The Backlash against the “Delegitimising Counter-Terrorism” Report

On April 26th 2022, Policy Exchange (a UK educational think tank) released a report “Delegitimising Counter-Terrorism: The Activist Campaign to Demonise Prevent”. Authored by Sir John Jenkins (British Diplomat), Dr Damon L. Perry (Senior Research Fellow), and Dr Paul Stott (Head of Security and Extremism ) the report was written in response to the “People’s Review of Prevent” report, published by Prevent Watch, that focused on the ways in which Prevent impinges on the everyday life of Muslim communities1 (see Euro-Islam’s report on “The People’s Review of Prevent: Key Findings”). The key findings of the report2 led the authors to conclude that Prevent provides no additional value to the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy and that the government should withdraw it on the grounds of it being discriminatory and ineffective3, a conclusion which was supported by a wide range of legal, secular, and faith-based organisations. 

In response to these findings and recommendations, Policy Exchange provides a critical review and evaluation of the “Anti-Prevent Campaigns” over the 2011-2022 decade4. According to Policy Exchange, the “end goal of these Islamist-led campaigns is the scrapping of Prevent and of the counter-extremism programme”5, which David Cameron (a UK politician and previous Prime Minister), in the foreward of the report has warned is a narrative that needs to be countered: 

“Just as we need to counter the Islamist extremist narrative, we need to counter the anti-Prevent narrative. We need to show that delegitimising counter-terrorism is, in essence, enabling terrorism”6.

This report by Policy Exchange has faced substantial criticism. For example, Muhammad Rabbani (Managing Director of CAGE – an independent advocacy organisation working to empower communities impacted by the War on Terror), argued that “it’s indicative of Islamophobia in the UK when former PM’s give their name to such open hostility to Muslim civil society” and added that “critiquing Prevent equates to enabling terrorism is not only desperate, but also libelous”7.

Summary of Report Key Findings and Recommendations 

Policy Exchange focus on nine activist and community organisations (including those within universities) that have been prominent in the debates surrounding Prevent. These organisations are: Cage, The Islamic Human Rights Commission, The Muslim Council of Britain, Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND), Prevent Watch and the People’s Review of Prevent, Supporters of the People’s Review report, FOSIS and Students Not Suspects, Student Union boycotts of Prevent, Waltham Forest Council of Mosques, and the London Borough of Newham imams8. Policy Exchange identifies six core themes that consistently appear within all anti-Prevent campaigns and organisations.

  1. Prevent disproportionately and unfairly targets Muslims, securitising them as a suspect community. 

Policy Exchange considers this claim as being one of “the most damaging and erroneous ideas spread by anti-Prevent campaigns”10. The Deligitimising Counter-Terrorism report presents data which they argue contradicts the critique that Muslims are being targeted by Prevent. For example, Fahid Qurashi (a lecturer at the University of Salford) noted that between April 2012 and April 2015, at least 69% of Prevent referrals involved Muslims11. By contrast, Policy Exchange argue that Muslims are not disproportionately or unfairly targeted by Prevent but are in fact “under-represented” in referrals to the Prevent channel12. This, the authors state, is surprising in one sense because “Islamist terrorism is by far the greatest security threat” so it would be “reasonable to expect the proportion of Muslim Prevent referrals to be approximately equivalent to the proportion of terrorist-related arrests, investigations, and plots”13. They further argue that in order to counter the narrative that Muslims are unfairly targeted, the Government should publicly refer to its own Prevent statistics. 

2. Prevent criminalises conservative Muslim beliefs by defining them as extremist and undermines freedom of expression. 

According to Policy Exchange, anti-Prevent organisations are “reluctant to acknowledge or tackle extremism in mosques”13 . The authors present the example of the Finsbury Park Mosque, which was raided by police in 2003 and resulted in Abu Hamza being convicted of six charges of soliciting murder and two charges of inciting racial hatred in his speeches and sermons14. They further argue that amongst anti-Prevent organisations there is a failure to articulate a distinction between “Islamic conservativism” and “Islamist extremism”, which “allows activists to shield extremist ideas and practices whilst appearing to defend the freedom of expression”15.

3. Prevent is a government tool to spy on Muslims, while casting teachers and other public servants as spies.

This claim gained national prominence in 2009, when an article published by Vikram Dodd in The Guardian stated that Prevent “is being used to gather intelligence about innocent people who are not suspected of involvement in terrorism”16. This claim is commonly held by activist and community organisations . In particular, Policy Exchange focus on reports from 5Pillars between 2017 and 2020, which describe Prevent as a spying exercise and gave the example of two schools that provided Prevent training to students by teaching them to “recognise signs of radicalisation” and “to spy on each other”17. Policy Exchange argues that this claim “lacks any evidential basis”, is “factually incorrect”, and there is no indication that the objective of the lesson is anything other than “building safeguarding awareness”18.

4. Prevent officers can arbitrarily take away Muslim children.

This claim is central in the 2015 and 2018 CAGE reports, which state that the removal of children from their families “is being done using a unreliable and highly subjective method of measuring “extremism” and “radicalisation”, and that these terms have not been adequately defined”19. Policy Exchange contests this evaluation that it “is simply not borne out of facts”20. It also criticises CAGE’s activism : “upon close inspection it is evident that what’s at stake is the very notion of human rights”21 and that the state is out to break-up Muslim families is “far more likely to be generated by the work of CAGE”22.

