Why We Need to Get Beyond Regimes of Anti-terrorism, and Fast

From the unabashed appointment of an Islamophobe to review the UK’s counter-terrorism laws, to the social engineering intentions and impacts, the British government continues to marginalise  Muslims.  Massoud Shadjareh argues that getting beyond the agenda set by the Prevent policy by looking at the bigger picture of what has happened as a result of two decades of counter-terrorism is an urgent exercise of the part of Muslim civil society.

In the not too distant past, when white colonialists wanted to buffer themselves from the consequences of the oppressive treatment they inflicted on their conquered victims, they employed intermediaries to do their dirty work.  We had the Uncle Tom of pre-emancipation America and the corresponding ‘chamcha’ in colonial India who served as middlemen between ruler and ruled and also acted as role models for aspiring subjects.

These days we call them sell-outs or coconuts and they are two a penny in the corridors of Whitehall and Westminster. Their role is still pretty much the same except that in an age where racial and religious persecution is less overt these useful idiots help to manufacture a façade of equality, their token presence shielding their paymasters from criticism.

However, it’s a sign of how far Islamophobia has become institutionalised and mainstreamed when the government no longer considers it necessary to keep up appearances. The appointment of William Shawcross as the ‘independent’ reviewer of the ‘counter-terror’ Prevent programme is not the first time in recent years that the fox has been put in charge of the hen house. Prevent is the part of the UK government’s anti-terrorism CONTEST programme that is concerned with addressing the underlying triggers of terrorist activity. The ‘Prevent Duty’ refers to the obligations this strategy places on public bodies, which are collectively charged with having ‘due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’, a task that now includes promoting ‘Fundamental British Values’ (FBV).

Despite widespread criticism from civil society and the Muslim community, Shawcross was appointed earlier this year to lead the review after the government was forced to remove its first choice Lord Carlile following a successful legal challenge on the grounds that as a staunch supporter of Prevent, he could not be considered independent. As things turned out, Carlile’s removal was a case of be careful what you wish for.  Shawcross is a far more ferocious animal, his appointment a clear signal from the government to the Muslim community that there will be no respite despite the huge opposition to Prevent across society.

Between 2012-2018 Shawcross presided over the Charity Commission during which time he made it his business to systematically victimise Muslim organisations. In a damning report, the think tank Claystone found that Muslim charities were the subject of 38 per cent of all disclosed statutory investigations initiated after 1 January 2014 and still ongoing at 23 April 2014 despite Muslims representing less than 5% of the national population. It accused the Commission of institutional bias. Never far from the forefront of anti-Muslim hatemongering, the Eton and Oxford-educated Shawcross is a darling of the far right, the ‘respectable’ face of fascism. According to his writings, “Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future. I think all European countries have vastly, very quickly growing Islamic populations.” And in 2014 he told the Sunday Times, “The problem of Islamist extremism and charities… is not the most widespread problem we face in terms of abuse of charities, but is potentially the most deadly.”

Putting Prevent in the hands of a rabid Islamophobe is only likely to make a toxic programme even worse. It’s not just Muslims who have challenged Prevent. In April 2016 the UN Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Assembly, Maina Kiai, said that Britain’s anti-terrorism (of which Prevent is a key part) policies were counter-productive, undermining democracy and victimising the Muslim community. In October the same year, a report by the George Soros funded Open Society Initiative concluded that Prevent undermined Muslims’ right to manifest their religion, often targeting them for displaying increased religiosity. Another report in July 2016 by RightsWatch UK called for Prevent to be abolished saying that a strategy that “alienates vulnerable children is counterproductive and inconsistent with the very ‘British values’ that the Government is supposedly promoting.”

Like many other opponents of Prevent, IHRC has long recognised that it is more than a counter-terrorism tool. It is also an aggressive social engineering and spying exercise relying on surveillance and intrusion to transform attitudes in the Muslim community. The programme was introduced in 2003 as part of a four-part counter-terrorism strategy, evolving over time into a showpiece of muscular liberalism. Today Prevent requires Muslims not only to show deference to prescribed norms but to actively promote “fundamental British values”. It has also broadened the definition of extremism to cover what is deceptively called “non-violent extremism” such that today extremism covers such ridiculous extremes as those who oppose government policies or hold normative or conservative Islamic views. The policing of communities has also been widened. Since 2015 it has been a statutory duty for public sector workers to implement Prevent by identifying those at risk of extremism, effectively making every public official a spy and every Muslim a suspect. Cases which are deemed to require further intervention are referred to the ‘deradicalisation’ program known as Channel.  Figures published by the National Police Chiefs Council show that the number of Muslims referred to Channel almost doubled in the first year after the duty came into force, to 2810 in 2015/16 from 1541 in the previous financial year (accounting for 68% of all referrals).

