Gray Sergeant responds to Andy Burnham’s comments on Prevent in the shadow home secretary’s interview with Progress this month
Dealing with the threat posed by homegrown violent extremism remains one of the greatest challenges facing politicians in the United Kingdom today, and Labour must commit to a robust counter-extremism strategy. It needs to challenge misunderstandings about existing policies, not repeat them.
Designed to support vulnerable individuals who are at risk of being drawn into any form of violent extremism, the Prevent strategy was originally developed by the last Labour government, in the wake of 7/7, as part of its wider counter-terrorism policy.
In July 2015, in an effort to improve the strategy, it became a legal duty for public sector workers. Since then, there has been a backlash from a number of frontline staff and unions, some of whom have teamed up with extreme organisations to undermine these counter-extremism measures.
CAGE is one of many groups hellbent on discrediting Prevent, and regularly spread falsehoods to achieve this aim, including that the policy is an attempt to ‘outlaw Muslim political ideas and beliefs’. The group’s research director, Asim Qureshi, has also toured the country telling parents: ‘if you don’t consent to deradicalisation programmes, [the government is] going to take your kids away from you’.
This ‘campaign of lies’ has been effective, with scare stories about Prevent and accusations of state-sponsored racism gaining national attention. If it is to be a credible voice on these issues, Labour must take on these divisive narratives, which are sowing mistrust between Muslim communities and the British state.
Unfortunately, Andy Burnham’s most recent intervention on the subject is more likely to have fuelled these misunderstandings. Burnham tells Progress magazine this month, when referring to Prevent: ‘If someone perfectly legitimately changes how they dress … in theory they can be reported upon’.
This echoes the narrative put out by Qureshi, who has said: ‘PREVENT’s broad definition of “extremism” includes indicators including certain expressed opinions, increased religiosity in dress, and support of certain causes.’
These claims are simply untrue. Channel training material makes it explicitly clear that ‘there is a big difference between being religiously observant and holding extremist views.’ Prevent does not identify wearing a veil as a sign of radicalisation. It is not even a grey area – the guidance makes it clear people should not be reported for adopting religious dress. Any examples of this happening, in contravention of the guidance, should see the reporter being reported, not the other way around.
However, proposals to overhaul the strategy cannot be based on false premises. Any critique of Prevent should address the actual problems of the strategy rather than take sensationalist claims seriously.
Burnham’s calls for greater ‘strong community relations and better integration’ are welcome and the cross-party commission on ‘Britain’s relationship with the Muslim community’ that he is launching is certainly necessary. There is no doubt Burnham wants the UK to have a robust anti-extremism strategy and genuinely believes the current government is not doing enough ‘to win hearts and minds’. However, it is important Labour plays a constructive role on security issues while in opposition.
To do this, rigorous scrutiny of government policy is needed, as are coherent policy recommendations, but Labour must also ensure it does not fuel misunderstandings between Muslim communities, the government and public authorities by repeating myths, as this will only make the job harder.
Challenging the divisive scare stories that are fuelling so much of the mistrust of counter-extremism policy within Britain’s Muslim communities will be a vital part of any efforts to deal with the alienation Burnham mentions, and the ability to do this will a key test of Labour’s credentials on this issue.
Gray Sergeant works at a foreign policy thinktank. He tweets @GraySergeant
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