The US Prevent strategy: lessons learnt or a nefarious doppelganger?

Written by Asim Qureshi Tuesday, 23 August 2011
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On the face of things, it would seem that the document is one that should be welcomed by most, however, the strategy seems to be doing quite well being all things to all people.

While the War on Terror is quite often referenced as being US-led, there are occasions where other countries take the lead in formulating counterterrorism policies. The UK government over the last few years has taken an ideological approach to tackling what it terms violent extremism in the UK. More recently, the UK government sought to reassess that strategy due to its counterproductive nature, only to conclude that they should be tackling all extremism within the Muslim communities, not just violent extremism.
In August 2011, the US released its own Prevent strategy, entitled Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States. Unlike the UK version, this strategy is more of a mission statement and does not describe in any real detail the actual mechanisms that will be employed. It often references the ideological nature of the conflict relating to extremism, but the key point, is that the document emphasises over again, is that it is only violent extremism they are interested in.
On the face of things, it would seem that the document is one that should be welcomed by most, however, the strategy seems to be doing quite well being all things to all people. Various groups across the political spectrum are welcoming the strategy, or at least parts of it. Muslim organisations such as CAIR and MPAC have made positive noises, but then so has the pro-Israeli group WINEP. Even Peter King, the chair of Homeland Security, has welcomes aspects of the strategy. Thus, in being broad in its terminology, it has not really offended any particular group.
A key reason for why the overview document has been so inoffensive, may has something to do with its architect being Quintan Wiktorowicz from the National Security Council. He was present at the US embassy in London when the UK Prevent was being promulgated and he saw how the entire programme became discredited.
In order for those same mistakes to be avoided, the policy presented by the US government does no focus solely on Muslims. Rather, the entire emphasis of the document is that it seeks to separate community engagement from intelligence gathering, but further that it does not lay itself on false notions of radicalisation or ideology.
While the above is a welcome change to what we are used to in the UK, the problem still remains in terms of how the principles laid out in the document will manifest themselves practically. Wording relating to community engagement can quickly become an exercise in restriction of freedom of expression/religion if terms like ‘violent extremism’ and ‘radicalisation’ are not defined.
In relation to intelligence gathering, the document does not explain how the relationship will work in terms of community engagement. If the lines are blurred, serious questions will be asked in relation to those who are considered to be the authority within those communities, and the extent to which they will be free from influence by the agencies.
At the moment the document does not give us enough to suggest that the mistakes of the UK will be repeated. However, like all of Obama’s War on Terror policies, the devil is always in the detail. We will have to wait and see how the US government will carry its strategy forward.
This article was produced with detailed suggestions by Arun Kundnani from the Open Society Fellowship.
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