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Britain's Prevent programme is a good idea gone bad, and it was the state that ruined it

British armed police patrol streets around the Manchester Arena stadium in Manchester, United Kingdom on 23 May, 2017 [Lindsey Parnaby/Anadolu Agency]
British armed police patrol streets around the Manchester Arena stadium in Manchester, United Kingdom on 23 May, 2017 [Lindsey Parnaby/Anadolu Agency]

In April 2016, a UN official wrote to the British government expressing the international organisation's thanks for hosting Maina Kiai. The former Kenyan human rights activist was the special rapporteur on freedom of association. Having visited three years previously, Kiai acknowledged that, "It is clear that the UK takes its role as one of the global leaders in human rights seriously… The world notices when this country takes positive steps to strengthen its practice of human rights. But it notices even more when it moves in the opposite direction – restricting the space for democracy and human rights."

Kiai had three areas of concern: undercover policing techniques used to infiltrate potentially violent animal rights groups, or environmental groups seeking to cause economic damage in the name of sustainability; efforts by the Conservative government to neuter criticism of economic austerity by restricting lobbying efforts by more Keynesian groups; and yet more concerns about the British government's controversial non-violent counterterrorism programme, Prevent.

Depending on who you speak to, Prevent is either not going far enough, a holding tank for lucky jihadis returning from Syria who flounce through the process on their way to unearned freedom, or a government spying programme cloaked by a veneer of softly-softly "countering extremism". Or even an instrument of a fundamentally xenophobic government which implicitly believes that Muslims with conservative beliefs are security risks. It could also, of course, be viewed as a non-violent programme to stop children from falling into the hands of Daesh or Al Qaeda recruiters.

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It will be interesting to see how the National Union of Students, more mature leftists and Muslim activists in organisations like CAGE react to the fact those who have been referred to Prevent are increasingly what the government calls "right-wing extremists". Figures released last week show that "far-right referrals", as the Guardian described them, are up by a quarter.

Let's imagine that the Prevent referral figure hits fifty-fifty, with half being far-right Muslims, and the other half being far-right non-Muslims. Imagine if Prevent's critics were reviewing a programme in which the vast majority of referrals were neo-Nazis or anti-Muslim extremists like Tommy Robinson or Anne Marie Waters. Would their concerns about freedom of association be so pronounced? Of course not.

The idea behind Prevent is sound. It is better than invading a foreign country, implementing a messy drone strike or locking up hate-merchants without attempting to convince them they aren't being decent or reasonable people. It is a non-violent approach to solving the problem of violence. Leftists should be in favour of it, so why aren't they?

Perhaps it's because Prevent does not work. It was implemented by a group of mutual admirers who shared a common mistrust of conservative Islam, including Tony Blair, followed by his mimics in the David Cameron-led Coalition government, who all shared a common lack of insight into the Middle East, war and terrorism. None came from any sort of security or intelligence background, and tended to indulge wild-eyed journalists and pseudo-historians with an idealist neoconservative mind-set as their advisers on terrorism.

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Spend any time with people who have experience at the hard-end of the fight against terrorism, who "lifted" Taliban organisers in Afghanistan and hauled them off for interrogation; who raided Al-Qaeda safe-houses in Iraq, and you'll find a common theme: almost none of these professional operators believe that Islam is the problem.

The people behind Prevent have failed to grasp this point for nearly two decades. On the whole, they have had little international experience, even as tourists, in the Middle East or South Asia. Most frequented the same self-indulgent dinner parties in west and north London. None spent meaningful time on working class estates in Tower Hamlets or Coventry, and understood that the difference between a British teenager joining a jihadi group and one joining a gang of drug dealers is so slight that "Islamic ideology" is pretty much a red herring.

Prevent is a good idea gone bad, but it should not be thrown out completely. Sitting down and talking people through these issues is important. This should be done by police officers – local police officers, thousands of whom have lost their jobs thanks to austerity measures — or teachers, whose morale is at an all-time low thanks to the same government spending cuts.

In essence it requires the same kind of chat that a police officer or teacher used to have with the boys on the estate who could choose between a life of crime or a more normal, if poorer, lifestyle. These kind of chats should be done informally and by civil society, not the government. The reputation of the government programme, Prevent, is clearly sunk. Thought-policing, it turns out, doesn't work when the government is involved. You would think that a "Conservative" Party in government would realise this.

The odd thing, given the left's fondness for state intervention and re-education programmes, is that leftists have not thrown their weight behind Prevent. The state-sponsored re-education programme that it turned out to be has been a curiously left-wing scheme, more reminiscent of Chairman Mao than Margaret Thatcher. Strangely, it was introduced by wrong-minded right-wingers, but then criticised by the radical left. Criticism from the Muslim community has always been understandable, but I will never understand the left-wing opposition.

If the Prevent programme is completely redesigned to target the far-right, the left will suddenly be in total favour. It will fall to sensible conservatives to remind others that encouraging a sense of individual and societal responsibility, without the big state and sinister re-education, is where real interventions to prevent terrorism begin. Prevent is a good idea gone bad, and it was the state that ruined it.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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