No stereotypes here. It’s a Prevent training session, for mental health staff in a London NHS trust. Gloria and 40 about other practitioners have taken an afternoon away from patient care to learn how to identify and respond to people at risk of extremism. Attendance is compulsory, and with the perpetual risk of terrorist attacks, this needs little justification. But there was a large elephant in the room.
Prevent is part of the government’s anti-terrorism strategy. Under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, schools, universities and health services are among organisations with a duty to prevent people being led astray by jihadi or other causes. Mental health care is particularly relevant to Prevent, because it is known that many terrorists have a psychiatric history, and that vulnerable patients are targeted by Islamist groups.
Commentators on the Left and Muslim activists have attempted to discredit Prevent as institutionalised Islamophobia. However, the Government has emphasised a broader scope, with extremism defined 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’.
The trainer presented four fictional cases from the Prevent material. First up was a white working-class youth, a loner in a fatherless family, who had immersed himself in far-right online networks. Next, a middle-class anti-vivisectionist. A Chinese man linked to Triad gangs. And an environmental campaigner plotting violent protest. The attendees were divided into four groups to discuss these interesting cases, and what could be done to stop their destructive intent.
Gloria’s group took these examples as a euphemism for the real terror threat to society, and the danger to Muslim patients was readily raised by these real-world practitioners. Gloria has worked with two patients with troubling, absolutist ideas about their Islamic duty. Staff with expertise in forensic care explained that for many patients Prevent was too late, as they had already been radicalised in prison.
So there was no doubt of the need for training, but this session provided little guidance for practitioners. Apart from the useful discussion with colleagues, Gloria thought it was a wasted opportunity. She works in an area with a high Muslim population, where it is known that extremists are recruiting people outside mosques. What should mental health clinicians do? How should they work with families, community groups or imams?
Much is spoken of the decent Muslim majority, but that’s not the problem. Ordinary worshippers have nothing to do with hotheads, but hundreds of British citizens have been persuaded to join Islamic State in Syria, and it only takes one man to carry a rucksack bomb into a crowded shopping mall. In healthcare you would expect an evidence-based approach, focusing on the minority at risk; doctors and nurses can’t treat cancer by comforting themselves in the fact that most people don’t have the disease.
Gloria has seen how some younger Muslims are blatantly less westernised than their parents. Fundamentalist Islam is on the rise, and although piety and strict observance should not be associated with violence, practitioners should be aware of known patterns and risk factors in a severely nihilistic minority. They should also be alert to the silent zeal of the convert. The latest slaughter of innocents at Westminster was by a mixed-race man from Kent, who had turned to Islam amid his dealings with the law. There is a clear pattern of black recidivists in prison converting to Islam, particularly in its aggressive Wahhabi form, and they are over-represented in the demography of terrorists. We know this, but the facts are suppressed. Mental health practitioners need guidance on exploring, with sensitivity, a previously unreligious patient’s radical change to strict Islamic faith. Anger, psychosis and contact with extremist preachers is a volatile mix.
To have no Islamist example in this training was absurd, given the reason why Prevent exists. Sensitivity about targeting Muslims has led to an impotent, politically correct package that is not fit for purpose. Gloria and colleagues felt patronised, as though they couldn’t be trusted not to slide into anti-Islam prejudice if a Muslim scenario was presented. But the impact could be more serious: a subtle message that workers should not target Muslims is likely to deter intervention where it may be most needed.
Gloria is not the first to express surprise at the strangely tangential case studies in Prevent training. Richard Haley of Scotland Against Criminalising Communities complained: –
Animal rights, environmental and anti-nuclear campaigns have somehow found their way onto slides used by Glasgow City Council for online staff training on PREVENT, where they are identified as current terrorist threats. These are of course legitimate issues for people to campaign about, and Glasgow City Council will no doubt have staff members who are involved in such campaigns. Their inclusion as terrorist threats is alarming and misleading.
While white supremacists should not be overlooked, it is vital that Prevent focuses primarily on Islamist terror. To do otherwise is a subversion of priorities from saving lives to protecting the reputation of a religion. Islam does not need our kidgloves, and by denying the murderous menace on the outer fringe of this global faith, we are contributing to fear and hostility. For Prevent to work, we need a policy of truth.
(Image: Matt Buck)