LONDON, U.K. — In the more than four years since July 7, 2005, when British-born suicide bombers targeted the London transport system, killing 52 and injuring over 700, Britain’s government has pumped hundreds of millions into its anti-extremism program. The government insists its strategy is the envy of terror-fighting nations, designed to keep the public safe, while still safe-guarding the rights of Muslims.
But the 140 million pound ($230 million) Preventing Violent Extremism (Prevent) program is now facing serious criticism, not just from within the Muslim community, but from civil liberties groups.
Most recently a report in the Guardian newspaper last month said that the program was being used to spy on innocent Muslims. Prevent-funded projects, claimed the paper, are being used to gather general intelligence on Muslims, with police accused of pressuring community workers to provide information on Muslims as a condition of funding.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of the British civil rights watchdog Liberty, told the Guardian that the program is “the biggest domestic spying programme targeting the thoughts and beliefs of the innocent in Britain in modern times.”
The government swiftly disputed the newspaper’s claims. “Prevent is not about spying,” said a spokeswoman for the Home Office, the U.K. equivalent of the U.S. Homeland Security department. “It’s about protecting vulnerable individuals who could be at the risk of radicalization.”
According to the government, the overall strategy marries muscular police and intelligence services with an attempt to cut off extremism at the source, funding community programs to tackle the alienation felt by many young Muslims.
Muslim community workers — and a report out in October from London’s Institute of Race Relations (IRR) — worry that Prevent suffers from mission-creep, with lines blurring between collecting information on potential violent extremists and on the Muslim community more generally.
“It’s not that the police have someone under surveillance, then they ask a youth worker to supplement their information,” said Arun Kundnuni, author of the IRR report. “This is about the mapping of the Muslim community. “They’re asking things about all of the young Muslims: what mosques they go to, what street corners they’re hanging out on, what their views are on foreign policy issues.”
Kundnani cited the case of a community worker in Northern England working on a Prevent-funded project designed to bring together Muslim and non-Muslim youth. The local police force had asked him to pass on the names, mobile phone numbers, and political and religious opinions of the young people he worked with.
“They were asking him to pass on information like, ‘What do the young people think of what’s going on in Gaza at the moment?” said Kundnani.
Some Muslim leaders of community organizations said they felt that Prevent money came freighted with pressure to gather information on the community. “Absolute nonsense,” said the Home Office spokeswoman. “Funding for Prevent Projects is never, ever conditional on information sharing.”
Prevent’s major problem, charged its critics, is its funding structure, which yokes anti-extremist work to broader Muslim community development projects, such as mental health programs and youth services.
“They’re talking about security, and they’re talking about community cohesion, and they are tackling [broader community issues] from the point of view that the Muslim community are all potential terrorists,” said Humera Khan, founder of the British Muslim women’s group An-Nisa.
Linking Prevent money and social service programs stigmatized the entire community, argued a February report from the group: “With all the parallels between the Irish community and the Muslim community, even during the height of the IRA terror campaign in the 1970s the whole Irish community in the U.K. did not get targeted in this way.”
Rather than building community relations, Prevent has the potential to erode them, said its critics. With so much money directed at Islamic extremism, it sows bitterness among other communities, who watch Muslim programs get millions in funding. At the same time, Muslims themselves feel targeted, since Prevent only targets Islamic extremism, not, say, right-wing groups, or Catholic militants in Northern Ireland.
Embedding anti-terrorist works in local community projects merely has the potential to divide communities, said An-Nisa’s Khan: “Security can’t be dealt with at a local level,” she said. “It’s one thing to deal with it at a national level. But once the government starts giving money to local authorities and community groups, it changes the whole nature of it.”