An introduction to a series of articles inspired by ‘The Muslims are Coming’, Arun Kundnani
The threat of terrorism is a largely imagined one. They would have you believe it is the single greatest threat to the existence of Western civilization. Politicians routinely talk up the threat by deceiving the masses into believing the terrorists are at the front door, and ‘our’ (read: the government’s) response determines whether they succeed or fail. This external threat is a highly effective tool that has been deployed throughout the ages by democrats and dictators alike, it is so effective in minimising and deflecting the severity of domestic problems that it is used time and again.
The post-war on terror world characterises Muslims as problematic; they are essentially an ideological threat. Every Muslim possesses, by dint of his or her religion, the potential to become a terrorist. Therefore every Muslim is obliged to prove they are with us, rather than against us. There are enough Muslims willing to play to the script to keep the charade going. They tend to view short-term survival as the paramount consideration; a word to mollify here; an action to reassure there, all to the tune of the proverbial organ grinder. An uncharitable picture, some would say, yet the scene has been played out far too often to be considered as anything but a survival strategy. Well intentioned yes, yet far too few Muslims question the prevailing narratives, as in their questioning lies a discomfort so great that it makes sense to play by the rules of the game; when the rules of the game change, we too must change. When we are told to jump we no longer ask how high, because we know all too well that sooner or later we will be told to jump higher or that not everyone is jumping or the manner of our jumping is no longer enough to assuage our critics, or that those who are jumping have not apologised enough for those that are not or that jumping is no longer enough.
The prevailing narratives on terrorism suggest terrorists are evil lunatics who have an irrational hatred of the west and a bloodlust which is entirely disconnected from any of their outspoken grievances. Grievances are in fact a cover for a deeper-rooted medieval desire to kill the infidel. The narrative has been repeated so often and it is so simplistic in its Manichean characterisation, that it has become deeply implanted in the public consciousness, periodically watered by the media and politicians. We need to appreciate that when a narrative goes unchallenged publically, it monopolises public attitudes. One of these narratives conflates seeking to understand the causes of political violence with supporting terrorism as a means. Very few Muslims will put their head above the parapet as the tendency is more often than not about immediate survival, or we comfort ourselves that our ‘brand’ of Islam is not under attack or it is not my school or my group or my scholar.
We fail to appreciate that although the immediate target may be a particular group, individual or school, the immediate target is just a smokescreen to force us into distancing ourselves from normative Islamic values. So Sheikh ‘X’ may be lambasted because he said the punishment in Islam for the person proven to have committed adultery is he must be stoned. This is something which no Muslim ought to disagree with, right? But when Sheikh ‘X’ is labeled a hate preacher by a newspaper or a politician and Muslims distance themselves from him for whatever reason, this response is a surefire way of showing discomfort at what is essentially a divine command. Set aside for a minute talk of being wise in speech or not speaking about controversial issues because of the response it often elicits, any Muslim that is attacked on account of advocating an Islamic value deserves our support, especially if the target is not from our group, madhab (school of thought) or organisation because that is a test; it is far easier to abandon an adversary than to defend a friend. We must be clear this is about more than individuals, groups and leanings; it is about our very values as Muslims. Often the lack of response is motivated by an ‘anything for an easy life’ attitude, an approach that has served us well so far, said absolutely no one, ever.
Whilst we are unmoved by calls to question the false narratives, we are happy to rubber stamp the prevailing government ones. Whilst that may bring us temporary comfort that we are accepted or places us in a temporary safe space, our response also ensures normative Islamic values are characterised as extreme. Nothing better exemplifies this than the recent spate of guilt by apology statements. It starts with the actions of other Muslims for which we are all collectively guilty. No matter how tenuous the link, we are asked to don the “not in my name” t-shirt. We respond by garnering a list of signatories that condemn said actions, whether that be grooming or ISIS. By our collective apology we provide a scintilla of ownership over a matter that we did not previously own and it accepts the very link we hoped to sever. It is like when you ask someone not to think about a red bus, from that moment on it is impossible to think about anything else. These apology initiatives feed the Islamophobia industry because for many our apologies are never good enough. This is not to say that we should never seek to clarify a concern related to the actions of other Muslims that contravene Islamic standards, but this should be done on our own terms and not in the manner in which far too many initiatives play out, messages which appease and which entrench the fear, lack of confidence and second-class status of our community. Responding to the pressure of disavowal of other Muslims is often prompted by a fear of our own place in society but ironically it does nothing to challenge those that question our presence in the first place.
