Extremism in PREVENT

Published 4 May 2016 / By COMPAS Communications

Back to Articles

Over the last year, universities across the country have been working on the implementation of PREVENT. Initially launched in 2007 and revised in 2011, PREVENT is part of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy, with new legal obligations arising with the enactment of the Counter-terrorism and Security Act of 2015. In an unprecedented move, local government authorities, the health sector, prisons, schools and universities have been required to take ‘due regard to the need to prevent people form being drawn into terrorism’ (section 26(1)). In line with the 2011 amendments to the Strategy, the Act compels these authorities to implement measures to deal with the risk of radicalisation, and to tackle ‘all forms of terrorism’ and ‘non-violent extremism’. This can be seen as part of a growing trend within the UK and across liberal democracies more broadly, that tasks ordinary citizens to govern foreign or marginalised others through what Dace Dzenovska (2013; 2014) has described as acts of ‘denunciation’. Much like the Immigration Bill of 2015-16, legislation has become ever more intrusive, inserting itself deeper into the ordinary lives of law-abiding citizens.

PREVENT monitors and disciplines not only lawful actions, but also political and religious ideas and opinions. The threat it poses to freedom of expression and academic freedom has unsurprisingly caused discomfort and concern within the Higher Education sector. When the Act was debated in the House of Lords, a number of peers expressed concern that the legislation would undermine existing legislation (e.g. The Education Act, (no. 2) 1986) which protects freedom of expression. Academics have recently called for the legislation to be repealed, accusing it of undermining trust and openness, eroding civil liberties, and deepening discrimination against Muslims.

In Oxford, discussion and debate around PREVENT has so far centred on the Colleges. [1] A forum discussion entitled ‘PREVENT: Counter-Terrorism and Freedom’ was held at Wadham College [2] earlier this year, and the Conference of Colleges—which brings together colleges in collective decision-making processes—has been seeking expert advice, input from college’s Governing Bodies, and debating the content of the risk assessments and action plans which are due to be submitted to HEFCE (the Higher Education Funding Council for England), the PREVENT monitoring body, later this summer. Yet, across the wider University, compliance with PREVENT has not yet been subject to a comparable, open discussion. A Steering Group has been set up, but aside from a Statement on Academic Freedom produced by the Department of Politics and International Relations, most institutes and departments have not discussed the issue, and have received very limited information about these statutory duties that are due to come into effect in the next few months.

Across many UK universities compliance has taken the form of amending existing policies, rather than presenting them as a coherent package. While this diffused process of implementation has been motivated by a reluctance to cause unnecessary alarm, it has also meant that there has been little transparency among staff. This lack of visibility has effectively curbed discussion around PREVENT and discouraged dissent. PREVENT has been falsely presented as an innocuous nod towards the legislation—part of the ordinary, everyday bureaucratic workings of universities—and hence as requiring few effective and substantial changes.

While PREVENT introduces completely new policies, some of the monitoring and referral practices are, to some degree, already in place. It has become disturbingly common to hear of Muslim students struggling to book rooms for Islam-related events, or of being referred to PREVENT coordinators for taking part in pro-Palestine protests, or at events which question UK foreign policy. It is not uncommon to hear of disproportionate risk assessments and security costs placed on those who organise politically radical events. Last year, two lecturers from the University of Southampton sought to organise a conference on international law and the state of Israel. The university withdrew permission to hold the conference, citing security concerns. When efforts were made to host it this year the university prevented it from occurring by charging the organiser more than £20k to cover security costs.[3]

These procedural rules and practices have unwittingly seeped into our institutions because they effectively tap into broader societal fears and prejudices around Islam, that have become widespread in European societies. The PREVENT strategy draws on a discourse of national identity, British values, and social cohesion that has been voiced across the political spectrum in recent years. As I argued in a previous blog post, Muslims’ supposed ‘difference’ has been at the forefront of debates around the failures of multiculturalism, which call for greater social cohesion, and a stronger sense of Britishness. Appeals for a national identity—through notions of ‘British values’— have often been juxtaposed to an abject, illiberal ‘other’; the universal language of ‘liberal’ rights has had the effect of producing difference, and racializing and essentializing Muslims.

The language of extremism and radicalisation is an extension of these debates. Under the 2011 PREVENT Strategy, and reproduced within the government’s PREVENT duty guidelines, extremism is defined 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…’ The guidelines, and advice note issued by HEFCE are replete with the language of extremism and radicalisation; here, extreme ‘ideology’ — not political or socio-economic factors — must be understood as the cause of terrorist activities, and hence silenced and curtailed.

While the guidelines are meant to tackle all forms of extremism related to terrorist activities, including the far-right, Islam or Muslims are the most obvious targets. The guidelines suggest adopting policies for the use of prayer rooms and faith-related facilities, and higher education institutions are told to pay regard to their ‘responsibilities in relation to gender segregation’. As we have seen elsewhere, gender inequality (and gender segregation at university events) is often presented as a sign of Muslims’ incompatibility and disdain for British liberal values, and hence of their extremist views. Respect for women’s equality has become an instrument of progress (Butler 2008)—a way of identifying, demonising, and reforming some Muslim subjects.

Speaking the language of extremism is also becoming profitable. A market is emerging around extremism awareness training, as illustrated in the Home Office Prevent: Training Manual. Courses and videos are now available online, and experts run workshops and modules for a fee on anything from ‘how to spot extremist ideas and behaviours’ to  ‘warning signs of radicalisation.’ The language of extremism and radicalisation has become so commonplace that many have come to accept Muslim ‘difference’ as the cause of a number of societal problems ranging from a lack of social cohesion to violence and terrorism.

In a public lecture held as part of the Wadham series mentioned above, Professor Karma Nabulsi suggested that we should see the arrival of PREVENT in the academy as creating a more united understanding of its effects. Rather than excluding universities from the provisions of the Act and granting them special exception, the presence of PREVENT within our universities has forced us to grapple with the meaning of freedom the rest of the country is facing, and to think hard about how to preserve those freedoms that belong to every citizen. In the face of this law, we have come to stand united with the rest of the country.

Nabulsi draws on Frantz Fanon to argue that by learning to see ‘through the gaze of the least favoured’, we can rework our PREVENT risk assessments and action plans so that they protect our rights and freedoms under existing legislation, and challenge unconscious biases. We should also, I would suggest, work to make PREVENT visible across the university. We can begin by unpacking the politicised language of extremism used in the legislation and accompanying guidelines, and challenging the ways in which it is spilling into our training manuals, welfare support, IT filtering procedures, and policies on events and conferences. And we can develop a response alongside schools and other public bodies that not only challenges the legislation, but also destabilises the ways we have come to understand Islam in Britain today.


Butler, J. (2008) “Sexual Politics, Torture, and Secular Time.” The British Journal of Sociology 59 (1):1-23.

Dzenovska, D. (2013) "'We want to hear from you' (or how informing works in a liberal democracy)" COMPAS blog, 9th April

Dzenovska, D. (2014) "Notes on power in scenes of denunciation" COMPAS blog, 5th March

Nabulsi, K. (2016) “Fear and Loathing in Luton: The Place of Collective Freedoms in a Democracy” public lecture at the PREVENT: Counter-Terrorism and Freedom, Wadham College, University of Oxford, 25th February

[1] Oxford’s 38 colleges and 6 Permanent Private Halls are independent, self-governing academic communities, and for the purposes of PREVENT are required to respond to the legislation separately from the University.

[2] Organised and sponsored by Wadham Human Rights Forum, the Department of Politics and International Relations, Oxford, and London Review of Books.

[3] The case is currently before the courts, with judgement due shortly. For more information see this link.