By Mariam Irfan

We are living at a time where an 11-year-old primary school pupil was referred to the government’s counter-radicalisation programme for simply saying he would “give alms to the oppressed.” The teacher interpreted this as “give arms to the oppressed” and made the Prevent referral. Rather than questioning her own interpretation, she chose to draw on the basic Islamophobic stereotypes to legitimise such racial profiling, which led her to conflate a genuine desire to help those less fortunate with susceptibility to extremism.

Faced with this reality, many unions and human rights groups have long called for the revision or dismissal of the Prevent duty. This case, in combination with many similar ones, provides a clear picture to support critics claims. 

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What is the Prevent Duty?  

Prevent is one strand of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy, known as ‘CONTEST’, which concerns itself with preventing the ‘radicalisation’ of individuals towards ‘extremism.’ First introduced in 2006, with the aim of targeting the “pre-criminal space”, later versions have broadened the focus and expanded its operational scope. The most shocking of these revisions was in 2015 when the Counterterrorism and Security Act placed Prevent on a legal basis for specified authorities, including schools and universities – this was known as the Prevent Duty. For the first time, Prevent was put on a statutory basis, imposing an obligation on public bodies to raise concerns about individuals who seem radicalised. In other words, Prevent has turned our teachers, health care workers and ordinary citizens into amateur spies for the state, embedding the work of security services across all of society. 

The Prevent Duty is implemented primarily through local authorities and the police. Individuals considered at risk of being radicalised are referred. Specified authorities, such as teachers, are expected to make referrals, (although this process can be initiated by anyone) according to a prescribed criteria of vulnerabilities outlined by the government. Once referred, individuals are assessed by coordinators and if necessary, they are placed on a de-radicalisation programme prepared by local Channel panels. 

On paper, this may seem acceptable and maybe even necessary. We can all agree that the events of 9/11, the 7/7 bombings and even recent terrorist attacks like the storming of the US Capitol Building, should never have happened and must be prevented at all costs. But is the Prevent Duty the right way to go about this? 

Considering Prevent emerged in a climate of mass paranoia, it has internalised an Islamophobic definition of ‘extremism’. Experts, including MI5’s own Behavioural Science Unit, have unanimously concluded that there is no single driver of radicalisation, instead, it is a multi-faceted and complex issue. But Muslim communities are still being disproportionately targeted. Even though there is clear evidence to suggest that Far Right Extremism has been on the rise in recent years, proponents of Prevent seem to only consider suicidal Islamic jihadists as a threat. 

Not only is such a narrow definition of extremism ineffective, but it also alienates many Muslim communities and makes them feel like second class citizens in a society that claims to be inclusive. An investigation by NUS in 2017 found that one third of Muslim students felt negatively affected by Prevent on Campus and 43% of them felt they were unable to express themselves from fear of being referred to Prevent. When religious terms like “Alhamdulillah” are enough to raise suspicion of a two-year-old child, then there is no wonder that Muslim communities feel alienated by this policy. 

In essence, Prevent works on the faulty idea that casting a net of suspicion over the entire Muslim community might eventually pick up a few worthy of intervention, even if this means alienating many in the process. 

However, Prevent doesn’t just thrive off of Islamophobic stereotypes, it also uses it as an instrument to yield state power. The government now has the power to brand more beliefs and causes as ‘extremism’, even when to most they fall short of criminality. This particularly includes pro-Palestinian activism. The NGO, CAGE, recently reported that an increasing number of school children were being referred to Prevent for discussing the latest Israeli action in Sheikh Jarrah and Gaza in their schools or classrooms. Many even took to social media platforms, such as Twitter, to reveal the systemic ways they were being silenced for showing solidarity to Palestinians. Prevent has become a political tool to suppress criticism of the government’s foreign policy, and many politically active Muslim’s students are being targeted. 

Essentially, Prevent has created a surveillance culture in our spaces of learning and beyond. School teachers, healthcare workers and ordinary citizens have been placed on the ideological frontlines for combating terrorism, with a shoddy criteria of extremism. The Prevent duty does not attempt to accurately define extremism, make referrals based on sufficient evidence or work to dismantle Islamophobic stereotypes in our society; instead, it inserts a climate of suspicion and fear into our society. The Prevent duty must be scrapped. 

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Last Update: April 23, 2024