David Cameron is to quash hopes of a less divisive approach to Islamist extremism this week. Instead of modifying the ineffective and polarising Preventing Violent Extremism scheme, he is to harden it by broadening the definition of extremism beyond those who condone violence to those who are non-violent but hold views which do not “reflect the British mainstream”.
A review of the Prevent scheme has been delayed for five months because of disagreements in cabinet. Michael Gove, and Lord Carlile, who is in charge of the Prevent review were among those arguing for this crackdown on non-violent Muslim groups.
Nick Clegg argues that it is crucial to maintain a distinction between violent and non-violent extremism, and that engagement with non-violent extremists can be used to tackle violence. He is joined in this view by Dominic Grieve, the attorney general, and Charles Farr, the head of the office of security and extremism. Reportedly, the Conservative chairman, Baroness Warsi, strongly disagrees with this latest strategy but has been dissuaded from publicly criticising it.
This is not a totally new idea: the Prevent scheme has been securitising and alienating the entire Muslim community for many years.
There are several fundamental problems with the scheme and the thinking behind it. Termed a “community-led approach to tackling violent extremism”, the scheme directs resources to various Muslim organisations. However, local authorities have been allocated funding in direct proportion to how many Muslims are in the area, rather than in relation to the threat of extremism. This sets up the UK’s entire Muslim population of two million people as a suspect community — there is an inbuilt assumption that all Muslims are potential terrorists (I can already predict the comments below this article, so I will point out here that the vast majority of these Muslims live peacefully, and it is equally short-sighted as assuming that all Irish Catholics are in the IRA).
A report by the Institute of Race Relations on the scheme, Spooked, shows the profoundly damaging effect that this has had. Prevent-funded organisations become increasingly wary of the expectations on them to provide the police with information. Worryingly, anecdotal evidence in the report shows that youth workers are not just expected to report on people likely to turn to violence, but sometimes just those who express a strong disagreement with, for instance, British foreign policy.
The atmosphere promoted by Prevent is one in which to make radical criticisms of the government is to risk losing funding and facing isolation as an ‘extremist’, while those organisations which support the government are rewarded. This in turn undermines the kind of radical discussions of political issues that would need to occur if young people are to be won over and support for illegitimate political violence diminished. The current emphasis of Prevent on depoliticising young people and restricting radical dissent is actually counter-productive because it strengthens the hands of those who say democracy is pointless.
This situation is ludicrous and dangerous. There is a crucial distinction between non-violent and violent extremism, and the importance of that distinction should be plain for anyone to see. The views of non-violent extremists may be abhorrent; but part of living in a free society is the right to hold variant opinions. Criminalising people for holding distasteful views does not only run counter to the principle of a democratic state, it also undermines the very purpose of the scheme, by alienating non-violent extremists and pushing them further and further away from the mainstream.
The review was a vital chance to rectify this Orwellian situation. It is a shame that this has been missed.