We need a Prevent review which finds common ground with UK Muslims

By focusing on old ideas about counter-extremism, the government’s long-awaited report is a squandered opportunity

Shawcross Prevent review UK Muslims
More than 450 Islamic organisations, including 350 mosques and imams, boycotted the Home Office review of Prevent. Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Could we ever find common ground on Prevent? The government-backed review of its controversial counter-extremism programme has shown how not to do it. The report from the Home Office’s hand-picked reviewer, William Shawcross, is presented as a “back to basics” approach which will return Prevent to its core purpose. But in delivering his recommendations, Shawcross has taken the debate backwards into some familiar and stale arguments which will reheat and repolarise old ideas about counter-extremism.

The 192-page document recommends that the government focus more on a predominant threat of Islamism in the UK instead of rightwing terrorism. But, rather than outlining a hierarchy of extremist threats to broaden the legitimacy of Prevent, the review underlines its commitment to a “them and us” focus on British Muslims. 

While the report rightly connects concerns about extremism to the safeguarding duties that professionals routinely have for child protection, the overall result is a squandered opportunity.

The review had a troubled process. It was commissioned almost four years and four prime ministers ago by Theresa May’s government. The initial choice to lead it, Lord Carlile QC, was stood down when the government could not defend a judicial challenge by Rights Watch UK over the appointment process. 

Shawcross, among the well best-connected members of the British establishment, the authorised biographer of the Queen Mother and, more recently, Chair of the Charity Commission, was a political second choice. 

While Shawcross would undoubtedly describe himself as a fierce critic of Islamic fascism — though not of Islam itself — his outspoken comments for the Henry Jackson Society about the threat posed by Europe’s rising Muslim populations blurred that boundary badly. More than 450 Islamic organisations, including 350 mosques and imams, boycotted the review of Prevent. Many did so because of Shawcross’s involvement.

This criticism of the review may reinforce the perception that finding common ground on a programme such as Prevent will always be an impossible task. But that would be a mistake. Prevention matters: keeping citizens safe is the first duty of governments. When terrorists attack London buses or Manchester pop concerts, they take lives from every ethnicity, faith and social class. Many minority groups face additional dangers because synagogues, mosques and LGBTQ+ bars have all been targets for virulent hatred.

If we did not have a programme attempting what Prevent aims to do, there would and should be calls to come up with one. That the independent review process did not involve any significant public or community engagement is a missed opportunity to demonstrate the possibility of reaching a consensus about pathways to radicalisation.

The Conservatives have a much narrower circle of engagement with British Muslim civil society than with any other major faith in Britain

There is also the question of how UK Muslims view Prevent. There are two parallel and polarising narratives here which either claim that British Muslims do not accept that Islamist extremism is a serious threat and are “in denial”, or argue that Prevent is “toxic” to British Muslims and has “alienated” them. Yet a detailed review in 2020 by Crest Advisory, one of the UK’s leading criminal justice strategy and communications consultancies, disrupts these premises. 

According to the report, most British Muslims — like most UK citizens — have never heard of Prevent, though a quarter feel they know enough to hold strong opinions about it. However, a clear majority of British Muslims are concerned about Islamist extremism, support the broad aims of the Prevent programme and would refer someone to it if they suspected that they were being radicalised. 

This support comes with questions about the fairness of Prevent in practice. As documented in the recent case of an already vulnerable 11-year-old Muslim schoolboy who was referred to Prevent after a fellow pupil reported him saying that he wished his school would burn down, the execution of the programme is often badly communicated to the public. 

Building evidence about which interventions work is a complex task. Counter-extremism is an area where failure is obvious but success involves assessing hypothetical counterfactuals. The Shawcross review is weakest in its analysis in this area.

The overall approach of the report reminds me strongly of this point made by the former attorney general for England and Wales, Dominic Grieve, in 2017. Working as the chair of the campaigning group Citizens UK, Grieve wrote of Prevent: “The Commission has also heard, forcefully expressed to it, the fear of many Muslims that, even in seeking to participate in public life or to work on a cross-community basis, they become subject to a much greater degree of adverse scrutiny, or to allegations about their motivation, than would be considered normal or acceptable for their non-Muslim counterpart.” 

Grieve continued: “This is a matter for which there is overwhelming evidence.”

The review also highlights a recurring debate within Whitehall about the government’s lack of dialogue with British Muslims. It would be fair to argue that the Conservatives have a much narrower circle of engagement with British Muslim civil society than with any other major faith in Britain. Indeed, Leader of the House Penny Mordaunt broke with the decade-long stand-off between the government and the Muslim Council of Britain, when she had a meeting with the MCB’s first female secretary-general, Zara Mohammed, in 2020.

We need more of this kind of engagement. Dilwar Hussain, the founding chair of New Horizons in British Islam, an independent consultancy working on social policy, Muslim identity and Islamic reform in the modern world, says the government should be trying to broaden its consultations with Muslim individuals and communities. “Listening doesn’t mean you have to always agree,” he said. 

The political context around Prevent has also changed since the review was commissioned, with a new government more likely than not next year. Could that be an opportunity to build a stronger consensus on counter-extremism? 

“Prevent will only work if it is done with communities, rather than to them,” says Harvey Redgrave, the CEO of Crest Advisory. He suggests that a more substantive reform agenda would look in detail at the referral process and how schools, councils and the police interact while encouraging greater transparency to strengthen the trust and confidence of communities. 

There have been many calls for an independent review of the Prevent programme over the years. It would be a sensible option for the next government to commission a review that engages much more broadly — and finds common ground with all of the UK’s Muslim communities.

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