Dr Fahid Qurashi argues that the government’s appointment of William Shawcross as lead Reviewer of PREVENT forms part of a wider pattern of defending and managing perceptions of the programme – and that rather than pinning hopes on the review, communities are better off uniting around a call to end PREVENT outright.
This article is published as part of CAGE’s new series of expert essays ‘Perspectives on the War On Terror‘.
William Shawcross has been appointed by the government as the Independent Reviewer of the Prevent Strategy.
The government announced the creation of the Independent Review as part of the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act in 2019. His appointment follows the removal of the previous incumbent in the role, Lord Carlile, following a legal challenge from Rights Watch UK over his suitability for the post given his prior support of the strategy.
The original remit of the review included a focus on delivery, implementation, and recommendations for improvement as a means to respond to “justified criticisms and complaints”. Carlile stated that he was interested to hear from “supporters, critics and everyone in between to see the evidence of what is and isn’t working.”
However, with the appointment of Shawcross, the remit of the review has seemingly narrowed to focus only on “the strategy and delivery of the Prevent programme”… and “recommendations for the future”. A new Terms of Reference is also being drafted.
“From the beginning of this process, there has been no explicit acknowledgement of the deleterious impact the strategy has specifically had on Muslim communities.”
Shawcross has indicated that he wants to hear from a narrower range of people too, primarily Prevent practitioners, to understand how the strategy works, how well it is working, and how it can be further refined.
From the beginning of this process, there has been no explicit acknowledgement of the deleterious impact the strategy has specifically had on Muslim communities. Instead, the government used colour-blind language to speak of “criticisms and complaints” when Carlile was appointed, and Shawcross used a colour-blind approach in speaking about the need to protect against “all forms of terrorist influence”.
Yet the reality is that the Prevent strategy has disproportionately targeted Muslims with its focus on ‘Islamist extremism and terrorism’ (which can be evidenced in the Channel referral figures, and the targeting of Prevent funding to local authority areas with higher Muslim populations), and Muslim communities and organisations have been its leading critics precisely because it has ensnared them into its web.
Calls for an independent inquiry into the Prevent strategy, for example by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, were based specifically on the grounds that it discriminates against Muslims and therefore has an Islamophobic character. This glaring omission from the remit of the review raises questions about its purpose and focus.
“On the face of it then, Shawcross appears to be a poor choice to lead an independent inquiry on a strategy that is based on Islamophobic notions about the nature of Muslims and Islam.
This view, however, can only be sustained if one actually considers the review to be an independent process with a wide ranging remit to look at all of the evidence on the delivery and impact of the strategy.”
Some have heavily criticised the government for appointing Shawcross to the role, citing his previous role as director of the right wing neoconservative thinktank, the Henry Jackson Society, which has been accused of pushing an Islamophobic agenda. By way of illustration, a former associate director of the thinktank, Douglas Murray, was accused of defending far right organisations such as the English Defence League (they “had a point”), and stated in a 2006 speech entitled ‘What are we to do about Islam?’: “conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board”.
Introducing the government’s newly appointed independent reviewer of #Prevent, William Shawcross.
“Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future. I think all European countries have vastly, very quickly growing Islamic populations”. pic.twitter.com/nwzSKolzA5
— Fahad Ansari (Activist Lawyer/Do-Gooder) (@fahadansari) January 26, 2021
Shawcross himself has similar form. As director of the Henry Jackson Society in 2012 he stated, “Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future. I think all European countries have vastly, very quickly growing Islamic populations.”
In his book, Justice and the Enemy, he appears to support some of the most heinous practices of the ‘War on Terror’, including the use of torture (which he rationalised with reference to the levels of authorisation required to torture a prisoner and the controlled environment in which it took place, and with the absurd notion that the intent of the torture was not to inflict intense pain or to cause lasting physical damage), and the use of offshore prisons such as those at Guantanamo Bay, where torture and abuse have been widespread and prisoners have been held without charge for years.
Furthermore, as Chairman of the Charity Commission, a quarter of the most formal statutory investigations that were initiated in his first two years in the role (2012-2014) were launched against Muslim charity organisations, often on the basis of guilt by association, leading to the Claystone thinktank to accuse the commission of institutional bias.
