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Prevent review lambasted by critics as Shawcross calls for focus on Islamism

Publication of contentious review of counter-extremism programme is finally published - and immediately denounced as 'deeply prejudiced'
Home Secretary Suella Braverman delivers a statement on the Prevent review in the House of Commons on 8 February 2023 (Parliament TV)

The UK government said on Wednesday it would refocus Prevent on tackling "Islamist extremism" as a highly contentious and serially leaked review of the counter-extremism strategy was finally published almost 30 months late.

The review, which was launched in January 2019 and originally due to be completed by August 2020, has already been rejected by many critics of Prevent because of concerns about its independence and the government’s controversial choice of William Shawcross as reviewer.

But in a government response, Home Secretary Suella Braverman said she welcomed the review and would deliver on all 34 recommendations made by Shawcross.

Braverman said: "Prevent will now ensure it focuses on the key threat of Islamist terrorism. As part of this more proportionate approach, we will also remain vigilant on emerging threats, including on the extreme right.

'Many British Muslims may well feel less protected as they are told that the government should ignore the evidence and focus less on the threat from right-wing extremism'

- Zara Mohammed, MCB

"This independent review has identified areas where real reform is required. This includes a need for Prevent to better understand Islamist ideology, which underpins the predominant terrorist threat facing the UK."

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In a statement to the House of Commons, Braverman said: "Prevent has shown cultural timidity and an institutional hesitancy to tackle Islamism for fear of the charge of Islamophobia."

Shawcross’s appointment in 2021 prompted many Muslim advocacy groups and human rights and civil liberties organisations to boycott the review because of past comments he had made which were widely criticised as Islamophobic.

It came after the government’s first choice, Lord Carlile, was forced to stand down at the end of 2019 following a legal challenge over his self-confessed “bias” in favour of Prevent.

Many of Shawcross’s conclusions and recommendations - including his description of Prevent as “a crucial pillar of the UK’s counter-terrorism architecture” - had been widely previewed in a number of newspapers prior to the publication of his report and the government's response.

They include his call for Prevent to prioritise the threat from Islamist extremism rather than far-right extremism, and for the programme to focus on identifying people who pose a security threat to the public, rather than on “safeguarding” and providing support through social services to people deemed to be “vulnerable”.

"Prevent is not doing enough to counter non-violent Islamist extremism," Shawcross writes. He adds that he shares "the view of several respected experts, that the Islamist threat is severely underrepresented in Prevent referrals".

Prevent review: Four years of delays, legal challenges, boycotts and leaks
Read More »

Shawcross said that confronting Islamist narratives should be a "principal component of Prevent activity".

He writes: "Terrorism is only one manifestation of Islamist ideology. The Islamist worldview is by nature supremacist. Islamists have encouraged the hatred of Jews, homosexuals, minority Muslim sects, Muslim liberals and human rights advocates, and the harassment and abuse of Muslim women and girls."

In comments ahead of the publication of the review, Zara Mohammed, the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said it would make the UK less safe and make Muslims feel particularly vulnerable.

Mohammed said: “Today, many British Muslims may well feel less protected as they are told that the government should ignore the evidence and focus less on the threat from extreme right-wing extremism.

“This is a threat that thrives on Islamophobia, and a threat that has already seen violent attacks on Muslim communities.”

Amnesty International said the review was "deeply prejudiced and has no legitimacy".

Rights and Security International, which last month questioned the independence of the review and threatened legal action against the Home Office, described the report as being based on "shoddy research".

Sarah St Vincent, the executive director of RSI, said: "The government is not serious or consistent about preventing violence, including against women and minorities, and this poorly evidenced report demonstrates that."

'Radicalising influences'

Recent delays to the publication of the review had been reported to be due to legal concerns raised within the Home Office about naming groups and individuals whom Shawcross accuses of spreading extremism.

Shawcross accuses some critics of Prevent of being "radicalising influences", and said that some Muslims working within Prevent had been subjected to death threats and intimidation.

Shawcross writes: "There is a concerted campaign by some, including a number of Islamist groups, to undermine and delegitimise Prevent through the spread of disinformation, misinformation and half-truths. Accusations that have since been debunked continue to circulate in communities and on various online platforms.

"This suggests that certain criticisms of Prevent are being made by those naturally hostile to it. Some actors who oppose Prevent, such as Islamist groups and their sympathisers, are themselves radicalising influences."

