Q&A: The ‘chilling effects’ of UK’s Prevent strategy on Muslims



Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and freedoms while countering terrorism, shared her insight into the far-reaching consequences of the Prevent strategy on the British-Muslim identity.

Sena Serim


"I gave evidence to the Shawcross Commission and made several recommendations. Yet, none of those were accepted," said UN Special Rapporteur Fionnuala Ni Aolain. / Photo: Reuters
REUTERS”I gave evidence to the Shawcross Commission and made several recommendations. Yet, none of those were accepted,” said UN Special Rapporteur Fionnuala Ni Aolain. / Photo: Reuters

On July 18, the UK government launched the CONTEST 2023 strategy, defining it as “a refreshed approach to the evolving and enduring threat from terrorism”.

This iteration incorporates a series of recommendations put forth by the boycotted Independent Review of Prevent, overseen by the controversial William Shawcross, who’s well known for his neocon views and rabid statements like “Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future”.

TRT World recently spoke with the UN Special Rapporteur Fionnuala Ni Aolain, whose work focuses on the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering the threat of terrorism. She explained the impact of Prevent, one of the four components of the United Kingdom’s broader counter-terrorism strategy, and how it affects freedom of belief, children’s rights, and civic trust and leads to the stifling of dissent within the UK.

The discussion points to the strategy being fundamentally ineffective and taking a discriminatory stance towards Muslim communities, highlighting the numerous human rights violations it entails.

How has the renewed Contest, retaining its Prevent arm, evolved compared to previous iterations regarding human rights considerations?

FIONNUALA NI AOLAIN: Prevent has been my mandate’s long-standing subject of interest. Historically, we have raised significant concerns and criticisms regarding the Prevent strategy for several reasons.

First, we have observed that the strategy has been inherently discriminatory in that it has focused on a particular group, Muslims living in Britain and Muslim citizens of the United Kingdom. In a sense, it has a discriminatory, stereotyped, and highly negative view of this particular minority group at the very core of this strategy.

Second, my concern lies in the obligations imposed by the strategy on specific categories of individuals, such as teachers and doctors, to report. This reporting mechanism undermines these individuals’ neutrality, independence, and ethical obligations towards the people they primarily engage with.

Lastly, the strategy has functioned to further securitize public and social life, particularly impacting the UK’s human rights defenders and civil society actors.

All of these concerns have held true historically, and I gave evidence to the Shawcross Commission and made several recommendations. Yet, none of those were accepted.

What is your assessment of their stance in light of the widespread criticism? Do you believe the renewed approach to Prevent has addressed or rectified the prevalent criticisms?

FNA: I don’t think it has; I believe it represents a continuation, both in name and substance, of the previous strategy, further solidifying some of the structural deficiencies of the Prevent program. Unfortunately, it falls short of addressing the valid human rights and rule of law criticisms that have been raised against the Prevent.

It’s really regrettable that there was an opportunity to do something different. Yet, neither the Shawcross Review nor the British government chose to take on board views of UN special rapporteurs and civil society in the United Kingdom.

I perceive that the outcomes of the renewed strategy continue to function worst practices of the Prevent strategy without adequately incorporating human rights due diligence, oversight, or acknowledging the discriminatory effects and negative consequences, especially within Muslim communities.

On the one hand, there is a strong demand for Prevent to be withdrawn, and on the other hand, there is an insistence on its improvement. Where do you position yourself within this spectrum?

FNA: I do not think that the strategy, as it’s been devised, really addresses its core function -to prevent violence in society.

There are alternative approaches, as articulated by my mandate and other UN bodies, that focus on addressing issues of radicalisation to violence in a manner compliant with human rights principles. At the heart of these approaches is the idea of engaging with communities on a broad basis. It’s about seeking the consent of those who will be affected by such policies. In the short term, we’ve witnessed no substantial change.

Fundamentally, given the scale of criticisms directed at Prevent and the lack of responsiveness to these criticisms, the strategy lacks legitimacy. Therefore, it is in the British government’s interest to reconsider it and establish a strategy that actually reflects the needs, wishes, goals, cooperation, and consent of the communities who are likely to be the subject of any such policy.

During the time of your contribution to the People’s Review of Prevent, “a response to the government’s Independent Review of Prevent,” which documented over 600 cases, have you identified a recurring pattern in the trajectory and impact of the Prevent programme on the lives of those referred and the referring process?

FNA: The People’s Review of Prevent is an extraordinary document and underscores the tremendously vibrant civil society in the United Kingdom. It stands as a testament to the courage of the people to share their experiences regarding the result of the Prevent’s use of Prevent. Notably, it demonstrates the power of aggregating these cases to reveal systemic issues, rather than isolated incidents.

One recurring pattern we’ve observed is the referral of families to social services simply because they are practising their faith. Instances where a woman wears religious attire, individuals pray, or children have specific dietary preferences in their lunch boxes have led to referrals. These are actions protected by international law, and religious faith is one of the most fundamental things for many people around the world. Within the Prevent strategy, simply expressing religious belief, even by children, frequently triggers state interference in family life.

Another pattern is the undue regulation of family life once individuals are referred. These families are often viewed with suspicion within the system. An example I cited in the report pertained to families with extreme right-wing views or those engaged in or supportive of violence. We have not seen the same level of intrusion in families with different profiles. I’m not advocating for equal intrusion into family life, but there appears to be a clear religious and ethnic bias in some of these interventions.

