This article is a preview from the Spring 2016 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

The officer didn’t speak in the school council meeting; just sat in, listening and observing, taking notes.

The dispute over the prayer room had been running for a year. The school authorities at the London Academy of Excellence, a top-ranked sixth form in London’s Stratford with a Muslim majority student population, said there was no space for pupils to say Friday prayers. For a period, students booked a hall, and were asked to submit the content of the prayers in advance to ensure they followed the school’s core values. A teacher supervised the sessions. “They don’t watch you at any other prayers,” says Zahra (not her real name), a student active in the campaign for a prayer room. Soon students could no longer book the hall for prayers; some are content to get on with their studies, but a small group has continued to lobby for a prayer room, taking steps fairly standard for a school dispute: raising it with the school’s senior leadership team, organising a petition.

Events took a twist when a “Prevent officer” – usually either a police officer or an employee of the local authority with responsibility for countering extremism – was called into the school. For students, the officer’s presence felt ominous, an implication of something more than a dispute about a prayer room going on. “It could have been resolved within our college,” says Zahra. “We feel threatened by Prevent. On other visits, they’ve mainly been targeting students who are bearded or wear the hijab or jilbab. It makes students feel isolated.” Whatever your views of public prayer, there is something peculiar about an external official being called to observe an internal school matter.

Since summer 2015, under the government’s updated Prevent strategy, schools, prisons, local authorities and NHS trusts have been under a legal obligation to “have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism” and spot signs of radicalisation. All teachers at state schools are now obliged to undergo Prevent training. Theoretically, this covers far right and animal rights activism as well as Islamic fanaticism, but 75 per cent of all referrals to Prevent relate to the latter, perhaps unsurprisingly given the global context of the war on terror and a domestic political discourse that posits Islamic violence as the biggest threat to our security.

Trainers stress that this new obligation is simply safeguarding. Some teachers feel comfortable with this. (“In our training, we were told: ‘It’s as sinister as you make it’,” one teacher told me). But others are more concerned. “I do have a responsibility for students’ safety, but some of the language suggests surveillance, which is something teachers would never normally have to do,” another said.

Some report Prevent training that identifies signs of radicalisation that could simply be signs of faith: growing a beard, wearing a hijab. The scope for misinterpretation is huge. “One student started to wear a hijab in the month of Ramadan, and she was asked questions about her views on ISIS,” says Zahra. “Everything is taken out of context.”

Prevent has been in place since 2006, changing with the times. It starts with a reasonable assumption: that we want to stop terrorist attacks before they happen. Prevent’s supporters would argue that the scheme has done vital work to further that goal. Its critics would counter that, instead of ensuring Britain’s safety, Prevent has cast all Muslims as potential terrorists and overreached the appropriate role of government. On both sides, misinformation and alarmism abound – and the lack of transparency around Prevent means there is no independent verdict on its effectiveness.

After the coalition took over in 2010, it recognised the toxicity of the Prevent label, and relaunched it the following year, reiterating the need to counter not just terrorism and violence but “extremist ideology”. Extremism is defined by its distance from mainstream opinion; therefore it is difficult to pin it down. The government’s definition, in the 2015 legislation, includes “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”. It also includes calling for “the death of members of our armed forces”. Most people are probably agreed that we don’t want to live in a society where a large number hold anti-egalitarian, bigoted views. Yet censuring people for their opinions – however abhorrent they may be – is dangerously close to the prohibition of thought crimes.

Since the establishment of ISIS’s caliphate across the Iraq-Syria border in 2014, the British government estimates that around 800 Britons have left for Syria. Other organisations estimate the number is closer to 2,000. The terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, orchestrated by a returnee from the Syrian conflict, illustrated the danger returning fighters can pose. Any government would design a policy response. But is this the right one?

* * *

On Thursday 7 July 2005, four young men travelled to London from their homes in northern England and detonated three bombs in quick succession on London Underground trains across the city. A fourth was detonated on a bus. Fifty-two people were killed and more than 700 injured. The country was already embroiled in war in Afghanistan and Iraq, but this attack was committed by British citizens, born and raised in the UK. It brought the question of domestic counter-terrorism to the forefront.

