28 October 2020

Why have we let Islamist agitators dominate the counter-terrorism discourse?

By Will Baldet

Is the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy really “toxic”? Some campaign groups and commentators would have you think so. The most visible counter-radicalisation arm of the strategy, Prevent, has come in for particular criticism.

But you don’t have to dig that deep to discover that many of the attacks on Prevent have dubious ideological motivations. The organisation Prevent Watch – linked to Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a group banned in many Muslim-majority countries – has boasted of an orchestrated campaign to ‘toxify’ the name. With an independent review of the supposedly controversial policy due to recommence this year and a terror threat that’s going nowhere fast, what does the public really think?

As it turns out, the claims of toxicity and widespread opposition are overblown. Considerably. New research commissioned by the Home Office interviewed a total of 2,819 adults aged 16+ in England and Wales with additional samples of students, teachers, healthcare professionals and British Muslims – demographics among whom concerns about the policy have previously been expressed. All participants had prior knowledge of Prevent.

The results show that far from the public having no trust in Prevent, 58% have a favourable opinion and just 8% view it unfavourably. When the sample is limited to only British Muslims, that favourability remains identical at 58%. This is significant because critics use their claims to demand the “controversial” strategy be scrapped; this polling illustrates how the negative discourse is dominated by a small but vocal fringe that doesn’t represent the public, but its own political and ideological ambitions.

Nonetheless, there is food for thought for those of us working in this field. The number of people who view Prevent unfavourably almost doubles to 15% for British Muslims, and while still a relatively low figure, it shows there is still work to do. Although, how much of this is down to the anti-Prevent industry and partisan reporting in some sections of the media – which rarely stands up to scrutiny – is hard to say.

In echoes of previous research by Coventry University, the number of students and teachers who felt Prevent has not had a ‘chilling effect’ on freedom of speech was high, at 57% and 52% respectively. However, there was a significant minority of teachers (21%) who felt there has been an impact; this is unacceptably high and highlights an area where we must improve. The volume of those surveyed is also important. Many anti-Prevent activists scrape together minuscule samples (17 people in one, 32 in another) yet still assert their findings should delegitimise our counter terrorism efforts. In total, the ICM research polled nearly 3,000 people.

Research from Crest Advisory conducted last year polled over 2,000 people and tells a similar story: 80% supported Prevent when it was explained to them in unbiased terms. In addition, a study by Aarhus University in Denmark conducted two UK surveys, totalling 1600 Muslims, and found that 53% of respondents agreed with the statement, “I trust the current government to act in my best interest in the area of counter-terrorism”.

Ironically, one recent anti-Prevent paper by academics at SOAS, surveying over 2,000 students, produced results which support the ICM data, finding that a staggering 75% of those students supported Prevent and a meagre 9% opposed it. These inconvenient findings were conspicuously absent in their press releases and media appearances but can be found in the report itself: “It is remarkable that less than 10% of those respondents familiar with Prevent unequivocally condemn this government strategy. Moreover, Muslims are slightly more likely than those of no religion to see Prevent as essential to the security of universities”.

With an increasing number of studies finding majority support for Prevent, it becomes incumbent on politicians and authentic critics to engage in a more nuanced and honest dialogue. A vocal minority of Islamist agitators and their ideological bedfellows have been able to position themselves as representative of larger groups and been allowed to dictate the discourse on counter-terrorism.

Their motivations, tactics and claims deserve much greater scrutiny – as do the biased methodologies they’ve employed to gather evidence. For those of us interested in preventing terrorism and countering radicalisation, these latest results are no excuse to dismiss genuine criticisms or concerns, but they certainly shift the conversation.

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Will Baldet is a Regional Prevent Strategy Coordinator and a Policy & Practitioner Fellow at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.