In November last year Dave, my best friend, died. He had just turned 50 and it was a brutal and unforgiving end to a life he had dedicated to social work and to caring for disadvantaged children.
For over 25 years we shared a love of strong coffee, cheap wine and obscure cinema. As best friends do, we shared our innermost thoughts on the meaning of life, love and work, and throughout our conversations one of the great frustrations for him were the accusations his job attracted. Whenever he told people he was a social worker he was routinely asked if his job was to take children away from families.
It didn’t matter that his job was to offer respite care for parents struggling to cope, or that prior to this he cared for children who had been physically and sexually abused by their parents. To some, his job title was enough to condemn him.
This is something I am all too familiar with. As someone who works in Prevent, a strategy that safeguards people from radicalisation, the abuse my colleagues and I receive is now an almost daily occurrence.
This year alone I have been called (in no particular order) Nazi, race traitor, unwashed lefty scum, a far-left extremist, a far-right extremist, terrorist sympathiser, a Muslim hater and a Muslim lover. I have been compared to a paedophile and an Apartheid-era concentration camp guard. My all-time favourite is Cuck Libturd Leftard.
One commentator ominously declared that, “a People’s Court will convene to pass final judgement on your treason and then you will face the consequences for your foul crimes”. The most contrived and sinister accusation was that I am employed by the Government to ‘socially engineer Muslim women’.
Some of the comments cannot be repeated and remarkably many of them come from groups or individuals who insist they are credible voices, that they engage in legitimate criticism and favour a commitment to open dialogue.
If you’re a Muslim commentator that promotes Prevent’s successes and dare challenge the ideology that lies behind the social and psychological factors of radicalisation, then the worst of the abuse is saved for you. Many respected and high-profile names have fallen foul of a small but petulantly loud group of keyboard warriors who rounded on them for daring to offer an objective or supportive critique on our efforts to prevent terrorism.
Some of our critics are more creative. They produce child-like cartoons in a poor attempt to emulate satire and it is commonplace to embellish or fabricate Prevent ‘referrals’, suggesting that a mere spelling mistake results in Police brutality (disregarding the genuine cases of concern and the exceptional professional conduct of safeguarding staff across the UK).
None, of course, offer a viable alternative to Prevent.
And there’s the rub. It would be ridiculous for those of us who work in Prevent to be complacent, this area of safeguarding is too sensitive and too important. We need open dialogue and debate, but constructive critics are drowned out by the cacophony of detractors who demand to be heard but offer nothing but noise.
We have academics doing vital work researching the factors that lead to radicalisation who should be involved in the public debate, but who are side-lined by some media outlets in favour of self-indulgent hecklers. We have lecturers, teachers and teaching unions who care deeply about the education and safeguarding of young people, but who are overshadowed by the political posturing of others.
With over 1000 people supported through its ‘Channel’ safeguarding programme since 2012, the UK Prevent strategy is already considered a world leader in tackling exploitation by violent extremists; but in such a sensitive area of safeguarding, commentators have a responsibility to avoid hyperbole and engage in fact-based dialogue. Misguided, malicious or misinformed criticism can affect our ability to safeguard the vulnerable. Using Prevent as the cudgel to land a blow on political rivalries has repercussions for those we are safeguarding, and also for those who work in this field.
Two weeks before Dave passed away, I asked him if he had any final words of wisdom to impart. He thought it peculiar that dying should bestow worldly wisdom on his views, but he kept his answer brief, “Be happy, Will. And be true to yourself.”
Shortly after that conversation he became too ill to have visitors and in the early hours on 18th November 2016 he died, with his mum and dad by his side.
My wife frequently reminds me that few people are lucky enough to have a friend like Dave in their lives. I take comfort in hearing that and I know that when my time comes I will look him in the eye and say that I took his final words to heart.
I take genuine pride and joy when I reflect on the people and families we have supported and the work we do to help the most vulnerable in society. In the face of abuse and criticism I have consistently stayed true to the values and morals I hold and that I share with my best friend.