Prevent-ing Polarisation within Muslim Communities

Prevent-ing Polarisation within Muslim Communities

Madeline-Sophie Abbas

Prevent has attracted important local criticisms centring on the contradictions of community engagement being framed by anti-terror measures.  Since the 2001 disturbances in Bradford and Leeds where I conducted my research (as well as in Oldham and Burnley), emphasis has been placed on religious and ethnic minorities as threats to social cohesion.  Despite the increased threat posed by far right extremism (comprising 44% of the 394 individuals who received Channel support in 2017/18 compared to 45% from Islamist extremism), the focus has predominately remained on Muslim communities as threats to security and British values.  Muslims have had to negotiate particular pressures concerning being a ‘“good” Muslim community member and/or being a “good” citizen’.[1] Through Prevent, Muslim communities are treated ‘as both problem and solution.’[2]

Drawing on in-depth interviews with 26 British Muslim men and women aged 18-46 living in Leeds or Bradford, my findings show that internal divisions are produced within Muslim communities from government counterterrorism measures through co-option of Muslims to spy and inform on state authorities on Muslim community members.  I address four key issues arising from my research concerning Prevent delivery: (a) “guilt by association” where ‘the Muslim community’ is branded homogeneously as suspect; (b) lack of transparency (around funding, information sharing); (c) tokenistic ‘engagement’; and (d) restrictions on how Muslim identities are performed.  Collectively, these issues have undermined community projects and partnerships, both within Muslim communities and with the state.   I argue that locally defined solutions that bridge policy and community voices, provide safe spaces for Muslims to perform a range of identities and build relations locally, are central to effective Prevent delivery.

‘Guilt by association’
The pervasiveness with which state counter-terrorism measures have infiltrated ordinary Muslims’ lives, not just those under official suspicion, was captured by the term “guilt by association.”  Participants described situations where Muslims were subjected to questioning, events or buildings were monitored (such as by Prevent officers), and pressures placed on organisations or individuals to share data such as attendee lists or report on activities, which adversely affected intra-community relations and encouraged some members to disengage from community events.  The recent furore where six writers and activists pulled out of Bradford literature festival after it was found to have received funding from a government counter-extremism programme, shows how counter-extremism funding can taint positive community initiatives by treating all Muslims as suspect

Lack of transparency
Prevent funding has prompted polarised responses, as one Bradford-based community worker reported: rejection due to its “connotations” with extremism or opportunities to “build structures”. Despite measures by Bradford City Council to increase transparency through a Prevent Community Reference Group and making the Prevent Action Plan publicly available, Prevent remains ‘divisive’ according to Bradford Council Labour Leader, David Green. Muslims disengage from organisations through fear of being monitored as Saba, a 23-year-old grassroots organiser in Bradford at the time of interview describes:

On the community level I was seeing the divides being created – so and so’s taken Prevent money, don’t talk to them … that was quite frustrating, especially when I’d seen some really good projects that were breaking down…and just the mistrust that was created within the community like if you’re on Prevent then everyone’s who’s part of that project is going to be spied on and you can’t work with them…. that was quite a problem…

Rather than facilitating effective partnerships, mistrust is generated through suspected complicity in state agendas. Communication channels break down with organisations in receipt of Prevent funding, meaning effective community projects collapse. I found evidence of what I term ‘internal suspect bodies’ produced by intersecting conditions (both real and imagined) of the suspect extremist who is ‘spied on’ and the Muslim informer, which contribute to internal divisions within Muslim communities.

Lack of transparency concerning information gathering highlights the coercive nature in which information under Prevent is understood to be compiled. The Revised Prevent Duty Guidance states that Prevent “must not involve any covert activity against people or communities”. However, authorities are allowed to share personal information where individuals are “identified as at risk of radicalisation” (page four). Prevent’s disciplinary measures undermine grassroots workers’ relationships with young Muslims and importantly, hinders their ability to counter extremism by closing down “safe spaces” for Muslims to engage:

…as a grassroots worker I think young people are entitled to have that privacy and that safe space to express themselves….and they became very scared to do that.

Using Muslim community members or practitioners to undertake covert surveillance of other Muslims shows how state practices invade young Muslims’ lives, violating “safe spaces” for them to interact through fear that they may be reported as extremists.

