It is too soon, at present, for a thorough analysis of the revised Prevent strategy and its likely consequences. The strategy’s implementation, as much as its ambitions, will determine its long-term implications for British society. In this short piece, however, we would like to raise two key concerns we have with this new strategy, illustrating these with findings from a series of focus groups we have recently completed with different British communities on UK counter-terrorism policy.
First, the discussion of ‘mainstream British values’ that runs throughout the new Prevent is both conceptually flawed and potentially dangerous. Bluntly, what it means to be British, and which values are to be associated with this identity, is always, necessarily, open and changing. Simplistic listings of the sort: ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’ (p.34) are, simply myths. They are efforts to capture or stabilise this dynamic, collective, entity that work to camouflage the huge variability with which people understand (and perhaps even value) such abstract concerns. What it means to be British both is and should be a product of ceaseless dialogue, debate, and competition: a product, put otherwise, of politics.
A more significant problem with this emphasis on British values is the risk that it poses of isolating, even demonising, those who question or reject dominant interpretations of this collective identity. Indeed, the risk that it poses of isolating or demonising those who are viewed by others as somehow outside of this mythical construct. Despite efforts in this review to distance the threat of extremism from Muslims per se, our own research indicates that Muslims in the UK are indeed likely – still – to feel targeted by measures addressing terrorism and extremism (ambiguously defined as ‘vocal opposition to fundamental British values’ [p.107]). As an Asian female participating in one of our focus groups recently put it with startling clarity:
“look at September 11th, when that happened there was a high number of women who were wearing the headscarf who were being treated with discrimination, headscarves were being pulled off, calling names, being called terrorist, Ninja, whatever, very negative name calling. Why? Because somebody says that’s them, we are us, and we are British, and they are weird. We are British and they are weird, and they are them and we are us.”
This fear of othering to which she alludes has enormous political significance. Feeling – or being – identified as other can serve greatly to reduce freedom of expression and other rights we might wish to associate with democratic processes. In the words of an Asian male participant with whom we spoke, for example:
“I am quite wary now, especially with the sort of hype on Muslims per se, I’m quite wary about an attack on my freedom or individual liberty, in the sense that I might walk down the street one minute, a black van might just come and I am taken away, whisked away by MI5 or MI6. So, this is the sort of…it is a fear, because I’m kind of quite outspoken in a sense, but then again I have to sort of [limit] what I say because of the possible repercussions.”
A second broad concern relates to this strategy’s continuation of recent efforts, as we’ve detailed elsewhere, to outsource the implementation of counter-terrorism policy to a range of stakeholders in “key sectors” across the United Kingdom. Beyond – not insignificant – questions over the capability of HE and FE lecturers or GP’s to identify dangerous or “vulnerable” individuals they might encounter (or construct), this trend raises profound concerns, we think, about the role of such institutions within British society.
Systems of education and health are built upon long-established foundations including academic freedom and patient confidentiality; foundations that should not be compromised because of narrow, short-term strategic interests of dubious credibility. Moreover, the emphasis on ‘people with mental health issues or learning disabilities’ (P.83) in this new Strategy not only re-creates a false connection between terrorism and mental illness that has been long-debunked by academic researchers.
It also risks further stigmatising individuals whose ideas or behaviour might be viewed as somehow deviant, “radical” or even “extreme” by others. The social outcomes of such processes include the potential creation of climates of suspicion or fear of surveillance wherein no individual can fully know whether or when they are being watched or recorded. And, when this happens, there is a genuine danger that sites of social protection and trust dramatically lose their value for individuals and communities alike. As another participant told us:
“at one point our community centres and places of worship were a form of being safe in the community; now there are governmental policies, policies or special initiatives that they go to places of worship and they actually tell those people that own them to watch out for any, be vigilant for any terrorist behaviour that might occur, any sort of speeches…that are being done, if they are going towards a fundamental area. So, in some ways your own community centre, your own people are now turning against you.”