That terrible summer of terrorist violence that rocked Europe has come to an end. Given those multiple attacks, it may seem strange that the Liberal Democrats – my own party – voted to scrap Prevent entirely at their recent conference. To say that Prevent suffers from a brand deficit, would be a gross understatement. To pretend that it is perfect would be to only add to its troubles. But well-meaning liberal multiculturalists and fearful Muslim community groups should be aware of our allies in the anti-Prevent camp – dogmatic Islamists and far-left agitators – who will never be satisfied with any form of counter-extremism strategy.
This must be the starting point in reforming Prevent, for there are many myths peddled by the dogmatists about Prevent. The widely discredited cliché that Prevent relies on the assumption of a linear trajectory from basic religiosity to extremism – often referred to as the conveyor belt theory – is simply false. It must also be recognised that narrowing radicalisation down simply to foreign policy grievances is a sixth-form style debate technique that may win community applause, but lacks substance. Prevent recognises that the path to extremism is far more complex, involving issues of policy grievance, alienation, identity, and ideology. To smear Muslims supportive of counter-extremist efforts as somehow not Muslim enough, is to be complicit in the far-right narrative that all Muslims are secretly sympathetic to extremists. Outside the dogmatists peddling such myths to deliberately undermine Prevent, there are many who have simply not read the policy and have adopted this propaganda as fact.
But to ‘prevent’ something does bear an inherently negative connotation. Ordinarily this may not be an issue. Preventing climate-change, after all, does not suffer from a similar brand deficit. But here it has come to matter. Based on this reality, we should endorse a change of this strategy’s name, rebooted as the more positive Engage. A relaunched Engage should substitute the troubled term “British values” with the more meaningful, specific and universal term “liberal values”. It should kick off big, setting up a Privacy and Civil Liberties Board to maintain the necessary balance between preventing terrorism and protecting our human rights. This board should raise its concerns through our courts. Overall control for Engage should belong to the Department of Communities and local Government.
Extremism is real. It will be with us for a generation. And it costs lives. It is all of our duty to challenge this extremism. There is obviously more to do in combating any form of bigotry than merely outlawing its violent manifestations. To suggest that nothing should be done beyond law enforcement is as naive as suggesting climate change also be dealt with only through legislation. Some form of national policy designed to curtail extremism is therefore a necessity. It is time for us all to do counter-extremism, better. It is time to reform Prevent. Let us instead Engage.