5. Muslims working on Prevent are in some way disloyal or even “native informants”.

To rebut this critique, Policy Exchange quotes heavily from the Commission for Countering Extremism’s 2019 report, “Challenging Extremism”, authored by the Lead Commissioner Sara Khan. In this report, Khan noted that “slurs” such “native informants” and “Uncle Toms”, were frequently used by CAGE and MEND for Muslim activists with whom they disagree, including those who cooperate with authorities23. Fiyaz Mughal, the founder of Faith Matters (an organisation that works with communities to reduce conflict and help with resolutions) and Tell Mama (an independent service supporting victims of anti-Muslim hate) stated that using such language presents a danger for social cohesion in the UK:

“What they are saying is that Government and state structures are essentially an enemy, thereby perpetuating a “Them and Us” narrative”24.

6. Prevent in itself is racist and Islamophobic, so cannot be reformed. 

For the authors of “Deligitimising Counter-Terrorism” , activists and community groups “misunderstand” why there is a high proportion of Muslim referrals. They explain that high referrals exist, not because of integration issues, but because of “high proportion of terrorism- related attacks, foiled plots, arrests and convictions involving Islamists”25.

Report Conclusion Recommendations

The Policy Exchange report concludes that these above anti-Prevent themes if unchallenged, are a serious concern and offers three recommendations:

  1. The new Prevent should be desecuritised by removing it from the Homeland Security Group and placing it under the direct control of the Home Secretary. To do so, a three- pronged approach is proposed focusing, respectively, on analysis, rebuttal and due diligence: 
    • Firstly, a new consolidated Centre for the Study of Extremism within the government, acting under the ministerial oversight of the Home Secretary and dedicated to the research and diagnosis of Islamist and other forms of extremism.
    • Secondly, a separate communications unit to publicly combat disinformation about the Government’s counter-terrorism and counter-extremism strategies. 
    • Thirdly, a due diligence unit, to develop and monitor criteria for engagement with community organisations. 
  2. Develop criteria for engagement with community organisations at the national and local levels.
  3. To avoid funding or partnering with organisations that encourage non-cooperation with the police and security services, campaign against counter-extremism policies, promote religious sectarianism or blasphemy laws, or that disseminate false narratives and conspiracy theories about Prevent or counter extremism efforts26.

Critiques and Reception

“The Delegitimising Counter-Terrorism” report has triggered numerous reactions and reviews, some endorsing the report, such as Khalid Mahmood, the MP for Birmingham Perry Barr, for whom the report highlights the need for groups to work with the government and authorities to oppose extremism, and that is is important to “push back against those who seek to divide us”27. Similarly, Fiyaz Mughal, founder of Faith Matters supports the “much needed report” and considers that those (activists and community groups) who “paint Prevent as a threat” “need to be resisted at all costs” and that they need to stop enforcing their will and views on others28.

Nonetheless, the report has also received vast amounts of backlash, particularly from the community groups and activists Policy Exchange critiqued.  Miqaad Versi, Media Spokesperson for The Muslim Council of Britain said in a tweet that what he found particularly interesting about the report, is how Policy Exchange & Cameron seem to be targeting Muslim critics of Prevent but not others e.g. the UN Special Rapporteur, the many human rights groups, the civil liberties & free speech groups & the politicians”29. MCB and 5Pillars take similar issue with the Policy Exchange’s focus on Muslim organisations. Again, in a twitter thread, MCB criticises the Policy Exchange report which failed to mention that the MCB has also “loudly and consistently spoken and acted against terrorism”30 (see here for more on the MCB’s stances against terrorism: Additionally, Zara Mohammed, Secretary General of the MCB has objected to the specific reference of her in the report. As shown in the screenshot below, the segment from the report commented that the original appointment of Mohammed in January 2021 was seen, by some, as a move of the MCB towards liberal values. For Zara Mohammed, such an assertion is a “fitting example of how Muslim women in leadership continue to be trivialised”31

Source: Policy Exchange

Several complaints have been lodged to The Charity Commission, accusing Policy Exchange of Islamophobia and racism, and urging the commission to investigate the think tank. Layla Aitlhadj, director at Prevent Watch (co-author of the People’s Review of Prevent, which is also extensively criticised in the Policy Exchange’s report) wrote in her complaint : 

“As a charity, Policy Exchange must remain non-partisan and be detached from government. Yet it would appear Policy Exchange is neither, acting primarily as a vehicle for political propaganda and anti-Muslim narratives”32.

John Holmwood (emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham and co-author with Aitlhadj of The People’s Review of Prevent) rejects the Policy Exchange claim that some areas of government are beyond public scrutiny. Holmwood takes issue with how Policy Exchange has singled out and “demonised Muslims by suggesting their legitimate criticisms of Prevent are not shared by others”33. He further disagreed with David Cameron’s comment that anti-Prevent organisations criticisms were “enabling terrorism”, arguing that this comment “is a serious assault on our democracy, and could potentially also encourage hate crimes against such individuals”34.

Both Aitlhadj and Holmwood said that inviting David Cameron, the former Conservative prime minister who expanded the Prevent strategy into schools and public sector settings, to write the foreward to the report has a clear political purpose to “silence individuals and groups in Muslim civil society and support the current government political approach in this regard”35.

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