Engagement as tokenistic
Saba was also a member of the government’s Young Muslim Advisory group involving Muslim young people aged 17–26 launched in 2008 funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government and Department for Children, Schools and Families. Its function according to Ed Balls MP, was to “empower young people to shape the society they live in”.  Saba joined because she thought it was “fantastic” young Muslims were given a “voice”. However, singling out Muslims frames them as problematic and co-opts them into pre-set government agendas:

They just …used to have us at a conference sat there and just you know ticking certain boxes to make sure that yeah here’s young Muslims and they’re advocating what we’re doing when we clearly weren’t.

Young Muslims’ presence is tokenistic rather than providing opportunities to feed into Prevent.  Nonetheless, they are judged by the policies put forward despite disagreeing with them, which negatively impacts their community position.  Saba reported how group members were wary of expectations placed on them by government officials to act as informers on their communities, furthering mistrust.

Restricting performances of Muslim Identities
Muslims have been co-opted into maintaining the moderate/extremist binary which restricts how they perform their identities and relate to other Muslims:

…this whole like moderate extremist thing – it’s dividing the Muslim community … what Prevent said is that it’s the Muslim community’s problem and we had to provide the solution …But it still had to be their solution and it was a certain version of Islam … and it was just too … prescriptive.

Prevent’s approach to community engagement is premised on a restrictive and divisive conception of ‘acceptable’ Islamic interpretation which risks alienating Muslims from the state and each other. Internal divisions are engendered because communities are pressurised into countering extremism according to state requirements rather than locally defined solutions which can empower members.

Empowering communities: locally defined solutions

In this section I focus on the Muslim Women’s Council (formerly Bradford Muslim Women’s Council) as an example of a successful community initiative to highlight the importance of locally defined solutions for empowering communities. Zanaib, a thirty-year-old British Muslim woman community worker at the time of interview, describes the “silent revolution” undertaken by Bradfordian Muslim women following the 2001 disturbances to support local Muslim communities and develop Muslim women’s visibility in public debates where traditionally men had acted as community representatives. Established in 2009 to “represent Muslim women”, the MWC developed from conversations with over 100 Bradfordian women as part of a Joseph Rowntree funded project. It aims to “bridge” policy and “community voices”:

you’ve got … a structure … that is locally defined, that has women involved, that is able to say ok we know about all these issues but this is what we’re saying we want … in terms of power dynamics we’re coming to the table because we have something to offer…

Unlike government funded organisations like the National Women’s Advisory Group and recently exposed, Inspire, that posed as a grassroots initiative, Zanaib argues that organisations must be “locally defined” so women are empowered to define outcomes and to build positive community relations.  Rather than enlisting Muslims as informers, they are empowered to bridge policy and community voices and shape outcomes in ways that will benefit local communities based on local knowledge and need.

Conclusion: Prevent-ing polarisation

Findings suggest that independently funded, locally defined organisations which can bridge policy and community voices are more effective strategies because they support community empowerment and are trusted locally. Muslims should be able to determine outcomes beneficial to their communities based on local knowledge and need rather than being pressured into meeting state-imposed requirements.  These are often counter-productive for building community resilience to countering terrorism and extremism because they are tokenistic and exploitative rather than based on genuine partnerships.

An important component is facilitating ‘safe spaces’ which are Muslim-led where difficult conversations can be had without fear of being reported and which are supportive of diverse performances of Muslim identities. Legal requirements placed on a range of agencies under the Prevent duty means that alternative avenues need to be created where such critical engagement can happen. There needs to be a variety of spaces beyond the restrictive lens of security which address a broader spectrum of issues affecting Muslims in contemporary Britain, including the increasing threat of far right extremism that provide opportunities to build trust, both intra- and inter-communally and with policy makers.

[1] Spalek, B. and Imtoual, A. (2007), ‘Muslim Communities and Counter-Terror Responses: “Hard” Approaches to Community Engagement in the UK and Australia’, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 27(2), 185–202.
[2] Spalek, B. and McDonald, L. Z. (2009), ‘Terror Crime Prevention: Constructing Muslim Practices and Beliefs as “Anti-Social” and “Extreme” through CONTEST 2’, Social Policy and Society,  9(1), 123–32.


Madeline-Sophie Abbas completed her PhD in Sociology at the University of Leeds on British Muslim identity formations, funded by a University Research Scholarship.  She is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Manchester.  Previous posts include Research Associate at Cambridge University for the Cambridge Migration Research Network (CAMMIGRES), Lecturer in Sociology at Oxford Brookes University, and Teaching Assistant at the University of Leeds.  The above draws on the author’s published work in the British Journal of Sociology.