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UK counter-extremism agenda: ‘Safeguarding’ as routine punishment and collective self-policing

The programme’s operation depends on collective self-policing through fear of punishment. These practices become yet another bureaucratic performance indicator.

lead School interior. Wikicommons/Chris Dixon. Some rights reserved. The UK’s New Labour government abandoned the ‘war on terror’ discourse under Prime Minister Gordon Brown, yet its anti-democratic aims have been extended through a ‘counter-extremism’ agenda. The government programme ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’ was established a decade ago to identify individuals vulnerable to extremist ideas, ostensibly to prevent ‘violent extremism’, i.e. terrorism. 

The programme has had mounting criticism and widespread opposition, especially in the run-up to becoming a statutory duty for public-sector institutions in 2015. Amongst other objections, the key term ‘extremist’, triggered by an ever-widening range of indicators, e.g. modest dress, religious observance and political statements, especially by Muslims, has been queried. A vague definition of this term has meant that more and more people are targeted for views which would otherwise be regarded as normal political discourse. Targets have broadened to include potentially any oppositional activity.

Despite the growing opposition to the Prevent programme, its surveillance and ‘deradicalisation’ practices are being expanded, supposedly to safeguard vulnerable individuals. What drives this agenda can only be inferred from its routine practises.

Operational effectivity

While briefly the Labour Party’s Home Affairs spokesperson, Andy Burnham MP, announcing the Labour Party’s intention to oppose the government’s Counter-Extremism Bill, denounced Prevent as counter-productive and advocated its abolition:

I do feel that the brand is so toxic now that I think it’s got to go… The Prevent duty to report extremist behaviour is today’s equivalent of internment in Northern Ireland – a policy felt to be highly discriminatory against one section of the community.

His successor Diane Abbott also criticised the programme.

Statistics about the programme’s operational effectivity however yield contradictory interpretations. Amongst individuals reported for suspected extremism, 80% lead to no follow-up action by the police. This indicates a 5-fold over-reporting, according to critics. Those defending the statistics, including the Home Office, invert the problem, arguing that they demonstrate that the system screens out those who were wrongly identified and so works well. Lost in such arguments is the enormous damage done by making families fearful that their children will be taken away, frightening children, targeting entire Muslim communities, and undermining potential cooperation against terrorism.

Why are so many ‘wrongly’ identified? There are several contributory factors. The Prevent programme creates pressure on professional staff, especially their managers, who expect a regular flow of reporting and referrals of suspect individuals. The programme’s operation depends on collective self-policing through fear of punishment. These practices become yet another bureaucratic performance indicator, necessary to demonstrate that an institution is truly implementing the programme and so safeguarding those vulnerable to extremist influence. Potentially everyone becomes police or policed or both. Inadequate compliance may jeopardise professional careers or an institution’s standing with its funders, for example the Ofsted inspections, universally dreaded by staff in state schools. 

The Prevent duty intersects with the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006. Although meant to protect children from abuse, it triggers intrusive Prevent measures which harass both children and adults. They are required to obtain Criminal Records Bureau checks for the most mundane activities.   

The ‘safeguarding’ (another seemingly benign word) which it offers looks suspiciously like snooping and spying, followed by snitching, and culminating in measures which are only vaguely specified but seem to amount to some kind of ‘re-education’ process (Petley, 2015). 

The definition of extremism is similarly vague. As eventually defined by the Prevent programme, this means hostility to ‘British values’, which in turn are characterised as: ‘democracy, rule of law, equality of opportunity, freedom of speech and the rights of all men and women to live free from persecution of any kind’ (HM Government, 2011). The definition conflates universal human values with those of Britain, while Britain’s foreign policy regularly contradicts them. In people’s experience of the Prevent programme, an ‘extremist’ encompasses any Muslim in particular who highlights this inconsistency, or who criticises particular aspects of foreign policy, especially Israel’s Occupation and the UK’s support for this.

One local authority unintentionally parodied the programme as follows: ‘The Counter Terrorism Local Profile for York and North Yorkshire highlights the key risks to York as evidence of activity relating to Syria, presence of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), anti-Israeli/pro-Palestinian activity, hunt saboteurs, animal rights, anti-fracking and extreme right wing activity’ (BBC, 2016). As it further explained, ‘since 2010, local authorities monitor any activities where there is potential for community tension’. The ‘potential’ readily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy through preventive measures and fear of being stigmatised.

Moreover, the reporting of suspected ‘extremists’ draws on and reinforces Islamophobic stereotypes.  And the entire procedure generates fear – that individuals may be reported for anything they say, that students may be disciplined for refusing ‘deradicalisation’, that people may be stigmatised over a lengthy period, that parents may lose their children, etc. Given that many students feel intimidated, there is a danger that ‘people do not seek help when they are struggling with their mental health (making them more unwell), or that those who do seek help are made vulnerable to surveillance and punishment’. In short, punishing people makes them more vulnerable.

Punishing ‘non-violent extremism’

A decade ago the Prevent programme was established within the wider Contest programme to protect national security.  This aims to ‘reduce the threat to the UK from terrorism by stopping people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism’.  It has sought to counter the ideology of ‘violent extremism’ and the grievances which make it attractive (Cabinet Office, 2008).  In effect, this targets those who might be seen as promoting such grievances, i.e. any political dissent seen as threatening the state. 

In 2009 this rationale was further explained by the Home Office chief of Counter-Terrorism, Charles Farr: namely, the government has targeted a large group of non-violent people who ‘create an environment in which terrorists can operate’. This criterion was later incorporated into the Prevent strategy and statutory duty (HM Government, 2015: para 77).

