Professor Mohammed Abdel-Haq is Director of the Centre for Islamic Finance at the University of Bolton.
During the Easter weekend, delegates at the National Union of Teachers annual conference in Brighton voted overwhelmingly to back a motion to scrap the UK government’s Prevent strategy.
Prevent is one of the four strands that make up the wider UK counter-terrorism strategy CONTEST, and on 1st July 2015 the Prevent Duty was created which placed a legal obligation on teachers (among others) to help ‘prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’.
Much criticism has been levelled at the Prevent strategy. Many people claim that Prevent is Islamaphobic in nature, that it encourages racial profiling and stereotyping, and that it stops people from speaking about radicalisation for fear they will be reported to the authorities.
These claims are reductionist and over simplify the current counter-terrorism challenges facing Britain.
However, these criticisms are not made unanimously. In schools, colleges, charities and other organisations around the UK, the Prevent Duty has been readily adopted and front line workers are now more confident in their abilities to respond to these very real threats.
Is it therefore sensible to call for the total scrapping of a strategy that has the stated aim of helping to prevent terrorism?
The challenge of extremism
The despicable recent terrorist attacks in Brussels, Paris, Iraq, Pakistan and others demonstrate all too plainly that prevention must be seen as the priority aim of any Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) effort.
It is important to remember that preventing violent extremism does not have a simple solution and that the evolution of Prevent was always going to be an iterative process. It is certainly the case that addressing all forms of violent extremism requires sensitivity, in order to avoid antagonism and exacerbation of these volatile threats.
There are a minority of voices from within our society who advocate extremism and who work relentlessly to spread a message of fear, mistrust and hatred to anyone who is willing to listen.
This must not be allowed to go unchallenged, and in keeping with the Prevent strategy there are a great many people and organisations throughout the UK who are working to ensure that this challenge is made.
It is therefore essential that these positive efforts to counter violent extremist narratives are given the support that they need from all other sections of our society – including teachers.
Appropriate referrals, interventions, and mentoring of at-risk individuals are all positive activities that rely on discretion and tact to help them succeed. Inflammatory headlines, careless language, bad advice and refusals to engage with the wider Prevent picture do nothing to help these discreet efforts.
As described last week by Ben Clayson (Managing Director of Victvs Ltd.) a culture of wilful ignorance about the risks of terrorism in the UK is in danger of becoming commonplace if these types of responses are not redressed.
The answer to the question of who can challenge violent extremism lies with all of us.
A whole-society response
Violent extremism and radicalisation are dangers that are ever-evolving and that can affect each and every one of us.
This does not mean that we should all strive to become counter-terrorism experts, or that we all need to spy on each other’s every move.
But what is required is for the whole society to extend the concept of duty of care to cover extremism and radicalisation.
We need all citizens – not just teachers – to realise the importance of raising concerns about these issues, and for them to feel that they are able to do so in a safe environment.
Preventing Prevent is not an option. People tend to assume that an act of violent extremism ‘couldn’t happen here’, yet the threat posed by violent extremists is evolving and changing at an unprecedented rate. What alternative to Prevent do we have?
When the Prevent Duty does become accepted as a safeguarding obligation – not only in front line professions but also in wider civil society – then perhaps we will be able to present a more unified, supportive and structured response to the extremist narratives that threaten to destroy the lives of vulnerable and innocent people both at home and abroad.