29/01/2016 11:56 GMT | Updated 29/01/2017 05:12 GMT

Prevent and Prejudice: How the Government Is Missing the Point

Nicola Tree via Getty Images

'Non-whites don't wipe their bums'; refugees are a 'bunch of migrants', 'don't sit next to muslims with a bag'. Not anonymous below the line comments in a tabloid newspaper. These are views expressed to me recently in situations as diverse as a community workshop, the House of Commons or from fellow commuters.

This is why Prevent is a missed opportunity. Britain requires a conversation, not an exercise in finger pointing. We need to both address common fears of 'the other', and promote the best of our abilities to work together. There are extremists in all communities who need to be identified and challenged. A truly inclusive approach would recognise combatting this is a job for us all, not just the government or those targeted alone.

Tension between communities in Britain is rising: every day and in every way. On all sides of political and religious debates, there are many who are encouraging it. Whether the issue is immigration or radicalisation, heat rather than light dominates public policy. In our conspiracy-obsessed age, the first victim is any semblance of reasoned debate. Britain First memes about rapist refugees angrily rebound around social media. Community meetings resound with allegations that Islam is under attack.

Such views left unchallenged not only exclude and alienate. They can foster a world in which mistreatment of, and even violence against those who are different becomes commonplace. Whether deliberate or not, when the prime minister dismisses refugees, it makes it just that bit easier to turn our backs on them too. Residents regularly tell me that they feel nervous and ill at ease. Jews confide that they now do not wear skull caps in public. Muslim women say they are frightened they will be assaulted for wearing the niqab. White residents worry 'native speakers' are being ignored. To argue about the validity of these concerns is to miss the point. We must address the fact that, across Britain they exist at all.

To do so, we need a national conversation that can separate naive and insensitive conduct from actions motivated by malicious intent. Those who seek to exploit these fears - whether to score points in PMQs or to promote a vicious political agenda - should be held to account for their toxic rhetoric. But those courageous enough to admit their own prejudices - to which we all are prey - shouldn't be written off as clones of Donald Trump, either. We need to engage with the roots of hatred and reasons for fear: both off and online. Whether talking about jihad in the sense of a personal moral struggle, explaining Zionism refers to Israel's right to exist, or demonstrating how insensitive analogies with Nazism are offensive, taking time to make, and listen to, arguments and explanations is as much part of tackling extremism as calling out those who foster hatred.

Social solidarity isn't supported through bland generalities about tolerance and diversity. It requires real graft, helping to explore and diffuse tensions between cultures as well as imbalances in power. We should say clearly that dumping refugees around the country is insulting to our shared humanity. We should affirm that hate preachers do not, and should not be allowed to represent an entire faith. Crucially, we should make sure there is space to listen what people say for themselves, not drown some voices with angry demands that they disown the worst members of their communities before they can be heard at all.

Bringing Britain together - whether to fight terrorism, help refugees or build our economy - requires being willing to engage with the views of others as well as our own, however uncomfortable this can sometimes be. Nature abhors a vacuum - if we don't say who we are and what we share, as well as what we are not, fanatics will continue to dominate the debate. In the fight for equality, as well as against extremism, this task has never been more urgent.