In the wake of the bombings, Tony Blair’s government assembled a taskforce including a wide range of Muslim voices, conservative and liberal. It concluded that the solution to extremism lay in tackling issues that affected Muslim communities: inequality, discrimination, deprivation and foreign policy.

But when Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) was launched as a formal policy in 2007 (as one element of the wider “Contest” counter-terrorism strategy), its emphasis was very different. Government guidance to councils did not mention tackling inequality, instead stating: “Preventing violent extremism in the name of Islam must, first and foremost, be about winning the struggle for hearts and minds. Winning hearts and minds will take significant efforts by Muslim communities to tackle the pernicious ideology being spread by a small minority of extremists.”

A 2009 report by the Institute for Race Relations (IRR) compared Prevent funding with census data, finding “a strong correlation between the amount of Prevent funding provided and the number of Muslims in that area”. The conclusion? Money was not allocated “according to identifiable risks of violent extremism but in direct proportion to the number of Muslims in an area.” At best, this was a blunt approach to a complicated problem. At worst, it paints all Muslims as potential suspects.

In the first instance, money frequently ended up going to community projects aimed at Muslims, not targeted counter-terrorism work. With funding for “community cohesion” cut and councils with significant Muslim populations compelled to take Prevent funding, many carried on funding similar projects: youth work, theatre projects, imam training, women’s empowerment projects.

This type of work has the potential to be highly effective. “Youth work is all about empowering young people to be active citizens,” says Arun Kundnani, author of the IRR report and a later book, The Muslims Are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror. “Before Prevent even existed, there were Muslim youth workers who had identified polarised attitudes about violence amongst some young people in the community they were working in. They did some good work. Youth work is seen as a waste of money, but it’s good at precisely this kind of thing.”

There were two main public criticisms: firstly, that the work being funded was too soft and insufficiently targeted, and secondly that the criteria for funding was so loose that non-violent extremist groups could benefit. Haras Rafiq is managing director of the counter-extremism thinktank Quilliam, founded by former extremists in 2007, the same year that PVE was formally launched. “What we found was that local councils took the money and used it for social cohesion rather than preventing violent extremism,” Rafiq says. “In some cases, they even started giving money to mosques, painting walls. In rare cases, the groups that were meant to be targeted ended up being beneficiaries of the money.”

In March 2009, the Brown government published Contest 2, a revised counter-terrorism strategy. Rather than simply challenging “violent extremism”, this committed to challenging “extremism”. From the outset, the definition of extremism was unclear. In the modern context it tends to refer to Salafi or Wahhabi interpretations of Islam. These are often defined less by specific attributes than by their opposition to the equally nebulous “moderate” Islam that is deemed compatible with western values. This lack of clarity is a persistent problem with the official approach.

The new focus on directly challenging extremist ideas meant that community development work had to explicitly promote “British values” and reject anti-western views. For many, this felt like a vital discussion was restricted. “The space to explore this anger, get the ideas out in the open, and talk about the alienation young people were feeling, anger with the state, with the military – that shut down,” says Aisha (not her real name), who ran a Prevent-funded project in Bradford. “Not only that, if a kid expressed certain views about British government policy, those deemed ‘extreme’, there was an expectation we’d have to report them.”

In February 2009, a BBC Panorama programme reported that Prevent projects were being used to “trawl for intelligence”. The government responded that “any allegation that Prevent projects are a cover for spying on people is completely untrue”. Yet there is strong evidence that the line between Prevent and the policing and surveillance strand of Contest has been blurred from the outset. Managers of projects funded by Prevent in its earliest stages reported pressure from police. “We have had a host of requests from the police to collude with them, for example asking us for names of people at meetings, and things like ‘oh, can you just have a conversation with …’,” one manager of a northern youth project told the IRR in 2009. “When we refuse, we have been told by the police that ‘you are standing in our way’ and they have tried to undermine our organisation.” Many organisations began to reject Prevent funding, which was seen as dirty money. Emblematic of this blurring of boundaries was 2010’s Project Champion, when police put up CCTV cameras in Washwood Heath and Sparkbrook, predominantly Muslim areas of Birmingham. The cameras, paid for by a counter-terrorism fund, were widely seen as an attempt to spy on Muslims. Amid public outrage, police removed them.

