Preventing or countering ‘violent extremism’ (P/CVE) is a highly contentious field that has increasingly characterised counter-terrorism policy, in the UK and internationally, over the last 20 years. Joel Busher, Tufyal Choudhury and Paul Thomas assess the implications of current efforts to ‘mainstream’ P/CVE into other policy areas.

Across the world, policies and programmes aimed at preventing or countering violent extremism (P/CVE), such as the UK’s Prevent strategy, have proved contentious. On the one hand, advocates for P/CVE claim that such approaches, largely based, as they usually are, on a range of mentoring, educational and ‘alternative narrative’ interventions, provide a non-securitised and essential means to reduce the threat of violent extremism and terrorism. On the other hand, critics have argued that they foster prejudice and discrimination, pose a threat to human rights and free speech and might even be counter-productive.

In recent years, however, a potential route out of this policy impasse has emerged, in the form of a growing trend towards the ‘mainstreaming’ of P/CVE. This has entailed some countries pivoting away from overt, standalone P/CVE work towards the adoption of ‘whole of society’ approaches that integrate P/CVE into wider social policy. Within such approaches, P/CVE work is seen as just another part of a broader suite of programmes and initiatives aimed at safeguarding ‘vulnerable’ people and fostering ‘resilience’. As a result, an increasingly broad swathe of first-line professionals, in areas such as education, healthcare, social care or prisons are being asked to carry out elements of P/CVE work. In the UK, this has been embedded in law through the 2015 introduction of the Prevent legal duty.

At a time when the UK is awaiting the report from the latest Independent Review of the Prevent Strategy – a controversial process boycotted by a significant number of civil society groups – and  policy planners and civil society groups around the world are awaiting the UN Secretary General’s assessment of measures needed to ensure effective integration of human rights, rule of law and gender in the UN’s counter-terrorism work, it is important to reflect on this policy direction: the opportunities that it might offer, and the challenges that it might present.

The case for mainstreaming P/CVE

Supporters of P/CVE mainstreaming argue that this approach has a number of important strengths. A ‘whole of society’ approach can, they argue, foster a more holistic understanding of ‘the problem’; help to take P/CVE out of the sole control of security professionals, and potentially encourage a shift away from overt, named policies that can bring their own negative consequences. Importantly, it is also seen as a way of orienting P/CVE away from the overt targeting of minoritised (usually Muslim) communities – an approach widely criticised for its tendency to stigmatise and alienate ‘suspect communities’.

There is some evidence to support these claims. In recent years, for example, the UK has significantly reduced the naming and funding of overt P/CVE work in identified ‘Prevent Priority Areas’. The growing body of literature on the enactment of Prevent duty in English educational settings shows widespread professional acceptance of the idea that P/CVE can be consistent with existing safeguarding approaches. It also documents how education professionals have proactively mitigated potential negative consequences of mainstreaming Prevent, such as a ‘chilling’ of free speech in classrooms or the further stigmatisation of Muslim students, and even turned it into a positive opportunity to reinvigorate agendas around active citizenship.

Challenges of mainstreaming P/CVE

The same body of literature indicates that P/CVE mainstreaming is not without its challenges, however. There are four areas that appear to require particular attention.

Terminology and policy ambiguity

Research into the enactment of P/CVE by professionals who are not security specialists – i.e. educators, social workers, healthcare professionals, etc. – has highlighted that the effective integration of P/CVE into other areas of policy and practice often relies on processes of ground-level modification and adaptation. Put simply, such professionals are likely to do P/CVE better when they can situate it within, or as an extension of, their existing professional practice and ethos.

Yet this also raises challenges. Researchers and other observers have long argued that ambiguity around the nature of the threats to which P/CVE work is supposed to respond is problematic, particularly as P/CVE work ultimately relies on subjective evaluations of potential future risks. At best, it can result in some non-specialist ‘street-level bureaucrats’ adopting far more draconian positions than those envisaged by policy makers. At worst, it can and has been used to pursue political or ideological agendas that have resulted in serious human rights abuses.

As such, effective P/CVE mainstreaming is likely to require a delicate balance: the development of policy guidance that allows enough space for adaptation by first-line professionals so as to achieve effective implementation, while at the same time limiting opportunities for malpractice, intentional or otherwise, both by front-line professionals and policy planners.

Underlying sources of bias and structural inequality

No policy is enacted in a vacuum. Even with the best of intentions, policy outcomes in any field are likely to reflect underlying social inequalities. As P/CVE is integrated into other areas of policy and practice, it is essential that policy planners and first-line professionals alike understand and reflect on how the requirements of expanded P/CVE practice intersect with existing structures of inequality within those fields.

