Introduction | by Daniel Nilsson DeHanas and Peter Mandaville
INTRODUCTION – Daniel Nilsson DeHanas and Peter Mandaville, roundtable organizers and co-investigators of the Muslim Atlantic research initiative
The two decades following September 11, 2001, have seen a vast increase in security-related measures targeted towards Muslims in Britain and America. The community-oriented counter-terrorism strategies in each country—Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in the US and Prevent in the UK (the predecessor and partial model for CVE)—have been particularly controversial.
Prevent and CVE exist in the context of a much broader trend towards ‘securitization’ which also includes surveillance, tightening borders, tough rhetoric from politicians on public security threats, and involvement in international conflicts that are understood to be connected with terrorism (such as Iraq and Afghanistan), and through drone strikes. This securitization contributes to a sense among American and British Muslims that they are embattled as ‘suspect communities’ at a time when Islamophobia is rife.
As the UK government considers holding a review of its Prevent strategy and as the Muslim Council of Britain reports on a national listening exercise for British Muslim views on counter-terrorism, it is a fitting time to also look across the Atlantic and learn how scholars and experts who have been following these trends have been thinking about Muslim experiences of securitization in both the US and the UK.
This Maydan Roundtable has been prompted by the transatlantic research project on the Muslim Atlantic which explores American and British Muslims’ diverse experiences, common challenges, and collaborative possibilities. In the Roundtable we bring together two experts who have worked primarily in the US (Zareena Grewal and Shirin Khan) and two who have worked primarily in the UK (Narzanin Massoumi and Sadek Hamid). In Round 1 they provide initial reflections on the changing transatlantic environment of securitization and in Round 2 they respond to each other’s provocations. It is particularly interesting to see the diverging range of views in Round 2 on if the term ‘terrorism’ should be expanded and used more consistently beyond Muslim communities, or if it is a deeply problematic concept that should be jettisoned altogether.
Round One Responses | by Sadek Hamid, Zareena Grewal, Shirin Khan, Narzanin Massoumi
Sadek Hamid, author of Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism
British Muslims, despite residing in predominately disadvantaged, working class communities have made huge social and economic contributions to their country. Unfortunately, the zeitgeist engendered after the 2005 London bombings has radically changed the relationship between Muslims, the state and wider society. The effect of UK CVE polices has resulted in their securitisation and racialisation, leading some researchers to describe them as ‘securitised citizens.’ The implementation of the ‘Prevent’ CVE policy has singled out Muslims, reduced spaces of dissent, increased police surveillance and arrests without detention, led to huge numbers of Muslims being referred to the Channel programme and more recently, has been implicated in the secret collection of data and linked to ‘Astroturfing.’ Islamophobia has reached unprecedented levels after the Brexit vote of 2016, in which levels of xenophobia and racist violence has rocketed and resulted in Muslim women becoming the targets of hate crime. Existing structural inequalities have widened through the increased prevalence of media tropes and political rhetoric, energising existential fears about Islam that suggest Muslims are prone to violence, misogyny and resist social integration. These negative consequences have also extended to representative civil society organisations and individuals who resist government domestic security narratives and challenge foreign policies being labelled as Islamists or extremists.
Both American and British CVE thinking perceives Muslims as uniquely susceptible to ‘extremism’ – or versions of Islam – such as Salafism or Islamism. The problem with this reductionism is that it fails to distinguish the multiple varieties of both religious trends. Though Salafism has extremely socially conservative and theologically intolerant tendencies, most Salafis are politically passive and non-violent. Similarly, Islamism is a ‘broad mosque’ of various currents that range from moderate to revolutionary, but should be distinguished from jihadist currents. Blaming extreme religious ideology has been a convenient pretext that allows policymakers and media pundits to minimise the socio-economic and political factors that lead to ‘radicalisation’, such as: higher rates of unemployment, social discrimination, racist violence, draconian anti-terrorism legislation and anger at UK-US military interventionism. The combined effect of these dynamics appears to have pushed a microscopic minority to become disembedded from their family and friends, and with no interest in existing community institutions, to become as alienated from Muslim communities as they are from wider British society. This context has made most British Muslims highly critical of CVE policies for being discriminatory, ineffectual and unaccountable. The present status of debate within British Muslims communities in relation to CVE is one of deadlock and exhaustion and does not bode well for the foreseeable future. While some British Muslims acquiesce to the policy, many vehemently oppose it. Pro-Prevent and anti-Prevent positions have sharply divided opinion within communities and further reinforced existing sectarian fault lines that make constructive dialogue and consensus building extremely difficult.
