What is Prevent really preventing?

What is Prevent really preventing?

Anisa Mustafa

The highly contested policy of Prevent has dominated headlines recently, particularly its enforcement in education, which has precipitated campaigns like ‘Students Not Suspects‘ to highlight its detriment to civil liberties. Although there have been a number incarnations of British counter-terrorism since 9/11, all consistently feature an emphasis on the ideology of Islam as a key factor in the causes of radicalisation and terrorism. This kind of logic was echoed in statements such as Tony Blair’s declaration after the Lee Rigby murder in May 2013 that, while there is no problem ‘with’ Islam, ‘there is a problem within Islam’. Even though this kind of argument is usually tempered with the qualification that the majority of ‘moderate’ Muslims are fine, while the errant ‘extreme’ ones distort the faith, this does not mitigate the harms the follow from associating Islam with terrorism.

The focus on ideology, rather than politics, is evident in Prevent’s mission to target the hearts and minds of young Muslims, to address their sense of alienation and lack of integration into Britain which are also linked to the wrong kind of religious interpretation. Leaving aside arguments that such efforts to integrate Muslims are a smokescreen for spying on them, even if these assumptions are taken at face value, the conclusions drawn from them are contradicted by the active citizenship of 34 young Muslims who participated in my doctoral research.

Under the CONTEST 2012 guidelines a number of symptoms are cited as indicating vulnerability to radicalisation, including, ‘feelings of grievance and injustice’, ‘feeling under threat’, ‘need for identity, meaning and belonging’, desire for political or moral change’ and being ‘at a transitional time of life’. Although the document cautions against assuming these factors alone would lead to terrorism, these so-called precursors to radicalisation are highly misleading in their failure to distinguish between potential terrorists and those who express political dissent within democratic traditions. These characteristics are descriptive of the average activist who takes part in contentious politics, typically through social movements. Insights gained from decades of studies into social movements suggest that it is common for activists to feel aggrieved and threatened, to highlight injustices, to build identity, attempt to gain status and promote group interests for political and moral change. Without these abrasive and recalcitrant characteristics, social movements would be unlikely to achieve their goals of radical social change. In other words the government’s list of risk factors for radicalisation are potentially criminalising established democratic norms of dissent.

My doctoral thesis linked social movement theory to the political and civic activism of young adult Muslims to challenge some of the dominant and damaging stereotypes about Muslim citizenship. I framed my research into Muslim activism within broader understandings of contemporary youth politics, focusing on forms of mobilisation that remain within recognisable idioms of democratic participation rather than illegal or violent means of expression.

In recent years Western liberal democracies have become concerned with a democratic deficit as a consequence of the gradual decline in electoral turnouts and membership of political parties. This has been linked to the increasing salience of social movements since the 1960s, with the emergence of ‘critical’ citizens who are more politically aware but disenchanted with electoral politics and elite-governed institutions. Research suggests that while faith in democracy remains high, critical citizens have redirected their efforts from traditional politics towards issue-based or protest politics.

It was my contention, following scholars like Therese O’Toole and Richard Gale (1), that the failure to view Muslim youth politics in the context of these changing modes of political participation casts Muslim citizenship as an exceptional problem. This exceptionalism, which feeds on and perpetuates assumptions about Islam’s inherent dissonance with Western liberalism, is blamed for the failure of Muslims to integrate rather than enduring problems of racism and economic and social deprivation. The findings from my doctoral research challenge such misguided assumptions by revealing that young Muslims are not simply disengaged, angry and harbouring dangerous ideas that threaten Britain but that they are actively engaged in the kinds of activism that social movements mount to make citizenship more inclusive of marginalised groups.

My research reveals that Muslims conduct activism in similar ways to other social movements, although with less confidence to engage in visibly contentious tactics like protests due to fears of being criminalised. As with other activists in Occupy or the Global Justice Movement, many participants are suspicious of elite-governed institutions, distrust mainstream politics and media and often conduct activism through lifestyle politics. In the same way that anarchists reflect their disdain for capitalism by eschewing purchases of consumer products, environmentalists switch from cars to bicycles and animal welfare campaigners become vegans, I consider the wearing of the veil amongst many female participants as an important aspect of embodied politics. By this I do not mean the veil has a purely instrumental role or is taken up strategically to showcase defiance. It has a great deal of personal and religious significance but at the same time it also serves as a medium through which activists can challenge negative stereotypes about Muslim women. As one female participant described this:  ‘I think I make the most difference when I’m sitting on the train you know, travel, because I talk to someone and I give them my time and they give me their time and I learn from them and they take things from me. One of my driving forces was Islamophobia and being misunderstood as a Muslim and being misunderstood as a Muslim woman and terrorism and how misguided people’s views about Islam are. So I literally was carrying the flag wherever I went.’

One of the key questions I sought to answer in my research was why these young people had chosen to mobilise in a climate where Muslim activism itself is seen as risky and dangerous. Motivations for activism were varied and individualized, but were marked by common concerns that made it possible to view their disparate efforts as part of a wider movement with coherence and unity. This was despite participants’ varied backgrounds in terms of ethnic, national, class and cultural backgrounds, as well as different levels of religiosity. The variability of religious belief and practice was significant for my research because it confirmed suspicions that post 9/11 you do not have to be a religious Muslim to be targeted by Islamophobia. This is how I was able to explain why even atheists or non-practicing participants would stridently defend a ‘Muslim’ identity. It was this commitment to a common and collective Muslim identity that convinced me that the activists I interviewed were part of a social movement that is unified in its subjection and resistance to Islamophobia.

As one participant explained, these diverse forms of mobilisation were largely concerned with proving that Muslims are ‘normal’: ‘A lot of young Muslims or Muslims generally in society start campaigning because they feel they have to fight on so many fronts it can become exhausting and I’ve seen it take its’ toll because you’re trying to raise awareness, you want people to know that Muslims are a part of society….the fact is they have to constantly run a PR machine just so that society accepts them.’

This represents a common incentive to mobilise among participants, even when it is not articulated as cogently. While a number of participants did not express any kind of dissent against the state or society in general, their activism, whether through charity work, blogging, photography or poetry, set out to prove that Muslims could be good citizens as well as religious. As one participant with a leadership role in an Islamic Society and youth group told me: ‘We are challenging the outside world because of the things that we do and with (youth group) especially the community projects that we’re doing that’s constantly trying to show people that it is part of our religion to participate in society and communities.’

This in itself suggests to me that the very notion of British citizenship is perceived as precarious and contingent upon gaining acceptance from the rest of society, rather than being taken for granted. The consciousness that as Muslims ‘we have to make so much more of an effort’ was quite common, as was the grievance that: ‘that’s what makes it worse, ’cause even when you get to that point when you’re making more of an effort you’re still getting branded as a terrorist.’

The activism of my participants suggests that Islamophobia rather than Islamic ideology is a greater politicising force for these young people, who adopt modes of political action observed in other youth movements of our time, such as Occupy, the Global Justice Movement and anarchist activism. The fact that these forms of dissent are framed as potential drivers of radicalisation and terrorism almost exclusively with reference to Muslims is indicative of the prejudice not only of the state but also of the wider public that imagines its democratic right to protest will remain unscathed in these surreptitious encroachments upon civil liberties.


(1) O’Toole, T., & Gale, R. (2013). Political Engagement amongst Ethnic Minority Young People: Making a Difference. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Anisa Mustafa recently completed her PhD at the University of Nottingham. She is currently a Teaching Associate in the School of Sociology and Social Policy.

Image: By author