The third persistent pattern is the pre-criminalization of children, typically within the school system, leading to their inclusion in the Prevent referral system. These children are predominantly young Muslim boys. The idea that children are effectively criminalised or identified at an early age can have lifelong consequences. They become visible to the carceral state, administrative state, and policing state, making it challenging to erase this stigma for the child.

I’d like to discuss the position of women, particularly practising Muslim women, within this counter-terrorism policy. One of the signs of extremism -cited as violating British values- identified by the government is “changing the style of dress or appearance,” which impacts personal yet visible expressions of religious identity, such as Muslim women wearing hijab or face veils.

How does this outward decision of the safety or riskiness of identity affect women, essentially categorising them as “extreme” or “riskier,” subjecting them to increased scrutiny, and implying that their Muslim identity conflicts with their British identity?

FNA: There is indeed much to discuss on this topic, and I have addressed it a fair bit in my Human Rights Council report as well. The focus on women’s bodies within the context of state regulation is concerning. Whether a woman chooses to veil or not, wear specific clothing, or express her religious identity through her appearance, these aspects of women’s bodies have historically faced excessive regulation compared to men’s bodies by governments, and I find it truly distressing.

I can personally relate to this issue, having grown up in Ireland, where women would wear head covers when attending a church. Labelling such practices as extremist seems almost ludicrous. What this highlights is the profound othering of Muslim women or women who are religiously identified. It’s important to note that this selectivity in singling out certain women as extremists based on their dress choices is inconsistent.

For example, Orthodox Jewish women will often shave their hair and wear wigs as a practice of their religious observance. We are not walking around London trying to figure out which women are wearing wigs to gauge their level of religious observance and determine that, therefore, they’re extremist in their views. It creates public perceptions of Muslim women as “extremists,” but other women who, for example, wear tattoos with right-wing symbols on them in public spaces are not singled out. Clearly, the set of choices being made here, regarding who is being singled out as extremist and who is not, are not equal.

The consequences for women are burdensome, leading to self-censorship and difficult decisions between participating in public life and adhering to religious traditions, which may involve specific clothing choices. These are difficult and unfair choices for women to make.

Moreover, these superficial and highly racialized signs of extremism do not align with what we know about what actually leads people to extremism. From a scientific standpoint, they lack validity and are rooted in discriminatory and racist stereotypes legitimised by government policies, undermining women’s equality in British society.

When considering religious figures taking on roles as mentors and advisers within the Prevent duty, acting as the “true voices” of a belief, does this policy contradict the rule of law and freedom of religion? Do you think the programme imposes a state-approved, singular way of practising faith – identified as “British Islam”?

FNA: One of the fascinating aspects of freedom of religion and belief is that the right to believe is absolute, meaning there can be no restrictions on a person’s right to hold their beliefs. Therefore, attempting to control an individual’s belief system entirely contradicts international law.

This approach also leads to a distinction for people of the Muslim faith in British public life today. It’s important to remember that the United Kingdom has a history rooted in Protestantism that emerged from a tradition of dissent, where the ability to disagree was fundamental to religious faith. Therefore, it appears paradoxical that today, there is a transformation into approving specific forms of religious faith, which is at odds with historical practices and principles.

In addition to the explicit accusations that the Shawcross Review made, pointing to specific NGOs and activists critical of the strategy, does awareness of the Prevent strategy impact Muslim individuals’ ability to become active citizens? Under the pretext of protecting national security, is the government’s use of the Prevent shrinking civic space and suppressing dissent?

FNA: One of the things that the report highlights is the chilling effect these policies and practices have on civil society because it’s not just the human rights defender; it’s their families, kids, and communities. When an individual takes a stand as a defender, it’s not just them who comes under the gaze of the state — it’s also everyone connected to them. Human rights defenders and civil society actors are increasingly making the call that that cost is too high, maybe not for them, but it’s too high for their kids, or it’s too high for their partner, or it’s too high for their mother who lives with them. That’s just too much.

In 2015, Prevent adopted a “whole of society approach,” in which public workers were made responsible for detecting signs of radicalisation and making referrals.

How does this approach impact social cohesion and civil trust, on the one hand, and the citizen-government relationships and trust in public services, on the other?

FNA: The “securitization of everything” essentially transforms society into a set of transactional relationships. It’s reminiscent of societies in Eastern Europe before the Cold War ended, where the state encouraged neighbours, coworkers, and even family members to inform each other. This created oppressive societies and eroded trust to a great extent.

This approach not only erodes trust in communal living but also singles out particular groups as untrustworthy. In a multiethnic, multiracial society like the UK’s, trust is a fundamental pillar that makes the society function. When the state undermines this trust, it weakens the capacity of the multicultural project to thrive and function effectively. This is clearly what is happening currently.

In your previous statements and reports regarding the human rights impact of policies and practices aimed at preventing and countering violent extremism, you often focus on the lack of precise legal definitions of terms such as “extremism” and “violent extremism” and the widespread abuses of human rights that it produces.

Can you expand on that?

FNA: The absence of internationally- agreed definitions for terms such as ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’ is probably the most fundamental problem we see with counter-terrorism legislation in almost every country in the world. As a result, each state has the authority to define what constitutes terrorism within its borders. Without exception, when my mandate examines national definitions of terrorism and corresponding legislation, we often find an abundance of vague and imprecise language.

The challenge we face is not only global but also marked by a reluctance among states to criticise the definitions of terrorism adopted by others. Only human rights mandates like mine, which frankly has the least power and the least capacity to force them to change their definition, raise concerns about these definitions.


No, Muslims critical of Prevent are not ‘enabling terrorism’

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