A social worker reveals a Prevent training that proved shockingly ignorant about basic Islamic beliefs, trite on Palestinian activism, while giving a brief nod to the far-right, and ignoring zionism altogether.
As a social worker, I had to attend a mandatory Prevent training. It was delivered by a Senior Social Worker, the Prevent Manager (an ex-cop) and a SO15 Counter Terrorism Officer (CTO), who identified as a Muslim.
When anti-Muslim bias is rife in society, identifying so-called “signs of radicalisation” when social work already has a racism problem, in addition to the toxic nature of the training I attended, really proved how the Islamophobic nature of Prevent only worsens existing problems of bias in public services.
Firstly, the CTO insisted that a Muslim terrorist is called an ‘Islamist’. This type of language simply problematizes Islam itself, especially in the minds of everyone there.
He also displayed a collage of convicted terrorists, stressing how most of the faces were of Muslims, “because Muslims are the biggest terror threat in the UK, not white right-wing extremists,” he said (recent security statistics show that this is not the case).
I was disgusted at this demonisation of Muslims. Would it be acceptable to show mostly black people on a screen and say “most criminals are black”, then expect social workers to be accepting of this?
Prevent training targets children, religion
The CTO advised social workers that if a Muslim child “suddenly becomes more religious than his/her parents”, this could be “a sign of radicalisation”.
He gave an example of a child who encourages his/her mum to “cover up” or a girl who starts wearing a hijab despite her mum not wearing a hijab, which he said would need to be “looked into”.
He even remarked, “I can probably tell you what a practicing, bearded Muslim’s views on LGBTQ are.”
He derided ‘Islamists’ for believing in a “literal” afterlife, asserting they are ultimately driven by “a peculiar desire for heaven”.
Meanwhile he downplayed other influences on people like foreign policy, socio-economic deprivation and mental health or even autism, which is often conflated with “extremism”.
The CTO tried to strike fear into everyone there, and justify his profiling of Muslims, by stating that a security guard at the Manchester arena bombing “saw the terrorist praying outside just before his attack”, which he thought was strange, but “felt worried about being branded a racist”, so did not approach him.
Not a single social worker raised their voice
Social Work England (the regulator) remains silent about Prevent, despite claiming to be “anti-racist”, “independent” and “fearless”.
I wanted to speak up against this breach of even the council’s commitment against Islamophobia. But the trainers encouraged everyone to be open, while at the same time implying that anyone criticising Prevent is a terrorist sympathiser.
The CTO even warned us: “There are some Islamist groups undermining Prevent, like Prevent Watch, Cage and MEND” and referred to them as ‘closet Islamists’.
However, he failed to mention the criticism of Prevent by many organisations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the United Nations and numerous academics – none of whom are associated with being Muslim.
Not a single social worker at the training complained, likely due to the fear of being labelled.
But a visibly shaken colleague told me afterwards: “They were clearly promoting hatred towards Muslims.”
Aiming at non-violent beliefs held by Muslims
My concerns are not just about one Prevent training session. As an experienced social worker, I’ve seen how mainstream Muslim beliefs and practices are linked to “radicalisation” in Prevent referrals.
A person converting to Islam, a desire to go on pilgrimage, a beard, a hijab, the notion of reward and sin, legitimate political grievances and so on are all “markers” of concern for “extremism” and thus linked to violence.
Even if these links are considered inappropriate when triaged, the Prevent reasoning still stigmatizes Muslims who want to innocently practise their faith without being associated with terrorism.
Imagine the kippah, a crucifix pendant, a bindi or any other marker of faith being frequently discussed in the context of terrorism and the paranoia even a perceived Prevent referral would bring to these groups.
‘It’s not Islamophobic!”
The Prevent Manager stressed that it’s a “misconception that a referral goes on a criminal record”, but I’ve seen myself references requesting information about Prevent related concerns regarding a prospective employee.
At no point did the course explain what Islamophobia means but the trainers were adamant, saying: “Prevent is not Islamophobic!”
The CTO referred to a contested study by CREST to prove that “most Muslims support Prevent”. Conveniently, he ignored the hundreds of signatories, including imams and mosques, who’ve petitioned against Prevent.
The CTO did mention that orthodox Muslim beliefs and practices shouldn’t be conflated with “extremism”, but by this point, this only added to the confusion.
He then clarified this by stating that a typical wall frame in a Muslim home shouldn’t be mistaken for the ISIS flag, as both have the Islamic proclamation of faith in Arabic!
A ‘sprinkling’ of the far-right
The trainers sprinkled coverage of terrorist acts committed by white supremacists to appear balanced, but at the same time stated that “racist and xenophobic speech wouldn’t deem a Prevent referral – unless it included calls to violence”.
This showed clear double standards against how Prevent criminalises perfectly legal statements of belief made by Muslims.
Worse still was that the course material underlined specified indicators of “extremism” for white people, like a swastika, alongside a Muslim schoolgirl wearing a hijab one day.
The CTO said that anti-Semitism is a trait “shared” by ‘Islamists’ and white supremacists, but there was no clarification of how Palestinian solidarity is often conflated with anti-Semitism, nor was there any mention of zionism.
Key questions went unanswered
I was keen to find out the number of Prevent referrals including inappropriate referrals, by religion, in our borough. But this information was not shared.
Instead, we were expected to just believe that “Prevent works really well here”, simply because it was stated by the Senior Social Worker.
Unfortunately, social workers are stranded in a policy driven by political ideology, rather than an evidence-based approach.
At best, social work is apathetic regarding routing out racism and Islamophobia. At its worst, social work is reinforcing the profiling of Muslims through implementing Prevent.
Read about similar cases…
- The People’s Review of Prevent (Report, 2023)
- Ten-year-old gets Prevent referral for hijab because it’s ‘un-Christian’ (Case, 2017)
- NHS administrator raises alarm about Prevent training in NHS (Case, 2016)
Picture by The Climate Reality Project/Unsplash.