The publically stated reason behind the launch of the war on terror was in response to the 9/11 terror attacks. Since that fateful day, every drone strike, targeted bombing, invasion and legislative change to established rights has been justified as a result of the scale of the threat. If you were to carry out a survey of attitudes in any western city, nine out of ten people would rank terrorism as amongst the top five threats. The fear of being blown to smithereens on the underground or on the streets is a real concern for most people and it drives prejudice and support for policies which restrict the rights of Muslims in the name of protecting ‘our way of life’.
How often have we been told that the greatest threat to Western civilization is terrorism? It has destroyed countless innocent civilian lives, yet even in terrorism there is a hierarchy of value. Western lives come first, where do Afghan or Iraqi or Yemeni or Somali or Pakistani lives fit in?
What are the names of those ‘foreign’ civilians that needlessly lost their lives in the thirst for control and in the name of colonialist driven wars? No one knows their names as no one keeps a tally. Their lives are remembered by their families alone, no minute’s silence, and no memorial to mark the inhumanity of their deaths.
By even daring to question these government narratives you are accused of dishonouring the dead. Yet the words need to be heard and heard they will be.
Let us remember what we have been told. Terrorism is such a threat that it needs to be fought in the swiftest of ways. Yet research shows in almost all years the total number of people worldwide who die at the hands of international terrorism is not much more than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States.
This is not about minimising the death of innocent civilians; it is a question of proportionality. Why is the threat always talked up? Why are threat levels increased in the absence of credible evidence of an attack?
The University of Ulster conducted a study which concluded that over the same period (2002-2011), the number of deaths in mainland Britain as a result of terrorism was comparable to Irish nationalist inspired terrorism.
Paradoxically, and completely predictably, the response to 9/11 and 7/7 has created more disaffection and widened grievances towards the west. Setting aside for one moment the Shariʿah illegitimacy of targeting non-combatants, the west was not sitting and minding its own business when the terrorists decided to attack. Again this is not a matter of celebrating civilian death and innocent lives, it is about acknowledging that political violence does not happen in a vacuum, it is often the desperate response of people that have no hope in any other method. The motivations of Jihādis can be boiled down to one statement which they mention again and again, “you did this to our people and so we’ll do this to yours”. It is seemingly a playground response but on a grander scale. Unfortunately, few reflect on the turmoil of the past century, the western colonialist legacy has created many of the problems we see today. The Muslim world has been the subject of meddling for over a century. It has witnessed colonisation, the propping up of dictators, economically and militarily, the active support for the terrorist state of Israel and a foreign policy entirely driven by naked self-interest masquerading under many guises, from humanitarianism to exporting democracy. If the US resorts to its military might to further its hegemonic interests then should anyone be surprised if others take a leaf out of their book.
Although it is clear that foreign policy is the prime recruiting sergeant for igniting and fanning the flames of terrorism, the government stubbornly clings to the same mantra and blames a poisonous ideology.
After 7/7, the country was in shock. An expectant public was demanding answers, something to make sense of this outrage. Instead of answers it was fed a string of mistruths and diversions that to this day are the explanations used by the media and the theories which drive public policy decisions. It is the same agenda that led to the creation of Prevent, dubbed the government’s Islām policy, a policy which promises to prevent terrorism by acting well before the bomb goes off, before an individual is radicalised and embraces an ‘extremist’ mindset. These same conclusions have led to the overturning of legal maxims and the politicisation of the judiciary. Anyone that has followed the passage of the far reaching and broad ranging legislation, rushed through after 11th September knows that the act and its glorification has been covered by the criminal law but also stringently over-applied to cover intent, even where there is an absence of evidence for the preparation of a terrorist act. Terrorism was already illegal well before 9-11, after it a whole raft of new laws were rushed through, including the extension of pre-charge detention to 14 days, the imposition of control orders (house arrest) that were once the preserve of military dictatorships, the widening of police powers to stop and search without suspicion, the broadening of the definition of terrorism, the curtailing of speech to prohibit glorifying terrorism, which is so far-ranging that it can catch careless talk that lacks any intent, to possessing literature that encourages terrorism or can be useful to a terrorist, this could mean possessing innocuous literature that is deemed a terrorist tract.
