It’s been a busy time for Prevent. The past weeks have been awash with media stories of key Prevent successes.
A high profile legal challenge to the government’s Prevent strategy was defeated at the High Court on 26 July 2017. In late 2016, Salman Butt took legal action against the government. His appeal for judicial review challenged the Prevent duty guidance issued to higher education institutions on the basis of freedom of speech as well as the processes for identifying individuals as extremists. He also accused the Prime Minister’s office of issuing a “defamatory” press release.
Butt is the chief editor of Islam21c, a website which has been described as the “online platform” of the Muslim Research and Development Foundation (MRDF). Islam21c and the MRDF are connected to Haitham al-Haddad, a controversial Salafist preacher who has described Jews as “the descendants of apes and pigs”, claimed that homosexuality is a “great evil and harm to society”, said that cases of domestic abuse should not be investigated and spoken in support of female genital mutilation (FGM). Butt himself has written a piece entitled ‘When will it be right to be Muslim and gay?’ which compares homosexuality to paedophilia.
The High Court rejected Butt’s legal challenge, with the judge dismissing his claims on all counts. He said “understanding why people are drawn into terrorist-related activity, and seeking to prevent them from being drawn into that activity, is a proper and necessary activity of the state” and further clarified that extremism “must in some respect risk drawing others into terrorism before the guidance applies to it”.
His ruling clearly found that the Prevent duty guidance is lawful, balances protection of free expression as well as concerns about safeguarding in higher education. This sends a powerful message to other extremists considering using the law to shut down Prevent.
There has also been evidence of close cooperation between higher education institutions and Prevent. On 1 August, the Higher Education and Funding Council for England (HEFCE) released its assessment of universities’ compliance with Prevent, concluding that 95 per cent of the 313 providers reviewed were demonstrating “due regard to the Prevent duty”. This shows that an overwhelming proportion of British universities are taking appropriate and proportionate steps to meet threats from radicalisation and extremism.
Both the courts and the universities have underlined how Prevent empowers institutions and protects freedom of speech. It cannot be stressed enough that Prevent is about challenging extremist narratives through balanced and open debates.
However, one of the key issues that continues to affect Prevent delivery is the amount of misinformation spread by a minority of political activists and extremist groups. This includes inaccurate claims about events being shut down, supposed instances of surveillance as well as accusations made in bad faith that the policy stigmatises the Muslim community.
The head of the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command, Cdr. Dean Haydon, has said that much criticism of Prevent is based on “ignorance”. He referenced the policy’s successes in stopping vulnerable young people from being radicalised or travelling to Syria, as well as its work in tackling Far-Right extremism. More tellingly, he said that some of these groups “don’t understand properly how Prevent works” and “don’t want Prevent to work in the first place”.
In our estimation, ideological disagreements with the policy are an important factor in the anti-Prevent movement. This was the subject of a major Student Rights report: ‘Preventing Prevent? Challenges to Counter-Radicalisaton Policy On Campus’.
Recent successes demonstrate the legal foundations of Prevent as well as the extent of serious engagement with the policy within law enforcement and higher education. However, as Cdr. Haydon has identified, they also underscore the need to communicate Prevent more effectively to the media and the wider community.
Student Rights will continue to support the vital work carried out by Prevent practitioners. Equally, we will call for continued improvements in the public relations and community engagement side of the strategy. We also want to see greater evidence of coordination between universities and student unions, more balanced speaker events, as well as a sector-wide external speaker policy.