Preoccupation with the realm of speech acts and expression has been a hallmark of successive pieces of UK counter terrorism legislation introduced under the aegis of the War on Terror. This has long been a source of consternation for many, but especially so among Muslims, as the demographic most acutely impacted by securitisation.
“In this short piece, I would like to think specifically about the impact of the statutory promotion of ‘fundamental British values’ (FBV) through what has become known as the Prevent Duty.”
In this short piece, I would like to think specifically about the impact of the statutory promotion of ‘fundamental British values’ (FBV) through what has become known as the Prevent Duty. Others have problematised how this policy direction has turned public sector spaces into ones of suspicion and surveillance. Here I will unpack how the institutionalisation of FBV has undermined possibilities for open dialogue and collaboration between grassroots activist platforms. By effectively blacklisting certain voices and positions, the state dictates and delimits the parameters within which ‘legitimate’ conversation can be had.
Advocacy through Engagement
Within the contemporary UK Muslim activist landscape there is considerable appetite for political advocacy through the channel of engagement with state bodies. This includes formal representation through grassroots communal organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), but also specialised lobby groups which seek either to proactively contribute to, or react to the direction of policy, such as Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND). Contrary to the impression given by some unscrupulous voices in the media, this engagement is a far cry from a sinister form of Islamist entryism; it is in fact a routine feature of our political set-up, for all its many shortcomings. Indeed, it has been for decades. All manner of interest groups, including those representing faith communities, have been acknowledged, encouraged and entertained by the state, its civil service and arms-length organisations – their roles perceived variously as gatekeepers, spokespeople and voices of expertise and experience.
When this arrangement works in the interests of both parties, it is generally considered unremarkable, as we see with the current Conservative government’s patronage of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Community Security Trust and others, and in the past, with New Labour’s support for the MCB during its first term. Tension arises however during moments of policy dispute, and this has been a major factor behind the fluctuating and often fraught relationship between the MCB and the state for the greater part of the past two decades. It also explains why successive administrations (Conservative and Labour before them), have actively endorsed and supported numerous Muslim-fronted counter-extremism outfits or representative bodies, which offer politically expedient validation to the state’s policy agenda, but enjoy little or no legitimacy within Muslim communities.
“…how can activists offer critical input on behalf of their communities to the content and direction of government policy, when the same government policy is considered by large sections of Muslim communities to target them unfairly and treat them with suspicion and hostility? How meaningful can activist engagement with the state really be, if activists are not able to amplify voices of protest and dissent?”
So, there is a conundrum facing activists with ambitions both to maintain or to cultivate trusted status with the state and to remain authentic to the communities that they speak for. On the one hand, they are bound to operate within the confines of parameters laid down by the state in their discourse and choice of association, as a way of preserving their trusted status. On the other, their credibility with the grassroots that they represent relies on speaking up faithfully for their communities who face daily injustices as a direct result of the policies enacted by the state. Put another way, how can activists offer critical input on behalf of their communities to the content and direction of government policy, when the same government policy is considered by large sections of Muslim communities to target them unfairly and treat them with suspicion and hostility? How meaningful can activist engagement with the state really be, if activists are not able to amplify voices of protest and dissent?
Fundamental British Values
A site at which this very tension is being vigorously played out is the emphatic expansion of counter-extremism (CE) policy by the state into the language of values, and by extension, into the problematic domain of enunciating moral and ethical judgements. As I mentioned earlier, there was plenty of precedent for counter-terrorism (CT) legislation ruling on forms of expression. Over the past decade, both CT and CE policy have been increasingly bound to the notion of safeguarding. With the introduction of the Prevent Duty in 2015, the commitment to the active promotion of FBV became a central aspect of safeguarding within counter-terrorism. The implication of this is that a seemingly innocuous and benign duty for public-sector employees such as health professionals or educators to have due concern for the safety and wellbeing of their patients and students has become deeply politicised. They find themselves tasked with making interpretive judgements on broad concepts, which despite their scope for subjective and fluid understandings, are being framed in professional training in terms of ‘extremism’ and ‘moderation’. What this means is that any hope for nuance or complexity in our understanding of how people relate to one another and to the state, is sacrificed at the altar of promoting reductive binaries to further the state’s securitising aspirations.
