(Re)situating civic engagement within counter-extremism

Amna Kaleem is an ESRC-funded PhD student at the University of Sheffield, and editorial board member of Global Policy: Next Generation. She researches the British Government’s Prevent Strategy, and its impact on citizenship and civic duty. In this piece, Amna explores the emergence of new civic norms and citizenship practices under counter-terrorism policies being enacted within communities.

Amna Kaleem

‘The resistance of doctors, teachers, and social workers I interviewed is motivated by the very principles of civic duty and responsibility that are held up as signifiers of active citizenship… They perceive their refusal to fully comply with the policy as a way of fulfilling their professional and civic obligations…’

The Civil Wars Path project explores organisational pathways into and out of conflict. As a Critical Terrorism Studies researcher, my work tackles similar tensions around action and resistance against the coercive sphere of state: finding these dynamics in non-conflict, civil society settings.

I research Preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) policy frameworks that pre-emptively target terror threats, by policing the pre-criminal space. These frameworks aim to stop the radicalisation of individuals who could be vulnerable to extremist influences. Over past decades, these policy initiatives have been adopted by different Western and non-Western governments to combat security risks within the domestic sphere. The British Government’s Prevent Strategy, introduced in the wake of 7/7 bombings remains one of the forerunners in P/CVE policies. Prevent is one of the four components of UK’s counter-terrorism policy, CONTEST. While it has been hailed as a necessary intervention conducted in the name of safeguarding vulnerable individuals, the policy operates by co-opting the civic sphere to extend the state’s coercive reach. As a result, it has created a social programme that imposes binary identities of good/bad citizens and puts forward a restrictive understanding of civic duty. This post argues that, under Prevent, civic engagement manifests not just as compliance with the policy but also as resistance to it.

Community-led policing

The Prevent Strategy was publicly released in 2006 to wage a ‘battle of ideas’ against the threat of homegrown terrorism. The British Government situated this threat within the Muslim community and introduced a programme of community-led policing. Under the banner of community cohesion, Prevent focussed on social problems that were seen as factors contributing to extremism. The policy also encouraged forging partnerships with (Muslim) communities to enable them to ‘protect themselves and counter the efforts of extremist radicalisers’.

Prevent started the process of shifting security responsibilities to citizens and civilian-run institutions that has become more pronounced and institutionalised in subsequent iterations. During the New Labour years, security priorities and counter-extremism responsibilities were embedded in housing, education, and children’s services. Local authorities created new infrastructures for Prevent co-ordinators, and funding to community organisations became contingent on catering to Prevent-led priorities. These altered the bureaucratic approach to threat identification and mitigation.

Furthermore, the focus on building ‘resilient and empowered communities’ also recalibrated the idea of civic responsibility to include counter-extremism work as a component of good citizenship. This co-optation of the civic sphere became more formalised with the changing of guard at the UK Home Office under the 2010 Tory/Lib-Dem Coalition Government. As Home Secretary, Theresa May shook up the P/CVE regime: moving away from New Labour’s programme of securitised social cohesion, to confronting the ideology of religious extremism and building stronger identities aligned with David Cameron’s muscular liberalism. This approach saw a scaling back of community programmes such as cricket lessons and theatre programmes for Muslim youth while maintaining the need for (Muslim) communities to participate in civil society and shunning ‘pernicious ideology’ in favour of British values. These values – neatly packaged as democracy, rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance – became both an antidote to and an indicator of extremism. Opposition to British values has come to be identified with extremism, and educational institutions have to actively promote them to protect vulnerable students.

‘Agents of state’

The most significant operational change introduced by May and reinforced by her successors is the formal entrenchment of counter-extremism surveillance within key civic sectors – including but not limited to health, education, social work, and probation. These sectors and civilians working within them are considered to be important resources for preventing extremism, as they regularly come into contact with members of the public who could be at risk. This responsibilisation was formalised with the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 that imposed a statutory duty on ‘specified authorities’ to ‘have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’. This led to hospitals, schools, universities, and even people’s homes frequented by social workers turning into formal surveillance outposts. The securitisation of these spaces has re-cast the identities of civilians inhabiting them, with doctors, teachers, and social workers turning into ‘agents of state’ and their patients, students, and service users becoming suspects, who should be monitored.

