Preventing Violent Extremism: Perceptions of Policy from Grassroots and Communities

In 2003 the UK’s then Labour government began to organise a number of consultations and working groups in a bid to understand what role a ‘softer’ approach could play within its counter-terrorism strategy. In addition to pursuing known terrorists or preparing for a potential attack, the government felt that more emphasis should be given to preventing its citizens from becoming terrorists. After the devastating attacks on London’s transport network in 2005 by four British suicide bombers, the adoption of this strategy was somewhat accelerated. In 2006, the ‘Prevent Strategy’ (Prevent 2006) was officially released and formed one part of the wider ‘Strategy for Countering International Terrorism’ (CONTEST). Prevent 2006 aimed to implement a community-led approach to preventing and countering extremism in the UK by winning ‘hearts and minds’ through the empowerment of local Muslim groups and communities. It was delivered by various central and local government departments, a multi-layered police response, and local community stakeholders.

Informed by empirical qualitative data, this research critically assesses the perception and reception ‘on the ground’ of Prevent 2006 amongst those who are, in many ways, the focus of such interventions. The data was collected, as part of the author’s doctoral thesis, over a nine month period from various respondents across the board. However, the interviews conducted at the grassroots level in numerous Muslim communities across the UK were especially insightful. Although this research was eventually published as an academic journal article in 2012, it was written and submitted before the release of the revised Prevent Strategy in 2011.

The empirical data yielded some interesting findings which formed three key points of discussion. First, the research showed there to be distinct concerns with the way funding was allocated at the grassroots level within Muslim communities. Many felt that the government was ‘throwing money at the problem’ in a bid to resolve it, and certain organisations were taking full advantage of this, regardless of whether they had the necessary experience or knowledge required. Second, there was much confusion about the overarching aims of the strategy. The concern was that those projects which should have been focused on countering extremism were more geared towards enhancing community cohesion; which inevitably leads to a feeling that Muslim communities are being viewed as ‘suspect communities’. The third key finding concerned the allegations of spying and intelligence gathering within Muslim communities; which asked some very serious questions of the alleged practices of the UK’s security service and parts of the police. The grievance predominantly arose from interviewees perceiving that an element of the strategy, that is, empowering non-State actors to counter extremism, was being misused in order to satisfy other underlying motives, that is covertly gathering intelligence. However, as this was already in the public arena, the paper focused more upon what effect this was having within Muslim communities. It was found that not only were Muslim communities looking at the state with distrust, but also inward at one another with suspicion and apprehension which inevitably caused tension amongst and within these communities.

The research also highlighted important discussions concerning the relationships between Muslim communities and the state; most interestingly with the police. When assessing a number of important indicators within the British Crime Survey, the feeling is that Muslim communities hold closer ties and more trust with the police than most other communities. The empirical data found similarities with the British Crime Survey, though this is not to say there were no grievances held towards the police whatsoever. Importantly, Prevent 2006 and the criticisms towards its implementation have not affected the way Muslim communities view and interact with the police. Critically, this signals that Muslim communities are able to untangle the difference between policy delivered at the state level and the role of the police in implementing it. It appears that if the police were taken out of the equation altogether, people would have still held similar grievances with Prevent 2006, with initial and dominant concerns lying at the policy level.

More recently, the UK’s coalition government released a revised version of the strategy in 2011 (Prevent 2011) which has explicitly focused on addressing the concerns raised with its predecessor, though, has not been free from its own criticisms. Although both versions have their own distinct issues, there is one clear commonality between them. This is their inability to effectively balance a top-down and bottom-up approach to countering extremism in the UK. Prevent 2006 was criticised for giving too much power, control and flexibility to the grassroots and community groups running projects. On the other hand, Prevent 2011 can be criticised for going too far the other way by moving away from the community-led approach on which it was built, and to be in line with David Cameron’s now infamous use of the term ‘muscular liberalism’ in Munich in 2011. The issue here is then about how to effectively balance formal and informal social control to overcome some of the issues facing society.

For a fuller discussion see: Lakhani, Suraj, Preventing Violent Extremism: Perceptions of Policy from Grassroots and Communities (May 2012). The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, Vol. 51, Issue 2, pp. 190-206, 2012. Available at SSRN: or

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