The leaks of the government-commissioned review of the Prevent strategy demonstrate what a cynical exercise it is. In what is the latest Tory gift to the far-right, the threat of neo-nazism is set to be downgraded despite mounting evidence to the contrary, while social justice campaigns will be targetted, revealing the extent to which extremist views are being brought into the mainstream.
The recent deadly and racist attack at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York is a clear indication that the ideology ‘the great replacement’ which says that ‘foreigners are a demographic threat’ is gaining traction among white supremacist groups. Much has been posited as to how the attacker was drawn towards violence in the days since, as often happens after incidents of violence such as these. Digging into his ideology, the concept of ‘the great replacement’ comes up time and time again.
This conspiracy that minorities are seeking to overthrow majority white populations in the West has given rise to far-right reaction across the global North. The ideology appears in the manifestoes of far-right attackers who see themselves as defending the West against the threat of racialised people. A lot of attention has been cast on US news presenter Tucker Carlson and Fox News as spreading this rhetoric in the US, but less attention is being placed on its proponents in Britain.
One prominent voice is the independent reviewer of Prevent, Sir William Shawcross, who has repeatedly made dangerous comments on Islam, Muslims and migrants. In 2010 he spoke about how an ‘immigration free for all’ has led to ‘hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants’, of how multiculturalism has led to the persecution of Christians in Britain and espoused nonsense about Labour being in awe of Islamism. This is before the infamous quote in 2012 for which he is most remembered: ‘Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future. I think all European countries have vastly, very quickly, growing Islamic populations…’ – thereby summoning up the central theme of the Great Replacement: the foreigner as a demographic threat.
During Shawcross’s tenure at the Charity Commission, Muslim charities constituted a quarter of its investigations at points, despite numbering just over 1% of charities. In their 2014 report Muslim Charities: A suspect sector, think-tank Claystone revealed that soon after Shawcross joined, the Charity Commission created a new ‘extremism and radicalisation’ code without any criteria, and labelled 55 charities with this code without their knowledge (and so without recourse to repeal it).
It is exactly this sort of throttling of the civic space that Shawcross has brought to his role as a government appointed ‘independent reviewer’ of the Prevent programme. After dropping their first appointee due to a legal challenge, the Government demonstrated their unwillingness to seriously engage with civil society by appointing Shawcross, leading to a boycott by human rights groups including Amnesty International, Liberty and many more, as well as 400 Muslim groups who refused to engage with the review, in a truly unprecedented coalition.
The coalition has also been demonised by David Cameron, who fronted a Policy Exchange report that lambasted those who criticise Prevent.
The Prevent review has long been criticised for matters that highlight a distinct lack of professionalism and care on the part of the government—from appointment to narrow terms of reference to missing numerous deadlines.
Yet, leaks this week in The Guardian reveal just how deeply corrupted by political influence the Shawcross review is: the review is expected to say that the definition of ‘neo-nazi’ has been stretched too far to target ‘regular’ right wing behaviour, while the nebulous definition of Islamism has apparently been narrowed too much.
The review will therefore signal a retreat from the supposed ‘equal opportunity counter-extremism’ approach undertaken by security services of the last six years, towards an explicit focus on Muslims—at the behest of a man who deems Muslims an existential threat to Europe. On its face this itself is a gross inversion of reality—but days after the Buffalo attack, the revelation that the UK government is likely to support a report that would see ideas like the great replacement continue to spread hate is stomach churning.
While we should be under no illusion that Prevent is a solution to the growing far-right threat, to have the Prevent review serve as a vindication for the British far-right is particularly dangerous.
Some of the additional leaks from the report call for a lowered threshold for referrals. As indicated by The Times, security services will take greater control of the Prevent process, doing away with the figleaf of a police-pastoral partnership that it has long operated behind.
Shawcross appears to have assumed his current role with the same zeal as his tenure at the Charity Commission, suggesting the insertion of vague criteria in Prevent for targeting those who pose no threat but are ‘[creating] an environment’ within which a threat could arise. Shawcross’s review could lead to the mass referral of children, especially Muslim children, to the programme in even greater numbers than it does now. The Children’s Rights International Network as well as the People’s Review of Prevent recently concluded that Prevent is infringing the rights of children and should be scrapped.
Given Prevent has already targeted children in classrooms or retired GPs who join Extinction Rebellion, one can only imagine the horrific stories that will emerge if this paranoia is made policy. The suggestion that Prevent shouldn’t just look at proscribed narratives but ‘Islamist narratives’ is also a terrifying one, given the rampant Islamophobia apparent across the social, political and media sphere which will feed subjective assertions.
Rather than listening to the voices of inquisitive young people, the Shawcross review looks set to suggest they should be referred to counter-extremism as one of the prongs of a culture war seeking to create a generation of compliant young people. With their curriculums overturned, attempts to teach actual history barred, it seems attempts are being made to terrify these young people who took to the streets for Black Lives Matter, climate change and Palestine.
The growing community coalitions emerging against Prevent and programmes like it are a sign of resistance to insidious forms of surveillance. From facing down immigration vans trying to deport their neighbours in Edinburgh and London to challenging legislation giving policy immunity from recordings across the Channel. Shawcross’s report will give the far-right more space to spread their vitriol, it must be resisted.