Those cited in the review for their "anti-Prevent advocacy" include Cage, an organisation primarily providing support to people in Muslim communities affected by counter-terrorism policies, and Mend, an advocacy organisation that describes itself as "empowering British Muslims to tackle Islamophobia".

In its response to Shawcross's review, the Home Office said it would set up a unit to "rapidly rebut misinformation about Prevent".

It said: "We are concerned by the review’s finding of a persistent Islamist-led campaign by a network of closely linked groups and individuals – notably Cage and Mend – to encourage misperceptions of Prevent and undermine its work."

In response to the publication of the report, Anas Mustapha, Cage's head of public advocacy, said: "Cage has worked tirelessly to reveal the acute dangers of the Prevent strategy and how it is used by the government as a tool to securitise Britain's communities, stoke a climate of suspicion and fear, and expand the surveillance state. In light of this, Cage calls for the abolishment of the Prevent strategy in its entirety.”

Mend said: "Mend rejects the Shawcross review in its entirety and calls on other Muslim and civil society organisations to follow suit."

The number of referrals in England and Wales to Prevent related to far-right extremism has increased sharply since the Home Office started publishing data in 2017.

What is the Prevent Strategy?

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Prevent is a programme within the British government's counter-terrorism strategy that aims to “safeguard and support those vulnerable to radicalisation, to stop them from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism”.

It was publicly launched in the aftermath of the 2005 London bombings and was initially targeted squarely at Muslim communities, prompting continuing complaints of discrimination and concerns that the programme was being used to collect intelligence.

In 2011, Prevent's remit was expanded to cover all forms of extremism, defined by the government as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”

In 2015, the government introduced the Prevent Duty which requires public sector workers including doctors, teachers and even nursery staff to have “due regard to the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism”.

A key element of Prevent is Channel, a programme that offers mentoring and support to people assessed to be at risk of becoming terrorists. Prevent referrals of some young children have proved contentious. 114 children under the age of 15 received Channel support in 2017/18.

Criticism of the Prevent Duty includes that it has had a “chilling effect” on free speech in classrooms and universities, and that it has turned public sector workers into informers who are expected to monitor pupils and patients for “signs of radicalisation”. Some critics have said that it may even be counter-productive.

Advocates argue that it is a form of safeguarding that has been effective in identifying and helping troubled individuals. They point to a growing number of far-right referrals as evidence that it is not discriminatory against Muslims.

In January 2019 the government bowed to pressure and announced that it would commission an independent review of Prevent. This was supposed to be completed by August 2020. After being forced to drop its first appointed reviewer, Lord Carlile, over his past advocacy for Prevent, it conceded that the review would be delayed.

In January 2021 it named William Shawcross as reviewer. Shawcross's appointment was also contentious and prompted many organisations to boycott the review. Further delays followed. Shawcross's review, calling for a renewed focus within Prevent on "the Islamist threat", was finally published in February 2023 - and immediately denounced by critics. 

The latest figures showed that far-right-related cases accounted for 20 percent of 6,406 referrals in 2021-22, with 16 percent of referrals concerned with Islamist extremism.

A third of referrals were people described as "individuals with a vulnerability present but no ideology or CT [counter-terrorism] risk".

But Prevent referrals among Muslim communities remain disproportionately high, with Muslims making up 6.5 percent of the population of England and Wales, according to 2021 census data.

Targeting children

Critics of Prevent have highlighted its impact on young people and in schools, with several reports by human rights organisations last year warning that the programme amounted to an abuse of children's rights.

The latest Prevent figures show that 36 percent of referrals were made by the education sector, with police making 28 percent of referrals. Children under 15 accounted for 29 percent of referrals, while 30 percent of referrals were young people aged 15 to 20.

The appointment of Shawcross, a journalist and author and former chair of the Charity Commission, was widely condemned by Muslim advocacy organisations because of comments he made in a speech in the US in 2012 in which he said: “Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future. I think all European countries have vastly, very quickly growing Islamic populations.”

At the time of the speech, Shawcross was director of the Henry Jackson Society, a neoconservative think tank.

Following criticism of his appointment, Shawcross said that some of his views had been “misrepresented or misinterpreted”.

Ilyas Nagdee, Amnesty International UK’s racial justice director, said: “William Shawcross’ history of bigoted comments on Muslims and Islam should have precluded his involvement in this ill-starred review in the first place.

“There’s mounting evidence that Prevent has specifically targeted Muslim communities and activists fighting for social justice and a host of crucial international issues – including topics like the climate crisis and the oppression of Palestinians."

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