Recently, many academics have been critical of the Government’s counter extremism policies, namely ‘PREVENT’ and ‘CHANNEL’. While such critique may have been sidelined, the growing disquiet from mainstream political figures such as Jeremy Corbyn, Andy Burnham and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, as well as the influential Home Affairs Committee calling for a rebranding of ‘Prevent’, are more difficult to ignore.
Calls to review or scrap ‘Prevent’ may be mounting, but the lack of new arguments and evidence being advanced as well as the debate becoming increasingly polarized and polemic are discernible trends. The focus on evidence and expertise is often lost in the superficial and emotive nature of discussions. A shouting match normally ensues, where one side attacks the other for vilifying a whole religious community, whilst the other retorts that a vocal minority of extremists is undermining the important work of mitigating terrorism and safeguarding our youth.
So in this context, Cage’s recent report on the The ‘Science’ of Pre-Crime, injects much needed substantial impetus into progressing the discussion around ‘PREVENT’ and compelling answers from Government. The report has itself been reviewed by 18 academics and 140 experts lent their support through an open letter. It makes plain that whilst the Government pursues the noble aim of preventing violent extremism, it has rushed into the process by which it evaluates who may be at risk of being radicalised. It has based its ’22 indicators of extremism’ (The Extremism Risk Guidance 22+) on a single psychological study. Moreover, it relates to only a sample of Muslim prisoners and not the general Muslim population.
For policy that potentially affects the largest religious minority in the UK and impacts on our national security, far more rigour is demanded from those meant to be representing our interests. A critique by contrast that cannot be levelled against the Home Affairs Select Committee, which ran one of its lengthiest and most rigorous inquiries yet on Countering Extremism, considering evidence from a broad cross section of individuals, organisations and institutions. Its conclusions after listening to almost everyone who had anything to say on the matter was that at the very least, ‘Prevent’ needed to be rebranded.
Unfortunately a thoroughly negative perception amongst Muslim communities of being targeted and suspected continues to flourish, which is further fuelled when the Government concedes “outward expressions of faith” can indicate radicalisation when taken with other factors. Furthermore the 22 indicators cover an incredibly broad spectrum of traits, which include positive and vague attributes such as ‘grievance/injustice’, ‘identity, meaning and belonging’, ‘status’, ‘excitement, comradeship or adventure’, ‘political /moral motivation’ and ‘transitional periods’. It is clear that they have been derived from observing a small sample of people (Muslim prisoners), and thus questions must be raised whether the 22 indictors can be used as a conclusive method to gauge susceptibility to radicalisation; the examples proffered above could be observed in any person who may be at no risk of radicalisation. This is confounded by how little elaboration is provided for interpreting and applying the 22 indicators; that the training offered to public sector workers who have little or no expertise in these matters is a meagre two hour session; and that the statutory PREVENT duty applies immense pressure on them to report anything suspect.
It is becoming increasingly clear that PREVENT is a sinking ship, but for there to be a shift in policy, critique and activism alone cannot suffice. Meaningful and detailed policy alternatives must be conceptualised and offered to policy makers which address everyone’s underlying concerns. This must begin by understanding where ‘bad’ or ‘evidence-lite’ policy comes from.
Firstly, given the pertinent and topical nature of the problem, policy makers would rather be seen to be doing something as opposed to offering no response or solution. Secondly, due to party political posturing, there is often a tendency and shift from evidence-based policy making to policy-based evidence making. In the latter instance, isolated examples of evidence are sought to bolster a predefined policy. Thirdly, even if Muslims are unfairly identified as being at risk of radicalisation, and part of that is owed to religious identity or symbolism, that does not mean the Government or ‘Establishment’ is inherently anti-Islam or anti-Muslim. It is merely evidence of weak and ill-thought policies lacking academic rigour and expert insight. It should then be critiqued on that basis rather than its presumed intent, as CAGE’s report did.
Similarly continuing critique should ideally be accompanied with alternative approaches to address everyone’s concerns around radicalisation but in a far more effective way. Preventing terrorism is something that is very much in the public interest. However we need to reassess the best way to achieve that without negative repercussions, and most of all, base it on robust evidence. For example, neither PREVENT nor the Extremism Strategy can be based on preventing anything other than violent extremism. At present both focus essentially on non-violent extremism, which of course is a highly subjective, indeterminate and unproven concept.
Even when a list of traits are adduced as with the 22 factors, many of them will be shared with the general public and making a distinction between those traits which definitely lead to violent extremism and which may not is an almost impossible judgment call. The chain of causation also cannot be expanded so far that those who are politically or religiously engaged in fringe movements immediately become the most likely to turn to violence. A thorough review would also recommend equal attention to be given to the non-ideological socio-economic factors.