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Prevent: What Went Wrong – Part 1

This is a cross post by Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens from Standpoint

In light of the recent news that the Prevent programme will be cut, FocusonIslamism presents a short series on the Preventing Violent Extremism project.

This installment will take a short look at what went wrong, starting with how it was implemented by ministers.

Musical chairs

The constant “reshuffling” of British Ministerial positions meant that the programme could never follow a consistent strategy.

The Prevent programme is run and administered by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).  Thus far, it has been under the control of four different ministers from two governments: Ruth Kelly, Hazel Blears and John Denham under Labour, and Eric Pickles under the new coalition government.  Such a long term and complicated project requires a strategy and programme that will last for years, instead it got change, conflict and disagreement.

Under Ruth Kelly from April to June 2007, the programme set clear moral boundaries and took a strong stance on promoting what she described as “non-negotiable values”.  After the 7/7 attacks, the government had allied almost exclusively with Islamist aligned lobby and pressure groups (primarily the Muslim Council of Britain) in an attempt to strengthen its relations with British Muslims.  By 2007, Kelly and a number of others observed how the government had been taken advantage of, and was now helping groups that shared very few of the values that they wanted to promote.  Prevent under Kelly was therefore an attempt to rebalance the government’s relationship with Britain’s Muslims so as to empower smaller, liberal Muslim groups.  In doing so, she hoped to slowly scale down the government’s involvement with the MCB, and in the months leading up to the launch of Prevent, voiced clear concerns about the group – which had just decided to boycott Holocaust Memorial Day – stating:

I can’t help wondering why those in leadership positions who say they want to achieve religious tolerance and a cohesive society would choose to boycott an event which marks, above all, our common humanity and respect for each other.

For Kelly and her supporters, preventing terrorism was more than just an issue for the security services – it was also societal concern.  The security services, although skilled at dealing with the ‘sharp-end’ of the terror threat, can do little to prevent an individual from becoming a terrorist.  This was a far larger problem, the root of which, as far as Kelly was concerned, lay to a large extent in ideological inspiration.  She recognized that the Islamist ideology which inspired terrorists went against all the most basic values of British society, and hoped that by helping Muslims who promoted these values, they would in turn help to build up more resilience against Islamism among many vulnerable young people.  Thus, in the same speech leading up to the launch of Prevent, Kelly told reporters:

It is only by defending our values that we will prevent extremists radicalising future generations of terrorists.

Kelly’s view, backed by think tanks like Policy Exchange and the Centre for Social Cohesion, was that although ‘non-violent’ Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat e-Islami claimed to be the most effective bulwark against the more violent, ‘hard Islamism’ of al-Qaeda, their ideological roots went against all of the basic values of a liberal democracy, and, in more extreme cases, were an inspiration for jihadist violence.  Rather than criminalising ‘soft Islamists’, part of her strategy was to try and delegitimise their message in the eyes of the wider population.

The real implementation of the Prevent strategy, however, was carried out by Kelly’s successor, Hazel Blears, who took over in June 2007.  She adopted and developed Kelly’s approach, with her first real test coming in the form of an event called Islam Expo, which took place July 2008.  The organisers of the four day event in London’s Olympia included three of Britain’s leading Islamists: Azzam Tamimi, Anas al-Tikriti and Mohammed Sawalha.  Tamimi was by this time well known for his support for suicide bombings in Israel and Mohammed, and al-Tikriti had just backed the MCB boycott of Holocaust Memorial Day.  A number of MPs were billed to address the event, and Blears took the decision to enforce a ministerial boycott, banning any official attendance.  In doing so, she sought to make it explicitly clear that some opinions, such as support for suicide bombing, were, at best, beyond the pale, and at worst helped to create an environment in which British Muslims could become radicalised. Either way, Blears also wanted to make certain that the government was not playing a role is helping to legitimise political Islam.  She explained her decision in mid-July 2008 at a seminar I attended at the Policy Exchange think-tank in Westminster:

I was clear that because of the views of some of the organisers, and because of the nature of some of the exhibitors, this was an event that no minister should attend. Organisers like Anas Altikriti, who

believes in boycotting Holocaust Memorial Day. Or speakers like Azzam Tamimi, who has sought to justify suicide bombing. Or exhibitors like the government of Iran …the organisers were trying to influence the audience in certain directions. And by refusing to legitimise the event for these specific reasons, we would hope to isolate and expose the extremists and ensure they were not part of the event next year. Our policy is designed to change behaviour.

