Children at the Victor Street Mosque in Bradford. ‘Prevent creates a systemic risk of violations of the right to freedom of expression, the right against discrimination and the right to privacy.’ Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian
The problem of “homegrown” terrorism inspired by Islamic State is front and centre of the counter-terrorism agenda in western Europe. In the UK, the government estimates the terrorist threat to be “severe”. It also estimates that about 850 individuals “of national security concern” have travelled from the UK to Iraq and Syria since the conflict there began, and about half of them have returned.
But what is the most effective way for governments to respond to this threat, without undermining the very values of democracy and freedom that they claim they want to defend?
In the UK, this debate has focused, particularly over the past year, on the government’s Prevent programme – which seeks to stop individuals being drawn into terrorism. Since 2015, the so-called “Prevent duty” has in effect required teachers, doctors and other frontline professionals to report individuals at risk of being drawn into violent and non-violent extremism to the police-led “Channel” support programme. Is this the correct and proportional response?
A report released today by the Open Society Justice Initiative, Eroding Trust: The UK’s “Prevent” Counter-Extremism Strategy in Health and Education says that it is not. Based on legal analysis, case studies and numerous interviews, we argue that Prevent is not only unjust but also unproductive.
Prevent’s overly broad definition of extremism – vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values – creates a systemic risk of violations of the right to freedom of expression, the right against discrimination and the right to privacy. Scottish government officials told me that although the term “British values” was in the Prevent guidance, they “don’t ever use that phrase” because “it could be damaging or unhelpful if it endorses a ‘them and us’ mentality”.