While governments struggle to come up with effective ways of countering extremism, the British government's policy of choice appears to be the Prevent programme which has been placed on a statutory footing by the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015. From July 2015 every local authority has a legal duty to "prevent people from being drawn into terrorism". This tightening of the government’s noose around ‘terrorists’, ‘non-violent extremists’ and ‘radicals’ places secular feminists in a dilemma. It squeezes us into a space the size of a postage stamp, in terms of our room for manoeuvre. The noose is simultaneously too tight and too loose. It’s a kind of saturation policing which does nothing to make us safer, whilst being a brutal assault on the civil liberties of Muslim minorities as well as an assault on the rights of all those forced to help deliver the programme on pain of prison or fines.
I have written at length on openDemocracy 50.50 about the earlier phase of Prevent, also known as Preventing Violent Extremism, which was introduced by the Labour government in 2008 as a response to the attack on 7/7. In this phase of Prevent, money was disbursed through local authorities mainly to mosques, women’s groups and youth groups to try and identify those vulnerable to extremism and to steer them away. However, many groups were unhappy with a programme which appeared to be funding them to spy on their communities. Teachers, community workers and voluntary sector organisations were unhappy at having to share information with the police, believing it to be a breach of confidentiality, and often refused to co-operate.
The Coalition government was unhappy with Prevent because, as Theresa May, the Home Minister, admitted in 2011, some of the money was unwittingly given to "the very extremist organisations that Prevent should have been confronting". However the Conservative government was not to be put off. It went for a redesign; it put Prevent on a statutory footing in 2015. Now these same workers are required to sit on Channel panels, a multi-agency forum heavily populated by crime enforcement agencies: police, immigration officials, border force, prison officers, youth offending services. Monitoring of compliance with the Prevent Duty and the promotion of ‘fundamental British values’ are to be part of Ofsted inspections. A failure to comply, in the last resort, places the individual in contempt of court, which is punishable by imprisonment, a fine or both. Theresa May further clarified the basis of the revised programme "Let me be clear – we will not fund or work with organisations that do not subscribe to the core values of our society”. British values, however, remain ill-defined: a hostility to homosexuality is often equated with religious extremism yet Nicky Morgan MP, voted against gay marriage.
The advice issued by the Department for Education to schools and childcare providers in the UK specifically includes nursery schools! The Evening Standard reports that since September 2014, 400 under 18s, including teenagers and children, have been referred to the 'Channel' process, the de-radicalisation programme at the heart of the Government's 'Prevent' strategy. Children have been taken into care and a 3 year old child was placed on this scheme as part of a family group showing suspect behaviour. These figures were obtained from the London Assembly. Since 2012, more than 4,000 people have been referred, half of them under-18s – for showing signs of “non-violent extremism”.
The Guardian describes a Prevent training video in which a teacher talks about a disquieting essay written by one of his students. He thinks she was “struggling to fit in and not sure, culturally, where she belonged … I am not suggesting she was going to support terrorism, but the opportunity was there if someone wanted to push her down that path.” This is all hair-raising stuff. The police spokesperson, Sir Peter Fahy has spoken out against it, asking, ‘At what point do you erode the values you are trying to protect?’ When the government’s Prevent programme appears to be too draconian even for those charged with implementing it – the police – we know that we’re heading for McCarthyite times.
This kind of saturation policing is at work in immigration enforcement too, where every imaginable social interaction requires a valid passport - from the health services to education providers, to employers, landlords and marriage registrars. Furthermore, the Immigration enforcement hotline or the Anti-terrorism hotline is setting citizen against citizen. At one level, it’s no surprise: immigrants and terrorists have often been collapsed into one category in the government’s War on Terror narrative, even though the narrative doesn’t explain home grown terrorists such as those involved in 7/7 or those British Muslims going off to fight jihad. Forcing every section of society, from private businesses to public sector workers and individual citizens, to take on a ‘crime enforcement’ role and to do the state’s dirty work, used to be a marker of authoritarian states where citizens were encouraged to spy and report on each other. It seems to be also the consequence of neo-liberalism where the state is rolled back, its duties can no longer be adequately financed, so vast sections of the population are roped in to do the work.
But why is it that we find it easier to oppose the new immigration measures than we do Prevent? We have many choices in how we respond to Prevent. We could take the line adopted by Inspire, the organisation that works with counter-terrorism measures and tackles inequalities faced by Muslim women. They support the program wholeheartedly and run teacher training sessions in schools to allay fears about Prevent and keep ‘children safely in their families’. Whilst I completely understand the heartbreak of parents standing helplessly by as their children are radicalised and disappear to certain death, I doubt if Prevent is the solution. In any case, attempts to gain the co-operation of parents can be undone by heavy-handed responses from the state like in the case of Yusuf Sarwar who spent a few weeks in Syria working as a kind of ambulance driver, picking up dead bodies, changed his mind and wanted to come home. Meanwhile, his mother had reported him missing to the police as parents are encouraged to do, they assured her that they would deal with it sympathetically and help bring her son home, but when he returned he was arrested, put on trial, and imprisoned for 12 years. The mother felt betrayed by the state and the son felt betrayed by his mother.
Or we could choose to condemn the programme wholeheartedly as a letter opposing Prevent, signed by over 200 academics, published in the Independent did. But this is where the issue of lack of political space for secular feminists arises. Our room for manoeuvre decreases by the day. Yes, as the letter says, Prevent will have a chilling effect on free speech and dissent but so does religious fundamentalism on women’s right to dissent. Does it matter whose initiative it is? Hidden among the signatories is a certain Asim Qureshi of Cage, reminding us that the letter is a CAGE initiative - this is the same Qureshi who was unable to condemn the stoning of women for adultery under Sharia and whose support for the right to dissent is limited, conditional and far from universal. Do we want to give organisations like CAGE legitimacy by becoming signatories? Should we have signed that letter and then written our own one pointing out the political implications of the silences in the first letter?
The problem is that PREVENT hands religious fundamentalists a gift - a narrative of victimhood which makes it much harder for us to challenge them. It allows the powerful to parade in the clothes of the powerless and garner sympathy. But to maintain a distance from and a critique of the anti-Prevent lobby, where it is populated by religious fundamentalists, is a difficult juggling act when the task of opposing Prevent is so pressing.
By not standing up to Prevent unequivocally, it will appear as if secular feminists are relying on Prevent to do the work that they should be doing and are doing - of fighting religious extremism wherever it rears its head and wherever it attempts to co-opt the state as an ally. Whilst we fight the creeping religiosity of public spaces - like the gender segregation of students in public meetings at universities, like the Law Society’s guidance on drawing up Sharia-compliant wills or like the growth of parallel legal systems - should we also have signed that letter to show our good faith, our anti-racist credentials, whilst holding our nose at the company we were in.
Put simply, the age-old question I am asking is whether we are strengthened by our numbers or our purity of principle?
This article is an adapted version of a talk by the author given at a seminar on Gender, Fundamentalism and the ‘Prevent Agenda’ organised by the Centre for Research on Migration, Refugees and Belonging, University of East London, and the Centre for Gender Studies, SOAS