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The Government's Prevent Strategy Won't Work if It Is Seen as Spying

26/08/2015 15:51 BST | Updated 25/08/2016 10:59 BST

The Governments Prevent Strategy has been in place since 2011 and followed on from an earlier version brought in under Tony Blair after 9/11. It is intended to stop people becoming radicalised and as a result being drawn into violent extremism.

Theresa May launched the newer strategy whilst criticising the Labour version as having been guilty of sending money to some non-violent extremist groups. Mrs May said the newer version would also seek to tackle non-violent extremism because it was seen a pre-curser to actual violence - an assumption which is not universally accepted.

I am no expert on Prevent but I have been in and around the different versions of the strategy over the years - firstly as a police officer in a part of London with a large Muslim population and more recently in a community role in another area also with a large Muslim population.

I went to a recent briefing on anti-extremism work with presentations by several academics and leaders of charities operating in the sector - and it was clear that good work was being done by the charities.

One thing that was noticeable though- of the 70 or so people in the room - the vast majority appeared to be white British. For me this highlights one of the features of this strategy - in most respects it is something owned and operated by the white British majority and done mostly to the British Muslim minority.

I asked one academic - who was presenting - about this and whether it made it more difficult to achieve an objective analysis of the situation if the ones studying extremism are (for the most part) from a different ethnic group than those being studied and are therefore likely to bring their own cultural pre-conceptions to bear.

His answer surprised me - instead of at least acknowledging this as an issue he didn't except the premise of the question - that objectivity could be an issue. Others in the room seem to agree - when I spoke to them later - he had dodged the question.

It's easy to criticise other people engaged with this complicated issue but this must be a serious fault in the strategy and it should at least be recognised.

There isn't such a thing as pure objectivity when analysing other people - especially people from other ethnic groups and different cultures - we all bring our own cultural biases and pre-conceptions and to pretend otherwise is to miss a serious point.

It is not just objectivity that's an issue - it also has a bearing on the credibility of the strategy in the eyes of Muslim people and this matters because the strategy is meant to encourage Muslim people to help tackle radicalisation.

Years ago I was sitting in a café in a largely Arabic part of London shortly after the London bombings - the television was on covering the news about the recent events and a white British man came on and was introduced as an 'expert' on Al Qaeda - this was met with snorts of derision by some of the young Arabic men in the café. This expert may have written book on the topic but he seemed to lack credibility with these men.

I also recall, around the same time, a Muslim lady who ran a Hotel in Westminster asking why we the police were treating her as a possible terrorist supporter during one meeting about the prevent program. We weren't intending to treat her that way but I saw her point.

We need to get better about engaging with communities and there needs to be more Muslims involved in this work.

This is difficult of course - because Muslim citizens should not have to account for the crimes of other people who happen to share the same religion as them. Equally they should not be seen as having a particular obligation to do something about violent extremism - but the Prevent Strategy would work better if more did.

It would make it a more credible with the very people it is mean to engage with and it would probably be a better informed strategy.

Of course simple arithmetic means that any national level strategy will be supported mostly by the majority population but we need to do better because it won't win hearts and minds if it is seen as being done to Muslims.

Given the levels of Islamophobia in some elements of our media - and the increase in support for the right wing in this Country there will some who will think it appropriate to treat the nearly 2.8 million Muslims in the UK this way - as suspects - but most people will want us to be a safe as we can be and will recognise that effective engagement is vital to achieve this.