The Contested Shawcross Review of PREVENT: Anti-Terrorism or Anti-Islam?

On 8 February 2023, the long-awaited report – The Independent Review of Prevent – conducted by the commissioner for public appointments William Shawcross, was published after much skepticism, delay and controversy, even from within the cabinet.[1]  The Prevent Duty, born in the wake of 9/11 as part of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy, places a duty on public authorities to identify and report radical behaviour in a bid to prevent terrorism before it happens. It had typically profiled Muslims in the face of  the rise of  ” Islamist terrorism”. Prevent is one part of the government’s four-pronged counter-terrorism strategy CONTEST, designed to prevent people from getting involved in or supporting terrorist activities. The other strands – Protect, Prepare and Pursue – target better protection against a terrorist attack, mitigating an actual attack and introducing measures to stop them.[2]

The review of the government’s controversial Prevent program was due for a long time. An independent review was announced in January 2019 with a statutory requirement to report back to Parliament in August 2020. However, in December 2019 Lord Carlisle QC, appointed to chair this review, was stood down by the Government following questions raised about his impartiality as well as a legal challenge launched against the Home Office regarding his appointment. William Shawcross was then appointed as the new chair . [3]

William Shawcross, former Commissioner for Public Appointments,  served as the Special Representative on UK victims of Qadhafi-sponsored IRA terrorism in March 2019[fn]Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s regime supplied large amounts of weapons to the IRA during the Troubles. Its Semtex explosives were used in numerous murders, such as the Enniskillen Poppy Day bombing in 1987 and the 1996 attack in London’s Docklands. In March 2019, the government appointed Mr Shawcross to help inform its approach to the issue. The report was seen as being an important step in a long-running campaign by victims seeking compensation from Libya.  But the government subsequently cast doubt on when – and if – his report would be made public, stating it would consider the issue once “the need to focus on the Covid-19 crisis has abated.[/fn]. He is also the former director of a neoconservative think-tank, the Henry Jackson Society[5]. It was whilst as director of the HJS that Shawcross  stated:

“Europe and Islam are one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future. I think all European countries have vastly, very quickly growing Islamic populations.”[6]

On the ground that several of Shawcross’s previous comments were Islamophobic, more than 450 Islamic organisations, including 350 mosques and imams, boycotted the government’s review of the anti-radicalisation programme.  17 Independent groups including Amnesty International also boycotted  citing serious concerns about bias and a pattern of behaviour which demonstrated the Government’s unwillingness to seriously interrogate the Prevent Duty. in a joint statement they declared that they will no longer engage with the review and  would go onto conduct a “parallel review that properly considers the harms of Prevent, including documenting discrimination and rights violations caused by it.[7]

Highlights from the Shawcross Review[8]:

  • The report emphasises “the Fundamental British Values”- the rule of law, individual liberty, tolerance of all beliefs and faiths as well as the promotion of  social cohesion.
  • It reasserts the objective of Prevent, i.e.  to stop individuals from becoming terrorists or supporting  radicalisation. The attainment of this objective is only possible if Prevent properly understands the nature of the ideologies that lead to terrorism and how they attract individuals.


  • According to Shawcross, in fear of being branded as a discriminatory policy, PREVENT has been too timid. More specifically, there has been too much of a focus on right-wing extremism, rather than “Islamist” extremism. The far right, the Shawcross report claims, does not pose the same threat. The report notes the fear some may have in matching its fixation on Islamists but we need to overcome the worry of appearing racist or Islamophobic to counter terrorism. It needs to be done at all costs. The report insists: “The value of preventing people from being radicalised into terrorism is incalculable.”


  • According to the review,  “Islamist” terrorism is being wrongly treated as a mental illness. Mental health issues are pervasive and affect people of all backgrounds. It is deeply concerning therefore that sweeping remarks and assumptions are made regarding mental health with little or no regard for objective evidence or expert opinion.The report recommends that Prevent must better understand and tackle antisemitism where it is relevant to its work. As part of this pursuit, Prevent work should cover UK extremist networks supportive of terrorist movements that explicitly target Jewish communities. Prevent should also better address the anti-Jewish component of both Islamist and Extreme Right-Wing ideologies.


  • Shawcross is critical of Islamophobia, although he prefers the term “anti-Muslim hatred”. But for him, it is a hate crime and as such falls outside its remit. Hate crime is a vital area for the government to tackle but Prevent cannot be the primary means of doing so. It is primarily a counter-terrorism tool and should remain so.


  • The review embraces the position that blasphemy issues in the UK  are linked to hard-line Pakistani clerics and/or the Khatme Nubuwwat movement,[fn]The Khatme Nubuwwat,  set up in Pakistan to counter the Ahmadis and prevent them from proselytising,  has a strong hold  in Britain[/fn] it raises concerns over the impact of intolerant religious rhetoric from  Pakistan over UK Muslim communities when it comes to inflaming anti-India sentiment, particularly around the subject of Kashmir.


  • The review suggests to extend Prevent to asylum seekers and immigrants, stating that there is a good reason to think those given asylums and who traveled from conflict zones or parts of the world from extremist ideologies are susceptible to radicalisation.


