Within Muslim activist circles, it would be fair to say that countering violent extremism, or ‘CVE’ for short, tends to spark an immense amount of highly opinionated debate. Take the recent appointment of Sara Khan as the country’s new counter extremism Tsar and the reaction to it; many Muslims were angered that a champion of the Government’s Prevent programme, which has been subject to intense criticism for being ineffective and turning Muslims into the new ‘suspect community’, had been given such a role. The concern from many corners, was that rather than appoint someone independent who could provide some objective critique to help reform and direct Government policy, we can now expect policies such as Prevent to be pushed even further.
I must confess, as a Muslim living in Britain, I have never been quite sure what to make of the Prevent debate. For me it has always precisely that, a topic of debate; something that existed as a topic on Facebook walls and Twitter timelines resulting in anger and rage, bringing out the worst in people. However, I have never had Prevent officers knocking at my door, nor have my children been subject to any ‘referrals’. In fact, despite being an observant Muslim, Prevent had never been part of my life at all, and I suspect the same probably applies to most Muslims living in Britain.
However, recently things have changed for me. No longer is Prevent just a topic of endless discussion, but now part of my working life. As a doctor working in the National Health Service, I have had to undergo mandatory Prevent training known as ‘WRAP’, a jazzy Whitehall acronym that stands for ‘Workshop to Raise Awareness of Prevent’. Given that I am in a ‘public-facing’ profession, I am deemed to have a role in preventing acts of extremism.
I attended this mandatory session as part of a ‘Health and Safety package’ by one of the hospitals I have worked in, to bring all my training up to date. I was keen to keep an open mind about my WRAP session; social media is a place full of hyperbole, and I believe only a foolish person would make their mind up about a matter such as Prevent purely on the basis of what has been written about it on social media.
The first point I noted was the time allocated to it; our session was almost 1 and a half hours long; already this was seeming a little over the top, when the things that are more likely to be of use to me in my day to day working in a busy hospital, such as my basic life support refresher (45 mins), Fire safety (40 mins), oxygen safety (35 mins) were given less time, despite having practical elements to them (as opposed to the predominantly lecture-based format of WRAP). Given that the human attention span is around 14 minutes, I’d make sure to tank up on strong coffee prior to the session.
Our workshop was being led by our local Prevent lead, who clearly was feeling very uneasy in giving the session. Her first five minutes consisted of listing her caveats of how she is not ‘judgmental’ and how she respects the political and religious beliefs of others. Reading between the lines, it almost felt as if she was essentially saying ‘if you don’t like this, don’t blame me. This is just part of my job and my way of earning a living’. I actually felt a little sorry for her.
The workshop started off with a short drama showing a firearms terrorist attack within a hospital, and a scene of utter panic amongst staff and patients within the busy hospital, with the message that whilst this has never happened in a British hospital, it could happen. It was of course highly dramatized, which drew many parallels with the story line that has been running on Holby City about a hospital firearms attack. The difference being of course, that Holby is a fictional drama, whereas this was supposed to be a serious training session.
Our ever increasingly awkward workshop facilitator then went on to say how her presentation was a little ‘out of date’, as we were shown Powerpoint slides of 9/11, Abu Hamza with his pirate patch and hook, Osama bin Laden in one of his typical poses, followed by a photo of a token ‘local’ unkempt Muslim terror suspect to illustrate to us that the threat is in fact relevant to us. With all these images of evil looking Muslims, she went on to say ‘…but we must also bear in mind the threat of far right extremism’ – curiously flashing us an image of Hitler, who last time I checked was a political dictator and not a terrorist (clearly, even our facilitator was unsure of the true definition of a terrorist).
We were later shown a case study to illustrate the process of radicalisation, and in the interest of balance, this was a case of far-right extremism. Although interestingly, the case study suggested that the catalyst for this fictional individual’s radicalisation was local Muslims who had been violently targeting the individuals family, and his radicalisation was in retaliation to that. I found the message in this case study not too far off from comments made by individuals such as Nigel Farage and Katie Hopkins, who in response to the sentencing of Darren Osbourne, suggested that his attack was a retaliation to Islamic extremism. So not only are Muslims to blame for Islamic extremism, we are somehow also to blame for far-right extremism too.
The session continued, and there were numerous other comments and slides with strange and awkward suggestions through which we patiently persevered. Upon culmination, we were all left rather baffled. We were none the wiser about radicalisation and how to ‘spot the signs’ (could the signs possibly have been more vague?!). Our predominantly non-Muslim audience of doctors in our ensuing coffee break had little positive to say about it; a number of them even suggested that it would probably have been more useful to watch ‘4 Lions’ instead, as at least there was some entertainment value to that. If the purpose of the workshop was to raise awareness about Prevent and to gain ‘buy-in’ from doctors, my experiences of this session and of my colleagues was that it had most certainly failed in achieving this.
Of course, this is all based on my personal experiences of one particular workshop, and perhaps this is not representative of WRAP training as a whole (although I have heard similar reports from colleagues at other hospitals). To me, it all seems like a ‘tick-box’ exercise; the Government needs to show that they are being proactive and doing something, and Prevent is their answer to this. Moreover, as busy junior doctors, we already have plenty to worry about, such as continuing to provide first class healthcare to our patients amidst ever increasing demand, lack of resources and massive rota gaps, for as we have recently learned, getting our clinical decision-making wrong in such a climate risks us being prosecuted and struck off the medical register. Will we now also be held responsible if one of our patients goes on to commit an act of terror and we failed to spot the signs despite being ‘trained’?
I find myself inclined to agree with those who have raised concerns about Prevent; my very brief interaction with it left me and my colleagues with little trust in it to prevent anything, and if such sentiments are indeed more widespread, then politicians and counter-extremism champions need to stop patting themselves on the back and smell the coffee. The fact remains that there are a tiny handful of people on our island who wish to take the life of innocent people. A re-think is needed on how to stop them.