As well as engaging in a widespread mapping exercise of Britain’s Muslim communities, the government was now explicitly inserting itself into a battle of ideas against Islamic extremism. Since 2009, as the government has funded and empowered what it deems to be “moderate” Muslim voices, civil society has ceased to be a neutral space. Along with widespread anger about the surveillance aspect of Prevent, this has hastened the polarisation of the extremism debate. The mere mention of Quilliam, an organisation closely allied to government policy, prompts suspicion, if not downright condemnation, from many Muslim Britons. At the other end of the spectrum, CAGE UK, the civil liberties organisation which has represented Guantanamo detainees and challenged aspects of surveillance, is seen by many as a front for religiously conservative, even extremist views.

“The big question is: what do you call extremist ideology? How do you define that?” says Kundnani. “And are you able to demonstrate that there is a fairly mechanical relationship between extremist ideology and terrorists?” The word “radicalisation” proliferates in political speeches, news broadcasts and policy documents, but no one has a clear definition of what it entails; what the exact factors that lead people to carry out acts of violence are. There is no typical home-grown terrorist. Some are deprived and alienated, yes, but others are well educated and to all appearances, integrated. Some are devoutly religious, others barely at all, displaying only a rudimentary knowledge of theology. Ideology certainly plays a role, but there is no academic consensus about how significant that role is. This ambiguity translates into an inconsistent approach when public officials are asked to spot early warning signs. “There’s no academic model that gives you that kind of predictive power,” says Kundnani. “The whole programme rests on this assumption that there is.”

* * *

May 2008. Rizwaan Sabir, a 22-year-old postgraduate student, was at home in Nottingham when the police arrived to take him into custody. It was 12 hours before anyone told him what he was accused of. When they did, it was mystifying. He was being held for downloading an Al Qaeda training manual, a document he was using for his postgraduate study of terrorism. It is freely available on US government websites, from Amazon and high-street bookshops.

Sabir spent six nights and seven days in solitary confinement. His home was raided and searched. His property was seized. Then he was released. “My entire life was turned upside down,” Sabir told me. “I was completely baffled – why on earth was I being arrested, interrogated, having my home raided, based on possession of a document I’m using for my research? It was baffling to me how a book was being used to prosecute somebody for terrorism.”

In 2011, Sabir was awarded £20,000 damages for false imprisonment by Nottinghamshire Police. He also won a correction to intelligence files being held on him.

The incident was not under the auspices of the Prevent programme, but it foreshadowed things to come. In September 2015, Mohammed Umar Farooq, a postgraduate student of counter-terrorism at Staffordshire University, was reported for reading a textbook, Terrorism Studies, in the college library. A Prevent officer intervened, asking Farooq about his attitudes to ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Unsettled, he left the course.

Sabir, now a lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University specialising in counter-terrorism, believes that what is happening today is more insidious and widespread than his arrest. The Prevent programme has mutated; funding for youth projects, community development work and the associated surveillance has dwindled. The emphasis now is on targeted interventions under “Channel”, the government’s secretive deradicalisation programme. There have been 4,000 referrals since 2012, half of them for under-18s, with the youngest a three-year-old.

“The effect on the individuals subjected to this policy, in this case Muslims, is the same: self-censorship, the dissemination of fear, the closing down of debate and discussion,” says Sabir. “When you’re arrested, you know you’re being subjected to coercion, whereas when you subject individuals to Prevent, it’s a hidden form of power. It’s more perverse, and it’s a lot harder to track and trace.”

A phrase often used in policy circles is “the pre-criminal space” that those vulnerable to radicalisation occupy. By definition, someone in “the pre-criminal space” is not a criminal. Horror stories abound of the state getting it wrong, particularly since the new statutory obligations: the 14-year-old boy grilled about ISIS after discussing environmental terrorism in a French lesson; the ten-year-old questioned by police after writing that he lived in a “terrorist” rather than “terraced” house. In a speech in July 2015, David Cameron declared: “What we are fighting, in Islamist extremism, is an ideology.” But it is not at all clear that governments can accurately identify, based only on their opinions, who will go on to commit an act of terror.

