A Top Down Approach

10 June 2011

Basia Spalek


The Prevent Strategy 2011 has been long-awaited, not only by those working for public sector agencies within wide-ranging sectors such as criminal justice, health and education, but also by a broad array of community groups whose work has directly or indirectly been impacted by Prevent. As an academic who has been researching engagement and partnerships between communities and police for the purposes of counter-terrorism, I too have been interested in the Prevent review, specifically in relation to the following questions: which community groups who work towards preventing terrorism will have their funding cut or completely abolished and for what reasons ? How much space will the Prevent Review give to bottom-up, locally-driven, initiatives that draw upon the skills and knowledge of local community members ? What implications does the Prevent review have for police-community engagement and partnerships for preventing terrorism ?
In the Prevent Strategy 2011 it is acknowledged that the Government is committed to a fundamental shift of power away from central government to communities, families and individuals, through Big Society. The Prevent Strategy 2011 maintains that the knowledge, access and influence of people and communities to challenge extremist and terrorist ideology is valued by government. However, at the same time there is a clear, and potentially contradictory, message: that government will not fund, or work with, extremist groups, where extremism is understood as meaning to be in active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.

The Prevent Strategy 2011 is clear in positioning Al Qaeda linked or influenced terrorism as the most significant terrorist threat to the UK. This means that it is Muslim communities that will be the focus of attention, specifically regarding questions of who is or is not ‘extremist’. I am concerned that all-encompassing labels like ‘Salafi’ and ‘Islamist’ will be used to judge individuals and groups as ‘extremist’, thereby denying access to government resources for prevention initiatives.

Within overarching identity categories there are important nuances and multiple positionings of individuals, so there is a large spectrum of different individuals and groups who might be called ‘Salafi’ and ‘Islamist’ and to label all of these as ‘extremist’ is a gross oversimplification. Islamic practices and identities that are religiously conservative and have a real or a perceived opposition to established secular values may be construed as ‘extreme’ simply because they are viewed as a threat by western secular states which separate politics from religion. Debates regarding secularism, modernity and religiosity should be played out in other arenas, and not used as the basis for counter-terrorism policy.
My concern is that in local areas where there are currently community-focussed interventions aimed at preventing terrorism, which include individuals and groups who could be labelled as ‘extremist’ under the Prevent Strategy 2011, what will happen when funding is taken away ? Might this leave a vacuum for terrorist propagandists ? What if those individuals and groups labelled as ‘extremist’ by the Prevent Strategy 2011 are precisely those who are able to pull individuals away from committing acts of violence ? At the same time, it is important to consider that some areas where important preventative work is taking place are areas where there is significant poverty and cycles of gang violence and other kinds of crime.

As part of a recent research study Preventing Religio-Political Violent Extremism Amongst Muslim Youth: a study exploring police-community partnership that I undertook with Dr Laura Zahra McDonald and Dr Salwa El-Awa at the University of Birmingham, we interviewed some young people from within deprived inner-city contexts who were receiving wide-ranging community-based initiatives which also included a focus on preventing terrorism. Many of the young people we interviewed spoke about the normalisation of violence in their lives, and some of the difficult encounters they have had with police officers.

These young people come to these community centres not only because they provide them with something to do, but also because these centres provide young people with a safe space, away from violence, whilst at the same time providing them with access to adults who are able to intervene in local, street-based, disputes in order to make the environment safer for them. I would therefore be very concerned if these community centres were to stop receiving government funding because of a perceived label of ‘extremist’ being attached.
Despite references to Big Society, the Prevent Strategy 2011 seems to comprise a ‘top-down’ rather than ‘bottom-up’ approach. The notion of shared values has not been extensively debated; I would like to see more dialogue and debate with wide-ranging members of British society as to what values specifically we should all share. Important partnerships have been created between police and community groups for the purposes of preventing terrorism. Policing is a shared responsibility across all sectors of society, not only something that the police do. Our research has found that community members can play a crucial role in helping to risk-assess those individuals who have come to the attention of the police or other agencies for a perceived vulnerability to violent extremism, for there may be aspects to individuals’ lives that only community members can witness, understand and evaluate.

The frameworks for engaging young Muslim clients used by youth workers are inclusive of faith as belief and identity, and in many cases explicitly Islamic. Discussion and debate of theological concepts and practices are a key aspect of preventative work and intervention. The Prevent Strategy 2011, with its focus on ‘extremism’ as opposed to ‘violent extremism’, potentially will stigmatise wide-ranging individuals and groups and make partnerships between communities and police more problematic. I suspect that the important work will continue to take place, but with the added stress of funding uncertainty and the problematisation and potential securitisation of Muslim communities.
Basia Spalek is Reader in Communities & Justice in the Institute of Applied Social Studies and Director for Research and Knowledge Transfer in the School of Social Policy at the University of Birmingham. She is the editor of Counter-terrorism: community-based approaches to preventing terror crime (Palgrave, 2010) andGoverning Terror: trust, community and counter-terrorism forthcoming from Academic Press. Basia is currently putting together a new international forum on police community engagement for conflict transformation at the University of Birmingham.

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