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UK's charity regulator urged to investigate Policy Exchange over 'anti-Muslim agenda'

Complaint to Charity Commission accuses think tank of Islamophobia over report in which David Cameron said Muslim critics of Prevent were 'enabling terrorism'
Former prime minister David Cameron has been accused of Islamophobia for endorsing the think tank's latest report (Crown Copyright)
Former prime minister David Cameron has been accused of Islamophobia for endorsing the think tank's latest report (Crown Copyright)

The UK’s charities regulator is being urged to investigate the Policy Exchange think tank for alleged racism and Islamophobia, over a report in which it accused Muslim critics of the government’s Prevent strategy of “enabling terrorism”.

In a letter to the Charity Commission, the authors of a critical review of the UK government’s controversial counterterrorism strategy called on the government to review the think tank's charitable status, accusing it of “promoting vilification and even hatred” towards Muslim communities.

“As a charity, Policy Exchange must remain non-partisan and be detached from government. Yet it would appear Policy Exchange is neither, acting primarily as a vehicle for political propaganda and anti-Muslim narratives,” said Layla Aitlhadj, a director at Prevent Watch, which supports people affected by Prevent.

Aitlhadj is a co-author with John Holmwood, emeritus professor in sociology at the University of Nottingham, of the People’s Review of Prevent, a report published in February which concluded that the strategy was discriminatory against Muslims.

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Last month, Policy Exchange published a report entitled “Delegitimising Counter-Terrorism”, which cited endorsements for the People’s Review of Prevent from Muslim community organisations including the Muslim Council of Britain, Mend, Cage and the Federation of Student Islamic Societies. It described these endorsements as constituting an “Islamist support base” for the review. 

In a foreword to the Policy Exchange report, former prime minister David Cameron wrote: “So just as we need to counter the Islamist extremist narrative, we also need to counter the anti-Prevent narrative. We need to show that delegitimising counterterrorism is, in essence, enabling terrorism.”

In their letter to the Charity Commission, Aitlhadj and Holmwood complained that the Policy Exchange report had singled out Muslim critics of Prevent but not mentioned others who contributed to the People’s Review, such as Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the UN rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism.

“It’s bad enough that a charity promotes the view that some areas of government policy are above public scrutiny. But to single out and demonise Muslims by suggesting their legitimate criticisms of Prevent are not shared by others, and then accuse them of ‘enabling terrorism’, as David Cameron has, is a serious assault on our democracy, and could potentially also encourage hate crimes against such individuals,” said Holmwood.

'The report has a clear political purpose, which is to silence individuals and groups in Muslim civil society'

Authors of letter to the Charity Commission

The complaint to the Charity Commission, which is dated 5 May and has been seen by Middle East Eye, is based on what Aitlhadj and Holmwood allege are breaches of Policy Exchange's charitable aims.

Policy Exchange states its charitable objective as “the non-partisan advancement of education of the public in the economic, social and political sciences and their effect on public policy and the policy-making process in the UK and the promotion and publication of objective research”.

Aitlhadj and Holmwood said that the use of Cameron, a former Conservative prime minister who expanded the Prevent strategy into schools and other public sector settings, to write a foreword to the report and an accompanying op-ed in the Times newspaper amounted to a political endorsement.

What is the Prevent Strategy?

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Prevent is a programme within the British government's counter-terrorism strategy that aims to “safeguard and support those vulnerable to radicalisation, to stop them from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism”.

It was publicly launched in the aftermath of the 2005 London bombings and was initially targeted squarely at Muslim communities, prompting continuing complaints of discrimination and concerns that the programme was being used to collect intelligence.

In 2011, Prevent's remit was expanded to cover all forms of extremism, defined by the government as “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.”

In 2015, the government introduced the Prevent Duty which requires public sector workers including doctors, teachers and even nursery staff to have “due regard to the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism”.

A key element of Prevent is Channel, a programme that offers mentoring and support to people assessed to be at risk of becoming terrorists. Prevent referrals of some young children have proved contentious. 114 children under the age of 15 received Channel support in 2017/18.

Criticism of the Prevent Duty includes that it has had a “chilling effect” on free speech in classrooms and universities, and that it has turned public sector workers into informers who are expected to monitor pupils and patients for “signs of radicalisation”. Some critics have said that it may even be counter-productive.

Advocates argue that it is a form of safeguarding that has been effective in identifying and helping troubled individuals. They point to a growing number of far-right referrals as evidence that it is not discriminatory against Muslims.

In January 2019 the government bowed to pressure and announced that it would commission an independent review of Prevent. This was supposed to be completed by August 2020. After being forced to drop its first appointed reviewer, Lord Carlile, over his past advocacy for Prevent, it conceded that the review would be delayed.

In January 2021 it named William Shawcross as reviewer. Shawcross's appointment was also contentious and prompted many organisations to boycott the review. Further delays followed. Shawcross's review, calling for a renewed focus within Prevent on "the Islamist threat", was finally published in February 2023 - and immediately denounced by critics. 

“The report has a clear political purpose, which is to silence individuals and groups in Muslim civil society and support the current government political approach in this regard,” they write.

They called on the Charity Commission to consider whether Policy Exchange has a “broad anti-Muslim agenda".

“We believe there is a case for investigating its activities and reports and reviewing if it should remain a charity,” they write.

The controversy surrounding the Policy Exchange report comes ahead of the anticipated publication of the government’s own long-delayed and contentious review of Prevent by William Shawcross, who in 2018 was appointed a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Shawcross is also a former chair of the Charity Commission and a former director of the Henry Jackson Society, a neo-conservative think tank.

Shawcross’s review of Prevent has been boycotted by many Muslim organisations and civil liberties and human rights groups, who have accused him of having “a track record of hostility to Islam”. Shawcross has said that some of his past views have been “misrepresented or misinterpreted”.

A Charity Commission spokesperson told MEE: "We are aware that individuals have raised concerns with us about this charity. We are assessing the information to determine whether there is a role for the Commission’."

Policy Exchange did not respond to requests for comment.

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