Critics of Prevent have insisted that instead of eliminating terrorism, the policy has failed and actually made the problem worse. The fundamental premises that underpin UK government counter-terrorism policy have remained intact since they were introduced by the Blair administration in 2006 and there is no interest in engaging critical voices, despite a growing body of empirical evidence that suggests that Prevent is not working. This assessment is evidenced by independent studies that cast doubt on the ability of the British government to reduce terrorism. This sentiment appears to be shared by American Muslims towards CVE policies in the US, which similarly seem to be lacking in transparency and effectiveness – a conclusion supported by findings from an audit published by the Department of State. Given the massive economic, political and security interests shared by the US and UK, it is unlikely that existing CVE policies will change and the likely trajectory of strategies on both sides of the Atlantic will move towards criminalising dissent, and increasing social division.
Maintaining business as usual will prolong the status quo and vindicate the perception that CVE policies appear to be part of the problem, rather than the solution. On the ground, several trends may perpetuate a mutually-reinforcing vicious circle. It is highly likely that the problem of jihadist violence could increase in Europe in the next decade, if certain macro-trends continue, particularly the anticipated growth of economically underperforming Muslim youth, the potential increase in the number of jihadi entrepreneurs, persistent conflict in the Muslim world, and operational freedom for clandestine actors on the Internet. Furthermore, some Muslims will feel compelled to engage in violent militancy if British and American governments carry on their support for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, maintain their military interventions and presence in Muslim-majority states, and covertly manipulate non-state actors. Only a CVE paradigm shift is going to alter the current course and therefore, policymakers should take seriously the recommendations of critical academics and grass-roots practitioners who offer progressive, evidence-based CVE alternatives.
Sadek Hamid is author of Sufis, Salafis and Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism (I.B. Tauris, 2016), co-author of British Muslims: New Directions in Islamic Thought, Creativity and Activism (Edinburgh University Press, 2018) and co-editor of Political Muslims: Understanding Youth Resistance in a Global Context (Syracuse University Press, 2018).
Zareena Grewal, Associate Professor of American Studies, Religious Studies, and Anthropology at Yale University
As white power movements around the world grow in number and power, there is also a growing but slow recognition by journalists, policy makers, and state officials that the random acts of violence they inflict with chilling regularity on their victims is terrorism; sometimes they even identify as terrorists in their manifestos such as in the New Zealand mosque shooting. Yet framing their crimes as acts of terrorism, and even prosecuting them as terrorists, does little to help racial and religious minorities most vulnerable to white supremacists and state security regimes.
On Martin Luther King Jr. day, the streets of Richmond, Virginia were filled with over 22,000 protesters standing against the state’s recent gun reform laws; overwhelmingly, the crowds were made up by white men, many brandished guns and other military-grade weapons such as grenade launchers, and hate groups were prominently represented. Although no one was shot, this “show of force” was terrifying and brought the city almost to a stand-still; the governor had preemptively declared a state of emergency barring weapons on Capitol grounds. Even with the exposed plot of the neo-Nazi group The Base to fire into the crowd and the arrest of three of its members, the Washington Post glossed the artificial stillness that seized Richmond as “peaceful” simply because no one was shot. On Saturday February 8, 2020, more than a hundred masked white supremacists marched on Washington, accompanied by police. That the muted coverage and the state’s reaction to these rallies would have been different had the protesters not been white men is obviously an understatement but must be repeated.
In the first week of February 2020, the FBI elevated the threat level posed by white “domestic extremists” to match that of foreign terrorist groups such as ISIS. The fight to get journalists, police officers, and government officials to name the violence of white supremacists as terrorism (which suggests a movement) rather than a hate crime (which individualizes the violence) has been long and hard. In a rare case, James Harris Jackson, a 30-year-old white man and former US soldier, was charged by the state of New York as a terrorist. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole on February 13, 2019 after he pleaded guilty to the 2017 killing of an elderly black man, Timothy Caughman. Jackson had hoped the murder would spark a race war and, in his manifesto, he declared: “This political terrorist attack is a formal declaration of global total war on the Negro races.”
As an American Muslim scholar, I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to break down the misconception that terrorism is a uniquely Muslim form of violence in the media, among policy makers, and in my own work. For example, in my 2004 documentary film about former NBA guard Mahmoud Abdul Rauf, By the Dawn’s Early Light, I refer to the suspected KKK arsonists who set his home ablaze as terrorists. Getting a sword-wielding white supremacist to be charged as a terrorist in New York is not only precedent-breaking, it is evidence that we have moved the needle. Yet when the news broke of Jackson’s guilty plea and sentencing, Muslim Americans were generally underwhelmed and uninterested. The news broke during a time of annual communal mourning over the loss of three young Muslim students. Their families have established the Our Three Winners Foundation to fight anti-Muslim racism and hate crimes in their memory.