Critics have not failed to notice the distinctively colonial modus operandi at play here by which minoritised communities are set against themselves and effectively controlled and moulded via a policy of divide and rule. First demonised and identified as problematic the majority is then contrasted with a selected class of opinion-making collaborators held up as ideal Muslims. The ‘counter-terrorism tsar’ Sara Khan and the members of the now defunct anti-extremism think tank, the Quilliam Foundation, typify such quislings. Shunned and discredited in their own communities, they are promoted by the state as model Muslim citizens to be followed and emulated. These individuals and organisations readily internalise official objectives and thereby serve the ultimate aim of Prevent which is to change the normative social reference points for Muslims in order to make them more secular, less conservative and more politically compliant.  According to Fahid Qureishi, it is what Foucault identified as a process of ‘soul training’ that was aimed at the automatic functioning of power: to transform individuals so that they monitored their own behaviour in line with prescribed social norms, to the extent that there was a realignment of the boundaries between the ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’, and the ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’.

The extent to which Prevent has also helped change the landscape for genuine Muslim community engagement with government cannot be understated. As a gateway for funding for community projects the money it has disbursed has infected everything from youth clubs to mosque committees up and down the country, normalising the treatment of the community through a security lens. But more importantly the “change or be sidelined” logic that underpins Prevent has seeped into all government dealings with Muslim civil society activists and organisations. Invitations to closed government consultations, appointments to committees and research commissions are now conditional on Muslims internalising security and socialisation objectives. The 2018 review of ‘Shariah councils’ is a case in point highlighting an instance where the government appointed panel failed to include any CSOs or individuals that could be said to be representative of the Muslim community. Those who refuse to toe the government line are effectively delegitimised, often finding themselves on the receiving end of hostile media smear campaigns designed to jeopardise their funding sources. Even where Muslim CSOs face no apparent barriers to participation such as in public consultations they often find their expertise and views ignored. An IHRC briefing in 2019 reported that:  “It has become standard practice for recent governments to ignore genuine Muslim voices in consultations that directly relate to their communities. Instead, officials have sought out deferent and conformist CSOs and activists that serve as an echo chamber for government intentions.”

The official redrawing of the boundaries of free speech as an instrument for resocialising Britain’s Muslims properly began with the Terrorism Act 2000  (though earlier legislation in 1997 paved the way) introduced at the turn of the millennium. In the wake of the Al-Qaeda inspired attacks against the US in 2001 and later, other western countries, politicians opportunistically accelerated what amounted to a criminalising of dissent mainly in relation to expressions of support for the right of oppressed populations to resist state aggression or to pursue self-determination. The new legislative environment had the intended effect of forcing people to self-censor when discussing issues such as Palestine and the invasion of Iraq. Prevent has taken this to another level. The programme’s pervasive surveillance means that few areas of civilian Muslim life remain outside its purview. And with a lower ‘thoughtcrime’ threshold based on an elastic concept of ‘non-violent extremism’ the dragnet is wide enough to cover just about anything the authorities decide it should. The thinking that drives Prevent is brutally simple: if people are forced under pain of criminalisation to adjust their views and speech within limits prescribed by the state, in time undesirable thoughts will be washed out of the target population.

Certainly, Prevent has had a muzzling effect at all levels of education with students and teachers alike self-censoring to avoid being ensnared. Research led by Scot Bauman found that “applied within universities, Prevent faces the additional accusation of compromising academic freedom, and cases have come to light of course material being ‘flagged’ as ‘high risk’ and academics being deterred from researching or teaching certain ‘sensitive’ topics. We encountered a number of examples in our field research for this project, including Muslim students self-censoring in their working and personal lives in order to avoid being stigmatised as suspicious.” In 2019, the human rights group Liberty said Prevent had had a “chilling effect” on black and Muslim students, provoking self-censorship for fear of being labelled extremist. It said, “the Prevent guidelines, which require administrators to identify and limit speakers with extremist views, were themselves the biggest hurdle to the operation of free speech within university communities”. Government guidelines for how higher education institutions should implement Prevent which cite among “contentious topics” things such as “vocal support for Palestine”, “opposition to Israeli settlements in Gaza”, “criticism of wars in the Middle East” and “opposition to Prevent” have led to universities cancelling many planned events and speeches.

