‘Prevent’, the policy, is a verb masquerading as a noun. Prevent is short hand for ‘preventing violent extremism’. Its problem is that it appears to attempt to prevent a lot more than that. Prevent is a negative. It expresses what needs stopping not what needs starting. Prevent is lost in fear. It leaves a vacuum in its lack of positive proposal beyond the assumed absolutes of “British values”. The main value being our shared love of vague notions that transcend most borders anyway. If we are all expected to play a part – this needs addressing.
It’s all very confusing. Obviously, I have no issue with schemes that seek to reduce the chances of people buying into ideologies that might lead them to committing horrific, tragic acts of violence. The confusion, the conflict, the mess, the mistrust lies in many ways in the scheme’s foggy targets. In order to prevent you need to be clear what it is you are moving away from, and have a clear idea of the space to move into.
The only thing Prevent explicitly seeks to prevent is ‘extremism’, qualified by the adjective ‘violent’. Extremism is relative to wherever one of its possible opposites, moderation, is seen to reside. But other possible opposites are ‘conservative’ or ‘indifference’. Conservatism, in a religious sense, can easily be viewed as extreme. As can patriotic, cultural conservatism. There’s also ‘indifference’ (which is arguably often where the problem begins). Maybe a better opposite to the designated ‘problem’ extreme – is a multitude of extremisms. But what is ‘the’ extreme?
We have moved into a digital age in which niche extremisms can flourish in their own pockets of media. Extremities are everywhere. They are not necessarily problems beyond areas of disagreement, difference, divergence. Divergent ways of living, traditions and world views. Much as it’s ever been. Is the ‘extreme’ the bit that is violent – or proscribes violence? If so the problem is those that are vulnerable to acting on specific ideas to bring a violent fantasy into reality. From a police perspective this is where Prevent, or rather counter-terrorism works – at least where calls from concerned friends and family actually gain a response, and jihadists aren’t used as strategic tools. But that’s another conversation. The mess of Prevent is where we attempt to prevent the extreme that comes before, mainly because it’s never been clear – from ‘Islamist’ to ‘far right’ – which extremes these are.
Here’s a suggestion that unites both. It’s the fetishising of conflict based on a false narrative of division and cultural absolutes. It starts with Samuel Huntingdon’s Clash of Civilisations and it runs through the Alt –Right, Donald Trump, Wahhabism, Zakir Naik, absolutist notions of the Judeo-Christian West or the nation state – and on to apocalyptic, epic religious visions of global war. This conflict fetish is growing and growing fast. But you don’t have to look for it. It’s in mainstream opinion, the political rhetoric of war as well as specific Mosques, grand conferences, bedrooms and internet forums. It doesn’t necessarily lead to violent acts of non-state terror, if it did terror would be rife, but it is the underlying and fixed ideological thinking behind the other necessary ingredients that facilitate it.
If Prevent is about more than just those who fulfil the whole package, it needs to encourage people not just to move out of this zone, but into one that engages with other extremes of all kinds. That engages with dialogue, pluralism and political discourse. That buys into a multitude of views and possibilities not a singular alternative of moderation, conservatism or disinterest. Instead we get invites to come back to the empty space of emasculated, alienated confusion from which people sought escape. You were right; it was a battle between Western values and Islamic ones – you just chose the wrong side. You were right; religion does provide a panacea to all life’s ills – you just chose the wrong interpretation.
Meanwhile we leave the preachers unchallenged for their role in it all, because we don’t call out the violence in the fantasy unless they explicitly call for violence. Katie Hopkins crossed this line. Douglas Murray comes close. Arrested Jihadists have been explicit and engaged, but other preachers may simply churn out the theory but not the call to violent action. These ideologies are best defined as those that can only exist through their enemies. ‘Cultural Marxists’, ‘Jews’, ‘Muslims’, ‘The West’, ‘Christians’, The ‘House of war’, the ‘Kuffar’. Islamic terrorism has been effective in gaining instant converts who think they’re opponents. Across the nation people are converting in their droves to the self-same ideology of conflict. Everything comes down to a war between Islam and the West you say? That war has begun you say? We must drive this backward ideology from our shores and we shall start by adopting it wholesale. We can join together to perpetuate the idea of a self and group that is empty and lost for words without the other. Mutually reliant enemies. Brothers in conflict. The ideology is actually the arena which hosts the fight, not the fighters.
The internet allows this arena to gain endless confirmation. And I have no doubt that anti-Muslim terror is going to increase – a cursory glance at certain corners of You Tube or social media shows the frightening face of Islamophobia. Meanwhile the redefining of Islam defined against a simplified, black and white concept of a morally corrupted Western culture continues to gain increasing popularity via new waves of absolutist thinking.
If that’s the extreme, what of others? The belief system (and late night exorcisms) of the Nigerian church next door is extreme to me. Believing in angels and winged horses is extreme to me. The Orthodox Jews of Stamford Hill are extreme to me. But none of this threatens to distort my reality through violent interruption and forced division. The conflict fetishists, seeking meaning and masculinity in an invented war, do. An honest Prevent would have to challenge this narrative at every level. From preachers in mainstream organisations, to journalists in mainstream papers, to politicians and world leaders. Challenge and call out in order to prevent the consequences of violence. Offer alternative visions, offer the potential to engage with ideas, to argue, to listen, to propose. It would then have to encourage us to move from absolutes to uncertainties – for that is where we are strongest, and least susceptible – when we can wear our vulnerabilities. If you want to stop people defining themselves by what they are not, they need to engage with the reality of the modern day ‘we’. Complex, challenging but positive and yes, preventative in its bold ambition.
Each terror attack helps perpetuate conflict narratives. Prevention is absolutely necessary – but so are ideas, disagreements, dialogue, and actions. We are not at the end of history we are at a new beginning. With increased interconnection comes an increased yearning for the clear, simply defined divisions of history and fiction. The reality is a complex, interconnected pluralism. We need honesty about the challenging differences across and within groups, families, religions and nations. We need to de-categorise not re-categorise.
Prevent needs to know what it’s preventing and open new doors. Prevent needs to prevent by creating. That starts with creating dialogue.