On Tuesday February 10, 2015, Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, was charged with first-degree murder of three Arab, Muslim college students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina: his neighbors, newlyweds Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, and Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and Razan Abu-Salha, 19, who was visiting her older sister and brother-in-law at the time Hicks stormed into their apartment to murder them. After the mainstream US media’s initial silence, journalists and state officials referred to the homicide as “a shooting,” sparking worldwide criticism and speculation on how the crime might have been framed had the perpetrator been Muslim and the victims white, sparking the viral hashtag #CallItTerrorism. The Chapel Hill Police Department was not willing to describe the execution-style killing as a hate-crime, let alone terrorism; they described the crime as motivated by an on-going dispute between the neighbors over parking, despite the insistence of the mourning families that it was in fact a hate-crime. Razan’s father reported she told him, “Daddy, I think it is because of the way we look and the way we dress.”
Individualizing the violence of white American men into “lone wolves” or “hate crimes” conceals the regularity of such violence and isolates it from wider white power movements and links to militarism, as historian Kathleen Belew demonstrates in her book Bring the War Home. In her book Saving the Security State, feminist scholar Inderpal Grewal analyzes the costs of naming white, straight violent men “shooters” rather than “terrorists.” She argues that the figure of the “lone shooter” in the American imagination emerges as a modern-day mash-up of the cowboy-outlaw standing his ground, the soldier-patriot who would die and kill for freedom, and the gamer with his technological mastery and lethal efficiency.
We know and expect “lone shooters” to be white, heterosexual men; we know and expect them to identify as their targets sexual, religious, and racial minorities. In response to the outcry over double standards, Chief Chris Blue of Chapel Hill Police Department promised to investigate “the possibility that this was hate-motivated.” The notion that hate crimes are crimes of passion, in this case a defense of what Hicks saw as his property, reflects a gendered and racial logic, as legal scholar Muneer Ahmed argues. Chief Blue’s choice of language suggested that while Hicks’ violence was exceptional and excessive, his motivations could have been ordinary and benign. Hicks’ wife defended her husband’s character from the insinuation of bigotry, insisting he hated all religions equally. Journalists searched out Hicks’ intent and psyche by analyzing the fragments of his online presence which did not fit a simple, common-sense profile of a “racist.”
Race and media scholar Evelyn Alsultany urges us to find a different paradigm for identifying racist violence and to ask hard questions: what if the fact that these young people felt and understood Hicks’ hatred for them and the danger he posed was treated as serious evidence? When will we learn to pay attention to the points of view of those at-risk of violence rather than focusing only on those who commit it? I wonder what were they making for dinner when Hicks entered their apartment. No journalist mentioned it.
The details journalists dug up about Hicks stayed with me: his turns of phrase and on-line habits, his taste in books and movies. A few months after the murder, I asked my students at Yale to consider the murder and Hicks’ favorite film American Sniper. One of my students, an African American Muslim woman, expressed horror over the sympathetic portrayal of the white Navy Seal Chris Kyle, one of the most lethal snipers in American history (played by Bradley Cooper). Months later, she revealed she was one of Razan’s best friends, still reeling from the murder only a few months before. We celebrated my student’s graduation last year; her childhood friend and classmate would have graduated from North Carolina State University had she not been brutally murdered five years ago.
As Maha Hilal argues, even the House Judiciary Committee hearing on “Hate Crimes and the Rise of White Nationalism” last summer, in which the father of the slain women testified, became an opportunity to harden the link between Islam and terrorism by using Muslim violence as a “natural” analogy.
The double standards in labeling violence are wrong but I understand the category of terrorism works by design to implicate and police Muslim populations first and foremost. No security policies or racial profiling programs or wars will be reversed or amended because white supremacists are now deemed terrorists too.
A white supremacist sent an email of Biblical verses with a veiled threat to me and several other women of color on our faculty not too long ago. I have enough of a public profile to get vague, hateful messages relatively regularly and these are miniscule compared to the vitriol famous Muslim women such as Linda Sarsour or Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib receive. My email account filters messages with the word “cunt” or “bitch” from my inbox so ignoring those messages feels effortless. This time, one of the other recipients, a white professor who believes she was misidentified as Jewish, began digging around the internet, sending us the man’s writings and online handles, and reporting him to the authorities. I wish I hadn’t clicked on the link to his profile because for days afterwards I found myself thinking about him, his sad bare apartment, his boyish features as he posed in his fatigues. Even from the selfies, I can tell that he is really tall. Weeks later, I found myself still wondering where he lives now, if he thinks about me, what he knows about me. Maybe nothing. Maybe my name was culled from a list. I couldn’t call the intrusion into my life and thoughts fear exactly, but I feel something laced with shame for being bothered enough to be drawn in by the internet fragments of his “life,” by the familiarity of them. In each photograph he has posted, he stands alone.
