Preventing violent extremism: stepping out of our echo chambers

For many of those who are aware, Muslim communities included, Prevent is a common sense, social care approach to an ever-growing global phenomenon.

‘Anti-terrorism gate’, Briggate, Leeds, West Yorkshire. These have appeared around the central pedestrian zone since the vehicle ramming attacks in Nice, Berlin and London | Mtaylor848 / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

It is difficult to frame Natalie James’ response to my original article avoiding as it does the very heart of the matter, that there are increasing numbers of young people for whom ideology is a fluid concept and less a ferocious driver for explaining grievances, but a justification – and in some cases a blueprint – for enacting horrific acts of violence. I will take at face value then that Natalie agrees we should be offering the same social and psychological support to these individuals to reduce the risk of harm as we do with those for whom the ideological transmission of a violent ideology has become inseparable from their identity.

Natalie instead raises two other points of discussion: a need to support people who have ‘referred’ a vulnerable person for help and those for whom the very existence of a preventative strategy for counter-terrorism causes anxiety.

On her first point and the case study of ‘Rebecca’, I not only have a degree of empathy but a personal example that might help to explore this issue. After visiting a neighbour’s house, both myself and my partner came away with a palpable sense that the father of the family was sexually abusing his three year old daughter. That we had both come to the same conclusion independently of each other gave additional credence to our concerns. We both agreed that we should tell either the Police or social services. As I worked close to the offices of the Police’s Child Abuse Investigation Unit it fell to me to make that call.

I wrestled with the decision for three weeks. My fear was that if I got it wrong, I might destroy a family by wrongly accusing a man of sexual abuse, but if I didn’t act then I could be responsible for not stopping a child’s perpetual rape and exploitation at the hands of her father. My decision ultimately was led by protection of the individual over and above any potential impact on the family. It remains one of the hardest decisions I have had to make and there was no support or advice to help me navigate this. Owing to confidentiality I still do not know the outcome of this referral, but I remain resolute that I made the right choice.

With, on average, 650,000 children referred annually for safeguarding concerns there are potentially hundreds of thousands of people facing the same predicament as myself and ‘Rebecca’ each and every year. While I agree in principle with the need to offer support for those who make safeguarding referrals, I am slightly cynical when someone exceptionalises referrals for radicalisation over and above all other instances of social harm.

I know from personal experience that the follow up to making a safeguarding referral can be near non-existent, but as someone who has subsequently received referrals, I have always made an effort to reassure the referrer about their decision and to follow up those difficult conversations.

As Natalie rightly notes, sometimes (thankfully very rarely) professionals will get it wrong. With over 1500 vulnerable people successfully supported through the Channel programme since 2012, it would be churlish to condemn an entire policy over isolated mistakes, but we absolutely must reflect and learn from those few tragic errors. Where support is needed for anyone involved, then yes of course it should be made available and I would advocate for a consistent approach across the country.

On Natalie’s second point it is important to acknowledge why Prevent’s early inception was focused on Islamist terrorism; it was a response to the recruitment efforts of al-Qa’ida (AQ), an organisation which explicitly targeted our Muslim communities to further its agenda of political violence. In the wake of the London bombings of 2005, it therefore seemed pragmatic to consult widely with Muslim communities about the best way to tackle the threat from AQ and to offer all necessary resources, efforts and support to the very communities being so ruthlessly targeted.

It is a common trope of critics that Prevent views Muslims as a potential threat, whereas in fact it is now a threat agnostic policy which recognises that a series of underlying vulnerabilities, when coupled with a cognitive opening for violent ideologies and an absence of protective factors, can create an increased likelihood of engaging in violence. I would argue that it’s the perpetuation of these tropes, often by bad faith actors and clumsy media reporting, and not the application of the policy that has led to some maintaining anxiety around Prevent. I would however agree with Natalie that more should be done to challenge this narrative.

There is no doubt that the wider media environment has created an hysteria around Islam that feeds prejudice. I believe that wilfully provocative headlines that sow suspicion have had a deeper impact that goes beyond the initial furore and whose damaging effects on future generations of British Muslims have yet to be felt. But we should not discount the media’s foolhardy use of unrepresentative voices that fuel public anxiety; from the clownish spokespeople for a banned terrorist group, to organisations that have openly praised a prolific al-Qa’ida recruiter such as Anwar al-Awlaki.

In this age of disinformation, those of us who work in this field should be at the forefront of reassuring our Muslim communities about Prevent, but Natalie seems unaware of the significant amount of work already being done by practitioners, academics, civil servants, civil society and even politicians to address these myths and reassure our communities.

It is to Natalie’s credit that she recognises Prevent has indeed “come a long way” in the fifteen years that has passed since its inception and I hope she is surprised by the number of times we agree on the issues she has raised. However, I do think we all sometimes need to step out of our CVE echo chambers and realise that for many of those who are aware, Muslim communities included, Prevent is a common sense, social care approach to an ever-growing global phenomenon.

Mr William Baldet is a Policy and Practitioner Fellow at CARR and Countering Violent Extremism practitioner. See his profile here.

© William Baldet. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

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