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UK: Prevent strategy failing to engage Muslim communities, says government adviser

Dame Sara Khan says officials need to do more to explain the controversial strategy as ministers prepare to publish a review of its effectiveness
Muslims gather to perform the Eid al-Fitr prayer, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, at Bradford Central Mosque, northern England, on 13 May 2021 (AFP)
Muslims gather to perform the Eid al-Fitr prayer, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, at Bradford Central Mosque, northern England, on 13 May 2021 (AFP)

The British government’s counter-terrorism Prevent programme is failing to connect with Muslim communities, a government adviser has said.

Dame Sara Khan, a human rights campaigner who advises the government on social cohesion and is a vocal supporter of Prevent, told BBC’s Political Thinking podcast that the government had failed to explain the strategy to Muslim communities. 

Khan said that the lack of explanation “in essence… left a vacuum” about Prevent’s purpose, leaving the scheme “dominated” by Islamists.

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“So those types of challenges have continued and I think continuing to engage with communities, explaining what the programme is, addressing concerns - that's got to continue in a much better way than we’ve seen previously,” Khan said. 

She added that fears of being accused of racism made some local authorities uncomfortable with tackling extremism and claimed that some groups had used the accusation of Islamophobia as a cover for extremist practices. 

The Prevent programme, launched in 2007, was set up to reduce the terror threat in the UK by allowing schools and workplaces to flag up people they deemed to be at risk of radicalisation. 

​​Critics of the Prevent Duty say that it has had a “chilling effect” on free speech in classrooms and universities, and that it has turned public-sector workers into informers expected to monitor pupils and patients for “signs of radicalisation”. 

'Climate of mistrust'

Other critics have said that it may even be counter-productive.

In March, a report by Rights and Security International, a human rights advocacy group, found that Muslim communities continued to be disproportionately affected by Prevent. 

Another report, by the Child Rights International Network, looking into the effect of the Prevent strategy on children, also found that the programme has "engendered a climate of mistrust".

"The knowledge that a teacher, social worker or health worker could refer any child to a police-led counter-terrorism programme without the family’s prior knowledge or consent has engendered a climate of mistrust that undermines children’s full access to essential services to which they are entitled," it said.

Khan, who is currently working with the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, Michael Gove, on how local communities can counter extremism, has also faced allegations of being too close to the Home Office. 

But her intervention comes as ministers are preparing to publish a review of the strategy’s effectiveness after it emerged that the man suspected of killing the Conservative MP David Amess had previously been referred to Prevent. 

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