“The values I’m talking about – a belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law – are the things we should try to live by every day. To me they’re as British as the Union Flag, as football, as fish and chips. Of course, people will say that these values are vital to other people in other countries. And, of course, they’re right. But what sets Britain apart are the traditions and history that anchors them and allows them to continue to flourish and develop.“
Let us consider the values that have been repeatedly specified by senior politicians and are now enshrined in policy. David Cameron’s articulation of these values in June 2014 is worth quoting at length:
The values I’m talking about – a belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law – are the things we should try to live by every day. To me they’re as British as the Union Flag, as football, as fish and chips. Of course, people will say that these values are vital to other people in other countries. And, of course, they’re right. But what sets Britain apart are the traditions and history that anchors them and allows them to continue to flourish and develop.
Here, we see how Cameron’s rhetoric is not only prescriptive (‘should try to live by every day’), but we also see how, entwined with references to mundane features of everyday life (football, fish and chips) are allusions of patriotism and loyalty… the idea that despite the universality of these values, there is something special about their Britishness – something that ‘sets them apart’. There seems to be a suggestion that there is a ‘British way’ of respecting and upholding the rule of law, a ‘British way’ of respecting others’ beliefs… indeed, a ‘British way’ of ‘believing in freedom’! Coming from the highest echelons of the state, what can this indicate except that the specific meanings promulgated by the state for these notions are the yardstick by which patriotism and loyalty are measured? This welding of ‘fundamental British values’ so intrinsically with ideas of the ‘good citizen’ has the effect of not only demarcating what the ‘ideal’ looks like, but also implies that anyone who departs from this ‘ideal’ is to be considered a ‘bad citizen’.
This in itself is curious, since, to take just one of these four specified ‘British values’, in the form that it has been articulated by the Department for Education, surely any notion of ‘mutual respect for different beliefs’ would encompass within its definition a respect for controversial and dissenting views. Indeed, such a notion of ‘respect’ would be effectively meaningless if it was to exclude ‘difficult’ or ‘controversial’ opinions, and refer only to state-sanctioned, or ‘moderate’ beliefs.
Conditionality, Performativity Politics and Blacklisting
Instead, there is clear signalling from the state regarding groups or individuals that are considered to fall foul of this ideal. The most recent example of this was the then Home Secretary, Sajid Javid’s name-checking of four Muslim organisations, Hizb ut tahrir (HT), the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), MEND and CAGE in a speech on extremism last July.
To place this into context, we should consider some earlier examples of public vilification by the state of dissenting Muslim activist trends and organisations, portraying them as subversive threats to the nation. In 2005, shortly after the 7/7 bombings, Tony Blair indicated his intention to ban HT, and in the 2010 Conservative Party election manifesto, a similar commitment was made by David Cameron. Neither Blair nor Cameron were able to muster sufficient legal justification to enact a ban on this radical if non-violent group. But even the very act of portraying HT as inherently rigid and irrational, while regularly insinuating connections to violence, carries the desired impact of indicating that it is pariah, as far as the state is concerned. This in turn enables a punitive climate whereby accusations of extremism can be made with great ease, against anyone with even a remote association with the group, often with serious and long-lasting consequences on their ability to contribute to public life, let alone their personal safety. A case in point is the levelling of wild accusations at Sadiq Khan in the tabloid press during his 2016 candidacy for London Mayor, where his extended family members who were previously linked with HT were cited as evidence that his suitability to run as mayor was in question.
In their time in opposition through to their time in government, David Cameron and Michael Gove referenced the Cordoba Foundation several times in parliament and elsewhere, somewhat in a throwaway manner, as a ‘political front for Muslim Brotherhood’. Again, this stigmatisation of dissenting Muslim voices relies heavily on repeated, vague pronouncements. An informed observer would undoubtedly already be aware of connections between the Brotherhood and individuals involved in the Cordoba Foundation. However, dramatic, sound-bite-style assertions from politicians embed themselves in a lack of familiarity among the general public with either organisation, or the actual nature of such connections. They are crafted in adversarial language, with no real attempt to explain substantively why such associations might be a cause for concern. The resultant impact is that this ambiguous charge insinuates that the Foundation is an implanted foreign entity, which owes its loyalty to subversive forces, rather than to the nation.
