attacked and burnt down three mosques. Why wasn’t this newsworthy? That’s a topic for a whole other debate…
Rob Faure-Walker, an East London teacher-turned-academic, drew on first-hand experience to illustrate his critique of Prevent. He recounted a time when, before Prevent was enforced, he had debated the issue of homosexuality with some Muslim students in the classroom. They were initially hostile to the idea of anyone being gay, and even went as far as to suggest ‘gays ought to be stoned’. But instead of squashing this aggressive viewpoint, Rob decided to open it up for debate.
For weeks the class debated vehemently about homosexuality. Rob didn’t get very far in shifting their views. Some months later, the bill for gay marriage was passed. Rather dreading the reactions from among his students, Rob braced himself for the worst. But he didn’t get it. The students had decided that ‘marriage between any two people who love each other must be a good thing’. They had picked up their previous less tolerant views by absorbing rigid dogmas. Via the medium of open debate they had been able to challenge these dogmas and had developed more critical views as a result. This can only be a good thing.
If Prevent had been in force at that time, any Muslim students who had raised negative views about stoning gays would surely have been reported to the authorities. Today, Prevent is dampening debate in schools because people (in particular Muslims) have become afraid to raise contentious viewpoints. But this is short-sighted. Without debate how can they have any hope of learning alternative perspectives? How can they learn to challenge dogmatic worldviews? Schools should help to create more critical citizens. Teachers should facilitate debate, not spy on students.
To situate Prevent within a wider context, the panel went on to examine the terms commonly used within it: radicalisation and extremism. Originally purely political terms, both have now become deeply associated with violence, even though this was not inherent in their original meaning. In fact, it’s perfectly possible to hold extreme radical views and to not be inclined towards violence. The two are not synonymous.
Living in societies where freedom of debate is stifled is unhealthy. We may believe the UK is nothing like Egypt, for example, where the secular rulers kept the Muslim Brotherhood repressed for decades, eventually leading to violent outbursts and the rise of terrorism. Nor do we believe the UK is like Syria, where the Assad government vehemently held back religious extremists for decades. Libya under Gaddafi was much the same. We only have to look at the state of these countries today to see what happens when sections of society are systematically repressed and targeted.
Prevent is risky because it spreads fear and ‘prevents’ constructive debate. Those who don’t believe that the Western democratic model is the only way the world could potentially be governed are unfairly targeted by Prevent. Conditions like these only serve to heighten a sense of victimisation and encourage the spread of extremist views and potential violence.
To conclude the session, Dr Rizwaan Sabir pointed out that there are a multitude of expensive PR strategies supporting the core themes of Prevent, but none of them really work. This is because the reality does not reflect the messages – and everyone knows it. Until the two add up, there will always be disconnect. Far-reaching social and political changes are needed, not just targeting the effects of flawed policies on certain sections of society. Actions always speak louder than mere words and people will see through the latter in the blink of an eye.