An unprecedented coalition across the British Muslim community is opposing the British government's decision to appoint one of the founding members of the Friends of Israel Initiative to lead a review of a discredited anti-radicalisation programme. More than 450 Muslim civil society groups plus 100 leading figures have said that they will boycott the Review of the controversial Prevent policy to be headed by William Shawcross, whose appointment has been called "rigged" by one of the contenders for the post, a former leading prosecutor.
The historic coalition represents the largest ever cross-section of Muslim civic society in Britain to come together to oppose a government appointed review. The group includes thirty national and ten regional organisations, 350 mosques and their imams plus 100 leading religious scholars, academics, community organisers and allies; they all point to Shawcross's track record of making Islamophobic comments.
A full statement was issued on their behalf on Wednesday afternoon outlining their objections to the Shawcross appointment and their response of boycotting the review. "William Shawcross has a track record of hostility to Islam and Muslims," said the signatories. "No serious, objective, critical review can be undertaken by someone with such a track record – rather we should expect him to promote a hardening of policies towards Muslims. So, if Muslim organisations engage with this Review, it strengthens its legitimacy and its power to recommend policies more harmful to the community… It is increasingly obvious that Prevent promotes many unacceptable harms – even to those who have engaged with Prevent convinced they are preventing harm. These harms include profiling and targeting Muslim children (even as young as four), making the Muslim community 'a suspect community', demonising aspects of Islam, and silencing legitimate speech."
The coalition says that it will continue to campaign against the Shawcross Review as well as support moves to set up an independent review process with the focus being given to those who allege that they have been harmed and impacted negatively by Prevent. The independent review will also be supported by credible expertise and robust evidence.
Civil liberties and human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have been calling for an independent review of the anti-radicalisation programme for some time. They say that it discriminates against Muslims and suppresses free-speech.
According to Dr Layla Aitlhadj, lead coalition spokesperson and Director of the support group PreventWatch, the coalition is boycotting this review because it will not address the significant harms that Prevent has caused. "The review lacks credibility, its current reviewer, William Shawcross, is seen as partisan, and the government has no intention of taking our concerns seriously. In short, this government cannot be trusted to make a truly independent and comprehensive assessment of Prevent."
During her time with PreventWatch, Aitlhadj has documented more than 500 cases involving Prevent which she says have caused concern about the "harm to Muslim children, families and wider Muslim society." Describing this as "just the tip of the iceberg" she added that, "There is a wealth of evidence that indicates that Prevent is an inherently Islamophobic policy. This is what a truly independent review process will bring to public attention."
Her concern about Shawcross's appointment is that the previous terms of reference were "restrictive" and, in his letter published this week, he has apparently only committed himself to strengthening Prevent with no serious consideration given to its harms. "Without a truly unconstrained process, the voices of those most impacted by Prevent will not be considered seriously and given the public hearing they deserve. The coalition will support all steps to set up a robust people's commission."
Professor Nasar Meer of Edinburgh University was damning about the broken initiative. He called Prevent "a bad policy" that has "only worsened" with time. He believes that an independent review of its attack on freedom of speech, curtailment of fundamental liberties and criminalisation of communities is long overdue. "Sadly, the Shawcross Review promises no such thing."
The founder of Ebrahim College, Sheikh Shams Ad-Duha Muhammad, drew attention to the fact that Shawcross was a board member of the "notorious" right-wing Henry Jackson Society and chairman of the Charity Commission. "His time at the commission was hugely controversial," he insisted. "For a man of his track record to be given more power over the Muslim community in his new role further compounds our negative perceptions of Prevent and shatters our trust in our leaders who are charged with our protection. This is a truly astonishing development."
Under Shawcross's leadership, the Charity Commission was accused of institutional bias because of what was seen as an unjustified assumption of extremism on the part of Muslim charities. As many as 38 per cent of all disclosed statutory investigations targeted Muslim groups.
In 2012, as a director of the neoconservative, anti-Palestinian Henry Jackson Society (HJS), Shawcross said: "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." The pro-Israel HJS has received more than £80,000 from the Home Office, in return for which it has funded trips to Israel and made donations to Conservative MPs including Priti Patel and Michael Gove. In an investigation conducted by the Byline Times it emerged that HJS had developed close ties with far-right media executive Steve Bannon. Patel, by the way, was a member of its political council until 2016.
Although the Muslim Council of Britain called the Shawcross appointment a "Trumpian" move, it does not appear to be part of the coalition. At the time of writing, no one from the MCB had responded to my request for a comment. Nevertheless, the umbrella body is on record as describing Shawcross as "singularly unfit to be a neutral and fair assessor of this government policy, which has been criticised for unfairly targeting British Muslims, given his frightening views about Islam and Muslims."
At one stage Nazir Afzal, the former chief crown prosecutor in the north-west, was being tipped to lead the Prevent Review. According to Afzal, he was turned down because Home Secretary Priti Patel had already made up her mind about appointing Shawcross. "I was strung along to give an impression of open selection." Government officials, he claimed, "literally pleaded" with him to attend a final interview following his decision to withdraw from the process when news was leaked in November that Shawcross was viewed as the "frontrunner" most qualified for the role weeks before the final interview. It was as if Shawcross's appointment was already a done deal.
William Shawcross emerged last year as a key member of a pro-Israel consortium within the British media and political establishment that was formed to bail out the right-wing, anti-Palestinian Jewish Chronicle from the brink of bankruptcy. Indeed, strong support for Israel is something that Shawcross shares with Patel and Gove. Their Zionism is a common thread.
Such a profile befits the "totally flawed" Prevent programme which rights groups and the wider Muslim community shun because it targets Muslims disproportionately, believes the chairman of the UK branch of Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AK Party), Abdurrahim Boynukalin. As far as he is concerned, Shawcross's appointment is testament to the growing anti-Muslim sentiment in Britain. "Both Prevent and Shawcross," he said, "must go."
In many ways, therefore, it is ironic that it is the British government which has managed to pull the diverse and often fractured Muslim community in Britain together by making the controversial appointment. It remains to be seen if the unprecedented boycott will make Home Secretary Priti Patel reverse her decision, given that observers are already saying that the Prevent Review is doomed to failure if it cannot engage widely across the Muslim community. I won't be holding my breath.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.