A common response to Prevent, a part of the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy, has been one of criticism. British online newspaper, The Independent, reported earlier this year that many human rights organizations such as Amnesty International are voicing concerns that the scheme’s newly appointed leader, William Shawcross, is Islamophobic. They report that Mr. Shawcross has expressed views in the past such as, “Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future.” This accusation follows others’ criticisms that the program involves anti-Islam sentiment and alienation towards the Muslim community in Britain. With issues such as these, the UK government needs to re-assess the impacts of the program to ensure that it does not become counterproductive to its goals of stopping individuals from becoming radicalized.
Prevent is a counter-terrorism strategy that is part of the CONTEST program. The UK Home Office’s website explains that Prevent was created to tackle the causes of radicalization and support those who are at risk of being radicalized through de-radicalization processes. These involve the Channel initiative where individuals are given the choice to participate in various programs designed to safeguard them from pathways to radicalization. In other words, the strategy targets those who are vulnerable to becoming terrorists by providing pathways for the individual to move away from that radicalization. The strategy is also part of a joint effort to fighting terrorism by involving workers from different sectors of society, allowing them to refer to the authorities individuals they believe are vulnerable to radicalization. Although these goals are promising in countering terrorism in the UK, it has problems aside from the issues around its leader William Shawcross that cause organizations such as Amnesty International to question its credibility.
One of the biggest problems to address is the issue of institutional racism and alienation. It is written in the strategy that Islamist terrorism is the foremost threat to the UK. Savanta ComRes published a survey in 2018 where they found that 47% of British adults perceive that Britain is “becoming less tolerant of Muslims.” This figure shows the impact of institutional racism where the people are associating an individual’s race with terrorism. As Prevent is a counter-strategy where actions taken are based on presumed connections and the probability of terrorism, it creates a certain stigma or fear towards those who associate themselves with Islam. This distrust and negative attitude towards Muslim communities alienate individuals belonging to the community, causing them to feel rejected by British society.
However, alienation is not limited to the Muslim community. Jamie Grierson of The Guardian has reported that high rates of autistic people have been referred to the authorities under the Prevent program. This again shows how a lack of understanding towards certain conditions may affect people’s views, adding to the fear of possible terrorist activities.
With the appointment of William Shawcross and the issue of alienation, the UK government needs to address the social issues the program is creating. A good suggestion is that constant policy developments or reforms should be made to keep up with the changing nature of society and the terroristic threats it faces. The Institute for Economics and Peace found that between 2018 and 2021 far-right extremism increased, and between 2014 and 2019 cases of deaths by far-right extremism tripled in number. The last update of the Prevent strategy was in 2018; however, in the span of 3 years, the nature of the terrorist threat has changed significantly. Altering or changing the statement that Islamist terrorism is the foremost threat to the UK would lessen the stigma around individuals associated with Islam and the assumptions made about them. This would not only enable policy reform but also social reform in a way that decreases racism and alienation towards some cultures.
Although this report criticizes the social implications of the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy, it does not disregard its positive outcomes. The UN Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism calls on member states to increase their efforts in preventing radicalization and Prevent does just that. The strategy involves a wide range of public sectors in the fight against terrorism, and does this in a preventive way, rather than waiting for attacks to happen before acting.
However, these achievements do not outweigh the social implications of the strategy. If the government implements any policies or strategies at the cost of increasing societal issues, it will create more problems and social cleavages than peace. Society must keep governmental institutions accountable for the rules they implement to ensure the safety and equal treatment of all citizens. Human Rights organizations should also continue to use their resources and voice to bring to light possible human rights infringements or inequality that is being perpetuated anywhere in the world. On top of that, governments must also be open to criticism to allow improvements in governing and to build greater societal trust.