Preventing Prevent 2.0

Does Trump plan to implement a US version of highly controversial British counter-extremism strategy?

Via “Exclusive: Trump to focus counter-extremism program solely on Islam – sources” by Julia Edwards Ainsley, Dustin Volz and Kristina Cooke, Reuters, February 2, 2017:

The Trump administration wants to revamp and rename a U.S. government program designed to counter all violent ideologies so that it focuses solely on Islamist extremism, five people briefed on the matter told Reuters.

The program, “Countering Violent Extremism,” or CVE, would be changed to “Countering Islamic Extremism” or “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism,” the sources said, and would no longer target groups such as white supremacists who have also carried out bombings and shootings in the United States.

As covered on this blog, the unintended consequences from the British government’s own counter-extremism programme – the much-maligned Prevent strategy – have proven to be deeply troublesome, and the strategy is frequently criticised by students’ groups and free speech organisations as a threat to academic and religious freedoms.

Of particular concern is the government’s loose definition of “extremism,” which essentially provides legal remit for authorities and British institutions such as schools and universities to shut down political dissent (one Yorkshire council even used Prevent to target anti-fracking environmental protesters).

Yorkshire anti-fracking protesters (source)

According to Prevent duty guidance, the government defines “extremism” as “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.”

In an interview with the Guardian in 2015, Metropolitan Police commander Mak Chishty expanded on the government’s definition to include subtle changes in behaviour, such as the shunning of certain shops, claiming there was a need for authorities to “move into the private space” of Muslims.

Asked to define “private space,” Chishty said: It’s anything from walking down the road, looking at a mobile, to someone in a bedroom surfing the net, to someone in a shisha cafe talking about things.”

Conservative MP Lucy Allen put it best: “Prevent…sounds positively Orwellian.

Metropolitan Police commander Mak Chishty (source)

The clincher is that much of the data used to support Downing Street’s premise that British institutions are “hotbeds of “extremist activity, was taken – without attribution – from a misleading report by “right-wing think tank the Henry Jackson Society.

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July 2015 report by Student Rights director Rupert Sutton (source)

Via my December 2015 public records request, Downing Street was still in the process of collecting case studies about extremism just five days before the updated strategy came into force, and appears to have ignored a request from an internal fact-checker to amend figures about the number of events featuring “hate speakers” held on university campuses in 2014.

The strategy is currently facing a legal challenge from British Muslim activist Dr. Salman Butt, who claims the government breached his free speech rights when it branded him an “extremist” in a 2015 press release.

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An “Extremist” Fights Back

Prominent Muslim activist Dr. Salman Butt launches legal challenge against misleading government report labelling him a non-violent “extremist”

Dr. Salman Butt, a prominent Muslim activist, has launched a legal challenge against the UK government’s Prevent strategy, claiming it breached his free speech rights.

Last year, Dr. Butt was one of six so-called “hate speakers” singled out by Downing Street as “expressing views contrary to British values.”

Muslim activist Dr. Salman Butt (source)

The claims were made via Downing Street’s September 17, 2015 press release, titled “PM’s Extremism Taskforce: tackling extremism in universities and colleges top of the agenda.”

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Downing Street’s September 17, 2015 press release (source)

Citing work by Whitehall’s Extremism Analysis Unit (EAU), Downing Street claimed that in 2014 there were “70 events involving speakers who are known to have promoted rhetoric that aimed to undermine core British values of democracy.”

However, e-mails recently obtained via a public records request (click to read) show that much of the data attributed to the EAU in the press release – including information used to “name and shame” universities – was taken from a misleading July 2015 report by Student Rights, an arm of “right-wing think tank” the Henry Jackson Society.

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July 2015 report by Student Rights director Rupert Sutton (source)

As the e-mails show, Downing Street was still in the process of collecting case studies to support the updated strategy the morning prior to publication, and appears to have ignored a request from an internal fact-checker to amend figures about the number of events featuring “hate speakers” held on university campuses in 2014.

The e-mails also show that, despite having supposedly dropped plans for an statutory ban on so-called “extremist” speakers in March of last year, the government was still toying with the idea of a ban right up until September 16, 2015, just five days before the updated guidance officially came into force.

Via BBC News, Dr. Butt denied holding views contrary to British values, and expressed his intention to shine a light on the inner workings of government policy:

“I’m a father of three, I’m a British Muslim, a writer, an activist. I am not an extremist, either violent or non-violent.

“Being labelled as some kind of extremist does have a stigmatising effect. I have not spoken at any universities since I was named in the [Downing Street] press release.

“My aim isn’t just to clear my name, it is to bring transparency to the hidden processes by which individuals are tarnished with the label of an extremist, to ensure it is brought into the scrutiny of the courts.”

Saimo Chahal QC, partner and human rights lawyer at Bindmans LLP, said that Dr. Butt’s challenge is a test case.

Human rights lawyer Saimo Chahal QC (source)

Via BBC News:

“The Prevent duty guidance issued to higher education institutions is flawed because it conflicts with the right to free speech which is enshrined in the Education Act for higher education institutions,” [Chahal] said.

“The challenge, if successful, could have major implications for the controversial policy as it applies to universities and higher education,” she added.

According to the BBC, Dr. Butt’s lawyers will be challenging part of the strategy that aims to stop people from becoming or supporting terrorists, as well as challenging the government’s definition of “extremism,” which they say is ill-defined.

Additionally, they have been given permission to challenge the way the government’s EAU collected information about Dr. Butt, arguing the process lacks transparency, and that the procedure for identifying people as “extremists” is flawed and in breach of the law.

See also: “The Tyranny of Values,” my October 23 item re: Downing Street’s unattributed use of data from “right-wing think tank” the Henry Jackson Society to “name and shame” universities that host “extremist” speakers.