A People-Led Review of the United Kingdom's Prevent Captures Its Abuse of Children
The People's Review of Prevent sheds light on how nefarious the United Kingdom's "countering extremism" policy really is.
📝 Monthly Round-Up
Prevent: We Need to Listen to Those Harmed by UK Counter-Extremism Policy, Layla Aitlhadj — I interviewed Aitlhadj for this article. So, it only seems fitting to highlight her op-ed about Prevent and its impact on children.
Five years on, it’s time to push back against the damage caused by the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan — The Prevent Duty was passed as part of the Counterterrorism and Security Act. Read more on how it has impacted Muslim communities since 2015.
Muslims still bear the stigma of the ‘Trojan horse’ scandal. Maybe that’s what was intended, Nesrine Malik — This op-ed is a reflection on a The Trojan Horse Affair, a podcast on Operation Trojan Horse. Even if you don’t know about the Trojan Horse scandal, this is a good read.
In 2015, the United Kingdom passed the Prevent Duty as part of its Counterterrorism and Security Act. The policy puts a legal responsibility on those in the public sector, including schools and healthcare providers, “to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism” and “look out for signs of radicalisation”. Since then, the Home Office claims Prevent has been “instrumental in turning people’s lives around…and keeping our communities safe”. But a new People’s Review of Prevent rejects narratives that Prevent is saving anybody by shedding light on how nefarious the program is.
Throughout its existence, Prevent, which can be traced to 2003, has surveilled Muslims in every aspect of life. Following rising criticisms over Prevent’s methodology, the Home Office announced a review of the program in Sept. 2019. Layla Aitlhadj, the People’s Review co-author and director of Prevent Watch, an organization supporting those directly impacted, told NAZAR by email, “The Prevent policy is supposed to be independently reviewed by the government in order to ensure that overreach and abuse does not take place.”
There were problems with the Home Office’s plan from the jump. Despite labeling it an ‘independent’ review, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The Home Office originally appointed Lord Carlile to head the effort. In Dec. 2019, Carlile was removed after Rights Watch UK launched legal action over his past support of Prevent. Then, many were dismayed when William Shawcross was appointed to lead the long-delayed report last year.
Aitlhadj described Shawcross as “deeply invested in counter-extremism and connected to Islamophobia networks in the UK and the US.” The Guardian reported that in 2012, while serving as director of the Henry Jackson Society, Shawcross said, “Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future.” And per the People’s Review, Shawcross chaired the Charity Commission “between 2012 and 2018 when it carried out lengthy and discriminatory investigations of Muslim charities”.
Following Shawcross’s appointment, hundreds boycotted the review. In a signed statement, organizations, including the Association of Muslim Lawyers, Muslim Youth Network, and others, wrote, “No serious, objective, critical review can be undertaken by someone with such a track record – rather we should expect [Shawcross] to promote a hardening of policies towards Muslims. So, if Muslim organisations engage with this review, it strengthens its legitimacy and its power to recommend policies more harmful to the community.”
Nobody expected the UK to facilitate a through review of its own policy from the start. But with Shawcross’s appointment, Aitlhadj said, “Everyone agreed that we needed a different process.” Rather than wait for a report from the state, why couldn’t the people draft their own review of Prevent? And it seemed that Prevent Watch was perfect to help with the task.
“We sit on the largest resource of documented Prevent cases and we felt that our contribution to an alternative review would have to focus on the people impacted by Prevent directly, especially young people,” Aitlhadj told NAZAR. With these resources, Prevent Watch assisted in developing the People’s Review which “finally had the voices of these people rather than the voices of the pro-Prevent practitioners who benefit financially.”
Central to the People’s Review is an examination of Prevent’s surveillance of families as the government uses it to “forc[e] their version of what is ‘in the child's best interests’,” Aitlhadj wrote. The report honed in on Prevent’s targeting of youth, especially children, stating Prevent “undermines the proper safeguarding obligations of social workers, teachers and health professionals” by “bringing children and young people under an extraordinarily extensive net of surveillance.”
This is achieved through several ways. For example, before a child is formally referred to a local Prevent Panel, they are interviewed by counter-terrorism officers and social workers. Because the child hasn’t actually done anything and cannot be charged, the entire process operates in a nebulous pre-criminal space. It leaves children uniquely vulnerable as officers don’t have to follow normal safeguards about interacting with them — like notifying a child’s guardian before interrogations.
Take Adam, an eight-year-old in a Prevent Priority Area (PPA) with a large demographic of Muslims, whose interactions with Prevent officials is detailed in the report. During school, Adam was interrogated by two counter-terrorism officers and a social worker. Per the People’s Review, Adam was asked to recite the Qur’an and questioned on the verses meanings. His parents were unaware of the interrogation.
“Children are facing questions from counter-terrorism officers with no adult present to protect them,” Aitlhadj told NAZAR. These officers, she continued, “often ask leading questions or take statements of belief out of context.” The children’s services workers present tend to “take a back seat, thus abandoning their professional and moral judgements while counter terrorism officials take the lead.”
In addition to funneling children into a pre-criminal space, Prevent operates as a form of data criminalization. The review notes that Prevent is “an abuse of individual rights to privacy and the protection of data and information held about them, especially in the case of children.” The report cites eleven-year-old Amir, a South Asian student, as an example. His school made a Prevent referral without alerting his mother. While the official who vetted the referral didn’t take it any further, Amir’s information was still stored in a police database. It took a year for Amir’s mother to get his data removed.
Fundamentally, Prevent abuses children and so it has significant, lasting impacts on them. Young children, Aitlhadj said, “are fearful, mistrustful, and even traumatized by what they have been through.” Prevent Watch has recorded incidents of “bed-wetting, the development of OCD, and also greater than average mistrust of authority.” Among young adults, “students are certainly self-censoring in the classroom, and the unspoken pressure to only practice a certain ‘good’ Islam poses troublesome questions around identity and belonging.”
The above echoes past observations of surveillance’s mental health impacts in the United States. Kameelah Rashad, a psychologist and founder of the Muslim Wellness Foundation, once told me for Teen Vogue, “The constant awareness (or even suspicion) of surveillance leads many to experience increased symptoms of anxiety, depression, hyper-vigilance, fear, difficulty concentrating, denial or dissociation, and an overall pervasive sense of looming danger.”
The surveillance of children and their families by the UK — or any state — is far from new. But by invoking countering extremism, Prevent frames itself as both protecting vulnerable people and necessary for community safety. The question, of course, is which community is made safe by the traumatizing and violation of another. If, as Ayesha Siddiqi tweeted, “every border implies the violence of its maintenance”, that violence is directed at the children caught within, too.
Although Prevent is UK legislation, it reverberates throughout the world. “It is likely that the counter extremism policies in your country are influenced by the UK model,” Aitlhadj told NAZAR. “We know that UK Prevent practitioners are actively traveling the globe to promote it as best practice.”
If Shawcross actually produces a report, it will likely make half-concessions about Prevent’s flaws only to recommend reforms. But, as Aitlhadj reminded, “CE and [countering violent extremism] is a profitable industry, so it should be treated with skepticism.” While the two are “often touted as the best means of ‘preventing terrorism’”, Aitlhadj continued, “they are used at the expense of civil liberties, dissent and the rights of children.”
Prevent doesn’t need a face-lift. Even if the independent review attempts to funnel more money into it, advocates are firm on their stance. As Azfar Shafi, head researcher at CAGE, an organization working to empower communities impacted by the War on Terror, stated in the review’s forward: "[T]he programme must be abolished once and for all.”