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Why the government’s ‘Prevent’ strategy has been ineffective

Prevent is a nationwide policy that is, ostensibly, about safeguarding people and communities from the threat of terrorism. It is one of the four arms of CONTEST, the British Government’s counter-terrorism strategy. Under the Prevent policy, public servants, including doctors, teachers, librarians and nurses, are encouraged to actively seek ‘signs of radicalisation’ in their dependents and clientele. If they see a number of signs (of which there are many) they are obliged to refer the person concerned to the programme, where they will be assessed as a threat to society and indelibly marked.

Why is Prevent unacceptable? The notion that Prevent works to reduce radicalism and extremism within society strains under even the most charitable interpretation of the policy. Under scrutiny, it is clear that Prevent fails to prevent radicalism and, arguably, exacerbates it. If a policy goes through continuous iterations and revisions, each time becoming worse at accomplishing its mission, one must start to question its true driving motivations. Whilst we are repeatedly assured of the effectiveness of Prevent by politicians, the lived experiences of those subject to this tyrannical policy and statistics around its effectiveness paint a wholly different picture.

Prevent fails at its own stated means of predicting and preventing radicalism. For a start, assessing Prevent’s efficacy is purposely difficult due to the opacity around its methodology. Prevent’s origins are said to be from a clandestine journal of Criminology that set out a radicalisation prediction model comprising 22 factors, tested on a small sample of adult male American prisoners. The paper itself stated the model’s lack of predictive power. Transparency is integral to science, so how can we trust scientists refusing to publish their data-sets or modelling assumptions? Yet, even after the author’s own admission of the model’s brokenness, the signatures of 230 British academics, lawyers and public figures against its adoption and numerous failed peer-reviews, the British government persists in its reliance upon the 22-factor ‘Extremism Risk Guidance’ (ERG22+) model.

Using the nebulous criterion as set out under the ERG22+, most UK citizens can, at some point or another, be deemed “radical”. For example, the broad and vague guidelines posit that those who have a need for “excitement, comradeship & adventure”, “need to redress injustice” or a “need for identity, meaning & belonging” have succumbed to radicalism. These ‘factors’ are clearly so broad as to be useless and easily susceptible to biases held by Prevent practitioners. For example, consider young people, who, in the process of growth and maturity are feeling out the contours of their moral and political beliefs, could easily be defined under the parameters of the guidelines. Given that the ERG22+ model is vague and ill-defined, it cannot in good faith be used as a measuring stick for radicalism. This absurdity of this prescribed model is highlighted by the application of the ERG22+ factors to real life scenarios, for example the referral of a schoolboy for wearing a pro Palestinian badge, or the referral of a four year old boy for drawing a picture of a his father cutting a cucumber.

“Why did the scientifically literate British government base Prevent on pseudoscience?”

Prevent’s lack of substance is best illustrated by applying it retroactively. The rigid paternalism pushed by proponents of Prevent would itself likely qualify for referral under the Prevent programme — abruptly smothering the ideological flames the scheme was borne of. Paradoxically, Prevent’s own absurd measures preclude its existence and it is this awkward incoherence that reveals the hypocrisy at the heart of the scheme. Hypocrisy in the refusal to subject the beliefs behind Prevent to the same degree of scrutiny Prevent subjects the beliefs of the other to. Further questions arise: Why did the scientifically literate British government base Prevent on pseudoscience? And why won’t they publish the datasets used to train their model? More specifically, why did they rely on an American sample of prisoners to predict radicalisation of free British citizens? And with knowledge of its shortcomings, why do they persist in using this model in the face of academic resistance? How can we, as a society, countenance the use of a model that has a 95% chance of producing a false positive?

The Prevent strategy is incoherent and dangerous as it relies on both the judgement of a pseudo-scientific model (through the factor-method) and that of unqualified laypeople (the public that are tasked with making referrals on the basis of the pseudoscience). It is this duality that makes Prevent dangerous. Prevent’s pseudoscience stirs complacency and misplaced confidence in the assumed well-meaning public that they are acting for the benefit of society. The British government’s reckless outsourcing of morality to machines and statistics is evident elsewhere in ‘gang matrices‘ and stop-and-search strategies.

By letting our policies and actions be guided solely by statistical modelling (even if valid) is to put bystander apathy on autodrive. Statistical models work with the implicit assumption that the past is equal to the future thereby reinforcing existing biases, as demonstrated by predictive policing experiments in America. In Prevent we are, as a society, delegating the responsibility of judging who holds ‘good beliefs’ and ‘bad beliefs’ to people who are not trained psychologists or criminologists and largely have no experience and understanding of the process of radicalisation. To do so is to set the general public up for failure whilst deluding them that they are succeeding. All the while, successive Governments have neglected the existing body of knowledge that can resolve these issues effectively.

