Does the UK's Prevent strategy provoke extremism instead?
The UK government's controversial Prevent strategy has been criticised by community groups, think tanks and individuals. Concentrated on the precarious area of pre-crime and based on a contested methodology, much is wrong with the way individuals are identified as vulnerable to extremism.
But the problem is not only the erroneous foundations of the strategy, but that the strategy is actually likely to be completely counter-productive. Isolating Muslims by keeping a watchful eye over everything they say can lead to a culture of self-censorship, which ultimately means there is no safe space to explore ideas and distinguish between right and wrong, radical and moderate, religious and political.
Moving these debates into unprotected spaces could mean that "extremist" views go unchallenged or worse, are nurtured. As a result, individuals are more likely to be radicalised or cross over into violent extremist territory.
Legal duty and increased pressure
Prevent is not new and it has been part of the government's counter-extremism landscape since 2010 or 2011. However, efforts were ramped up in July 2015, with teachers and other childcare providers having a legal duty to report children for 'worrying behaviour' under section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015.
Training is provided and sanctions are applied should they not fulfil their duty, as an evaluation of these duties now forms part of Ofsted inspections.
But reports show that the strategy is actually having a detrimental effect.
The most recent report, launched in Parliament on 19 October, concluded that trust was being eroded between teachers and students in the education sector (it also looked at the health sector and concluded the same).
|Trust was being eroded between teachers and students in the education sector|
According to the Open Society report, Eroding Trust: The UK's Prevent Counter-Extremism Strategy in Health and Education, the Prevent strategy takes dialogue and debate out of safe and public forums, driving them underground. Rather than preventing extremism, this is more likely to promote it.
Case studies in the report highlighted that conferences on Islam had been cancelled, and that assumptions had been made about peoples' religious beliefs and political views, based on weak evidence such as showing sympathy with Palestinians in a crisis-stricken Gaza.
Such behaviour and activity may well be completely innocent, and exactly the sort of expression any British Muslim might make. In being reported and referred to the government's de-radicalisation programme - Channel, individuals are often stigmatised for having done absolutely nothing wrong.
The duty to report indicators of non-violent extremism as well as violent extremism means that because "extremists" are frustrated with the situation in Palestine, talk about Islam or have beards, those who share such traits are deemed vulnerable to at least "non-violent extremism".
Opinions must be expressed, debated and challenged
The Prevent strategy may want to tackle non-violent as well as violent extremism, but what is non-violent extremism and who determines what that is?
If individuals - even children - are targeted simply for opinions, they'll be silenced. These views will instead be reserved for a forum where alternative and opposing voices are not present.
NGO Rights Watch UK also argued this after investigating the effect of Prevent, and said that children will simply be "driven underground to discuss terrorism, religion and identity issues outside the classroom or online where simplistic and jihadist narratives go unchallenged".
|What is non-violent extremism and who determines what that is?|
The UN Special rapporteur for freedom of assembly believes that this problem is even bigger than was first thought. Earlier in the year he told The Guardian newspaper:
"The spectre of Big Brother is so large, in fact, that I was informed that some families are afraid of discussing the negative effects of terrorism in their own homes, fearing their children would talk about it at school and have their intentions misconstrued."
He warned that Prevent would have the opposite of its intended effect.
"By dividing, stigmatising and alienating segments of the population, Prevent could end up promoting extremism, rather than countering it".
Parents have expressed their fear that their children will be judged for their religion and that it will lead to integration and identity problems. Will their children be scared of being known as a Muslim in case they are labelled a so-called terrorist, for instance?
If we turn to those who have actually brushed with violent extremism and found themselves radicalised to the point where they may contemplate acts of terrorism - the fact is that many of those people feel they didn't belong.
This potential crisis of identity may not be solely the result of Prevent but it is part of the wider message that is coming from the media, from politicians, maybe even from peers and figures of authority. Prevent is certainly part of that wider message.
Preventing extremism as a wider collective
While Ofsted report on whether education providers are fulfilling the Prevent duty, one of their most glowing reports was reserved for Luton College. The interesting part of their praise was the fostering of links within the community. This hits the nail on the head when tackling radicalisation and terrorism - a problem that effects Muslims in the same way it affects others.
And this is why isolationist policies like Prevent are wrong.
The community approach is the correct one. It avoids placing obligations on certain figures or communities - rather the responsibility is collective. Problems, issues and concerns can then be aired through open dialogue.
Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.