Zareena A. Grewal is an Associate Professor of American Studies, Religious Studies, and Anthropology. Her research focuses on race, gender, religion, nationalism, and transnationalism across a wide spectrum of American Muslim communities. Her first book, Islam is a Foreign Country: American Muslims and the Global Crisis of Authority (NYU 2013), is a historical ethnography of transnational Muslim networks that link US mosques to Islamic movements in the post-colonial Middle East through debates about the reform of Islam. Her first documentary film, By the Dawn’s Early Light: Chris Jackson’s Journey to Islam (Cinema Guild 2004), explores the conversion story of NBA guard Mahmoud Abdul Rauf, who some have dubbed the “Colin Kaepernick of the nineties” and was recently featured on ESPN. Her forthcoming book, titled “Is the Quran a Good Book?”, combines ethnographic and cultural studies analyses with historical research to trace the place of the Islamic scripture in the American imagination, particularly in relation to national debates about tolerance.
In the post-9/11 era, Muslims in the US and the UK have fallen victim not only to overt securitization via heightened surveillance programs and explicitly discriminatory legislation, but also to largely negative portrayals in popular culture. At the outset this may not seem quite as damaging, but pop culture and the media play a significant role in shaping public perceptions – particularly for those living in less diverse areas where they may never have actually encountered a Muslim person. Public perceptions, in turn, inform voter trends and ultimately sway policy decisions. The film and television industries specifically have a hand in contributing to the fear and apprehension, and subsequent securitization, surrounding significant Muslim populations in both countries.
The critically acclaimed BBC show Bodyguard comes to mind, in which a veteran suffering from PTSD is installed as the personal bodyguard for Britain’s hawkish Home Secretary. In the first episode, said bodyguard thwarts a terrorist attack by talking down a trembling woman strapped into a suicide vest who claims she was forced by her husband to carry out the attack. The rest of the show weaves together an entertaining and complicated conspiracy involving politicians, the secret service, and the police, but in the end (spoiler alert) it was the female self-described “jihadi” who fooled the bodyguard into believing she was but a pawn while she personally built bombs and passed information from their meetings on to her co-conspirators, enabling more attacks. It was an incredibly disappointing finale, not because I don’t think radicalized women are capable of being so villainous, but because it felt like a tired and harmful narrative rather than a bold and inventive twist.
By the time the show aired on BBC in mid-2018, the Islamic State had lost all of its territory, its members and their families either languishing in overflowing prisons or going underground. In-depth reporting from the frontlines had highlighted the major role many women played in supporting their husbands and the caliphate. Britain had already been horrified by the story of three teenage women who left seemingly comfortable lives behind to join a ruthless terrorist organization in a war zone. In other words, we get it. There are people in the world who consider themselves followers of Islam and want to harm others in its name, and they are undoubtedly a security threat. But it is unnecessary and harmful to perpetuate such damaging portrayals of Muslims in media when Islamophobia is already such a dominant narrative in Western society.
One would have hoped that the creators of Bodyguard would learn from the mistakes of Homeland, the hugely popular American television show that focuses on U.S. counterterrorism and intelligence operations. The spy-thriller series is based on an Israeli television drama and first aired in 2011. For years it was met with tough criticism not only of its portrayal of nearly all Muslim characters as violent extremists, but also its lack of basic knowledge about Muslim-majority societies. To the credit of Homeland’s creators, however, they responded to the criticism by eventually hiring a consultant: Ramzi Kassem, an attorney, who has advised and represented several individuals accused of terrorism-related offenses, and was previously one of the show’s fiercest critics. The shift in messaging and character representation is obvious to the point of being overcompensatory, but I appreciate the effort nonetheless.
Muslims in the US and the UK have long been identified as suspicious outsiders, but many have been working hard to increase visibility of what you might consider an ‘average’ Western Muslim in an effort to combat the securitization and stigmatization of their communities. In the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many responded by toning down aspects of their Muslim identity. Men shaved their long beards, while some parents discouraged their daughters from wearing hijabs or opted not to teach their children native languages. In other words, the response at the time was to quietly fade into the background in order to avoid conflict. In recent years, however, American and British Muslims are keener to make their presence known, to seize the narrative and shift it themselves.