For example, in most professional fields in the UK, and indeed in other Western societies, educators, healthcare and social care professionals come disproportionately from White (and often more middle class) backgrounds. Research indicates that this population might be less confident about distinguishing between behaviours that are or are not ‘of concern’ when dealing with people from minority groups than when dealing with people they identify as White, making people from minoritised groups disproportionately more likely to become the focus of reporting and intervention procedures than their White peers.

This is likely to comprise at least part of the explanation as to why in the UK, in 2019-2020, for every case of Islamist-inspired extremism determined to require a mentoring intervention there were 7 Prevent referrals, while for every case of right-wing extremism determined to require such an intervention there were just 4.5 Prevent referrals. In other words, the rate at which right-wing extremist referrals are found to justify and require Channel interventions is almost 60 per cent higher than for Islamist-inspired referrals.

As policy planners look to mainstream P/CVE into other areas of policy and practice, it is therefore not enough simply to design policy that is not explicitly discriminatory in and of itself, but to design policy that takes into consideration and does not reproduce or exacerbate existing social inequalities, prejudices and processes of racialisation.

The risk of undermining vital work in other policy areas

When policy areas are integrated with one another, we might expect a process of cross-pollination whereby the logics of one policy area begin to shape practice in the other policy area and vice-versa. This is rarely an entirely symmetric process, however: in most cases one policy area – usually that in which there is a greater concentration of power – will have a greater influence than and take precedence over the other. The tendency for power to be heavily concentrated within the field of national security has therefore understandably driven concerns that far from P/CVE being integrated into other policy areas, it would instead significantly transform, and therefore potentially undermine vital work in, those other areas.

Such concerns are not without foundation. There is some evidence that P/CVE itself is changing as it comes into contact with the logics of other policy areas – James Lewis, for example, describes how a ‘therapeutic culture’ prevalent in education is in turn shaping security policy. Much of the evidence to date indicates, however, that it is the other policy areas that are most likely to undergo significant transformations as they come into contact with P/CVE, whether that is by disrupting the policy logics and delivery of the UN’s Women, Peace and Security agenda; corroding relationships in some healthcare settings; or narrowing and distorting the teaching of values and positive citizenship. As such, there is a pressing need for careful, ongoing and transparent monitoring of this process.

The issue of transparency

For most areas of social policy, there are minimum requirements regarding the transparency of decision-making processes, the nature of interventions, and the effectiveness or otherwise of those interventions. Such transparency, the theory goes, helps to ensure quality of services, build trust in the system, and is a basic aspect of democratic process.

Internationally, there have been moves within the P/CVE policy arena towards increasing transparency, with several national governments and international agencies placing greater emphasis on, and in some cases investing in, the evaluation of P/CVE programmes. Some national governments have also increased public access to high-level aggregate data about these programmes.

To date, however, even the staunchest of P/CVE supporters would be hard-pressed to argue that P/CVE operates with similar levels of transparency to the other policy fields with which P/CVE is ostensibly being integrated, whether that is education, health or child protection, or indeed with some other areas of law enforcement. For example, while the Home Office has published a wide range of data on Prevent referrals, this does not include any data on ethnic background of referrals, which is vital to identifying racial disparities and possible discrimination in policies. This can be contrasted, for instance, with government-published ethnic monitoring data on counter-terrorism related ’stop and search’ powers: data that contributed to significant reform in the use of those powers.


Where does this leave us? There certainly is some evidence that integrating P/CVE into other policy areas holds significant potential, particularly in terms of beginning to address justified concerns about the stigmatisation of Muslims and other minoritised groups, and about broader societal securitisation. There are, however, major challenges to address if this potential is to be realised and if policy mainstreaming is to provide some kind of ‘path to redemption’ for P/CVE. The question now is whether there is the political will to seriously engage with and address these challenges.

Joel Busher is Associate Professor at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University.

Tufyal Choudhury is Associate Professor, Durham Law School, Durham University, and Senior Research Fellow at Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law.

Paul Thomas is Professor of Youth and Policy at the School of Education and Professional Development, University of Huddersfield. He is the author of Responding to the Threat of Violent Extremism: Failing to Prevent and currently working on North American replications of the Community Reporting Thresholds research around community members sharing concerns of terrorist involvement with authorities.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: Excerpt from Child Protection Company material on safeguarding for schools and childcare providers, 2015.