The UK’s controversial Prevent anti-extremism programme has failed to engage with Muslim communities and allowed Islamists to dominate perceptions of the scheme, according to a senior government expert.
Dame Sara Khan, a UK government adviser on counter-extremism, said a continuing review into Prevent’s work needed to rectify past mistakes.
She said the government “left a vacuum” about the purpose of the scheme, which has since been “dominated” by Islamists.
Prevent was launched in 2007 to stop people being lured by extremism and persuaded to become terrorists, but it has also faced criticism from some Muslim groups for what they call an unfair focus on their communities.
“The government did not explain to Muslim communities to explain what Prevent is about. They left a vacuum which Islamists dominated and said what Prevent is about. There have clearly been mistakes,” she said.
“There were issues, detrimental failures that cause people to not respect the programme,” she added, citing problems over perceptions that it was a spy programme.
“So those types of challenges have continued and I think continuing to engage with communities, explaining what the programme is, addressing concerns — that's got to continue in a much better way than we've seen previously,” she said.
Speaking on the BBC’s Political Thinking podcast, Dame Sara said there was a difference between Muslim communities and Islamist threats.
She also pointed out there were many types of extremism that needed to be looked at, from the far-left to far-right.
“I have criticised Prevent many times. I have reviewed the government’s counter extremism programme and said it was completely outdated and not fit for purpose,” she said.
“I think good policy has to be ideologically blind. If you understand extremism is a societal ill that has existed throughout time. It’s like crime.
“For me, there are all different types of extremism. Focusing on one at the expense of others is totally counterproductive.”
Prevent aims to protect people from becoming radicalised. Referrals are put to a Channel panel that decides if those people would benefit from more support and its programme.
Concerns over extreme right-wing radicalisation among teenagers have grown in recent years.
In January 2019, the government announced a review of the programme after some Muslim leaders claimed they were being unfairly targeted. Former charities regulator Mr Shawcross was appointed to lead the review last year.
The government said it plans to shake-up the programme after a series of attacks in which perpetrators had already been flagged by the counterterrorism strategy or had slipped through the net.