In terms of pop culture, we can look to figures such as British-Pakistani actor/rapper/activist Riz Ahmed and Egyptian-American comedian Ramy Youssef, both of whom have made it their mission to offer more nuanced portrayals of Muslims. I mention them specifically because I see this as a great example of transatlantic influence. The existence (and popularity) of a show like Youssef’s Ramy, in which the main characters are modern, unapologetically Muslim Americans with Arab names and Western proclivities, can be seen as a direct result of Ahmed’s stirring and widely shared speech to Britain’s House of Commons in 2017 about the lack of diverse representation on TV – and the ability of extremist recruiters to fill the gap by portraying Muslims as heroes in their propaganda. Ahmed has also spoken candidly about how difficult it was to reach his coveted status as a brown actor who is cast in roles that are not intrinsically linked to his race or religion after years of being typecast. The idea that Muslims are not fairly represented in Western popular culture is not new, but when I describe to others what Ramy is about – a millennial Muslim American guy trying to reconcile the traditions of his faith with the pressures of young adulthood – it almost sounds cliché, like it must have been done before. But in reality, while Youssef is careful to point out that his show is not a blanket representation of all Western Muslims, this narrative simply did not yet exist in the American television sphere. The types of roles Ahmed and Youssef are advocating for create an opportunity for wider understanding and assuage fear of the Muslim ’other’ but also serve as important representations for Muslims who may have trouble seeing themselves as veritable members of the societies in which they are living.
Today, Britain and America are in a remarkably similar state of affairs. Between ‘lone wolf’ actors seemingly radicalized on the internet, the looming question of how to deal with foreign fighters returning from Syria, and the increasingly violent rhetoric of far-right and white nationalist extremists, the US and the UK have seen a shift from national security risks posed by international actors to a more pressing threat of domestic terrorism. Both countries are helmed by leaders who, despite having an unwavering contingent of supporters at home, are perceived internationally as reckless and divisive. In the face of these challenges, however, Muslim actors, comedians, artists, and authors are carving out a space from which to respond forcefully. In this way, the resolve of British and American Muslims to not only remain but continue growing as a visible and active segment of society, and to fight for fair treatment from fellow community members and security officials alike, is now stronger than ever.
Shirin Khan is an independent contractor currently based in the United Arab Emirates who has worked in Washington, D.C. and internationally on projects ranging from monitoring hateful conduct online to countering violent extremism. She serves on the Editorial Board of International Counter-Terrorism Review. She previously worked as a Program Associate with New America’s Muslim Diaspora Initiative researching systematic discrimination against Muslim communities throughout the United States.
The attacks of 9/11 still cast a long shadow over foreign and domestic policy agendas in the UK and many other countries. The 2001 attacks led to the launch of the ‘Global War on Terror’ (GWOT), with invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as a host of other military interventions by NATO powers. The impact of these interventions has been more complex and widespread than most supporters or opponents anticipated. Instability and conflict in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa have been part of the legacy, with the tragedies of Afghanistan, Gaza, Iraq, and Syria of particular note. The ‘Global War on Terror’ also saw the creation of worldwide networks of ‘extraordinary rendition,’ with the attendant questions of human rights abuses and torture, whilst sweeping changes to security policies have impacted everyday life and civil liberties.
Although in foreign policy terms the UK has followed the US’s lead, when it comes to CVE policies US approaches have tailed the UK model. This is despite the fact that there has never been any clear evidence to show that the UK Prevent programme has in fact prevented any act of ‘terrorism.’ Indeed, it has faced widespread criticism, in particular for discriminating against Muslims, intelligence and data gathering and, most recently, for the provision of covert funding to civil society groups. In the UK, Prevent has gone through a number of iterations but from the outset there has been an attempt to shape the direction of Muslim civil society. While ‘capacity building’ initiatives were focused on empowering what the government perceived to be marginal (and potentially more government-friendly) voices within Muslim communities – namely women and young people – there was also a direct attempt to influence the direction of religious thinking and practice through religious roadshows, training programmes and regulatory interventions from the Charity Commission. The second iteration (2011 onwards) further expanded the policy to target ‘non-violent extremism.’ The introduction of the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015 (and the introduction of the statutory Prevent duty) inaugurated a new phase of the ‘War on Terror.’ This has meant that the counter-terrorism apparatus has spread from its traditional home in the police and intelligence services to occupy almost every branch of state institutions, from schools and universities, to GP surgeries, social care, opticians, libraries, and even nurseries.
Meanwhile it has become increasingly difficult for Muslims to participate in public life. In the UK between 5 December 2012 and 8 May 2014 the Charity Commission marked 55 British charities with the new code ‘extremism and radicalisation’ without these organisations’ knowledge, while Freedom of Information requests made by the Guardian have shown that more than a quarter of live investigations by the Commission concern Muslim charities. In October 2014, David Cameron awarded extra powers and £8 million to the Charity Commission to ‘confront the menace of extremism.’ Muslim organisations that have been vocal opponents of the ‘War on Terror’ have been routinely targeted and smeared. The Charity Commission intervened to choke off future funding to advocacy group CAGE, which works with victims of the ‘War on Terror.’ Charitable donors, including the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT), came under what JRCT called ‘acute regulatory pressure’ to cut off future funding, and acceded. A subsequent Judicial Review brought by CAGE was withdrawn when the Charity Commission conceded that ‘it does not aim to restrict trustees exercising their discretion in advancing their objects, including around funding decisions.’