Preventing terrorism is not what the Prevent strategy targets. Prevent operates outside of the criminal law, it polices behaviours, thoughts and values that are considered extreme but most importantly legal, it predicts the future occurrence of a crime, or a terrorist act by policing behaviour that it believes will lead to it at an indeterminate period in the future. In that sense it is the practical manifestation of the film ‘Minority Report’; it predicts future crimes though in a less than foolproof manner, it is criminalisation before the criminal act.
The Prevent Strategy encourages the recruitment of healthcare professionals, teachers, youth workers, and anyone that may likely come into contact with Muslims, to report the mere suspicion of ‘radicalised behaviour’ to the authorities so that the potential, future terrorist can be de-radicalised well before he acts. Some may argue that no-one turns into a terrorist overnight, surely there should be some tell-tale signs, and radicalisation specialists have concocted a number of models that seek to capture these alongside a list of behaviours, attitudes and opinions that can predict the early stages on the eventual conveyer belt to adopting the terrorist worldview. The problem with these models is that they are all premised on the assumption of ideological infection, and they sideline the role of foreign policy in inspiring political grievances.
Most Muslims are in the dark about these issues, until they are affected by them. A Muslim speaker is banned from entering the country, a venue suddenly decides to withdraw a booking, a school is snap inspected because someone reports that ‘extremists’ have taken over, a certain type of Muslim is promoted by the government, whilst others are labeled extremists, a careless word on a social network leads to a visit by the police, a psychiatrist is called in to speak to a young Muslim who adopts the thawb and bins the Mach 3 razor, or even a child is taken away by social services because of suspicion that he holds ‘extremist’ views. We see these as isolated events but there is a common thread.
That is why it is important for us to understand Prevent, Channel, radicalisation, the definition of extremism, the attack on normative Islamic values and the politicisation of institutions that once prided themselves on independence, impartiality and fair treatment. The recent book by Arun Kundnani blows open this subject, and alongside the work of Cage, has done the most to challenge some of these areas. Yet without major buy-in from Muslims nothing will change. Without Muslim organisations standing up and saying we will not work with the prevent strategy, it will remain. Anyone that reads about the Prevent strategy and remains wedded to it is either naive or in it for money or status. The main themes covered in the book will be laid bare in the next series of articles with a view to raising awareness and clarifying why the continuation of the Prevent agenda has got to end and why Muslims have got to be at the forefront of challenging it.
Notes: Page 25, Arun Kundnani, The Muslims are Coming: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror, Verso Books, 2014  Ibid  ‘Poisonous Ideology’ Behind Terror Threat
http://news.sky.com/story/1326855/poisonous-ideology-behind-terror-threat, 29th August 2014, accessed October 2014 My brother the bomber, Shiv Malik,
http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/features/my-brother-the-bomber-mohammad-sidique-khan, June 30th 2007, accessed October 2014 Overview of terrorism legislation, Liberty http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minority_Report_(film)  MY NHS COUNTER-TERRORISM TRAINING SESSION
http://www.cageuk.org/article/my-nhs-counter-terrorism-training-session 29th April 2014, accessed October 2014 Prevent – what does this mean in a school and college context?
http://www.acpo.police.uk/documents/TAM/2013/2013-05-tam-prevent-school-college-advice.pdf Association of Chief Police Officers, May 2013, accessed October 2014 http://www.tavinstitute.org/projects/stepup-hounslow-youth/ http://www.activechangefoundation.org/ Examples of youth initiatives that are not overtly advertised as prevent initiatives  Indian preacher Zakir Naik is banned from UK
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10349564 18th June 2010, accessed October 2014 Cage Facebook statement on change of venue for Crime to Care roadshow, https://www.facebook.com/cageuk/photos/pb.122052607808255.-2207520000.1411849892./912834472063394/?type=1 20th September 2014, accessed October 2014  Islamic extremism concerns at Tower Hamlets school
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-28093835 30th June 2014, accessed October 2014 Embarrassing truth of Tuesday’s “terror” arrests http://www.versobooks.com/books/1512-the-muslims-are-coming accessed October 2014