Counter-terrorism and education: The PREVENT Strategy as the lesser of two evils?

After 9/11, the terrible 7/7 bombings in London and the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, the so-called ‘war on terror’ is raging on. Faced with pressures to effectively protect and safeguard the population from terrorist groups, in 2003 the British government introduced a new counter-terrorism strategy called PREVENT. 

While involving a wide range of sectors, including education, criminal justice and charities, the PREVENT strategy tries to minimise risks of radicalisation by identifying and engaging with people believed to be at risk of getting drawn towards violent extremism. Indeed, given the inevitable necessity to constrain civil liberties in order to ensure the nation’s security, policies such as PREVENT could be viewed as the lesser of two evils. However, to what extent is it even possible to identify people who might be at risk of becoming involved in terrorism without turning Britain into a police state characterised by the arbitrary use of power and persecutions? How effective has PREVENT really been?

In fact, by focusing on ‘radical’ ideas as being the root motivation of terrorism, PREVENT tends to overlook the real causes of political violence. Various sources have tried to come to terms with the significance of terrorist attacks. Psychological inspired analyses, for instance, seek to explain motivations for terrorism in terms of personality types, mental illness or psychological deviance. Others point to demographic and socio-economic factors in order to determine the causes of political violence. Irrespective of what factors lie at the heart of people’s engagement in terrorism, it is essential to note that, unlike the government’s belief, it is not the power of ideology which causes the violence in the first place. Meaning, while the language of violent jihad may well borrow its vocabulary from Islamic theology to create a useful marker of shared identity and legitimise the involvement of people in terrorist attacks, religious ideology does not cause the action.

On the contrary, as stated by Dr Rizwaan Sabir, Lecturer in Criminology at Liverpool John Moores University, research has shown that terrorism and political violence usually prosper in closed and repressive systems of power. Thus, a lack of political inclusiveness in states, enhanced through a sense of relative depravation and lack of upward mobility within society, might be identified as one of the main drivers of the creation of an environment conducive to terrorism. In accordance with this perspective, Dr Sabir argues that the greatest flaw of PREVENT can be found in its over-collection of information and exaggerated use of intelligence. By placing a legal duty on members of staff to refer and report individuals who might become involved in terrorism or other acts of political violence, the PREVENT strategy is failing to minimise risks of terrorist attacks by trying to treat the symptoms rather than the cause of the problem.

In fact, highlighting its tendency to contribute to a climate of fear, Dr Sabir refers to PREVENT as being highly counterproductive. While creating an environment in which religion, especially Islam, becomes a taboo topic, the government’s counter-terrorism strategy has shut down any possibility of debate and discussion. As emphasised by Rob Faure Walker, former teacher in East London and Researcher at the Institute of Education, focusing on counter-terrorism in schools, PREVENT casts teachers as ‘informants’, forcing pupils to stop openly practicing their religion and engaging in political debates out of fear of being reported.

Hence, instead of improving communication between the Muslim community and members of the government, the attempts to safeguard people from terrorist attacks have led to greater polarisation between Muslims and non-Muslims in British society. In fact, by impeding the possibility of critically reflecting on conflicting views, PREVENT does not only help to maintain stereotypes of Muslims perpetuated in the media; it also exacerbates feeling of social exclusion and thus creates the very conditions that make terrorism more likely.

Thus, with PREVENT doing more harm than good, we might ask ourselves, what can be done in order to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism? Can we actually teach peace?

As emphasised by Mr Faure Walker, in order to win the fight against terrorism, we’ll have to open education up to critical debate and empower pupils with the necessary tools to successfully challenge the existing dogma. In other words, rather than promoting violent subjectivities in discourses of ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’, the only way to prevent people from becoming involved in acts of political violence is by providing them with the capacity for self-reflection and critical evaluation of cultural differences. It is thus through its ability to teach people how to embrace cultural diversity that education can contribute to a more harmonious society.

Marina Zabelina and Anne Siebenaler are editors of the Education Policy Centre, King’s Think Tank.

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