Even the MCB, an organisation whose raison d’etre was engagement with the state – insofar as it developed out of a shared desire among activists to provide a coherent voice and platform from which Muslim concerns could be effectively represented – has been subjected at several intervals to pressure from government ministers to adopt unambiguous stances regarding political issues specified as ‘deal-breakers’. Its ultimate refusal to comply with some of these demands led to a situation where it continues to be decisively frozen out from any audience with the state, even on matters of its own considerably documented expertise.
If we return to Javid’s speech last July, we see that out of the four Muslim organisations he named, his most vehement attack was directed at CAGE – which advocates for communities and individuals affected by the War on Terror. Javid accused CAGE of ‘reject(ing) our shared values’, and based on this claim, he announced that he would be imposing a ban on its ability to sponsor migrant workers. This specific aspect of his speech provides us with an instructive case study of how performativity plays a central role in furthering the agenda-driven CE culture which is now at the very heart of the state’s approach to Muslim activism and advocacy. Javid doesn’t elaborate in his speech on why or how CAGE supposedly rejects ‘our values’ (never-mind the foundational problem with the state defining such values for us, which I discuss above). Instead, he presents this us-and-them binary, and further reinforces it with the choice of sanction he promises: at a time of heightened national anxiety around immigration, when Islamophobia has been mainstreamed in political and media spaces, threatening to revoke a migrant worker license for a British organisation which is run by British citizens again relies on a degree of public unfamiliarity to suggest a certain ‘foreignness’ about CAGE, and by extension, to underline the implication of its disloyalty to the security state.
As these examples demonstrate, the opportunity to engage with the government is therefore presented explicitly as a privilege that is conditional upon compliance with specific demands – a privilege that is forfeited if the state deems its Muslim activist partners to have reneged on the terms of engagement that it dictates. This conditionality has come to be a unique feature of state-community engagement that is exceptionally imposed on Muslim communities and individuals.
What is most concerning for my discussion here is that this imposition of state-defined parameters in our understanding of ‘mutual respect and tolerance’ has the exact opposite effect to promoting this same value. The only consistent feature among the groups that have been singled out as not adhering to FBV is that they are vocal in their dissent from the CE agenda and other aspects of state policy. By singling out these groups, the state is communicating to its current and potential partners that their relationship is in jeopardy if they choose to associate or even to engage with any of these voices that have been construed as ‘anti-FBV’.
This is sustained and supplemented by active goading from individuals who are far from impartial themselves, rather they are aligned with organisations and tendencies that not only have ideological stances to promote, but vested interests in fortifying the state’s position and entrenching the status quo – a status quo which is highly lucrative to their own careers. There have been endless instances of media commentators and CE practitioners whose interventions, some bordering on blackmail, have prompted civil society activists and platforms to modify their associations and retract statements.
“In my time studying Muslim activism I have encountered a real sense of fear among the people I speak to around the exceptionally high levels of relentless scrutiny that they face, particularly from the political and media domains. Many of my interlocutors describe their own hyper-vigilance in how they conduct themselves in public – in their choice of words, how they present themselves and who they interact with, not to mention their social media footprint.”
In my time studying Muslim activism I have encountered a real sense of fear among the people I speak to around the exceptionally high levels of relentless scrutiny that they face, particularly from the political and media domains. Many of my interlocutors describe their own hyper-vigilance in how they conduct themselves in public – in their choice of words, how they present themselves and who they interact with, not to mention their social media footprint. It is now par for the course for any Muslim public figure, whether in elected politics, or community activism, or even seasoned academics, to expect that their public profiles, statements and associations are thoroughly combed through for any signs of what can be presented or wilfully misconstrued as ‘anti-Britishness’, where ‘Britishness’ is read as state-defined FBV.