“at the doctor’s, the library, the school and the workplace, Muslims feel they are judged on the basis of their religion”

Prevent’s architects need to consider its second and third-order consequences, specifically the notion that its indirect effects outweigh any direct benefit. To understand this they must simply ask Muslims how they feel about Prevent, and they will respond in excruciating detail about the hot gaze of the Government on every aspect of their lives, from where they go, to what they say, to who they meet, without any justifiable reason. They will tell you how, at the doctor’s, the library, the school and the workplace, Muslims feel they are judged on the basis of their religion. Narratives govern us, so should it come as a surprise then, that when the public are repeatedly told that “Muslims are dangerous because of their religion,” that they will eventually succumb to this script. How can Muslims be trustworthy, if they are told they can’t be trusted, and are treated in an untrustworthy manner by the government under Prevent?

Prevent perpetuates a dangerous myth that suggests that all 2.6 million British Muslims are walking powder-kegs, that secretly harbour horrific views, and that they should be treated as such. However, the reality is British Muslims are just as concerned with the threat of Islamic terrorism as the rest of the population. For example, Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi, was reported to the authorities on five separate occasions and had been banned from his local Mosque for his violent views. Jon Clements, the director of CREST, following a report into the attitudes of British Muslims, said: “It is apparent from our research that British Muslims are, broadly speaking, no more ‘in denial’ about Islamist extremism and the threat it presents than the population as a whole.” Furthemore, Sara Khan, the lead commissioner for countering extremism, said that the voices of British Muslims were being “drowned out by the extremists on both sides”.

Prevent is not only ineffective but should arguably be illegal. The Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015, Prevent’s legal basis, strikes an inharmonious chord with the Equality Act 2010 – by treating Muslims de facto unequally under the law. By the Government’s own admission, “Only Islamist extremists were included in the analysis [of the  ERG22+}”,  showing scant regard for the rising threat of far-right extremism in the UK. This potential illegality manifests in the strict surveillance Muslims are under from the very people they place their trust in – the teachers, the doctors, the librarians, the nurses and social workers – without any evidence of wrongdoing. Furthermore, each Prevent referral, whether it holds merit or not, is added to the PCM database and the individual concerned is not notified of this. Other agencies, however, are able to request the information on this database.

“The number of referrals for International Terrorism under Prevent has increased 35-fold from 2007 to 2016, yet the number of arrests has barely doubled over the same period”

For the skeptics, here is empirical evidence of the first fault of Prevent: A 2014 Freedom of Information Request found that 57% and 67% of referrals to Prevent were of Muslims, in spite of them forming just 5.6% of the population. Of those referred, a rising proportion are children under the age of 10. Throughout 2007, under 2% of referrals were under the age of 10, by 2016 this number rose to 8%. For those under 18 the numbers are starker, hovering around 50% from 2007 to 2016. The number of referrals for International Terrorism under Prevent has increased 35-fold from 2007 to 2016, yet the number of arrests has barely doubled over the same period, according to the Home Office. As these are only referrals, the number of people under surveillance for the simple fact of their religion will be, in all likelihood, magnitudes higher. The architects of this policy may say “no harm done” – but what is truly meant is “no visible harm done according to our indicators”.

In Boris Johnson’s own words, ‘Islam inherently inhibits the path to progress and freedom.’ When the leader of the nation is a well-documented Islamophobe and the Daily Mail and The Sun excel in whipping the public up into a frenzy, how can we be surprised when small children are then repeatedly and unreservedly referred to Prevent? When Muslims are portrayed negatively in 78% of stories in the Mail On Sunday and 59% across the media, it comes as no wonder that the majority of Prevent referrals are of Muslims, and most are false-positives leading nowhere. It is for these reasons that the government is legally bound to conduct an independent review of the Prevent strategy.

From this perspective, Prevent looks a lot like vigilantism and vigilantism is the opposite of justice. This contravenes the very spirit of the UK as a free country built upon a strong foundation of democratic values, where one is innocent until proven guilty. However, Prevent instead extols the virtues of punishing Muslims for crimes they haven’t committed.

Prevent reinforces an ‘oppressor vs. oppressed’ hierarchy by tasking people who are not Muslim to be wary and on the alert when in contact with Muslim people. People are not only expected, but actively encouraged, to report Muslims to the authorities for perceived wrongs. This strategy has proved ineffective and has also created a reality in which Muslims could be reported by their peers through a sense of vindictiveness, racism and a whole other host of reasons that do not pertain to “combatting terrorism”, but still face serious consequences.

In my opinion, Prevent has in this way, exacerbated a divide between Muslims and non-Muslims while also contributing to the wider UK population’s suspicions and fear of all Muslims. We must devise a more effective system for countering terrorism while reversing the Islamophobia encouraged by Prevent if we are to strive towards a society free of misguided fear, hatred and suspicion.

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