Cameron's strategy rests on the assumption that there is a conveyer belt which takes people along a path from extremist views to violent acts
The sharp end of the government’s approach to combating ‘extremism’ within our schools, universities, hospitals and public services is called Prevent. It is designed to stop people becoming ‘radicalised’ and to identify those who could potentially become home grown terrorists, or join an armed struggle overseas. It is primarily, but not exclusively, aimed at the Muslim community.
The problem is that Prevent has clearly become a counterproductive toxic brand, which the government has constantly had to tweak and reform in the hope of gaining acceptability.
There are many ways in which Prevent could be improved and made more effective, but I still think it needs to be dumped as a dangerous departure from the democratic values that it is meant to be defending?
Getting rid of Prevent would enable us to deal with the two key problems, but I would like to treat them as separate problems. How to deal with people promoting intolerance, violent change and anti-democratic values? How to deal with vulnerable people who get attracted to the terrorist cause?
The police and security services have been given the go ahead to include myself and many other innocent people in their definition of domestic extremists. School children come under suspicion for wearing Free Palestine badges and saying ‘l’ecoterrorisme’ in a French class.
I completely accept that there are safeguards in the current Prevent system but these could be easily removed by a draconian government out to suppress dissenting views and protest.
Prevent is part of a wave of mass surveillance which includes the snoopers charter, extremism disruption orders and a clamp down on radical ideas, whether they are violent, or non-violent.
It doesn’t matter if people are careful to preach non-violence, in the world of David Cameron, radicalisation inevitably leads to Syria, or a tube bomb on 7/7. He uses this logic to justify the creation of an infrastructure of state-employed spies which the Stasi would be proud of.
Peter Tatchell has argued that instead of being focused upon people with ‘extremist’ views tipping over into terrorist acts, we need a program of citizenship and human rights in all our schools and colleges to help inoculate young people against ideas based upon intolerance and violent change. I think we should broaden this to provide a robust case for democratic values.
For example, we could cover the failures of caliphate states, in the way our history books already cover the failure of fascist and totalitarian systems. Of course, we shouldn’t be afraid to explore the flaws in our own system, which is after all, the best democracy that money can buy.
Getting rid of Prevent would enable us to deal with the two key problems, but I would like to treat them as separate problems. How to deal with people promoting intolerance, violent change and anti-democratic values? How to deal with vulnerable people who are attracted to the terrorist cause?
We should encourage debate and argue it out. Our teachers should teach and encourage, rather than referring students who express ‘dangerous’ and dissenting views.
If we want to defend modern democratic values then we should rigorously apply all the existing equalities legislation and clamp down on hate speech. Some of the Islamic preachers attending events at British universities have horrible views on homosexuality, women’s rights and Jewish people.
Those views and the people giving them a platform need to be challenged, but that challenge should be led by the other students and academics, with the legislation providing back-up in the very worst cases.
We have to face up to the debate about religion and its role in our society. When people have stresses and problems in their lives they can often turn to religion to help them sort those issues out, but they can also vote, join trade unions, form pressure groups and self-organise. Religion is one form of identity; in a democracy we also have the right to have many others.
All of the discussion so far has rested upon the assumption that there is a conveyer belt which takes people along a path from extremist views to violent acts. Prevent aims to disrupt that flow by depriving radical preachers and ‘extremist’ organisations of a platform for their ideas. It also aims to identify young people who are on that path to violence.
However, most of the academic evidence says the conveyer belt doesn’t exist, from analysis by the MI5 behavioural unit to civil service briefings to government. I may be wrong and I would be interested in listening to any updated research, but it appears that people advocating violent change are as likely to prefer a version of our democratic system as they do Sharia Law.
There are a lot of good reasons for teaching citizenship and tolerance, but preventing terrorism may not be one of them.
Some of the 22 factors considered in the multi-agency Channel Board assessment are nothing to do with ideologies, but are about dealing with a lot of social and personal factors which have had an impact.
These are straight forward ‘safeguarding’ factors and the Birmingham Prevent scheme I visited recently provided some good illustrations of a multi-agency approach to dealing with the ‘whole person’.
If we dump Prevent and all its ideological baggage, then extending a teachers duty of care to cover children in danger of being sucked into a culture of political violence, is both less toxic and more effective. Professionals within the education system are generally sensible people who care about the student’s futures.
Give them reassurances that any student referrals won’t end up on an MI5 database and they will deal with it the same way they deal with child abuse, domestic violence, racism, severe bullying and the long list of other issues which are a regular part of their professional lives.
I agree that this whole debate should be about promoting British values, I just don’t trust this government to understand what they really mean and to protect them. We have to stop simply reacting and start thinking about an alternative: what do we value, and how are we going to cheer about it?
Jenny Jones is a member of the London Assembly for the Green Party. Follow her on Twitter
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