On the face of it then, Shawcross appears to be a poor choice to lead an independent inquiry on a strategy that is based on Islamophobic notions about the nature of Muslims and Islam, that has institutionalised a discursive association between Muslims, Islam, extremism, and terrorism in local authorities, in higher education, schools, and the National Health Service with dire consequences for Muslims, and in doing so, has further entrenched the institutionalisation of Islamophobia. This view, however, can only be sustained if one actually considers the review to be an independent process with a wide ranging remit to look at all of the evidence on the delivery and impact of the strategy.
Instead, Shawcross is a political appointment whose selection was determined by a longer term desire of the government to defend the Prevent Strategy because it functions as a key intelligence gathering tool in Muslim communities and public institutions. An independent inquiry led by Shawcross affords it a veneer of legitimacy in the face of widespread critique from academics, human rights organisations, and Muslim communities.
In 2016, over 140 academics from across the world signed an open letter expressing concern about the implementation of the Prevent Strategy. Over the last few years, a range of organisations have condemned the strategy, including the University & Colleges Union, the National Union of Teachers, Rights Watch UK, and the Open Society Justice Initiative. Then there is the widespread condemnation from Muslim communities, informed by case evidence amassed over years, of the harms of the strategy in schools, colleges, and universities (see Prevent Watch).
Since 2015, when the Prevent strategy became a legal duty, its logic has spread into new spaces such as the Muslim home. Numerous children (some as young as two years old) have been the subject of family court orders and separated from their parents over fears of ‘radicalisation’ and made wards of court or placed into foster care following an interim care order.
Academics criticise ‘anti-radicalisation’ strategy in open letter #endPREVENT #PreCrime #ERG22.
— CAGE (@UK_CAGE) September 29, 2016
The appointment of Shawcross indicates that the government, much like Prevent practitioners who disingenuously question the motives of critics rather than deal with the criticisms sincerely, does not take these concerns seriously.
Detoxifying the Prevent Strategy
Concerns about the Prevent strategy have led, in the words of former Chief Superintendent of the Metropolitan Police, Dal Babu, to the Prevent strategy becoming a ‘toxic brand’, and since at least 2015, the government has made a concerted effort to detoxify its image.
These efforts have included a suggestion by the Home Affairs Select Committee to engage in a simple public relations exercise to rebrand the Prevent Strategy to ‘Engage’ (without any amendments to the strategic objectives of the strategy).
Indeed, finding new innovative means of reaching and disseminating the rationale of the Prevent strategy to a broader audience in Muslim communities has been key to government attempts at detoxifying Prevent.
For instance, local authorities have linked deradicalisation and counter-extremism agendas with hate crime agendas (in a similar vein to how they were previously linked to community cohesion agendas) to achieve greater buy-in from Muslim communities and to enhance the legitimacy of the strategy. Furthermore, the ‘Building a Stronger Britain Together’ (BSBT) programme, which was created in 2016 as part of the counter-extremism strategy, has been used as a new channel to reach hundreds of civil society organisations for the purposes of tackling extremism.
Before that, following the 2011 Prevent Review, the Home Office charged RICU with identifying credible partners to deliver its narratives as well as developing more professional counter-narratives
“Finding new innovative means of reaching and disseminating the rationale of the Prevent strategy to a broader audience in Muslim communities has been key to government attempts at detoxifying Prevent”
The then Home Secretary Theresa May later claimed that RICU had been “road-testing some quite innovative approaches to counter-ideological messages”. These new approaches were informed by counter-insurgency information warfare tactics that relied on deception.
One of the companies RICU contracted, Breakthrough Media Network Ltd, produced online videos, social media content, websites, and more, which it then channelled through supposedly independent Muslim civil society organisations as independent grassroots led counter-extremism campaigns to shape perceptions and conversations.
Beyond public relations exercises and deception, the Home Office has engaged in research and evaluation exercises of Prevent projects with narrowly defined terms and tight timeframes to legitimise the strategy. One such research and evaluation exercise from 2016, with a budget of £100,000, invited expressions of interest to evaluate Prevent projects (in 2015 130 such projects existed) in a six-month timeframe (from October 2016 to March 2017).