Since 2012 the UK government has also shifted towards working covertly to promote ‘counter narratives’ to extremism. One campaign, #MakingAStand, led by the organisation Inspire claimed to be independent but later was revealed as a funded ‘product’ of the Research Information and Communication Unit (RICU), the covert propaganda arm of the Home Office. The existence of covert relationships between organisations and the government poses a number of risks for Muslim civil society. In particular the potential for reputational damage to organisations who may (without their own knowledge) work with groups that are covertly working with the government creates the possibility for undermining Muslim civil society trust, participation, democracy, and advocacy.
In the US, while the ideas underlying CVE have been present for several years, CVE became notably prominent under the Obama administration since 2011. During the Obama administration, the federal government awarded 31 CVE grants totalling $10 million. Like the UK approach, CVE has focused on community outreach or ‘capacity building’ initiatives, which have subsequently been revealed to involve intelligence gathering. According to a document discovered by the Brennan Center in New York, the FBI’s own CVE office describes its approach as designed to ‘strengthen our investigative, intelligence gathering, and collaborative abilities to be proactive in countering violent extremism.’
Though conservative think tanks have been avidly promoting the idea that ‘terrorism’ is caused by ‘extremist ideology,’ usually meaning a cultural separation from ‘western values,’ there is no sound evidence base to support this claim. Rather, forms of political violence conventionally defined as ‘terrorism’ are closely related with other forms of violence, particularly violent state repression and international or civil war. The strongest relationship is with ongoing armed conflict and state violence, such as state-sanctioned killings, torture, disappearances and political imprisonment. Less than one per cent of terrorist incidents between 1989 and 2014 occurred in countries without either an ongoing conflict or some form of state terror.
It is for this reason that Prevent or CVE type approaches cannot be treated in isolation from broader counter-terrorism policies of the US and UK. The UK and the US both have a terrible record of lawlessness, aggression, torture and widespread human rights abuses. Undoubtedly, these actions have encouraged anger abroad and at home, with a real impact in a form of ‘blowback.’ Considered as a whole, the counter-terrorism policies over the last two decades have been a catastrophic failure. Quite simply, if the aim of those policies was to reduce the number of civilian lives lost to political violence, then they have made the problem many times worse. It is time to rethink the policies of the last two decades of the ‘War on Terror’ and instead we need to ensure a set of democratic principles for transparency and accountability in this policy area. We need to move away from the disastrous and aggressive foreign policy interventions and instead develop a peaceful foreign policy that centres on human rights principles.
Narzanin Massoumi is a lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at Exeter University’s department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology. Her research focuses on racism, social movements and counter terrorism. Her current research focuses on the impact of counter terrorism policy and practice on UK higher education. She is the co-editor of What is Islamophobia? Racism, Social Movements and the State (Pluto Press, 2017) and author of Muslim Women, Social Movements and the ‘War on Terror’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
Round Two Responses | by Sadek Hamid, Zareena Grewal, Shirin Khan, Narzanin Massoumi
I agree with much of the analysis by other participants in this discussion and want to reiterate the potential consequences of the current trajectories of transatlantic CVE policies. The focus on the number of terrorism incidents committed by Muslims overstates and obscures the reporting of other acts of violence in our societies. In the US, deaths caused by gun related crime have killed hundreds of thousands of Americans over the last two decades and yet this is not really accepted as a national security emergency. In the U.K, domestic violence kills 15 times as many people in Britain as terrorism, with figures showing that there were 1,870 domestic murders in England and Wales between 2000 and 2018, in contrast to 126 that were terrorism-related. Yet, the problem of terrorism seems to be increasing despite the vast amounts spent by the US and UK and the majority of veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq saying they were not worth fighting for. This is a truly monumental misdirection of priorities and resources with domestic budgets in both countries having spent billions in CVE policies and coming no closer to achieving their stated aims. The reluctance to name white supremacist violence as terrorism not only exemplifies a double standard in public discourse but has delayed its recognition as a serious security threat that endangers social stability in the US and Europe. This is a policy failure of the dominant approaches to CVE over the last 20 years and also masks the relationship between neoliberal economic policies and the rise of the far-right – blind spots that are absent in the explanations for the rise of white ‘home-grown’ extremism that are occurring with the collusion of governments and intelligence agencies. The failure to address white nationalist violence is also enabled by the persistence of culture wars in both countries which plays upon racialised insecurities and the search for scapegoats in periods of economic insecurity. This has most obviously manifested in the media mainstreaming of Islamophobia, xenophobia and prejudice towards refugees and migrants which at times has become hysterical as the fear of non-white immigration is weaponised.
