Posted 14 July 2015. Updated 3 March 2020.
Prevent is one part of the UK Government's counter-terrorism policy. The Government summarises it as follows:
The Prevent strategy:
- responds to the ideological challenge we face from terrorism and aspects of extremism, and the threat we face from those who promote these views
- provides practical help to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure they are given appropriate advice and support
- works with a wide range of sectors (including education, criminal justice, faith, charities, online and health) where there are risks of radicalisation that we need to deal with
The strategy covers all forms of terrorism, including far right extremism and some aspects of non-violent extremism. However, we prioritise our work according to the risks we face. For instance, following the death of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, the Prime Minister is leading a task force on tackling extremism and radicalisation. The special committee, which includes senior members of the cabinet and security chiefs, builds on the Prevent strategy.
From its inception, the Prevent strategy has been criticised by some Muslim community organisations and by some academics. However I have always supported the overall approach, for example in "We all need to prevent violent extremism – nobody can stand idly by".Although that piece was written before the June 2011 refinement of the strategy, nothing in the June 2011 changes caused me to disagree with the strategy.
On Friday 10 July the Independent Newspaper carried a letter with 280 signatories criticising the Prevent strategy in language that I considered ridiculously strident. I gave an instant reaction in a tweet (reproduced lower down) and then wrote a piece for the Conservative Home website, which was published on Sunday 12 July. It is reproduced below.
Mohammed Amin is Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum. He is writing in a personal capacity
I was appalled to read the group letter published on the Independent Newspaper’s website on Friday: “PREVENT will have a chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent – The latest addition to the United Kingdom’s counter-terrorism framework remains fixated on ideology as the primary driver of terrorism”.
It reminded me immediately of the 1981 letter by 364 economists criticising the Thatcher government’s economic policy, and I immediately issued the tweet below.
If you don’t remember the letter, The Telegraph had a short retrospective in 2006 at this link.
Academics queuing to criticise PREVENT remind me of 365 economists denouncing Thatcherism in 1980′s. Just as wrong. http://t.co/Bqkl9MbjvO
— Mohammed Amin (@Mohammed_Amin) July 11, 2015
I am great believer in the wisdom of crowds. However, this requires each individual in the crowd to think independently.
A multiple signatory letter is the exact opposite; someone composes a draft and all that those approached to sign can do is sign or demur. Amending the drafting is normally not permitted.
That is the only explanation for 280 individuals, many of them highly intelligent and knowledgeable people, putting their names below a letter with such woolly drafting and which displays such poor quality thinking as explained below.
I cannot believe that if, as individuals, they had set out to write their own letter from scratch they could possibly have come up with such drivel.
Instead I would expect some of the signatories, whom I know, to compose a cogently argued explanation of why some aspects of the Prevent strategy need revision. No strategy is incapable of improvement.
The short answer is almost everything. The letter attacks an imaginary PREVENT strategy, which is of course easier than attacking the real one. It reminds me of the way some people regularly cite the Conveyor Belt Theory Aunt Sally, which I address at this link.
While every paragraph contains errors, the heart of the letter’s failure is probably in paragraph 2:
“2. The way that PREVENT conceptualises ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ is based on the unsubstantiated view that religious ideology is the primary driving factor for terrorism. Academic research suggests that social, economic and political factors, as well as social exclusion, play a more central role in driving political violence than ideology. Indeed, ideology only becomes appealing when social, economic and political grievances give it legitimacy. Therefore, addressing these issues would lessen the appeal of ideology.”
Whoever drafted this letter has never studied logic, or if they have then they have forgotten it.
A is a necessary condition for B if B is never found without A. Accordingly if you have B, you must have A. That does not mean A causes B. You can have A without having B. It simply means what it says; to have B you must have A.
C is a sufficient condition for D if having C always means that you have D. One would normally say that C causes D, since the existence of C always means the existence of D. That statement does not mean that other things cannot also cause D. They may or they may not, that is an empirical question.
To be precise, in this piece I am writing about violent Islamist extremism, to use David Cameron’s phrase from his Bratislava speech.
In my view “violent Islamist extremism” is best understood as a compound noun (which the Germans would helpfully write without spaces) rather than two adjectives preceding a noun. That avoids arguments about the meaning of “Islamist” which I regard at this link as being too elastic a word.
Paragraph two of the letter pays no attention to the logical issues. It asserts that Prevent “is based on the unsubstantiated view that religious ideology is the primary driving factor for terrorism.”
I am not aware of the government ever putting forward the view that religious ideology is “the primary driving factor.” Nor have I myself ever argued that.
What I have pointed out on many occasions, most recently at this link, is that a particular set of religious views is a necessary condition for violent Islamist extremism.
Before today I have not felt the need to use words like “necessary condition” because I had the naïve belief that my readers could understand English. Obviously not.
Because this religious ideology is a necessary condition for violent Islamist extremism, if you can get rid of the ideology (easier to write about than to achieve) violent Islamist extremism will cease immediately.
Accordingly, one does not need to consider whether the religious ideology is a sufficient condition for violent Islamist extremism. While one does not need to consider that question, I will address it for completeness.
It is obvious that the religious ideology is not a sufficient condition for violent Islamist extremism; one also needs grievances, as the paragraph in question helpfully points out.
However without the religious ideology no Muslim, no matter how strong their sense of grievance, will kill innocent people or kill themselves in a suicide bombing.
The reason is that, unless their religious beliefs have been contaminated by the false religious ideology, they will regard such actions as contrary to the will of God and as actions that will lead to them being condemned to Hell for all eternity.
No strategy is perfect, and there are many challenges in finding an appropriate definition of "non-violent extremism" and in deciding which individuals and groups the Government should engage with. There are also serious questions about how one prevents young people being radicalised.
However whoever drafted the letter has no interest in such questions. Instead they display a level of distrust of the Government's intentions that verges on paranoia, something touched on by Fiyaz Mughal in his piece "Muslim communities must stand tall and engage with the government - The paranoia within sections of Britain's Muslim communities is toxic to integration"
What amazes me is that of the 280 signatories to the letter, many are highly intelligent respectable academics. I simply fail to understand what made them sign such a poorly drafted and ridiculously strident letter. If they wished to critique Prevent, they could have done so far more cogently by writing their own letters.
Since writing the above page, I have received a tweet from a Dr Paul Stott (Twitter handle @MrPaulStott) His blog post of 8 July 2015 [When checked 3 March 2020 it was only available to registered users] explains that he was approached to sign the letter but refused because it was drafted by CAGE and their Research Director Asim Qureshi.
That additional information makes it easier to understand why the text of the letter is so stridently negative.