Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

Prevent and Countering Violent Extremism usher in ‘whole society’ surveillance

Questions on Countering Violent Extremism cannot be confined to isolated issues, when this is the language through which states speak themselves today.

Azfar Shafi
12 February 2020
Black-headed gull on top of a closed circuit television camera in front of The Shard and Tower Bridge in London, UK.
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Alex Milan Tracy/PA. All rights reserved.

In the aftermath of Sudesh Amman’s attacks in London on February 2, the Evening Standard London ran as its frontpage an appeal from Counter-terror police chiefs, calling for the public to take a more active role in stopping terror threats.

These appeals, alongside refrains such as “communities defeat terrorism”, and calls for the public to “trust their instincts” in identifying potential ‘extremists’, have increased in recent years. They are often expressed alongside demands to support the Prevent counter-extremism programme and to extend it further, to develop what is often called a “whole society approach” to countering extremism. Here, the responsibility of surveillance and security steps decisively out of the exclusive remit of government agencies and are rolled out across the public, private and civil sector and into the heart of society.

But now – five years to the day of Prevent being enshrined into law in the UK, one year on since the Counter-terrorism and Border Security Act entrenched it further; in the shadow of recent attacks and with the spectre of further counter-terror powers on the horizon – there is a real need to grapple with what this “whole society approach” actually entails, and the dangers of accepting as any kind of commonsense the idea that spying is a civic duty.

This is something we at CAGE have sought to address in our comparative study, Stranger than Fiction, published today by the Transnational Institute, which looks at models of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) operating in the pre-criminal space, across the UK, France and the Netherlands. While the CVE models in the countries concerned differ in terms of their specific rationales and historical approaches, all are now actively pushing for a whole society approach.

Though not the first European country to develop its CVE policy, Britain’s Prevent programme has established itself as pre-eminent in the field, and it has taken some of the most concrete steps towards instituting the whole society approach.

In the British context, this has taken place through the forceful induction of public sector institutions and workers into the Prevent programme, through the statutory Prevent duty, and moves to replicate this in the private sector. It has also played out through the co-option of civil society into the ambit of counter-extremism through programmes like the former Preventing Violent Extremism Pathfinder Fund and more recently the Building a Stronger Britain Together fund.

Today, CVE policies are the tip of the iceberg; the whole society approach to countering extremism is made possible by a vast infrastructure spanning private companies, governments, civil society organisations, tech giants, academic clusters and multinational policy forums.

Racial profiling

Far from the almost affable notion of dutiful counter-terror citizens then, what the whole society approach actually looks like is the revolving door between counter-extremism thinktanks, major tech companies and governmental agencies. This is a counter-terror regime nourished in the UK by almost annual counter-terror legislation, an unprecedented array of executive powers and a near £1 billion budget for CT policing alone. Public-private partnerships produce slick multimedia counter-extremist propaganda fronts at arms reach from government, while there is a proliferation of counter-extremist software which can map, monitor and analyse the behaviour of target populations.

If this is the operational basis of the ‘whole society response’, it would be incomplete without mentioning the ideological basis: a permanent state of fear and suspicion of ‘terrorism’ promoted by government and media alike - focused in large part on Muslims.

Rather than civil society being a bulwark against the excesses of government, those excesses are increasingly being outsourced to it. The perverse sight of nominally ‘antiracist’ organisations supporting fundamentally racist policies offers a window into what a whole society approach will be in practice

It is in this context that counter-terror chiefs like Neil Basu ask the British public to “trust their instincts” and for “vigilance, wherever [we] go”.

What this amounts to is a tacit acceptance of racial profiling, and what it translates to is a society where social relations are mediated and reproduced through surveillance and suspicion, in the workplace, in public space and in the home.

The report asks how can we accurately frame discussions on CVE, and raise the questions that are often forcefully pushed out – including those about the interplay between domestic surveillance policies and international interests, and the central role of the state in fomenting political violence.

This is necessary in order to map a new way of articulating opposition to CVE policies that go beyond mild anti-discrimination prescriptions, or which only default to the framework of rights. It is also necessary to resist the trend, pushed by Prevent advocates, towards ‘banalising’ CVE; masking the true nature of CVE policies behind the dry language of bureaucracy, welfare and legal duties.

The framework of pre-crime now underpins social policy in an increasingly broad fashion; more social issues, from ‘knife crime’ to ‘online harms’ and the policing of ‘gangs’ are being approached through the prism of pre-criminality and surveillance, as mainstreamed by CVE policies.

Therefore questions on Countering Violent Extremism cannot be confined to isolated issues, when this is the language through which states increasingly speak themselves today.

In the UK, as a triumphalist Conservative majority seeks to impose its will on society in new and cruel ways, confronting policies like CVE are central to how we revive and reimagine our forms of resistance – because that will only be possible by building a society based on mutual solidarity, not on the basis of mutual suspicion.

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