In the UK, the controversial Prevent CVE policy continues to attract criticism for an ever-broadening definition of extremism which is now targeting a wider range of political threats. This overreach was recently illustrated in the placement of Greenpeace, Extinction Rebellion, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, CND, the Socialist party, Stop the War, and other peaceful green and leftist organisations alongside terrorist groups in a London Counter Terrorism Policing guide. As commentators such as George Monbiot point out, if ‘police units can convince the government and the media of imminent threats that only they can contain, they can argue for more funding’. A similar policy has been deployed by the US Justice Department and the FBI who have put more effort into pursing ’ecoterrorists’ than far-right terrorists.
This appears to be a growing global trend as corporate lobbyists successfully label opponents of their industries as extremists/terrorists and far-right politicians build alliances with like-minded entities – recently demonstrated in an unofficial visit by 23 nationalist MEP’s to Kashmir, a region to which domestic politicians and foreign journalists are denied access. This is the latest example of the growing ties between the far-right in India and Europe, a connection that is rooted primarily in a shared hostility toward immigrants and Muslims. According to the FBI, in the years between 2001 and 2015, there were more than 2,500 anti-Muslim incidents, which targeted more than 3,000 Muslims. Islamophobic hate crimes in the United States increased 67 percent in 2017 (as shown by the same FBI data), undoubtedly helped by the hostile rhetoric against Muslims by President Trump. Similarly, anti-Muslim hate crimes have surged in the UK and Europe, in part energised by the Brexit vote. It is difficult not be pessimistic about the cumulative effect of these policies in our hyper-polarized political climate – a process that has the potential for creating civil unrest, puts our collective human rights at risk, and threatens our freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.
This roundtable identifies several of the animating questions in what is broadly now understood as “critical security studies,” from the inefficacy of security programs such as CVE and Prevent to the (racial) politics of representation in fictional, journalistic, and official, legal discourses about security. The phrase “critical security studies” is used widely across many disciplines. Scholars distinguish themselves from the contemporary “security studies” approach in International Relations and other related fields because that statist approach is so fundamentally inadequate to understanding war, conflict, and militarism in our world and the ways security policies often end up paradoxically creating more insecurity and operate as a state alibi. The critical security studies approach focuses on how security regimes are unequally deployed, generating insecurity rather than security, violence rather than safety. After all, it is insecurity that generates conflicts due to inequality and capitalist and neoliberal projects that are being used by authoritarian governments the world over.
Critical security studies scholars take into consideration how race, citizenship status, gender and sexuality, class, and religion act as critical vectors, reflecting the inequalities and the lack of rights that breeds conflict and violence. In this sense, the intersectional analyses offered by critical security studies scholars do not simply offer additive or supplemental data on under-researched topics and populations; this growing body of critical scholarship meticulously exposes the conceits and false premises of official and academic security discourses and their complicities in violent political projects of policing, incarcerating, and war-making.
In illiberal societies, systems of surveillance are often closely linked to state control and violence. In liberal democracies, such as the United States and the UK, citizens generally presume their privacy is protected and thus the omnipresence of surveillance technologies is seen by many as benign and a banal fact of life. However, in both liberal and illiberal surveillance societies, the pressures of surveillance are not applied evenly: racial, religious, and sexual minorities are more vulnerable to state scrutiny, policing, and state violence as are economically marginalized communities. A recent Pew study found about a third of Muslim Americans say they are either very worried (15 percent) or somewhat worried (20 percent) that the government monitors their phone calls and emails because of their religion. Several recent documentary films provide important case studies demonstrating how certain vulnerable Muslim communities and individuals bear the brunt of state violence, surveillance, policing, and the threat of entrapment in the name of security: New Muslim Cool, (T)error, and The Feeling of Being Watched, to name a few.
With regard to the Prevent and CVE policies, Sadek Hamid and Narzanin Massoumi are absolutely right to bring up widely experienced negative impressions and impacts. While the pilot CVE programs implemented in several US cities by the Obama administration were meant to address radicalization using primarily a non-security approach, frankly it’s hard to separate a program funded by the Department of Justice from the idea that it is simply another law enforcement measure. The program also came under fire for relying on unfounded theories about radicalization that assume there are consistent and predictable behavioral indicators of who will become a terrorist, despite admitting themselves that there is no such identifiable path. As a result, the communities where CVE efforts are focused – the overwhelming majority of which are Muslim – are considered inherently violent. Some organizations identified by DOJ as key partners in their ‘capacity building’ efforts are avoiding participation in the framework altogether, citing the stigmatizing and discriminatory focus on Muslims. This is understandable given what Hamid and Massoumi point out about several British Muslim organizations and individuals being labeled extremist or Islamist for pushing back against these problematic narratives.
