Government announcement damages any hope of a meaningful independent review of PREVENT
Wednesday January 27 2021
Today, the Government announced that William Shawcross is to be the new Independent Reviewer of PREVENT. This comes as a devastating announcement to all those whom had hoped for a truly independent and transparent review into a fundamentally flawed strategy that continues to detrimentally impact Muslim communities.
Muslim communities can have no confidence in the legitimacy of any review directed by Shawcross in light of his long history of Islamophobic credentials, particularly surrounding his tenure as former director and trustee of the neoconservative and Islamophobic think-tank, the Henry Jackson Society (HJS). In 2012, whilst director of HJS, Shawcross asserted: “Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future. I think all European countries have vastly, very quickly growing Islamic populations”. Meanwhile, when leading the Charity Commission it lost a number of legal battles after Shawcross was accused of presiding over a campaign of anti-Muslim attacks on Muslim charities and grassroots organisations.
Consequently, considering the criticisms of the structurally Islamophobic nature of PREVENT, MEND and other organisations working in the field have no confidence in an individual such as Shawcross leading any kind of robust investigation capable of meaningful conclusions and recommendations.
At the same time, serious allegations of a conflict of interest have arisen in light of the Home Secretary, Priti Patel’s, links to HJS. As observed by Nafeez Ahmed; “Shawcross’ connections to a lobbying group with ties to both the Home Secretary herself and alt-right nationalist movements in the US raises urgent questions about his suitability to review the Government’s flagship counter-extremism programme.”
MEND originally supported the principle of an Independent Review of PREVENT as we believed it was an avenue for genuine democratic change. However, these hopes were first questioned with the appointment of Lord Carlile, who was removed after a judicial review was launched by Rights Watch UK. The second appointment of someone who is also wholly and unquestionably unsuitable to lead such an important review forces us to further question whether the Government is serious about having an independent review and whether we can engage with this process.
As such, MEND cannot in good conscience engage with the review as long as William Shawcross remains independent reviewer as there can be no legitimate review as long as he remains in place. We will thus not engage with the review until Shawcross is removed and commitments are made to restore our confidence.
The appointment of someone who has so prominently platformed anti-Muslim rhetoric to review the PREVENT strategy could be seen by some as part of a worrying and concerted effort to control the direction and framing of the review, especially considering that Lord Carlile was previously removed from the post following a lawsuit that challenged his impartiality as a vocal proponent of PREVENT policy. The appointments of figures that endorse the propagation of Islamophobia and structurally Islamophobic strategies such as PREVENT raises doubts as to whether the appointments are made, not despite their political standpoints but because of them in an attempt to obscure the excesses of the PREVENT duty.
Shawcross’ links to Islamophobia is best demonstrated during his tenure as former director and trustee of the neoconservative and Islamophobic think tank Henry Jackson Society (HJS). In 2012, whilst director of HJS, Shawcross asserted: “Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future. I think all European countries have vastly, very quickly growing Islamic populations” – a comment reminiscent of broader narratives that seek to justify the War on Terror by reducing complex discussions on immigration, terrorism and multiculturalism to reductive binaries of the threat of Islam to Western civilisation.
This reductive framing has increasingly informed HJS’s focus on Muslim communities that play on misguided fears of an “Islamist threat” to curb civil liberties. Shawcross’ alliance with HJS and right-wing conception of extremism rooted in bigotry and Islamophobia can therefore only undermine the credibility and independence of such a critical review.
HJS’ relationship with PREVENT is perhaps best evidenced through their project Student Rights, supposedly dedicated to tackling “extremism” on campus. Notorious for their relentless targeting of Muslim students and political activism, Student Rights have endeavoured to embed PREVENT’s racialised policy on campus, driving universities to police Muslim student societies and suppress political activism. Amongst the most problematic aspects of Student Rights’ is their intersection with the far-right, indeed, they have opposed no-platforming policies against the BNP, meanwhile, the previous head of Student Rights is former UKIP leadership candidate Raheem Kassam, who is a founder of Breitbart UK, and alongside Nigel Farage was amongst the first UK politicians to meet Donald Trump following his election as US President.
Moreover, the Institute of Race Relations has noted with concern that Student Rights’ work and reporting has been used by far-right groups to target Muslim student events, resulting in threats of violence from groups such as the EDL. This is but one example of campus activisms that have been suppressed as a result of neoconservative and far-right deployment of accusations of Muslims’ “extremism” within the framework of the PREVENT policy.
Thus, we must recognize the potential undermining of the independence of the review should Shawcross be appointed considering his role in HJS’s promotion of the flawed strategy. Notably, HJS has routinely furthered the notion of the role of universities in fostering extremist thought. In a 2012 report entitled “Challenging Extremists: Practical frameworks for our universities” the authors draw tenuous links between universities and the path to radicalisation despite a Home Affairs Select Committee having concluded earlier that year that there was little evidence of universities as sites of radicalisation and expressing concern over the disproportionate focus on universities. Published under Shawcross’ directorship, it is therefore likely that the report reflects Shawcross’ skewed understanding of radicalisation that lacks the nuance and complexities that the review demands. More than anything, it points to the resolve of HJS members to systematically discredit the very evidence upon which calls for the independent review of PREVENT are based.
PREVENT and the wider CVE apparatus also empowered the Charity Commission, chaired by Shawcross 2012-2018, to clamp down on the alleged threat of extremism on student unions and charities alike, hampering campaigning efforts and criminalising thought that diverts from their prescribed narrative. A report on free speech in universities by the Joint Committee on Human Rights explicated the damaging impact of Charity Commission’s guidance for student unions as “not easy to use, is in places unduly restrictive, could deter speech which is not unlawful and does not take adequate account of the importance of debate in a university setting.”
Similarly, a report that revealed the Charity Commissions’ anti-Muslim bias in its disproportionate scrutiny of Muslim charities during Shawcross’ leadership found that 38% of Charity Commission cases related to Muslim charities. Fifty-five of them were loosely classified under “extremism and radicalisation” labels, which had no written criteria and were devoid of evidentiary basis, expanding the remit of surveillance over Muslim charities. Despite Islamic extremism posing the “most deadly” threat to charities as Shawcross warned, of 13 inquiry reports concluded between 2014 and 2016, only one related to Islamic extremism. However, the Charity Commission’s approach extended to over-extended scrutiny of Muslim grassroots organisations and charities as fronts for extremism and hampering the invaluable work of charities which has led to the commission losing significant legal challenges against organisations such as CAGE and Human Aid UK . It is therefore clear how the narratives that underpin CVE policies are abstracted to different areas of community organising from student unions, schools and charities in order to push Muslims further to the fringes of civic life. That the harmful effects of PREVENT are demonstrably manifested in Charity Commission’s interactions with Muslim charities suggests that Shawcross’ position would colour the review with a pre-determined bias.
Given his history as an embedded figure within the propagation of anti-Muslim biases and the overarching apparatus of the War on Terror, Shawcross’ leadership of the review would only encourage the continued infringement of civil liberties, sanitise the adverse effects of the strategy, risk deflecting criticism, and compromise any potentially meaningful recommendations. It is critical that the Government recognise the role of Shawcross’ Islamophobia in undermining the independent and impartial basis on which the review ought to be undertaken and therefore elect a reviewer that enjoys the confidence and trust of those negatively impacted by the PREVENT duty.