The government’s ‘Prevent’ is a blanket measure that omits a nuanced approach to the social, cultural, economic and political characteristics of those who are radicalised, writes Tahir Abbas. As a result, the policy conflates legitimate political resistance among young British Muslims as indications of violent extremism and so can unintentionally add to structural and cultural Islamophobia – amplifiers of both Islamist as well as far right radicalisation.
There is no shortage of writing and thinking on the UK’s ‘Prevent’ agenda. A tool of the UK’s counter-terrorism arm, it has faced criticism from the outset. In operation from as early as 2003, it entered into the public domain in 2006. Ever since then, commentators, think tanks, civil society organisations and especially numerous academics have written on its limitations. One of the primary criticisms is that it is an attempt to introduce and activate a ‘pre-crime’ agenda. The policy maintains that if individuals could be redirected away from turning their anger into violence, this would somehow ‘prevent’ political violence and terrorism. Individuals processed by the ‘Prevent’ Channel ‘de-radicalisation’ programme are subsequently diverted away from the paths of extremism, radicalisation, and ultimately terrorism through re-programming their ideological convictions.
The assumption here is all too apparent. It is that the conditions and circumstances that lead to political violence are inherent amongst the individuals concerned. If it is possible to witness alterations to the behaviour of people who suggest radicalisation then they can be prevented from enacting their violence towards others. The aim of this engineering is to prevent violence and this is an amiable ambition given its destructive powers and impact on the rest of society. However, political resistance is legitimate and even valuable in a liberal democracy that requires a political headway to bring about social progress. The reverse engineering of ‘Prevent’ is, in reality, a form of social engineering in itself – and this is the main difficulty of the policy that has not abated in the light of efforts made to ‘revise’, ‘review’ or ‘reassess’ the approach.
Until recently, the main target of this policy has been Muslims understood to be on a path to Islamist extremism leading to violence. In the last few years, far right radicalisation has also emerged as a growing threat. ‘Prevent’ has responded to these mounting trepidations, and the rates of referrals is increasing. However, the issues that affect the radicalisation of both Islamists and far extremists are not wholly established at the level of the individual, although the assumptions still stand. Rather, as the weight of academic research has emphasised for numerous decades, radicalisation and terrorism are social problems, social fissures and instances of social alienation among, often but not always, young men who are at the margins of society. They react to their malaise as a means of addressing their concerns, instrumentalising ideology in the process. Therefore, the ideology behind violent movements is the conundrum – and vulnerable young men, removed from the democratic process, are therefore susceptible to its alluring powers to solve their predicaments. For far right groups, this is localised. Apprehensions here focus on questions of race, blood or nation seemingly dissolved at the hand of ‘the other’. For Islamists, narrow readings of the scriptures misdirect Muslims into violence, often at the behest of their ideologues while those at the sharp end of conflicts, often in faraway lands or in the nations of their birth, are groomed to die for rewards for them and their own in the hereafter.
It is clear that the reasons why some young people are radicalised into violence are more to do with structural and cultural factors that focus on their alienation and marginalisation at the hands of the state whether in the Global North or the Global South. It is no surprise that police officers, local authority workers or even government researchers repeatedly note that the dilemmas of radicalisation cannot be removed without paying due attention to the wider workings of society itself. What ‘Prevent’ does it to take at-risk young people but define them as risky on their own terms. This has the effect of stigmatising young people who feel they are surveilled, whether in the classroom room, university campus or in the workplace.
The Prevent Duty, introduced in 2015, now encroaches upon over 40,000 public sector organisations to keep an ever-watchful eye on those perceived to be at risk – but by doing so they are automatically regarded as risky. In a climate of intense hostility and hate towards differences among individuals and groups, where notions of diversity and multiculturalism have been completely taken off the domestic political agenda, it is not unsurprising to note the impact of confirmation bias in this process. It hugely damages the lives of ordinary people on their own journeys of self-discovery and self-realisation. Radical behaviour rather than welcomed, as an indication of transformation, is itself policed, securitised and regulated.
Young Islamists are deeply affected by racism, exclusion and discrimination – discourses that are unsurprisingly the recruiting sergeants for radicalisers who prey on the internet, luring the susceptible. Far right extremists are affected by the challenges of economic change that have left them behind in the race for individual success in a neoliberal economic system that champions competition, maximisation of profits and infinite choice. Their anger is not too dissimilar to that of the Islamists. However, there is little to mollify these groups through a social policy that nullifies the deleterious consequences of capitalism, with its associated interests in far-flung lands in an attempt to maintain some geopolitical order to politics.
Criticism of ‘Prevent’ is therefore only right and proper in a context of the moving terrain of various radicalisations in an effort to render obsolete assumptions, generalisations, and processes that focus on radical politics itself as the essential problematic. The issue is that political elites, vested interests and the forces of globalisation generate the challenges that face young men in societies all over the world but with no answers as to how to solve them. In the absence of solutions that require investment, ‘Prevent’ is a convenient tool to delegitimise, in most cases, reasonable resistance. A left-realist critique helps to assess the struggles of extremism as those associated with entire workings of society, understanding that the frustrations facing young people are only solved through better appreciating them as valid apprehensions that have implications for us because they emerge because of us all.
Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in Critical Social Policy.
Tahir Abbas is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Leiden University and Visiting Senior Fellow at the Department of Government at the LSE.