What stands out to me is the marked difference between the UK and the US’s commitment to CVE or Prevent at the national level, given their usual tendency to align on most things. Apart from awarding grants to non-profits committed to the cause, the US never got much further than its now stalled pilot programs. Any suggestion of a meaningful and all-encompassing CVE effort effectively died with the election of President Trump, as evidenced by his administration’s (failed) proposal to pointedly change the mission from “countering violent extremism” to “countering radical Islamist extremism.” So although the pilot programs were based on Prevent to begin with, perhaps Prevent became an example for policymakers in the US of what not to do, as it has become increasingly clear that government-led efforts are generally both unpopular and counterproductive. It remains unclear where the US’s CVE effort will go from here given the current political climate, but there is no lack of well thought-out, research-driven suggestions – starting with cutting the federal government out of CVE-related partnership-building entirely.
As someone who was very shaken by the point-blank murder of the three young Muslims in North Carolina, much of what Zareena Grewal wrote resonated with me. It seems clear to me that it was, at the very least, a hate crime. And I certainly understand the desire of many, myself included, to see some of the white male perpetrators of violent crimes labeled as terrorists rather than the ‘lone wolf’ differentiation. As Masha Gessen wrote in response to calls for the tragic 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas to be deemed a terrorist attack, such calls are “attempts to assert something that should be obvious: armed white men pose a statistically greater threat to the safety and security of Americans than do Muslims, immigrants, or even Islamic militants.” But a motive was never found in the Las Vegas case. No manifesto, no traces of vitriolic social media activity, no evidence that he was pursuing a political objective or trying to send a message. Cases like these make me wonder about the consequences of overusing (and misusing) the term “terrorism.” Gessen points out that broadening its usage only means “more people, potentially, would be subjected to entrapment, inflated sentences, and torture conditions—hardly a desirable outcome, even if the injustice would be spread a little more fairly,” echoing Grewal’s sobering sentiment that harsh security policies and wars won’t be retracted just because white supremacists are increasingly included in public perceptions.
I very much enjoyed reading the other responses. There appears to be a lot of agreement across perspectives about the challenges we face in the context of growing CVE policies that undermine Muslim democratic participation in public life.
On reading Zareena Grewal’s thoughtful and moving piece, I felt it necessary to offer the reason why I, as a sociologist and activist, avoid the use of the term ‘terrorism.’ Zareena Grewal rightly points to the double standards in the application of the label ‘terrorism’ to describe political acts of violence. But at the same time she also questions what we can really gain from the application of the label to white supremacists or neo-Nazis.
There are several reasons why I do not like to use the term. Firstly, because of the conceptual ambiguity. There is no generally accepted definition of terrorism. This means that it becomes a highly politicised and selectively applied concept. It varies considerably across jurisdictions and is often extremely broad. In the UK, for example, the definition of terrorism in law is so broad in its wording that it could, in principle, be applied to a range of activities, including forms of protest and civil disobedience. While I see the value in making a rhetorical point that highlights double standards in its application, we need to be wary of bolstering the very system that produces Islamophobia in the first place. The extraordinary powers of the counter terrorism apparatus – a largely unaccountable set of institutions – disproportionately targets Muslims and violate human rights. Since 2000, the UK has adopted fifteen substantive Acts of Parliament specifically addressing counter-terrorism or containing counter-terrorism provisions. As many of the other contributors have highlighted in the previous set of responses, the ever-expanding CVE policies have made democratic participation increasingly difficult for Muslims, due to the loosely defined notions of ‘extremism’ and ‘radicalisation.’ In the UK, we have recently seen non-violent groups such as the environmental campaign group Extinction Rebellion, and other peaceful groups added to government lists of ‘extremists.’
I think calling for terrorist legislation to be applied to white supremacists risks bolstering or legitimating an already inflated and unaccountable system. Instead, I would suggest that we need to rethink the whole approach to dealing with political violence (a term preferable to ‘terrorism’). In ‘Leaving the War on Terror: A Progressive Alternative to Counter-terrorism Policy,’ we argue for the need to develop a people’s security programme, a national audit of security needs, with genuine local community involvement, to provide a comprehensive view of the expressed concerns of ordinary people. With such an approach, security would not be a narrowly conceived state-centred concept of ‘natural security,’ but a genuinely democratic approach that starts with people’s actual experiences. Issues such as racism, including Islamophobia, domestic violence, social exclusion, and everyday violence are thus much more likely to feature in such a notion of security.