Some further concerns about PREVENT

I have delivered two sessions recently about the UK Government’s ‘Prevent’ strategy; first of all to postgraduate students training to be teachers, and also to members of my Faculty at University. On both occasions I retained some deep set concerns about the way that it has been articulated. I indicated in an earlier post, the concern I had about the labelling of pupils, and the potential removal of judgement and common sense from a teacher’s arsenal. I fully subscribe to the idea that violent extremism is a bad thing, and that attempts to prevent radicalisation are important. So why does it still sit slightly uneasily for me?

Looking at the strategy’s aims, it is hard to disagree with them:

The Prevent strategy specifically;

  • responds to the ideological challenge of terrorism and the threat we face from those who promote it;
  • prevents people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure that they are given appropriate advice and support; and
  • works with sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalisation which we need to address.

However, the Prevent strategy summary suggests:

We remain absolutely committed to protecting freedom of speech in this country. But preventing terrorism will mean challenging extremist (and non-violent) ideas that are also part of a terrorist ideology. Prevent will also mean intervening to try to stop people moving from extremist groups or extremism into terrorist related activity

My concern is those views that are non-violent and could be also termed extremist are also to be identified. As I shared with my students: ‘How would the Prevent strategy have dealt with people like Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King?’ Giles Fraser, writing in the Guardian recently suggested that Jesus would have fallen foul of the strategy of the UK Government. He outlines that this is because of the potentially provocative phrase of coming to send peace rather than a sword; and also the promise of the establishment of the Kingdom of God. Some people, in the comments, have suggested that Fraser has misinterpreted Jesus and that he was never violent. I think both Fraser and his commenters have missed the point; whether rhetoric and actions were violent or not, Jesus certainly utilised ideas that could have been utilised by the violent extremist group called Zealots; anyone looking to overthrow Rome could use elements of Jesus’ teaching to further their cause. The possibility of this was used by the leaders of the time to force Pilate into putting Jesus to death. Ideas are incredibly powerful, but we have to consider where the limits of freedom of expression and speech end.

If we use Martin Luther King as a further example; his rhetoric and speeches could have been used by other elements of the civil rights movement to justify violence although that was never his intention. Should he, therefore, have been silenced?

I have no answer to offer, but I worry about where such censorship of speech would lead. I am not suggesting that those that promote or incite violence should be allowed unfettered freedom of expression. I am concerned that the Government may have gone too far.

Yet in other areas they have not gone far enough. The Government have suggested the teaching of British Values as a way to combat the ideas of radicalisation. Suggesting what these might be always leads to some very interesting and humorous suggestions: queueing almost always comes up; politeness; and my students’ response when I admit that I don’t drink tea indicates that this might be the deal breaker. In fact we are not left to wonder, the government have articulated what they understand by the term ‘British values’:

All have a duty to ‘actively promote’ the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.

There are slight concerns with the idea of ‘democracy’; where does that leave religious groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses who reject participation in the electoral process? That aside the major issue I have is in the articulation of ‘tolerance.’ At root this is a laudable aim, when we read the writings of John Locke we recognise the positive aspects that tolerance can bring:

But this is not all. It is not enough that ecclesiastical men abstain from violence and rapine and all manner of persecution. He that pretends to be a successor of the apostles, and takes upon him the office of teaching, is obliged also to admonish his hearers of the duties of peace and goodwill towards all men, as well towards the erroneous as the orthodox; towards those that differ from them in faith and worship as well as towards those that agree with them therein. And he ought industriously to exhort all men, whether private persons or magistrates (if any such there be in his church), to charity, meekness, and toleration, and diligently endeavour to ally and temper all that heat and unreasonable averseness of mind which either any man’s fiery zeal for his own sect or the craft of others has kindled against dissenters. I will not undertake to represent how happy and how great would be the fruit, both in Church and State, if the pulpits everywhere sounded with this doctrine of peace and toleration, lest I should seem to reflect too severely upon those men whose dignity I desire not to detract from, nor would have it diminished either by others or themselves.

Tolerance is, therefore, not just an absence of violence but joined with the duties of peace and goodwill. This does not seem to be the message that is suggested in the guidance. It might well be, but left with no development it is left open to interpretation.

However, if all teachers aim for is a tolerance of others perspectives then there is little beyond the token recognition of existence. Although tolerance has many positive connotations, to tolerate something or someone is not a laudable aim, it is a step in the right direction but not an end in itself. This involves recognising and celebrating differences. Sometimes, tolerance leads to an uneasy peace in society that can be broken with a single event.

John Hull articulated an approach to RE that could be termed a tolerated vision “I am holy, the argument says, and you are holy but the ground between us is unholy ground and we will contaminate each other through harmful mingling of blood if we meet” (Hull, 1991, p. 38). Geoff Teece develops this by describing the contrasting point of view that recognises that neither you nor I are holy, it is the space between us that constitutes holy ground, holiness being discovered through encounter.” (Teece, 1993, p. 8). This goes beyond tolerance and to borrow from Martin Luther King’s vision for society as one group of people is raised, another group is not caused to be made low.

In a real sense all life is interrelated. The agony of the poor enriches the rich. We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly (King, 1967, p. 181).

Let us be dissatisfied until rat-infested, vermin-filled slums will be a thing of a dark past and every family will have a decent sanitary house in which to live. Let us be dissatisfied until the empty stomachs of Mississippi are filled and the idle industries of Appalachia are revitalized. . . . Let us be dissatisfied until our brothers of the Third World of Asia, Africa and Latin America will no longer be the victims of imperialist exploitation, but will be lifted from the long night of poverty, illiteracy and disease (King, 2000, pp. 38-39).

Extending King’s view of the “blessed community” that would result, one can relate the view of the experience of the religious and non-religious believers. Cox has argued that “It is . . . essential to notice that the two elements, the holy outcast and the blessed community, must go together. Without the vision of restored community, the holiness ascribed to the poor would fall far short of politics and result in a mere perpetuation of charity and service activities’’ (Cox, 1967, p. 133). This would enable a vision of understanding and respect far beyond a tolerance based society.

As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints one of the Articles of Faith I subscribe to is:

We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.

By itself this could indicate a toleration of other beliefs; you worship in your way and I will worship in mine and never the twain shall meet. However, Joseph Smith extended what this might mean in practice:

The Saints can testify whether I am willing to lay down my life for my brethren. If it has been demonstrated that I have been willing to die for a Mormon, I am bold to declare before Heaven that I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any other denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denominations who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves (Smith, J. 1938: 313).

I am not sure how to conclude as I have no answers to offer. On the one hand the Prevent strategy might trample on the rights of the innocent; on the other hand it is my responsibility to speak up on their behalf and also to prevent violence. I think the Channel process as a part of Prevent might go some way to meeting this need but there has to be a lot more thought put into the Prevent strategy to allow for divergent views, while also helping everyone feel a part of something bigger that celebrates all aspects of society.