In the spring of 2016, a small group of academics at the University of Cambridge put a motion before Regent House, the governing body of the university, to hold a discussion on the Prevent program—the British government’s counter-radicalization scheme. The scene during the discussion was palpably grim, with scholar after scholar imploring the university to refuse implementation of a program that had already spread across most public institutions and universities in the country. Priyamvada Gopal, a lecturer in English, warned that the lack of collective academic protest over the Prevent Duty meant “sleepwalking into inequality and racial profiling.” [1] Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering, reminded the university that surveillance of online research is ultimately unworkable and against multiple human rights conventions, including the European Convention on Human Rights and the Treaty of Rome. The European Court of Justice ruled in 2014 against bulk surveillance without suspicion in a case brought by Digital Rights Ireland. The university discussion was too late. By fall of 2016, all 31 Cambridge colleges had a Prevent mechanism and committee, and the university had set up a permanent Prevent taskforce of legal counsel, a vice-provost and a university-wide oversight committee.

What is Prevent? After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the British government developed the Prevent program as one part of an overarching counterterrorism strategy known as CONTEST. Led by then Home Secretary Theresa May, the strategy was revised in 2008, 2011 and 2015. CONTEST consists of four elements: “Pursue: to stop terrorist attacks; Prevent: to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism; Protect: to strengthen protection against a terrorist attack; and Prepare: to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack.” [2]

Its latest iteration, the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, imposes a legal duty on public bodies, and anyone who works for them, to identity the early warning signs of terrorist sympathy in individuals, and report them to an authority. It is a legally binding demand that if you see something, you must say something. The idea is that the radicalization process must be stopped by targeting those still at the stage of so-called non-violent extremism before it ends in violent extremism.

What is radicalization according to these statutes? “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. We also include in our definition of extremism calls for the death of members of our armed forces.” [3] According to the government’s counterterrorism strategy, ideology, or extremist ideology, results in terrorism. Studies prove otherwise. [4] At the Cambridge discussion, Surabhi Ranganathan, a law scholar, described the Prevent legislation as both “extraordinarily intrusive and extraordinarily vague.” It allows for regulating and criminalizing thought, not just actions.

How does one spot so-called extremist thought? There is no comprehensive list of possible indicators that someone is, as the government terms it, “vulnerable to terrorism,” but the government has published a partial list in the official guidance that accompanies the primary legislation. These include identity crises, low self-esteem, having a sense of grievance, a personal experience with racism, a feeling of failure, experiences with imprisonment, poor re-adjustment, unmet aspirations and “searching for answers to questions about identity, faith and belonging.” [5]

Once you are flagged as “vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism,” you are reported—or as official sources phrase it, referred—to the police. Referrals can come from anyone. Teachers, council workers, social workers, doctors, university lecturers, nurses or librarians all have referred someone under the Prevent Duty. Once referred, people are sent to courses under the Channel program. It is supposedly voluntary and offers social and psychological remedial training to de-radicalize young British Muslims and steer them off the “path to extremism.” [6]

With an annual budget of over $53 million, [7] Prevent’s reach has been expansive and its consequences brutal. Children aged nine and under were among the 3,955 people reported under the Prevent Duty in 2015 alone. [8] Although Muslims are five percent of the British population, they make up 70 percent of all Prevent referrals. By December 2016, more than 7,500 people were referred, including 3,100 under the age of 18. These figures are no surprise. As Frances Webber of the Institute of Race Relations has noted, the context for Prevent is an “increase in racist violence and ‘extremely negative stereotypes of Muslims’…Islamophobia and far right extremism have become more mainstream, with nearly one third of young children believing Muslims are taking over England and over a quarter believing that Islam encourages terrorism.” [9]

As expected, local enforcers have dismissed as “hysterical” community fears that it unfairly targets Muslims. [10] What has been more distressing is the relative quiet from institutions otherwise keen on protecting freedom of speech, particularly universities. It is at universities that the full power of Prevent is exercised, while administrators do little more than promise that they are seeking to mitigate the potential pitfalls of the Duty by using what many administrators wink will be a “light touch.” This supposedly light touch has obligated university staff, like all public sector employees, to impose ritualistic risk assessment forms and action templates in order to demonstrate compliance. “Training manuals, guides and slides, workshops, seminars and online courses, accompanied by conflicting and copious literature, official and unofficial guidance, published at regular intervals, with updates, new suggestions and more forms—all of which come with dark warnings of the trouble ahead if you don’t (or won’t) fill in the forms or carry out the required activities.” [11] Privatized courses by boutique firms offer games of snakes and ladders to help trainees better understand the path from extremism to radicalization, and courses for schools on so-called British values. Non-compliance could lead to loss of funding or legal action for individual violations of the Prevent Duty.

