The Prevent review feeds a political lie: that fighting the far right lets Islamist terrorists off the hook | Sunder Katwala

William Shawcross’s review of Prevent has been a long time coming. It was not only four years, but also four prime ministers ago that Theresa May’s government committed to an independent review. That had been championed by former counter-terror reviewer Lord Anderson as a way to defuse the polarised debates about the role of Prevent, and encourage more focus on the evidence of what worked in tackling extremism. But the Shawcross review will disappoint those hopes. It is already reheating and repolarising the debate around Prevent, engaging in a stale tug-of-war about which threats from extremism really matter.

The review concludes that Prevent’s definition of Islamist ideology has been “too narrow”, while the parameters of extreme right views have been “too broad”. Shawcross argues that “the most lethal threat in the last 20 years has come from Islamism, and this threat continues”. Pitting the two against each other in this way risks simply relitigating old arguments, as though efforts to contain one of these threats necessarily undermines the other. Brendan Cox, whose wife Jo Cox MP was murdered by a far-right terrorist, tells me that he has little doubt that Islamist-inspired terrorism is currently the most serious threat. “The question is whether in five or 10 years that will still be the case. Are increasing far-right referrals a sign of a growing problem or a temporary issue? Will the ‘incel’ movement become a bigger thing? We don’t know all the answers,” he says. It undermines legitimacy and trust if choices about which threat really matters sound like a fixed ideological position, rather than a response to the shifting intelligence.

And crucially, messengers matter. Shawcross was bound to be a polarising choice. He had vocally defended the detention of suspected al-Qaida militants at Guantánamo Bay, and the torture technique of waterboarding as a necessary response to urgent terror threats. Many critics of the Prevent programme, including Amnesty International and the Muslim Council of Britain, cited Shawcross’s description a decade ago of Europe’s relationship with Islam “as among the greatest, most terrifying problems of our time” as a reason they could not engage with the review. Shawcross attributed his fear to the combination of “all European countries [having] vastly, very quickly growing Islamic populations” and “frighteningly large numbers of … young men turning to radical Islamism”.

Shawcross has not responded directly to the controversy, though his letter introducing himself to Prevent practitioners emphasised that he recognised the vital importance of differentiating Islam from Islamism. The review seeks to observe the boundary, though his earlier comments had badly blurred it. He does insist on the importance of naming the problem as Islamism, and views alternative language such as “faith-based terrorism” as unhelpfully euphemistic. Shawcross offers footnotes naming and shaming Muslims he would like to see excommunicated from any engagement with Prevent. But this would exacerbate a more significant problem – that the government already has a widespread non-engagement policy of ever-shrinking circles of civic Muslim engagement, that is so much narrower than with any other major faith group.

Because Prevent sits on the boundary of hard-edged enforcement and preventive, pre-criminal intervention, alienating those who could carry out the latter creates real problems. “A serious attempt to wrestle with these trade-offs is greatly needed. Sadly this review does not provide it,” says Harvey Redgrave of the criminal justice consultancy Crest. Yet Crest’s research also constructively challenges the political perception that polarisation about Prevent is inevitable. Indeed, Muslim attitudes face parallel caricatures on both right and left. If the right underestimates the breadth of commitment within the community to challenge extremism, the left significantly exaggerates the idea of Prevent as a “toxic brand”. The research demonstrates that most Muslims have never heard of Prevent, that there is broad support in principle for its goals, and challenges as to whether government engages fairly across communities and threats are generally constructive.

‘Home secretary Suella Braverman will use the Shawcross review to redefine what constitutes counter-extremism.’
‘Home secretary Suella Braverman will use the Shawcross review to redefine what constitutes counter-extremism.’ Photograph: Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament/AFP/Getty Images

If we did not have a programme attempting what Prevent aims to do, there would be calls to invent it. But a central question for prevention is what actually works. This review, often rather journalistic in tone, provides disappointingly little evidence about that. Shawcross reports that he visited six of the 79 Prevent-funded civil society organisations. He reviews 15 civic projects, which strengthens his feeling that too few are directly challenging Islamism. He writes that the behavioural insights team(also known as the “nudge unit”) had referenced an overarching review of the impacts of certain projects, but reports that nobody at the Home Office can find it for him. The fragmentary evidence base long predates the Shawcross review, but he makes only the sketchiest contribution to filling the void.

Home secretary Suella Braverman will use the Shawcross review to redefine what constitutes counter-extremism (which might sometimes, ironically, undermine prevention). “Prevent is a security service, not a social service,” she told the Commons. But the Sunak administration will have neither the time nor the bandwidth for a sustained reform agenda before an election. Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper told the Commons that the Shawcross review had been a missed opportunity to build a broader consensus for reform. The next government may need to repeat the exercise. As Brendan Cox suggests: “Next time we review it, let’s please make sure it’s independent.”

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