The recent passage of Theresa May’s controversial Counter-Terrorism and Security Act has been met with a flurry of criticism, reiterating a familiar critique of the government’s counter-extremism strategy, Prevent. Responding to the growing support for ISIS among British citizens, the act introduces a range of more aggressive restrictions on suspected terrorists and new obligations for airlines and internet providers. Most controversially, the act places a “statutory duty” on colleges, schools, prisons, and councils to prevent terrorism, giving the Home Office rights to enforce its counter-terrorism guidance. Whereas the earlier Prevent program had been discussed in the language of community responsibility, the government’s counter-extremism strategy is now a legal obligation for a range of public sector institutions.
The act falls short in several places and has been criticized for limiting academic freedoms and continuing to alienate Muslim communities in Britain. Perhaps more concerning, however, the act reveals the national government’s ongoing confusion about how to address the threat of terrorism. The definition of extremism remains vague and dissatisfying. The extent to which local communities can continue adapting the Prevent strategy to their local context is unclear. Finally, the bill leaves lingering questions about the strength of the central government’s commitment to its counter-extremism strategy.
A Brief History of Prevent
Prevent was hastily introduced in 2007 amidst growing fears about domestic terrorism and it was formally embedded into the national counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST, in 2009. From the beginning, the strategy’s aims were complex and multi-faceted, seeking both to identify radicalized individuals but also to challenge the ideology behind violent extremism by empowering resilient communities. The program was expressly concerned with supporting a more moderate Islam, partnering with Muslim organizations to ease the integration of British Muslims and challenge violent extremism at the same time.
Amidst widespread disillusionment with the policy, the coalition government revised the strategy in 2011. The revision formally separated cohesion and counter-terrorism work, which had proved so controversially conjoined in the earlier policy. As a result, the Department of Communities and Local Government was removed from its role in Prevent. Interestingly, recent scholarship casts doubt on whether this separation is possible, noting how cohesion and counter-terrorism efforts remain attached together on the ground.
The 2011 iteration of Prevent also actively rejected partnerships with so-called “non-violent extremists” and severed ties with former partnering Muslim organizations. The program now tasked a broad range of public institutions to take part in the work of Prevent, by assisting with community monitoring. The new counter-terrorism law and its “statutory duty” advances this public sector approach to counter-extremism by legally requiring a wider range of institutions to establish formal counter-extremism protocols in line with the government’s Prevent agenda.
The act leaves many unanswered questions about the future of the UK’s counter-extremism strategy.
For one, the definition of extremism remains unsatisfactory. Since 2011, the government has defined extremism 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.”
This definition leaves us wanting: What are British values, exactly? And should universities, for instance, be concerned that skeptics of democracy are extremists? The combination of this imprecise definition of extremism and the growth of Prevent-obligated sectors is deeply concerning. With stakes so high, and terms so unclear, the expansion of Prevent responsibilities for university administrators, doctors, and schoolteachers will only multiply the problematic nature of the policy.
The act is also ambiguous about the autonomy local authorities will be given to organize counter-extremism programs in the manner they see fit. Local authorities have traditionally resisted state centralization of Prevent, at times insisting on re-branding the program, rejecting Home Office initiatives, and insisting on local personnel. These efforts have often succeeded at making Prevent deliverable in diverse contexts, especially in communities wary about police surveillance. Thus far, the Home Office has begrudgingly permitted this variation, albeit accompanied by some stern language. Uncertainty pervades about whether the new law will once and for all standardize Prevent delivery across the UK.
Most interesting, despite placing counter-extremism duties on civic institutions, the law leaves remaining questions about the extent to which Prevent is a real priority for the Home Office. Prevent funding has been significantly downgraded in relation to the state’s other, more coercive counter-terrorism efforts. While the act makes new demands, it will not devote greater public funds to the program.
The recent Parliamentary report on Intelligence Relating to the Murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby takes note of this missing commitment to Prevent, writing, “Prevent programs… have not been given sufficient priority as a means of tackling the problem of those attracted by radical Islamist and terrorist ideologies. We have the impression that this mirrors the relatively low priority (and funding) given to Prevent in the CONTEST program as a whole. This misses the value that Prevent can offer: successfully diverting individuals from the radicalization path could have the single biggest impact on the rest of the CONTEST program.”
If the central government lacks the will to prioritize Prevent, the frenetic concern over the new law may be for nothing. Without commitment to enforce standardization and insist on institutional compliance, Prevent may remain a largely misunderstood program, delivered in vastly different ways across the UK, beneath a bewildered state.