By this rationale of pre-empting violence, countering ‘non-violent extremism’ warrants not only surveillance but also deterrence and prevention. Anti-terror legislation encompass a broad range of executive powers, euphemistically called ‘non-prosecution civil executive actions’ (HM Government, 2009). Such punishments without due process include: withdrawing passports, imposing travel bans, even revoking citizenship – which in the most extreme cases over recent years, has been a prelude to drone assassination.  

Given that violent acts and threats were already illegal, before the Terrorism Act 2000, such ‘anti-terror’ laws have stigmatised and even criminalised non-violent ones, as a basis for authorising punishment without trial.  Such measures include: longer detention without trial, harassment for displaying symbols of banned organisations, long detentions at ports under Schedule 7, etc.  Under its own statutory duty, the Charities Commission likewise has been imposing punishments – e.g. disqualifying individuals from being a charity officer, suspending an organisation’s activities during long investigations – in turn making organisations more vulnerable to the denial or termination of bank accounts.

In the updated Contest strategy, moreover, the government will counter online ‘extremist ideology’ by monitoring websites and removing ‘propaganda’. It will set up alternative platforms to challenge extremism using a network of credible commentators and groups to maintain appropriate content. There will be robust intervention in all institutions – schools, further education colleges, universities, hospitals, prisons – to ‘root out extremism’ along the same lines as the Prevent strategy (HM Government, 2013).

In May 2015 (and again May 2016) the government announced plans for a Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill, which would strengthen executive powers to counter any ‘extremist’ views or behaviours in the name of protecting vulnerable individuals or groups. There would be three new types of civil orders: Banning Orders (to ban extremist groups), Extremism Disruption Orders (to stop individuals engaging in extremist behaviour), and Closure Orders (to close down premises used to support extremism). Any breach would be a criminal offence; thus the CPS would not need to present evidence to the requisite standard for a criminal trial.

A new Extremism Trigger would guarantee that complaints about local extremism are fully reviewed by the police and local authorities. The Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) will be expanded so that employers identify extremists and stop them working with vulnerable groups. The DBS will notify employers of any new information about extremism relevant to an employee, especially barring anyone with a criminal conviction or civil order for extremist activity.

In practice, suspect extremists are now treated as suspect terrorists. By targeting ‘pre-crime’, special measures punish potential crime as if it were already crime. By authorising punishment without due process, such powers have been criticised as not only unfair but also counter-productive on pragmatic grounds. As one Parliamentary committee warned, any new legislation ‘must be informed by evidence as to what works and what simply drives wedges between communities’.

Constructing ‘extremist’ threats

The large-scale reporting on suspected ‘extremists’ generates its own evidence base, in turn justifying the programme. This circular logic is integral to the entire ‘war on terror’.  When journalists questioned whether President George W. Bush was always targeting real terrorist threats, his advisor responded:  You journalists are living in ‘the reality-based community’. By contrast, 'We're an empire now. And when we act, we create our own reality’.  This self-fulfilling agenda bypasses sceptical questions about whether counter-extremism measures are ‘workable’ or truly target extremism – a flexibly expandable category.

Monitoring ‘extremism’ and ‘radicalisation’ establishes more performance indicators, while also stigmatising the term ‘radical’. Once meaning a critical inquiry into the source of societal problems, the term becomes pejorative. Indeed, Arun Kundnani argues, ‘the concept of radicalisation has become the master signifier of the late “war on terror”’. Potentially everyone is drawn into monitoring and policing each other, e.g. by avoiding any discussions or events that might ‘trigger’ suspicion. Others argue that this serves a wider agenda of reinforcing conformity within the educational system: 

When radicalisation is explicitly positioned and policed by schools and other educational institutions as the equivalent to sexual exploitation, crime, drug abuse and child neglect, then it is not surprising that both academic studies and media reports have found that some students are becoming fearful of speaking out and being labelled as radical. (Sukarieh and Tannock, 2016: 34).

There has been scant official response to these criticisms. As William Davies says about neoliberalism more generally, punitive measures have ‘a relentless form that acts in place of reasoned discourse, thus replacing the need for hegemonic consensus forma­tion’. Empty affirmations of good intent are repeated ritualistically: ‘power now seeks to circumvent the public sphere, in order to avoid the constraints of criti­cal reason’. 

Why?  The state’s aims cannot be explicitly acknowledged or justified: namely the counter-extremism agenda conveniently undermines democratic rights, suppresses popular debate on UK foreign policy and diverts blame elsewhere.

Safeguarding resistance

For truly preventing terrorism and safeguarding vulnerable individuals, many critics ask for an alternative means. These have been developed by many Muslim groups, but their efforts are undermined by the state’s agenda.  Official ‘counter-extremism’ incorporates just a few groups (e.g. the Quilliam Foundation) which provide an echo chamber for government policy, while excluding other voices.

Since the government announced plans for making Prevent statutory, opposition campaigns have raised slogans such as ‘Educators, not informants’, and ‘Students, not suspects’ (NUS, 2015). They aim to build support for individuals who refuse complicity and contest the procedures. This resistance needs safeguarding through visible, consistent solidarity, that can also help to provide the basis for contesting the routine punishment which drives the entire ‘counter-terror’ regime.

This article draws on discussions within Campaign Against Criminalising Communities (CAMPACC)  and beyond over several years.  It is based on a talk at the 10 December 2016 IHRC conference, ‘Islamophobia: The Environment of Hate and the Police State’.

About the author

Les Levidow helped to set up the Campaign Against Criminalising Communities (CAMPACC), initially to oppose the Terrorism Act 2000.


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