The boycott decision was not without its critics, and even within the Labour party there was a clear split between the Blears camp and those who wanted to continue a multi-layered engagement with Islamists.  Among her detractors were the then Justice Secretary, Jack Straw (who also enjoyed a good relationship with the MCB), and Shahid Malik, MP for Dewsbury who was also a junior minister at the Department of National Development at the time.  She attempted to do the same a year later, calling for ministers to boycott a similar event, Global Peace and Unity 2008, run by Mohammed Ali Harrath of the Islam Channel (for more on Harrath and the Islam Channel, see this recent report by the Quilliam Foundation).  In one of the first signs that Blears’ Prevent approach was losing support, the outcry from within her partly, lead again by Straw and Malik, was such that she had to back down.

In fact, ministers from all three major parties spoke at the event, including Shahid Malik:

The third, and final, major step Blears took to implement her Prevent approach was in late 2008, after the deputy secretary-general of the MCB, Daud Abdullah, put his name to what is now known as the Istanbul Statement.  This episode has been covered extensively, both on this blogand Harry’s Place.  In short, Abdullah signed a statement which unequivocally called for continued support for violent jihad in Israel, and rejected any peaceful settlement.  In keeping with her commitment to publically reject all forms of Islamism, Blears informed the MCB that if Abdullah refused to retract his support for the statement, the government would sever all ties with the group.  With the full backing of the MCB Abdullah didn’t budge, and Blears followed through with her threat.

Due to controversies surrounding her expenses, and her questioning of Gordon Brown’s leadership, Blears was forced to resign from her ministerial position in June 2009, and was replaced by John Denham and Shahid Malik, who acted as his deputy.  Within months, it was clear that the two were opposed to Blears’ principled approach and they began an overhaul of the strategy.  The Guardian reported in August 2009 that Denham and Malik were seeking to recast relations with the MCB, after what the pair saw as a series of mistakes “made in the drive against violent extremism in the UK.”  By the beginning of 2010, the MCB were back in favour with the government.

This decision was part of Denham’s attempts to essentially dismantle all that Blears had worked for, switching the direction of Prevent so as to allow British Islamists the influence they had before the Kelly-Blears initiatives.  In a speech he gave at the 2009 Prevent conference in Birmingham he set out a vision that harked back to the 1990s covenant of security (for more on this see here), leaving a clear opening for Islamists who support jihad in Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan to be part of a ‘big tent’ approach to counter-terrorism.  Speaking about the goals of Prevent, he referred to its aim to combat violent extremism “against Britain and British people”, also stating that nothing justifies extremist violent “in Britain”.  Whereas Blears and Kelly saw an ideological connection between jihadist actions in Israel and the West, and shaped the Prevent strategy accordingly, Denham’s speech made it very clear that ideology was no longer a concern for Prevent – support for Hamas or Taliban suicide bombings did not necessarily prevent an individual or organisation from partnering with the government.  Despite Denham and Malik’s major shift on Prevent, the Labour party was by this time almost certain to lose the May 2010 election, and many of their decisions were only to last for a few months.

After the election, there was much speculation on how the new coalition would approach Prevent: Conservatives such as Paul Goodman and Michael Gove had in the past expressed support for the Kelly-Blears approach; and Lib-Dems, including Nick Clegg (who spoke at the 2008 Global Peace and Unity event) appearing to favour something similar to Denham and Malik’s strategy.  In the end, there was very little mention of Prevent at all – after Eric Pickles took over, DCLG barely referred to it until the announcement that the entire initiative was to be scrapped.

The short and eventful history of Prevent is therefore marred by major disagreement and an inability to pursue a coherent and long-term strategy, and this is something that a huge and ambitious project requires above almost anything else.