  • The report recommends strong governmental action to fight against the disinformation and demonisation around Prevent and to protect frontline staff against intimidation. To Move away from ‘vulnerability’ language and towards ‘susceptibility. Shawcross observes there has been an  “overemphasis on vulnerability and underemphasis of ideology”, where ideology is “not seen as an essential part of the trajectory towards terrorism […but] viewed as one of many potential radicalising factors”. Correspondingly, the review reports a widespread lack of understanding “as to the nature of Islamist ideology and its deployment of Islamic scripture”. Shawcross identified this as a key failing across Prevent.


  • It proposes new training and induction package for all government and public sector staff working in counter-extremism and counterterrorism with specific measures to counter the anti-Prevent campaign at universities.


  • It concludes that  Prevent programme “is not doing enough to counter non-violent Islamist extremism”and “has a double standard when dealing with the extreme right-wing and Islamism”. The report distinguishes between Islam and Islamism. It says, Islamism as an ideology is not the same as Islam as a faith. In many parts of the world, Muslims are the principal victims of Islamist extremism – in both its non-violent and violent manifestations. Prevent takes an expansive approach to the Extreme Right-Wing ends to take a much narrower approach centred around proscribed organisations, ignoring the contribution of non-violent Islamist narratives and networks to terrorism. Prevent must ensure a consistent and evidence-based approach to setting its threshold and criteria, and ensure it does not overlook key non-violent radicalising influences.

Shawcross’s review of Prevent made 34 recommendations, which were all accepted by the government. [9]

Reception by Government Officials:

The home secretary, Suella Braverman, praised and welcomed the 188-page report, saying the programme had shown “cultural timidity” when tacking Islamism. Addressing the Commons, Braverman said Prevent needed to better understand threats and the ideology underpinning them. She said: “Prevent has shown cultural timidity and an institutional hesitancy to tackle Islamism for fear of the charge of Islamophobia.” [10]

Security Minister Tom Tugendhat appreciating the work done by Shawcross stated:

“This government will always protect the British people – whether from the threat posed by terrorism or from the hateful ideologies that underpin it. This review strengthens and bolsters the Prevent programme. I am determined to deliver the improvements needed to accelerate our fight against radicalisation. Ultimately, every community in our country deserves protection from the threat of radicalisation and the violence that it brings.”[11]

By contrast,  Britain’s former top counter-terrorism officer, Neil Basu, said parts of the government-backed report appeared to be inspired by right-wing ideology and were “insulting” to professionals fighting to tackle extremism.[12]

Response by Amnesty International and other human rights groups:

Amnesty International dismissed the report as “riddled with biased thinking, errors and plain anti-Muslim prejudice”. Ilyas Nagdee, Amnesty International UK’s Racial Justice Director, declared :

“ (..) the review has no legitimacy. William Shawcross’ history of bigoted comments on Muslims and Islam should have precluded his involvement in this ill-starred review in the first place.”[13]

The Runnymede Trust “regrets that the government sees fit to accept the findings” of the report, which it said had multiple “flaws”, and that it was concerned to observe the focus on British Muslims.[14]

Sophia Akram, policy manager of Open Rights group (ORG) stated “ORG fears Shawcross’s assessment will add to the increasing surveillance of Muslim communities compounded by the suite of draconian draft legislation unleashed in the past year”.[15]

Lizzie Dearden, Home Affairs Editor at The Independent, has criticised the fact that Shawcross excludes certain attacks by followers of the extreme right from his report and instead focuses on Islamism.[16]

Response by Muslim Organisations and Scholars:

The report was widely condemned by Muslim groups and scholars like Dr  Aitlhadj and Prof. Holmwood who co-authored an independent study into Prevent – the People’s Review of Prevent. The People’s Review was published on February 15th 2022– drawing on hundreds of cases of people referred to the programme.[17]

According to Dr Aitlhadj : “Light on research, poor on analysis and heavy on the anti-Muslim bias, the Shawcross Review fails in every regard. For the People’s Review of Prevent, we analysed 600 cases of people referred to the programme. Shawcross based his entire report on just six channel cases.” [fn]Prevent’s Channel programme adopts a multi-agency approach to identify and provide support to individuals who are at risk of becoming involved in terrorism, assess the nature and extent of that risk, and develop the most appropriate support plan for the individuals concerned/ The Channel process is initiated after a referral is made, often by a frontline worker such as a teacher or social worker, where there is a concern that an individual may be susceptible to radicalisation. Between 2014/15 and 2020/21, 2,581 Channel cases were closed and categorised as having no further counter-terrorism concern.[/fn]

For Professor Holmwood : “The Shawcross Review is ideologically-driven, factually erroneous and methodologically poor. It is based on hearsay evidence and doesn’t even evaluate internal reports produced by government departments. It’s difficult to understand what William Shawcross has been up to in the two years he has been working on this review. All it does is recalibrate Prevent without addressing any legitimate concerns”.

Islamic Human Rights Commission also issued a statement, which reiterated its call for the anti-terrorism programme to be scrapped in its entirety.  It describes the report as nothing short of a call to criminalise mainstream Islam”.[18]

Muslim organisation MEND [fn]Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND)is a NGo that works at increasing the media and political engagement of British Muslims within local communities.[/fn], one of the organisations negatively mentioned several times in the report,  issued a statement questioning the credibility of Shawcross’s, due to his notorious reputation for Islamophobia  throughout his career.[19]

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