UK / Europe — 08 June 2011
PREVENT: Welcome to Totalitarian Britain

The British Home Secretary Theresa May’s performance in the House of Commons on June 7th to announce the publication of its review of the Labour government’s controversial “PREVENT” program proved the adage “old habits die hard” true.

Unable to give up its colonialist tendencies abroad, the British government continues to tread its path down to totalitarianism as it deals with the blowback from its foreign policy. Just like the previous government, the latest review of the flagship counter-terrorism program fails to even mention that the interventionist military escapades in Iraq and Afghanistan which killed at least hundreds of thousands of civilians, systemic abuse carried out by its forces such as in Basra highlighted by the killing of Baha Musa, collusion with the American rendition program and torture abroad, along with long-standing support for dictatorships across the Middle East and beyond have anything to do with why a few individuals take arbitrary and illegal actions of revenge into their own hands.

Instead, the blame has once again been shifted onto the Muslim community and its values. The problem is not that violence begets violence, but rather that support for terrorism is associated with rejection of a cohesive, integrated, multi-faith society and of parliamentary democracy”. The problem isn’t that the West has ostensibly tried to shove its values down the throats of Arabs and others at the barrel of a gun thereby fueling reactionary actions in retaliation, but that Muslims at home are not sufficiently “British”.

This is the kind of viewpoint derided by anyone with any sense, such as the former head of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit  Michael Scheuer who has been telling anyone who cares to listen at the Hay festival that Western politicians “can’t cope with the fact that [terrorism is] nothing to do with the way we live. It doesn’t have anything to do with elections or democracy or liberty. We are being attacked in the west and we will continue to be attacked in the west as long as we are in Afghanistan, as long as we support the Israelis, as long as we protect the Saudi police state.” [emphasis added]

Obviously the government isn’t listening, insisting that it is “extremism” which creates the fertile ground for terrorism. Extremism is defined as vocal opposition to “fundamental British values”, as well as support for resistance against British occupation forces. Defeating extremism means enforcing the “fundamental British values” and ensuring they prevail over others. The report mentioned four such vague values:  democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. Given that the British government’s foreign policy routinely flouts all of these four it is surprising that they feel a claim to the moral imperative to impose them upon others. The PREVENT agenda itself is contradictory to the acclaimed value of “mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs” given its goal of the imposition of Western liberal values in place of normative Islamic ideals.

Historian Mark Curtis has outlined in his books how Britain often acts as an “outlaw” state, ignoring international law and supporting repressive regimes. He also asserts that Britain bears “significant responsibility” for between 8-13 million deaths since 1945 through covert interventionism including backing for the coups that brought dictators such as Idi Amin, Augustine Pinochet and Saddam’s Ba’ath party in Iraq to power. They were also responsible for the subversion of the democratic elected Iranian government of Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953, urging the Americans to somehow get the Shah reinstated (which the CIA achieved through a coup). In recent weeks despite the Arab uprising sweeping the region the British government has played host to both Bahraini and Saudi regime figures, giving backing to two absolutist monarchies responsible for all manner of human rights abuses and suppression, and who are currently acting as counter-revolutionary forces in the region. That the government can talk about British values which appear to have little basis in reality means that they sound either delusional or dishonest.

The Conservatives also seem to believe that the reason the Muslim population in the UK doesn’t fully adopt British values is because they are ignorant of British history, as though its colonial past is somehow more indicative of its core values than its neo-colonial present. Therefore under the leadership of education secretary and neo-con Michael Gove, the teaching of history is to be reinvigorated in school. One can only wonder what version of colonial history is going to be taught that will make 2nd and 3rd generation Asians (who make up the bulk of Muslims in Britain) proud of being British? This will clearly not be an honest portrayal of the past, which includes the massacres of Indians in 1857, the Opium wars against the Chinese, or the war against the Maori or the Zulu’s or the Sudanese, or the duplicity of the Balfour declaration and the betrayal of Arab allies after World War one, but more akin to a Niall Fergusanesque apologia for Empire along the lines of the White Man’s Burden. At least not all MPs present listening to May’s statement were so unaware, with former History lecturer Tristram Hunt warning that the values proclaimed by the government were not reflected in British history and that trying to define what is or isn’t “Britishness” would be “treacherous territory”. The fact is that a syllabus that honestly portrayed Britain’s colonial past would be a cause of radicalization of any sensible person, and not its cure.

But sense is something which appears to have long been in short supply in government, who seem to believe that they merely have to say something for it to be true. The report repeatedly claims that PREVENT and its sister programs such as CHANNEL (which “identifies and provides support for people at risk of radicalization”) are nothing to do with spying on the Muslim community. This is true, a person is unlikely to be spied upon – unless they attend school in which case teachers have been warned to identify children potentially susceptible to being radicalised and inform the authorities. Or university, where government exhortations for academics to identify possible radicals have previously led to the wrongful arrests of staff and research students. If you are not a student, you should be able to avoid surveillance as long as you don’t visit a doctor for medical purposes – as the medical profession has also been requested to pass on information to the state if they suspect any of their patients being susceptible to extremism.  None of this is spying, because it is not being done by the official spying agency, but by the public at the behest of the Central Committee.

The ugly truth is that the British government is now openly adopting a totalitarian agenda of pursuing those who hold ideological opinions that they do not approve of, and the McCarthyism of the United States is gradually being echoed in a contemporary format this time targeting Muslims. Though they are reticent to outline what specific values they consider to be extremist, it has been previously reported that they include the belief in Shariah law, the establishment of a united Islamic State or Caliphate,  or the support of armed resistance anywhere in the World including that of the Palestinians.

It is now no longer sufficient to abide by the rule of law, you have to give up any alternative moral and political views you may have, and submit to liberal secularism or “muscular liberalism” as defined by ideologues such as May, Gove or Cameron, as well as adopting a view of Western exceptionalism that justifies or at a minimum excuses the violence by the West while demonizing any resistance against it. The Arab uprisings in the Middle East seem to have taught the ex-colonial power nothing about respecting the aspirations of others, and through its proposals the government has simply reinforced its belief that others are to blame for the ills they have caused, and remain unwilling to take a truly critical view of their actions around the World.


Reza Pankhurst is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics, and also blogs at

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