Last Saturday, Nazir Afzal OBE, Former Chief Crown Prosecutor for the North-West of England and Chief Executive of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, spoke to The Times. Afzal confirmed the findings of much of our previous research, namely that a host of organisations within the Muslim community have been conspiring to undermine trust in the government’s Prevent strategy, first developed by the Home Office in 2003 as part of its wider CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy.
He said there has been the rise of an “industry” of Islamist organisations such as CAGE and Prevent Watch which spread “myths” about the government’s counter-extremism initiatives. In particular, he focused on unrepresentative community leaders who have drawn on grievances and a narrative of victimhood to downplay the threat of radicalisation within the Muslim community. He noted that the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) – a body purporting to represent the British Muslim community – said nothing about this subject, or the phenomenon of young British Muslims joining ISIS in Syria, during its annual general meeting held last year.
Afzal stressed that regardless of background, “We all have a responsibility to stand up for British values and the rule of law.” He rightfully emphasised the grassroots nature of Prevent, and its success at stopping 150 people travelling to Syria, including 50 children. He was also keen to point out that Prevent does not criminalise those individuals judged to be at risk of radicalisation who are referred to agencies or support workers as part of the Channel programme.
Most seriously of all, in a subsequent opinion piece written for The Daily Mail, he has echoed the Prime Minister by claiming that there is too much “tolerance of extremism” throughout British society. He suggested that young British Muslims need to be engaged by other young people. He added that de-radicalisation programmes should be concentrated in schools and colleges rather than mosques.
His comments carry extra weight because of the wealth of experience he has within the CPS, where he has served with distinction over the course of three decades. As well overseeing criminal prosecutions over the whole of Greater Manchester and the North-West, he played a major role in tackling incidents of honour-based violence, domestic violence, forced marriages, sexual exploitation and child grooming.
It was precisely because of these achievements that he was awarded an OBE in 2005 for his public service and was named Legal Personality of the Year by the Society of Asian Lawyers, which represents around 15,000 professionals. He has also appeared in the Asian Power 100 and Muslim Power 100 lists.
Predictably, representatives of organisations such as CAGE and Prevent Watch have begun to criticise Afzal, accusing him of not being “impartial” and of spouting “propaganda”.
We at Student Rights believe that no one could accuse Afzal in good faith of being an anti-Muslim bigot or a racist. His judgement is informed by specialist knowledge, professionalism and decades of experience in the legal profession as well as an abiding concern for the issues affecting vulnerable members of his own community.
Less than two weeks after the bombing in Manchester, and merely hours after his interview with The Times, attacks at London Bridge and Borough Market claimed seven lives and injured another 48. These latest tragic events, and Afzal’s prescient comments, remind us of the tireless importance of working with the peaceful majority of the Muslim community to sideline extremists and stop others from being radicalised in future.
Prevent is not above legitimate criticism, but is certainly undeserving of the inaccurate and politicised attacks it has been subject to by CAGE and Prevent Watch, or indeed representatives from the National Union of Teachers (NUT), National Union of Students (NUS) and University College Union (UCU). After all, some of the workplaces that these trade unions represent – schools and universities – are on the frontline of the battle for hearts and minds within the British Muslim community.
This is where it is imperative to work with, rather than against, the Channel authorities, and where co-operation with Prevent is not an act of ‘selling out’, but a fulfilment of a duty to safeguard vulnerable young people at risk of radicalisation as well as those in danger from radicalised individuals.
If the Prevent strategy is seen as overly divisive, then it is due in no small part to the negative campaigns that have been waged against it since it came into being, especially by those same groups that Nazir Afzal has identified.