Self-policing as Neutralisation: Prevent Garnering Community Validation by the Back Door
While open hostility between the state and dissenting voices in the political arena is perhaps to be expected, we see the impacts of this dynamic further afield. In a climate where conditionality is the order of the day when it comes to state engagement with Muslims, activists must declare their positions before they can be taken seriously by the establishment. This can take the form of aligning clearly with the CE culture, distancing oneself from its critics, or at the very least, being sure not to associate with them.
Through insisting on conditionality of engagement, and through marking out certain groups, individuals and ideas as ‘anti-FBV’, the state has laid the scene for Muslim activists who seek to preserve their channels of communication, to perform their ‘moderation’ by publicly denouncing or distancing themselves from their co-religionists who have been designated ‘extremists’. By self-regulating their own language and public image, ‘good’ Muslims police ‘bad’ Muslims, and in doing so, hope to retain access to the ear of the state. Thus, the state is able to contain, dull and even neuter Muslim identity politics – such that compliant or manufactured voices can be disingenuously portrayed as dynamic activists, and dissenters branded as ‘entryists’.
“By self-regulating their own language and public image, ‘good’ Muslims police ‘bad’ Muslims, and in doing so, hope to retain access to the ear of the state. Thus, the state is able to contain, dull and even neuter Muslim identity politics – such that compliant or manufactured voices can be disingenuously portrayed as dynamic activists, and dissenters branded as ‘entryists’.”
There is an especially disagreeable double standard to this when we consider that state departments and institutions themselves thrive on a divisive and populist identity politics of their own – the same identity politics which continues to shore up nativism by enacting racist ‘border control’ policies such as the ‘hostile environment’ which brought about what has become known as the ‘Windrush scandal’, and which continues to be leveraged unfairly against British citizens and residents with immigrant heritage.
Consequently, many grassroots community platforms and academic spaces find themselves caught in a bind – whereby they effectively have to engage in self-policing as a form of self-preservation. Any public actor who wants to maintain a basic degree of public respectability in this toxic environment finds themselves obliged to declare their position with relation whichever Muslim individual, organisation or even whichever concept is currently out of favour.
For instance, although a very large number of Muslim activists and politicians are vocally opposed to the Prevent strategy, many are nonetheless reluctant to align their voices publicly with CAGE, which has been one of the premier community voices in researching and disseminating awareness of the harmful impacts of Prevent on communities, offering support to those who have been adversely affected and holding the state to account. Last month, Afzal Khan MP, shared supportively on twitter a Metro article reporting the reaction of several rights organisations, including CAGE, to leaked guidance notes issued by Counter-Terrorism Policing South East England (CTPSE) that were found to indicate the acceptability or otherwise of a range of different forms of political and religious expression. Hours later, he deleted the tweet altogether and issued a clear statement indicating that he did ‘not endorse Cage UK’, with apologies for confusion.
A more understated illustration of this self-policing can be found in the autobiographical account of a veteran community leader, Muhammad Abdul Bari. In recounting events of recent years, the author cites two widely supported open letters protesting against aspects of Prevent in broadly favourable terms. Although he mentions several signatory organisations, he avoids any mention of CAGE, the organisation behind both these initiatives. Bari’s reluctance to mention CAGE here is understandable – by doing so, he avoids unwanted potential harassment in the form of vicious accusations of ‘guilt by association’. But while in the short-term such a decision may be helpful in preventing hostile distraction from a wider discussion at hand, as a long-term strategy, can consistent self-policing by towing the government line in terms of discourse and association be a sustainable strategy for activists?
Considering the wider context of very serious challenges posed to activism and community work by Prevent and the wider CE culture that surrounds it, it is worth asking what the long term implications are of ceding the establishment of parameters for legitimate political activism and dissent to the state. Are we seeing a situation where the validation given (even if inadvertently or reluctantly) by Muslim activists and advocacy groups to the culture of Prevent is in itself the most potent neutralising force towards dissent and effectively an insidious force for relative uniformity of stance?
“Are we seeing a situation where the validation given (even if inadvertently or reluctantly) by Muslim activists and advocacy groups to the culture of Prevent is in itself the most potent neutralising force towards dissent and effectively an insidious force for relative uniformity of stance?”
