The controversial UK counter-extremism strategy known as Preventing Violent Extremism (Prevent) has been extensively criticised since it was launched in the aftermath of the 2005 London bombings. Despite millions of pounds being invested in the programme and undergoing several reforms, the Prevent strategy remains deeply flawed and continues to do more harm than good in the struggle against violent extremism.
The Prevent programme aims to “respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism and the threat from those who promote it; to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure that they are given appropriate advice and support; and to work with sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalisation that we need to address.”
While these are honourable goals, the Prevent programme is not achieving them in practice. One of Prevent’s initiatives requires teachers to observe their students for radical behaviour, which the National Union of Teachers (NUT) says leads to “suspicion in the classroom and confusion in the staffroom.” Training for these teachers to spot extremism has not been consistent or comprehensive, and Alex Kenny of NUT reports that the training has been of “very varied content, provided by a multiplicity of organisations, without accreditation or regulation.” When teachers do make reports, 90% of their referrals end without action being taken.
In schools, surveillance of this type means that certain topics cannot be fully discussed; this creates further misunderstanding about extremism and limits discussion about crucial topics. Schools have the potential to be a helpful tool against extremism by giving students a voice when they might feel marginalised in other aspects of their lives; the Prevent programme deprives schools of this ability.
Perhaps the most condemnatory flaw of the programme is its disproportionate targeting of Muslims. Between 2007 and 2010, 67% of the referrals involved Muslims despite the fact that Muslims made up only 5% of the population. Additionally, the allocation of Prevent funding was based on the number of Muslims in each area. Treating Muslims as suspects creates a precedent for Islamophobia and isolates young Muslim students, potentially damaging their relationships with their teachers, peers, and communities.
The Prevent strategy needs to reform to combat violent extremism through open, honest discussions in schools which allow students to voice their opinions and receive guidance from trusted adults. Rather than treating vulnerable members of the community as suspects and arresting them, the UK needs to establish programmes which focus on the reasons these people have been radicalised in the first place—whether that is fear, ignorance, hopelessness, or another factor which needs to be addressed.
This is exactly what the Danish approach, called Aarhus, aspires to achieve. Steffen Nielsen, a crime prevention advisor working with Aarhus, says that unlike the UK, “We are very upfront. If we have very clear information that you have fertiliser in the basement then we will pass that on. Otherwise we have a principle that no information goes to the secret service because we can’t work with people if they think we are passing on information.” The goal is to facilitate dialogue and trust rather than spying on the population.
When Danes return from Syria, Nielsen says that under the Aarhus programme they are embraced when they come home. “Unlike in England, where maybe you’re interned for a week while they figure out who you are, we say ‘Do you need any help?’” The idea is not to tell them they have done something terrible, but to allow them to talk about their experience.
Another important difference between Aarhus and Prevent is that Denmark makes the distinction between extreme views and violence as a result of extremism. Nielsen says, ”We don’t spend a lot of energy fighting ideology. We don’t try to take away your jihadist beliefs. You are welcome to dream of the Caliphate. But there are some means that you cannot use according to the penal code here. You can be al-Shabab all you like, as long as you don’t actually do al-Shabab.” The problem is not extremism, but violent extremism, and citizens are allowed their opinions as long as they are not harming others.
The method of ISIS is violence and hatred. The only way to combat this is by offering a country which facilitates dialogue and trust, and will listen to the young people at risk of being radicalised rather than isolating them. Programmes such as the UK’s Prevent and Denmark’s Aarhus have great potential, and could have the ability to either push citizens towards radicalisation or to show them love and bring them home. Currently, the UK’s Prevent is pushing its citizens into the arms of violent extremism.