However, under the Prevent Strategy, we can uncover a multitude of subjectivities that are not just restricted to these state-assigned roles. Within the coercive shell of this policy, all civilians are subjects of a hegemonic programme. Along with those who are the most obvious targets of this policy (i.e., citizens who are seen as suspects on account of their racial or ethnic identities), those sitting on the other side of this security divide are also subjects. In my doctoral research, I focus on citizens who get cast as ‘agents of state’. Looking at the engagement of these citizens allows us to explore the tension between their perceived agency and subjectivity. They have to monitor the conduct of others. But, at the same time, their role is also being monitored: because they have a legal obligation to implement Prevent. This tension opens up a space where we can find a rich tapestry of civic engagements that take place against the backdrop of different sectoral dynamics, professional hierarchisations, and socio-economic and racial factors. By unpacking these interactions that unfold within the rubric of Prevent, we can not only understand the policy’s securitising influence on civic life but also get to the other side of the picture – i.e., how citizens respond to this recalibration. 

It should be clarified that this conceptualisation of civic engagement is different from the prescriptive norms that are actively encouraged within the practice of preventing and countering violent extremism. Prevent Strategy and P/CVE policies situate civilian-led surveillance work within civic duty discourse. Active participation in civil society and a ‘stronger sense of belonging and citizenship’ are presented as means of building communities resilient to extremism. As such, Prevent frames the shifting of responsibilities to citizens as forging active citizenship practices to safeguard one’s community. While couched in agential terms, it leaves little room for anything but a strict adherence to the British values-dictated, securitised brand of civic participation.


On the other side of this rhetoric is the lived reality of P/CVE programmes where these civilian ‘agents of state’ balance their civic and professional obligations with their security responsibilities. Through my interviews with educators, medics, and social workers in England, I have learned that while the Prevent Strategy reaches the grassroots level through a restrictive top-down narrative, it unfolds in a more varied fashion where compliance co-exists with resistance. While a majority of my 55 interviewees expressed support for some form of compliance with Prevent, they are motivated by different factors. Some wholeheartedly comply with the policy, and take it on as a component of their civic duty. Others’ compliance is more reluctant, and explained through several caveats. This variance shows that, despite the attempts to neatly segment civic engagement within British values and prescriptive codes of conduct, there is variation and nuance in how citizens identify their duties and responsibilities.

The presence of resistance and refusal to fully comply with the Prevent Strategy adds further to our understanding of what civic engagement could be. This sits closely with Turner’s assertion to recalibrate citizenship to include protest and activism. On the surface, resistance to a policy that calls on citizens’ responsibility to the state and their fellow citizens may seem like a repudiation of the social contract. However, I would argue that these acts of resistance should also be seen as civic engagement. The resistance of doctors, teachers, and social workers I interviewed is motivated by the very principles of civic duty and responsibility that are held up as signifiers of active citizenship. These citizens are concerned about the wellbeing and safety of their patients, students, and service users and hence refuse to engage with a policy that they see more as a source of harm than safeguarding. As such, they perceive their refusal to fully comply with the policy as a way of fulfilling their professional and civic obligations.

A study of compliance and resistance also helps us explore the scope of agency within civic engagement. My interviews with civilians implementing Prevent show that whether they comply with the policy or resist, their responses are inconsistent and sometimes contradictory. People resist and comply in different ways and for different reasons, depending on their religious/ethnic identities and where they are in the professional hierarchy. Their circumstances can also dictate whether they follow the policy or not and to what extent. This variance in responses and the ongoing internal struggle these citizens go through demonstrate that agency and to some extent subjectivity are fluid, placing citizens in a constant loop.

In 2018, the head of counter-terrorism at Metropolitan Police called on every good citizen to ‘become a counter-terrorism citizen’. The general calls to stay vigilant through messages like ‘see it, say it, sorted’ are evolving into more streamlined counter-terrorism trainings that citizens can take from the comfort of their kitchen tables. Within this recalibration of civic norms, it would be useful to recognise that a citizen’s responsibility to safeguard their community can also be fulfilled by resisting this securitisation of civic life and refusing to comply with an authoritarian policy framework.