Failed Counter-Extremism Initiatives

The Muslim Contact Unit

The Lewisham Islamic Centre (LIC) has always been open with regards to its stance on PREVENT and its concerns about it. We therefore read with interest the recent article by Ian Cobain on 08 January 2021 entitled ‘An honorary Muslim’: The police spy who monitored London’s mosques in plain sight’. The article highlights why many Muslims would not want to engage with Counter-Extremism initiatives such as the PREVENT strategy and brings to light why there are genuine reasons for the mistrust that exists.

Ian Cobain charts the history of Bob Lambert and his colleague, Jim Boyling and the work that they did as part of the Muslim Contact Unit (MCU), which was an anti-terrorism unit set up in 2002 in the UK after the September 11 attacks to ‘thwart extremist attempts to recruit young British Muslims to violent jihad, by working with Islamic communities.’ Although this existed before the PREVENT initiative came into existence, what is clear is that the MCU was effectively acting as a sophisticated intelligence operation.

Part of the work of the MCU was to visit mosques up and down the country. LIC can confirm that Mr Boyling and a colleague from the MCU visited LIC where they made unacceptable and inappropriate comments and demands which left us with no option but to ask them to leave, and not return. Imam Shakeel Begg recalls Mr Lambert being at an event sometime later organised by the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), with members of CAGE present as well as Gareth Pearce and other Lawyers and Journalists. Mr Lambert spoke about the importance of the Muslim Community engaging with Police and Counter-Extremism Officers. During that public meeting Imam Begg responded to Bob Lambert citing LIC’s experience with the MCU and stating, ‘How can you ask the Muslim Community to engage with yourselves when this is how your colleagues deal with Muslims?’.

In view of the details of the murky history and track record of the individuals involved in the MCU which have now become evident, LIC feel vindicated in taking its position of not working with them and keeping to its principles and values.


The LIC has openly criticised the PREVENT policy both locally and nationally, highlighting its disproportionate impact on the Muslim community. It is a policy which many, including the LIC, considers as institutionalising Islamophobia. This of course is a position which has been widely supported by many prominent and respected individuals, groups and organisations, for example:

  • Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester has said, “PREVENT needs a wholesale rethink” with the Government’s approach being “clumsy at best and highly divisive at worst”;
  • Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur stated unclear PREVENT guidelines gave decision makers “excessive discretion”, which rendered the application of the policy “unpredictable and potentially arbitrary”. This, he said, risked “dividing, stigmatising and alienating segments of the population” and that “PREVENT could end up promoting extremism”;
  • National Union of Teachers – rejected the Government’s anti-radicalisation scheme saying “it causes suspicion in the classroom and confusion in the staffroom”;
  • Open letter by 360 Professionals – stated, “We believe that PREVENT has failed not only as a strategy but also the very communities it seeks to protect. Instead of blindly attempting to strengthen this project, we call on the government to end its ineffective PREVENT policy and rather adopt an approach that is based on dialogue and openness.”

An independent review of PREVENT was announced in January 2019 with a statutory requirement to report back to Parliament in August 2020. However, in December 2019 Lord Carlisle QC, appointed to chair this review, was stood down by the Government following questions raised about his impartiality as well as a legal challenge launched against the Home Office regarding his appointment. A new Chair has now been announced as being William Shawcross.

Shawcross was a director of the neoconservative thinktank, the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), who are notorious for their Islamophobic agenda. It was whilst as director of the HJS that Shawcross stated:

“Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future. I think all European countries have vastly, very quickly growing Islamic populations.”

Moreover, as Chair of the UK Charity Commission there were widespread concerns that Muslim charities were disproportionately targeted and investigated by the Commission, including from former Conservative Cabinet Member Baroness Warsi. LIC directly raised this concern with the Commission at the time when we met with them. Shawcross also appears to support the use of torture and Guantanamo Bay

The Government’s tone deaf attitude to longstanding concerns of fairness and impartiality to the Muslim Community is only further revealed by the ridiculous appointment of Shawcross to lead an “independent” review in the forlorn hope that any Islamophobic skew will be set aside, however momentarily, to omit any whitewash. The notion of “the end justifies the means – or the reviewer” is never more apt than in this case.

It is inconceivable that the Government would treat, unilaterally, any other minority community in this way, and the appointment of Shawcross only symbolises the loudest convulsion yet in the sure and certain death throes of PREVENT.

Posted in Press Releases.