For Rafiq, the logic is obvious. “Yes, not all Islamists are violent. That’s something we have to recognise. But all Islamist terrorists have been Islamists. We believe that the British National Party is a problem for society. We should believe therefore that Islamism the ideology is a problem for society as well.”

This ideology is regressive, totalitarian and bigoted. But when the state moves beyond prohibiting hate speech and incitement to violence, and instead begins to distinguish between ideas that can be freely expressed and ideas that cannot, we enter murky territory. “In the past of course we had legislation that made it a criminal offence to be a terrorist, but for the first time now, we have legislation saying it’s a criminal offence to be an extremist,” says Kundnani. “You can under criminal law find your bank account shut down, find yourself removed from the country, find yourself unable to function in British society. Let’s be honest about that. That’s criminalising people for their opinions.”

There is anecdotal evidence that the effects are rippling beyond Muslims towards a general dampening of free speech in schools and universities. A-level students across the country report having proposed topics for language oral exams, on subjects such as the Iraq War and the abolition of the monarchy, rejected by schools, because of anxiety that these topics might violate Prevent guidelines. “To what extent can students speak against the government?” says Yasmin, a teacher in Essex. “Is it just Muslims being targeted or can students not say certain things at all?”

The relationship between extremist beliefs and violence is anything but clear. What makes some people read about ISIS and commit heinous acts of violence within the year, while others espouse Islamist ideology for a lifetime without ever carrying out a terrorist act? Academics point out that that there is no clear statistical link; and many of those travelling to Syria know little about religion. Ideology plays a role, certainly, but so do a myriad of social factors: alienation, teenage rebellion, social deprivation, racism. The tinderbox of violent ideology has been around for ever; a specific set of circumstances combines at a given historical moment to set it alight. An effective policy would consider all of this. But Prevent’s trajectory has been to move steadily away from a holistic approach, towards a futile attempt to stamp out “bad” ideas entirely.

* * *

On its own terms, is the Prevent scheme a success? It is difficult to judge, given the lack of transparency. The government claims the Channel programme is highly successful, but data is not released, so there is no independent assessment. If Prevent is supposed to reach Muslims, it is an unadulterated failure. In December 2015, the Times reported that less than a tenth of tip-offs to Prevent came from within Muslim communities. This was spun to suggest that Muslims were aiding and abetting terror; but scratch below the surface, and it speaks to a wide-ranging disillusionment with the programme.

Rafiq blames what he calls the “Preventing Prevent” lobby for spreading misinformation. “I’ll bet you most of these Muslims who say they feel targeted don’t actually know anything about Prevent. They don’t know about the legislation, the counter-extremism strategy, they’ve just read something or been bombarded with social media that Muslims are now the new fifth column. The reality is that the legislation is not unfairly targeting Muslims at all.” Many would take issue with this, citing Prevent’s many high-profile blunders as a legitimate cause for anger.

“For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens, ‘As long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone’,” David Cameron said in May 2015. “It’s often meant we have stood neutral between different values. And that’s helped foster a narrative of extremism and grievance.” The argument is that in the face of a terrible global threat, the government cannot stand by. But there is no point taking action that is ineffective; and if anything fosters a narrative of grievance, it is closing down debate and targeting people who obey the law. Kundnani suggests a return to grassroots community action. “I do believe there are alternatives, such as youth work – they don’t sound very tough, and they don’t sound focused on Muslims. But they are much more likely to work.”

If you look beyond the inflammatory rhetoric on both sides of the increasingly sclerotic debate, the issues raised by critics of Prevent are not a simple narrative of victimhood. They focus on universal values of freedom of speech, transparency in government policy, and the correct parameters of state action. The very values that Prevent sets out to enforce – ones that our government claims as British, but might better be treated as universal – are undermined by its implementation.