Why are we asking this now?
A cross-party committee of MPs have just finished a six-month investigation into Prevent, the government's anti-radicalisation programme, and have decided that it is doing exactly the opposite of what it was meant to do. Prevent is supposed to help British Muslims stand up to the small number of extremists in their midst and encourage those who might be tempted by terrorism to turn their backs on it. But a report published this week by the MPs found that it was, in fact, doing more harm than good.
What is Prevent?
Prevent is one of the four Ps that make up the government's overall counter-terrorist strategy, known as Contest. The other Ps – Pursue, Protect and Prepare – concentrate on keeping Britain ready to deal with terrorist attacks as well as our overall strategy to hunt down and capture those who mean us harm. Prevent has a much more complicated goal – to stop people becoming radicalised in the first place.
Who is responsible for the strategy?
The Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism at the Home Office heads up policing aspects, such as finding ways to foil attacks and extremist cells. The Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG), meanwhile, is tasked with building bridges and funding initiatives within the Muslim community to dampen the allure of violent extremists. There is also a particularly controversial police-led initiative known as Channel which attempts to pinpoint young Muslims who may be on their way towards violent radicalism and turn them away.
How much money is involved?
A lot. In the financial year 2008-2009 Prevent spent £140m across its departments. Funding local groups eats up just some of that cash. In the last three years £53m has been handed out to local authorities to fund groups that they think are best placed to combat al-Qa'ida-inspired violent extremism. A further £24m has been earmarked over the next year for 94 local authorities. Since 2007, more than 1,000 projects across the country have received some sort of funding from Prevent – that could be anything from financing anti-terrorism lectures in a mosque, to providing equipment for a boxing club in a Muslim neighbourhood to putting on pop concerts.
Is the strategy working?
Even before the MPs' report, it was very difficult to tell. Since 7 July 2005 we haven't had any more successful terrorist attacks on British soil but we have had numerous attempts and foiled plots, most of which have continued to involve a home-grown element or protagonists. Successful policing and better intelligence has played a major role in stopping those attacks taking place – with many of the plots infiltrated by our security services at very early stages.
One of the aims of Prevent, however, is to enable the Muslim community to partly police itself by reporting suspicious activity to the local authorities. So far there have been very few concrete examples of such community-led policing actually happening. One of the few positive incidents the government can point to is Andrew Ibrahim, a wannabe suicide bomber, who police were alerted to after mosque leaders in Bristol became concerned about his radical views.
What about the Channel programme?
To libertarians Channel is the most controversial aspect of Prevent because it involves targeting young people who haven't even committed crimes yet. The government and police say it is a key part of pre-empting terrorist attacks and say similar tactics are used to keep young people away from gangs with little complaints from the public. Last year The Independent revealed that as many as 200 schoolchildren, some as young as 13, had been identified as being "vulnerable" to extremism in the first 18 months of Channel's existence.
What does the MPs' report say?
The 81-page report, which was compiled by MPs from the three main parties, was enormously critical of virtually every aspect of the Prevent strategy. The biggest problem the committee found was that most Muslims regarded Prevent-funded schemes as a back-door way of secretly policing the Islamic community.
The very people that the government needs to get onside are, according to the report, feeling "alienated and stigmatised" and therefore far less likely to co-operate. Many positive community cohesion projects which are doing good work in combating extremism, meanwhile, are also feeling "tainted" by their association with the Prevent scheme.
Why do so many Muslims feel wary of Prevent?
"The government – especially under the former CLG Secretary Hazel Blears – regarded the Prevent strategy as a kind of social engineering project to 'medically treat' UK Muslims," explains Inayat Bunglawala, former spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain, who has set up his own counter-extremist group, Muslims4UK. "They also funded and promoted new and more compliant voices despite the fact they had no grassroots support in Muslim communities. This meant that the entire Prevent programme – which should be an essential part of any sensible counter-terror strategy – came to be viewed with suspicion and disdain."
What other problems were encountered?
In understanding why people turn to terrorism, the report claimed that the government still places far too much emphasis on trying to "engineer" a moderate form of Islam at the expense of looking into other motivating factors for why people become extremist such as "foreign policy, deprivation and alienation".
The committee also heard evidence from other minority faith groups that Prevent made it look like the Government was favouring Muslims simply because they had produced anti-British terrorists. Dr Indarjit Singh of the Network of Sikh Organisations described Islam as having "a sort of favoured status as a result of radicalisation".
What about the spying allegations?
Last year there were allegations that Prevent was being used by the police and local authorities to secretly spy on the Muslim community, including people who were not even suspected of any crimes. One example, published by the Institute of Race Relations, revealed how a youth centre in northern England had been advised to include IT facilities because it was "good for monitoring which websites people were visiting". Home Secretary Alan Johnson denounced the allegations as "wilfully misleading."
The MPs, however, disagree with the government's argument that there is no case to answer. Their report states that enough evidence has been produced to warrant some sort of inter-governmental investigation. "If the government wants to improve confidence in the Prevent programme," the report concludes, "it should commission an independent investigation into the allegations made".
Is 'Prevent' proving counter-productive?
* Prevent is too expensive and confused, and suffers from a bad case of mission creep
* Trying to 'engineer' a moderate Islam will only bolster extremists and help them tarnish genuine believers
* The very people that the government wants to win over are turning away in droves
* Countering terrorism involves a variety of approaches and Prevent plays a key role
* British Muslims need help in confronting extremists, and the government is best placed to lend a hand
* The Channel programme has helped numerous teenagers steer clear of extremism