But as Karma Nabulsi notes, “Prevent has turned ordinary citizens and public sector workers into an auxiliary surveillance militia. Talking or texting in Arabic on a plane, speaking a foreign language in a doctor’s waiting room, wearing a hijab while walking down the street near your house, wearing a free Palestine badge at school—people doing all these things have been reported to police under the Prevent programme.” [12]

This has impacted the capacity of students and scholars to organize, deliberate and speak, with approval of rooms being denied or stalled, courses monitored and professors asked to record their lectures on Islam and the Middle East and to explicitly report their content and the discussion afterwards. Pro-Palestine ideas or activities in particular have been identified as key risks to keep an eye on. The inevitable result has been self-censorship. Students avoid certain research topics, limit their online searches on university-owned computers and confine their discussions of foreign policy to increasingly narrow safe zones, such as their homes or those of friends. Parents avoid discussing politics at the dinner table for fear that their children may mention it in school. And university students are removing pins saying “Free Palestine” or simply “End war.” Prevent, in other words, has served as a primary state mechanism by which to de-fang political protest. [13]

What have academics done collectively? Not much. There have been pockets of individual acts of refusal, with lecturers refusing to take Prevent training courses or fill out the endless risk assessment forms. But there has been no substantial collective mobilization to dismantle the legal architecture of the Duty. Each academic year the program becomes more entrenched and harder to extricate. As it grows, it is monetized and implants mechanisms that incentivize its implementation by increasingly powerful administrators. Part of this is a result of the very success of Prevent as it is geared towards a minority that is under-represented in the university. Though it is comically vague, it is also efficient in dividing Muslims from other parts of the British public. Protests only seem to gain traction once the liberal distaste for impingement upon a particular scholar’s speech is invoked. Fiery emails are sent to the University Council and petitions are sent around, but once a student or lecturer is referred, the Prevent Duty mechanisms are activated with little protest. The confusing nature of its legal obligations on individual staff members renders potential objectors fretful and unwilling to defend values as long as they continue to have access to their rights.

There has been some good news. The National Union of Teachers, obligated by Prevent to report on their students, passed a motion in October 2015, rejecting the Prevent Duty, saying the legislation caused “suspicion in the classroom and confusion in the staffroom.” [14] Though not attached to any particular union recommendation, it has sent a clear message of protest from teachers who are a primary sector for its implementation. The National Union of Students has called Prevent “fundamentally racist and Islamophobic” and is part of an increasing number of unions and organizations calling for its repeal or overhaul—including the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), Students Not Suspects and a wide range of civil liberties and Muslim organizations. [15] It is communities, students and organizers beyond the university who will, as ever, need to push the university to abandon what is by most estimates the single greatest threat to liberties in Great Britain in a generation.


[1] All quotations in this essay by participants at the University of Cambridge discussion are from “Report of Discussion,” Cambridge University Reporter (May 10, 2016).
[2] “Revised Prevent Duty Guidance: for England and Wales,” British Government, July 2015.
[3] Ibid.
[4] “Leading Academics Question Science That Underpins Prevent Strategy,” CAGE, September 29, 2016.
[5] “Working Together to Prevent Terrorism,” Let’s Talk About It.
[6] “Channel Duty Guidance: Protecting vulnerable people from being drawn into terrorism,” British Government, 2015.….
[7] “Prevent strategy: Is it failing to stop radicalisation?” BBC News, March 6, 2015.
[8] “Almost 4,000 people referred to UK deradicalisation scheme last year,” The Guardian, March 20, 2016.
[9] Frances Weber, “Prevent and the Children’s Rights Convention,” Institute of Race Relations (January 2016), p. 9.
[10] “Prevent scheme ‘fundamental’ to fighting terrorism,” BBC News, December 27, 2016.
[11] Karma Nabulsi, “Don’t Go to the Doctor,” London Review of Books, 39/10 (May 18, 2017).
[12] Ibid.
[13] Eva Nanopoulos, “A Corbyn-led government should start by scrapping the Prevent Strategy,” Open Democracy, June 26, 2017.
[14] “Teachers back motion calling for Prevent strategy to be scrapped,” The Guardian, March 28, 2016.
[15] “Preventing Prevent—We are Students Not Suspects,” NUS Connect.… See also Prevent Watch.

How to cite this article:

Mezna Qato "What is Prevent?," Middle East Report 282 (Spring 2017).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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