The tight timeframe only allowed for the most superficial evaluation of all the Prevent funded projects in existence at the time. Nonetheless, the exercise functioned to buttress the strategy with a veneer of respectability through academic collaborations and research findings.
Such findings have been used to defend the Prevent strategy against criticisms. For example, in the government’s response to the aforementioned Home Affairs Select Committee report on radicalisation from 2017, headline findings from impact evaluations were used to defend the Prevent strategy from criticism:
“Headline findings from our impact evaluation show that these projects have increased awareness of the dangers of radicalisation, reduced factors associated with extremism and improved knowledge of what actions to take when concerned about an individual.”
In other examples, findings from surveys commissioned by the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism at the Home Office have been used by Prevent practitioners to claim that there is widespread support for the Prevent strategy, including amongst Muslims.
In more recent years, the Home Office has delivered Prevent roadshow events across the country to raise ‘positive awareness’ of the Prevent strategy and promote its positive impacts. The roadshow has attempted to rebrand Prevent in more positive terms through confident, unapologetic events that offer local communities a (controlled) space to raise concerns about the strategy that can be dealt with by Home Office employees (as opposed to more critical voices) and demonstrate a reflective learning posture on the Prevent Strategy (by admitting to past mistakes).
At one such event I attended, this new posture was contrasted with previous styles of delivery and implementation to demonstrate the lessons that had been learned, and a new willingness to learn and listen. Examples of new learning included an appreciation that not all Muslims were extremists. In his speech, one of the Home Office employees said, “It’s the extreme interpretations which are problematic and need challenging. We like Muslims and Islam and it does have a place here, but we don’t want extremism”.
There was also an attempt at articulating a complex understanding of radicalisation as a product of the interplay between religious theology and psychological factors (but no acknowledgement of socio-political factors).
The Last Stand
Given the politics of Shawcross, and his narrower focus in the review, his appointment is of a piece with other ongoing attempts to defend and legitimise the Prevent Strategy. In both appointments to the role the government has sought to make a safe appointment that will defend the strategy and lay the blame for the toxicity of the strategy elsewhere.
Previously, Scotland Yard dismissed criticism of the strategy on the basis of its ignorance and a desire amongst some to see it fail. Nazir Afzal, former Chief Prosecutor for North West England, who also interviewed for the role, claimed that the second selection process was rigged in favour of Shawcross and that he was simply interviewed to give an impression of open selection.
It seems quite clear then, that the Independent Review of the Prevent Strategy will not offer any meaningful insights into the workings of the Prevent Strategy. The review process is a political stunt aimed at revitalising the Prevent Strategy rather than learning some tough lessons.
Going forward, the only sensible option left is to end the Prevent Strategy because of the immense levels of harm it has inflicted and its institutionalisation of Islamophobia. There is nothing to be gained from a strategy that views and criminalises whole communities as suspect, demonises an entire faith, and attempts to predict and tame the future (badly) with catastrophic consequences.
The most recent Channel referral figures showed there were more than 6,000 referrals in the past year and almost 90% of the people referred to the programme were not deemed to be at risk of radicalisation. This does not include the many thousands more that are wrongly referred internally (whether at school or in the workplace).
“There is already an acknowledgement and appetite amongst a range of people, communities, and organisations to end the Prevent Strategy. Former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Max Hill QC, argued the government should consider scrapping all anti-terror laws and instead more effectively utilise existing legal structure”
There is already an acknowledgement and appetite amongst a range of people, communities, and organisations to end the Prevent Strategy.
Former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Max Hill QC, argued the government should consider scrapping all anti-terror laws and instead more effectively utilise existing legal structures that respect the rule of law because of the sheer number of terrorism offences that overlap with conventional crimes. In a similar vein, former Scotland Yard counter-terrorism officer David Videcette, made the case for the use of disruption tactics often used against organised crime gangs.
In a recent interview, the architect of the Prevent Strategy, David Omand, argued that Prevent was created because of a perceived need to do something and that if it didn’t work it would be scrapped. Finally, last year, a UN Special Rapporteur recommended that the Prevent strategy be suspended because of its impact on racial equality.
Instead of pinning hopes on the review, communities and organisations should continue to raise awareness of the harms and Islamophobia of the Prevent Strategy and unite behind a call to end the disastrous strategy.
Image in this article used courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)