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Defending UK's counter-extremism strategy, David Cameron fuels anti-Muslim hostility

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 13: Former Prime Minister David Cameron leaves his home to give evidence to a select committee on Greensill, on May 13, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Former Prime Minister David Cameron leaves his home to give evidence to a select committee on Greensill, on May 13, 2021 in London, England. [Leon Neal/Getty Images]

Former British Prime Minister, David Cameron, issued a robust defence yesterday of UK's counter-terrorism strategy, known as "Prevent". Writing in the Times, the 55-year old took-aim at mainstream Muslim organisations critical of the so-called de-radicalisation programme. In the article, Cameron endorsed a new report by the Policy Exchange think tank which calls for the "de-legitimisation" of Muslim voices critical of the government and also funding cuts to Muslim groups campaigning to "undermine" the scheme, though it should be stressed that none of the groups mentioned receive taxpayers' money.

Cameron's intervention comes as the UK Tory government is about to release details for the overhaul of the "Prevent" strategy in the wake of the murder of the Conservative MP, Sir David Amess. Ali Harbi Ali, who was found guilty of the murder, had been referred to "Prevent" seven years earlier. He is not the only one who, despite going through the government's de-radicalisation scheme, went on to commit horrific acts of terrorism.

The timing of Cameron's article and his exclusive focus on Muslims would suggest that his broadside in the Times is a precursor for likely reforms that will further push "Prevent" towards a more anti-Muslim direction. Some on the right of politics are not pleased at the fact that "Prevent" has become more preoccupied with neo-Nazis and white supremacists instead of Muslims. Cameron himself admits that "In 2020-21, 46 per cent of referrals to "Prevent's" Channel deradicalisation programme related to far-right extremism and only 22 per cent to Islamist extremism." With the Tories moving further to the right, are we about to see an overhaul of "Prevent", which will tilt the balance to make sure the focus returns to Muslims even though the threat of terrorism from the far-right is a bigger concern?

Though we can only speculate about the direction of "Prevent", there is little doubt over the fact that Cameron's piece further legitimises Islamophobic tropes that are now dangerously pervasive in our society. The former Prime Minister's baseless claim that Muslim groups critical of "Prevent" are "enabling terrorism" is as clear an indication as any that his robust defence of the de-radicalisation programme is intended to fuel moral panic about Muslims.

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The United Nation, human rights group Amnesty International, Liberty and many others have major misgiving with "Prevent". Why then single out Muslim groups, as Cameron does, if not to further vilify the Muslim community?

Few have been more scathing than the UN. The UK government risks "promoting extremism, rather than countering it" and is creating a "Big Brother" culture reminiscent of the Soviet Union, is how the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Kenyan lawyer, Maina Kiai, chose to describe UK's de-radicalisation policy.

Kiai offered this conclusion in 2016 after "Prevent" was extended into schools, universities, hospitals and other public sector settings a year earlier, placing a legal obligation on teachers, doctors and other staff to have "due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism". Kiai said the feedback he had received on the implementation of "Prevent" had been "overwhelmingly negative", and he had heard "countless anecdotes of the programme being implemented in a way that translates simply into crude racial, ideological, cultural and religious profiling".

"This lack of definitional clarity, combined with the encouragement of people to report suspicious activity, have created unease and uncertainty around what can legitimately be discussed in public," he said. "It appears that "Prevent" is having the opposite of its intended effect: by dividing, stigmatising and alienating segments of the population."

In their condemnation, Amnesty International said that "Prevent is a highly dubious scheme built on shaky, almost evidence-free, foundations – it's sorely in need of a proper review. Peers need to ensure that "Prevent" is rigorously and independently assessed, with all the human rights impacts of the scheme fully investigated." Reacting to Cameron's defence of the "Prevent" programme, the rights groups said that the article is "shockingly misplaced."

Similar concerns were raised by (UK)'s Legal and Policy Director, Human Rights Watch, Adriana Edmeades Jones. "In the face of mounting evidence that "Prevent" is undermining relationships of trust and chilling expression in classrooms and consultation rooms across the country, it is clear that "Prevent" is simply not fit for purpose. It is in everyone's interests – the communities who are targeted, the teachers, doctors and social workers tasked with implementing it, and the Government itself – that "Prevent" is subject to an independent review." Though the Tory government launched a review, the choice of anti-Muslim William Shawcross to lead the investigation is seen as a stitch up.

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Shawcross, who was also previously a board member of the anti-Muslim Henry Jackson Society (HJS), is known for his derogatory remarks about Islam in British society and Europe as a whole. Back in 2012, he stated that "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."

Unsurprisingly, Cameron's decision to ignore these concerns and single out Muslim critics as "enablers of terrorism" while endorsing the anti-Muslim agenda of a right-wing think tank, which BBC Newsnight accused of fabricating evidence about mosques disseminating extremist literature, has been met with strong condemnation.

"It is very telling that in its attempt to defend "Prevent", Policy Exchange has completely ignored the vast body of critique from beyond the Muslim community. This underlines their open Islamophobic agenda" said Muhammad Rabbani, Managing Director of CAGE, one of the groups mentioned in the Policy Exchange report.  "It's indicative of Islamophobia in the UK when former PM's give their name to such open hostility to Muslim civil society."

Dr Layla Aitlhadj, Director at Prevent Watch and co-chair of the People's Review of Prevent, said: "The Policy Exchange report offers little in terms of research or academic criticism but presents a series of attacks on Muslim civil society organisations and individuals who are critical of the government's toxic "Prevent" programme and its impact on Muslims and wider society."

A spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) – also singled out by Cameron – said that Policy Exchange has consistently led efforts to discourage cooperation between the authorities and the Muslim Council of Britain. The right-wing think tank recommended the UK government in 2007 to cut ties with the MCB, following an investigation which, as mentioned, was found to have fabricated evidence according to BBC Newsnight.  "It is therefore laughable that the Policy Exchange should now claim that we are the ones discouraging cooperation because we are exercising our democratic responsibility to scrutinise bad policy," said the MCB spokesperson.  "The MCB has always repeatedly and loudly opposed all forms of terrorism, but the Policy Exchange's amnesia fails to acknowledge this."

Cameron's baseless claims in the Times, and his endorsement of Policy Exchange report is further indication that a worryingly high number of people within the British establishment believe that honesty, academic rigour, and basic principles of free speech can be brushed aside when it comes to demonisation of Muslims.

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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