A review of the evidence of how Prevent works in practice in schools by Lee Jerome, Alex Elwick and Raza Kazim also notes its gagging effect on teachers and children. They point to the on-line training module endorsed by the DfE that lists markers for someone’s vulnerability to radicalisation: “a need for identity, meaning and belonging… a desire for status… a desire for political or moral change”, all of which are so vague and inextricable from the process of growing up that they reduce the space for young people (especially from suspect communities) to espouse certain political positions. Thus, searching for radical change goes from being a process of self-discovery in young people to becoming a marker of their risk to others, and of their vulnerability to extremists. For their part, teachers often avoid any attempt to discuss the very issues which ostensibly gave rise to Prevent: extremism and terrorism. The authors express a certain degree of surprise that schools can pass Ofsted inspections of their implementation of Prevent without so much as mentioning some of the harrowing events that take place around the world about which pupils can readily access information via traditional media and social media. They write: “We have been struck that safeguarding seems to operate as a mechanism for removing the politics from a process which is fundamentally about evaluating young people’s emerging political views”, thus creating a situation whereby children are aware of global events but unable to understand them.

Without doubt the prospect of failing the Prevent test lies behind the overzealousness displayed by some schools in putting down the first signs of any pro-Palestine activities among pupils during the recent round of Israeli aggression in the Holy Land. Certainly, some schools were keen to quash any outbursts, however minor, and remind students that school was not the right setting to express their political views – a stance that they were reminded was at odds with their readiness to embrace student activism on the Climate Change and Black Lives Matter agendas. Pupils around the country found themselves reprimanded and even suspended for showing solidarity with Palestine, even before the education secretary Gavin Williamson deployed the red herring of increased anti-Semitism to scare schools into denying pupils their rights to free expression. At the Bushey Mead Academy in Leicester, staff called in police to monitor a peaceful playground protest and one teacher reportedly told a pupil, “this is why people don’t like Muslims”. UK broadcaster Channel 4 reported on 25 June that some pupils had been referred for intervention under the Prevent programme. This is nothing new. Prevent views support for causes seen as “Muslim” as “risk factors” for terrorism. In 2016, teenager Rahmaan Mohammadi was questioned by anti-terrorism police for wearing a “Free Palestine” badge to school. In his letter Williamson effectively set out the parameters of acceptable expression on the issue, demanding that schools don’t work with or use materials supplied by groups which do not recognise Israel’s right to exist and even going as far as to recommend by name several pro-Zionist organisations. The message was clear: Mainstream Muslim views are extremist and should be ignored.

Two decades since its introduction, there are clear signs that Britain’s strategy to transform the religious, political and social attitudes of its Muslim population is yielding results, accelerated by a wider political assault on multiculturalism. Evidence is mounting that many sections of Muslim society have either been silenced or are moderating their behaviour to ward off scrutiny.  While there are still isolated expressions defying the new order such as the direct action tactics of pro-Palestine supporters picketing or shutting down arms factories, by and large, Prevent’s ubiquitous gaze has effectively blunted the militancy that characterised the community’s politics before the new millennium. This threatens the very foundation of our presence in this country and demands a concerted and spirited response. Unless Muslims push back against the course hewed out for them, within a couple of generations the values and positions that we currently consider mainstream are likely to be seen as minority or fringe. On one level this involves drawing a line in the sand to say we will have nothing whatsoever to do anymore with malicious, Islamophobic government initiatives that legitimise or promote our social re-engineering. On another it means organising and engaging more closely with like-minded groups to challenge a strategy that is the thin end of a wedge that ultimately threatens everyone’s cherished freedoms.  

Massoud Shadjareh is a veteran human rights activist and campaigner based in London, UK.  In 1997, with a group of colleagues, he founded Islamic Human Rights Commission.  He has headed various campaign with organisation, as well as participated in cross community campaigns and projects.  This article is an extended version of a piece published on 5Pillars.com.