In thinking about these issues, we could do worse than be mindful of the long history that the British state and its institutions have in neutralising dissent – both as part of its imperial adventures and on home soil. In ‘Black Star’, her meticulously documented history of the Asian Youth Movements, Anandi Ramamurthy demonstrates how these local collectives of radical resistance to 1970s and ‘80s racist violence were ultimately neutralised and fragmented by the state through strings-attached funding and the co-optation of youth leaders into local council and party politics. In their heyday, these movements had enjoyed significant successes in securing justice for those affected by discriminatory immigration regulations and systemic police racism.
My position here is not to argue in favour of engagement of one or other of the groups I discuss in this article. Rather, I am suggesting that Muslims in the activist space rethink how they relate to and converse with one another and to reflect on history in doing so.
I have discussed elsewhere how young Muslims are taking their activism to new and more creative frontiers. As the activism landscape comes to terms with the bolder, more diverse and open approaches favoured by younger generations, the state continues to dig its heels in unabatingly pressing forward with securitising public life. Observing the impacts of the CE agenda and its encroachment into the intimate spaces of debate and discovery within Muslim communities – spaces that are so crucial for growth, learning and organising – it bears questioning if the calculation that is being made to self-police in the hope of obtaining or maintaining a coveted ‘seat at the table’ is a short-sighted and ultimately self-destructive strategy.
Dr. Khadijah Elshayyal is visiting research fellow at the Alwaleed Centre for the Study of Islam in the Contemporary World, University of Edinburgh, and author of Muslim Identity Politics: Islam, activism and equality in Britain, and Scottish Muslim in Numbers: understanding Scotland’s Muslims through the 2011 Census.
 In using the term ‘securitisation’ here, I follow the concept developed by the Copenhagen School which describes the legitimation by the state of exceptional measures in response to a ‘socially constructed threat’ (in this discussion, terrorism and what has been referred to as ‘extremism’, ‘violent extremism’ and most recently, ‘hateful extremism’). See Barry Buzan, et al. Security: A New Framework for Analysis (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1997).
 The term ‘entryism’ describes a tactic of infiltration using deception or subterfuge by a smaller/weaker political grouping, into a larger or more powerful organisation. In the UK, the charge of ‘Islamist entryism’ has been consistently made by right-wing pundits and politicians against Muslim activists in the public space. I discuss this in greater detail here.
 Simon Sjternholm. “Sufi politics in Britain: the Sufi Muslim Council and the ‘silent majority’ of Muslims.” Journal of Islamic Law and Culture (2010) 12:3, pp. 215-226.
 Consider for example, the ‘encouragement offences’ introduced in the Terrorism Act 2006 which outlaw the ‘glorification of terrorism.’
 Prime Minister’s Office. “British Values: article by David Cameron” https://www.gov.uk/government/news/british-values-article-by-david-cameron. This article was printed in the Mail on Sunday on June 15, 2014 and archived at the above link.
 Conservative Party ‘Invitation to Join the Government of Great Britain’ (The Conservative Manifesto, 2010), p.105.
 To cite two examples: Danny Collins, ‘Revealed: London Mayor candidate Sadiq Khan links to Islamic extremist’ The Sun, 12 February 2016, and Joe Murphy‘Why Sadiq Khan cannot escape questions about extremists,’ Evening Standard, 26 April 2016.
 For context, previous criticisms made of CAGE by David Cameron specify alleged sympathy with ISIS and support for ‘jihad’. The former charge relies on sensationalist media accounts, whereas the latter takes us into the problematic territory of the state simplistically framing the Islamic concept of ‘jihad’ as ‘anti-British’, so as to make moral judgements about support for it directly warranting ostracisation from public and political life.
It is also worth noting here that if we are going to blacklist a community group on the basis of past unpalatable statements made by individuals involved, surely a similar standard should apply to our assessment of the current holders of public office. For example, Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who is on record for having supported a return of capital punishment as recently as 2011.
 Fahid Qurashi, ‘The Prevent strategy and the UK ‘war on terror’: embedding infrastructures of surveillance in Muslim communities.’ Palgrave Communications 4 (2018) 4:17.