Counter Terrorism and PREVENT

David Cameron

Professor Lee Marsden criticises the government’s PREVENT policy and considers the real causes of terrorism

In response to the government’s counter terrorism strategy scores of academics and activists have written a letter criticising the statutory implementation of the PREVENT strategy through the Counter-Terrorism and Security (CTS) Act 2015 (Independent 10 July). The critique comes from many prominent members of the academic and Muslim community. At a time when the government is seeking to strengthen its counter terrorism strategy the arguments put forward deserves closer examination.

The CTS Act puts PREVENT on a statutory footing for public bodies to deter people being drawn into terrorism by tackling extremist ideology and reporting anyone they suspect. The academics’ complaints are that this conceptualises extremism and radicalisation in terms of religious ideology rather than social, economic and political factors. They claim that the focus on ideology will concentrate attention on religious interaction and symbolism, especially appearance, which will increase mistrust of Muslims, presenting Islam as a threat to the West. They fear that PREVENT will be used to silence other forms of political dissent and depoliticise the causes of terrorism. The policy is counter-productive because it will drive debate underground. PREVENT is rejected as a failed policy which should be abandoned and replaced with one based on dialogue and openness.

The letter rightly exposes the failings of a strategy which has demonised Muslim communities in Britain and failed to deter hundreds of young British Muslims leaving the country to live in and fight for Islamic State. It reveals weaknesses in the arguments put forward by government and by default the academics themselves. The letter writers are right about the impact of domestic and foreign policy decision making, something the government is not yet prepared to countenance. And yet even a cursory examination of statements by Islamists engaged in terrorism reveal a political agenda linked to British/Western foreign policy including support for authoritarian regimes across the Middle East. As night follows day drone warfare and extrajudicial executions of suspected terrorists, with the accompanying civilian ‘collateral damage’, leads directly to the recruitment of more terrorists and governmental denial of this damages its credibility.

Unlike the letter writers, however, I do believe that terrorism can be attributed exclusively to socio-economic and political factors of estrangement, poverty and British foreign policy. Listening to the statements of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and his followers there is a clearly stated religious motivation. Abu Bakr offers ‘true Muslims’ the opportunity to join his caliphate enjoying life under sharia. His statements are supported by Qur’anic verses and the hadith and appeal directly to a religious ideology, which is an interpretation of, rather than a perversion of Islam. An interpretation which enjoys significant support across much of the Muslim majority world. It is in recognising this combination of government policy and religious ideology that we can begin to develop a holistic response. Muslim leaders seeking to construct Islam as a religion of peace have a clear role to play in developing a counter narrative to offset the appeal of such radical literalist interpretations of their faith.

Lee Marsden is Professor of International Relations at the University of East Anglia

This post originally featured in the EDP

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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