Rishi Sunak promises new leadership for the UK, but that doesn’t seem to be attracting enough support from the Conservative “selectorate”, so this is what he is promising today: he will double down on the failing Prevent strategy, by pivoting to targeting “Islamist extremism” and those who “vilify” the United Kingdom.
This would require some agility, so Sunak promises to widen the already fuzzy government definition of extremism – criticised widely for being too expansive – to encompass those who “vilify our country”.
The implication seems to be that any public sector worker covered by the Prevent duty would be required to refer anyone they believe is “vilifying” to the authorities.
And here’s the first question for Sunak? Would this include nationalists in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, some of whom would readily vilify England? If not, why not?
What about writers within our mainstream media, in publications such as the Spectator, whose apparent dislike of the tolerance and diversity that Britain represents seems evident in its pages?
Would Sunak’s policy include those who have non-mainstream political views on our nation’s colonial history? What about those who hate some of our nation’s symbols, like the monarchy, the national anthem or even one of our national sports teams?
His campaign’s press release tries to pre-empt some of these concerns by noting that “criticism of the government or any government policy will not be included”.
But that’s not a good enough caveat – the very notion of “vilifying our country” being targeted is illiberal and hugely hypocritical – especially for a former chancellor in a government that claimed to champion free speech and to stand up against the “thought police”. Little wonder that his big new idea is the subject of anger and ridicule on social media.
And rightly so, for the victims of this new policy will not just be ordinary British Muslims, who a third of Conservative party members think have a widespread hostility towards our country, but everyone, as the state gains more power to police what we think.
And there is irony in that Sunak is aiming to tackle extremism by appealing to a Conservative party membership, a significant portion of whom have “extremist” views about Muslims, according to the current definition of extremism.
We could dismiss this as merely a reversible and ill-thought-out policy as part of a political campaign that Sunak appears to be losing, but it has much broader ramifications. One immediate fear must be that it could give space for the frontrunner in the race to be prime minister, Liz Truss, to move in that direction or to echo these views.
In his campaign pronouncement, Sunak at least acknowledges that Prevent is “failing”. Simply put, Prevent is ineffective, sows the seeds of distrust and disproportionately affects certain communities. And sources of these concerns range from the UN special rapporteur, a former head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, and a host of human rights groups.
Criticisms have also come from his own party. The former chair of the women and equalities committee, Conservative MP Maria Miller, said that Prevent has become “a significant source of tension” in Muslim communities; and Conservative MP Lucy Allan said that “teachers are being forced by the Prevent programme to monitor and scrutinise what children are saying, with suspicion and mistrust”. Other reasons cited for the failure of this “pre-crime” policy to achieve its goals from the get-go include its ineffectiveness in averting terrorism and its accompanying lack of transparency, its disproportionate targeting of Muslim communities and how it has led to racial profiling.
But Sunak does not seem to have listened to what the experts are saying. It’s true that a sizeable part of the terrorist threat we face comes from hateful criminals who align to the Islamic State death cult. However, in recent years it appears that “the most severe threats to the country’s national security feature people planning atrocities linked to extreme rightwing ideology”. For example, Metropolitan police assistant commissioner Matt Jukes, head of counter-terrorism, said that “19 out of 20 children who were arrested in the previous 12 months for terrorism offences were linked to an extreme rightwing ideology”.
Unsurprisingly, rightwing ideologues have attempted to play down this far-right extremist threat and gun for “Islamist extremism”: a label that is deployed indiscriminately by rightwing ideologues to smear mainstream Muslims who have no truck with terrorists, but don’t play by the right’s playbook.
These ideologues have been bolstered by the comments of William Shawcross, who led the government’s review of Prevent, a man who in the past has voiced awful positions about Islam and Muslims.
Rather than listen to the aforementioned criticisms of Prevent by internationally renowned figures, it appears that Sunak wants to fundamentally reorient Prevent away from the far right to focus more on “Islamist extremists”, parroting these rightwing ideologues, and acting as a loudspeaker for the leaked conclusions of this very same Shawcross in his still unpublished review.
This is all so disappointing. The campaign for leadership of the Conservative party presented a window of opportunity to turn a new page: to tackle institutional Islamophobia within its ranks – hitherto ignored – and instead tell the story of patriotic, optimistic and confident Muslims. I had hope that the manifest failings of Prevent would be recognised and experts would be listened to. On both counts, it seems I was hoping in vain.
Miqdaad Versi is part of the public affairs team at the Muslim Council of Britain. He is writing in a personal capacity