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Challenging the Suspect Narrative: Muslim Community Perspectives on Counter-Terrorism in the UK

Article, 12 February 2010
Domestic Security, Terrorism
Government counter-terrorism policy now charges Muslim communities with the responsibility of building resilience against militant ideas and practices. Laura Zahra McDonald argues that, unless employed correctly, such expectations can lead to Muslims feeling like suspects rather than citizens.

Within the post-9/11 context and international War on Terror, security efforts have focused on the threat of violence posed from Al-Qa’ida-affiliated or -influenced individuals and groups, perpetrating what is often termed as ‘new terror’, ‘Islamic terrorism’ or ‘Islamist terrorism’. The major danger to state securities, particularly in the West, has therefore become associated largely with Muslim communities who, placed at the centre of security discourse and practice, have come under increasingly intense levels of scrutiny.

In the UK, policy has reflected these developments: while other threats are acknowledged, such as animal rights extremists, Irish Republican dissidence and the rise of far right activity, the CONTEST strategies (I & II) – a fundamental element of British counter-terrorism policy – focuses almost entirely on Muslims as both the source of threat and the solution. As a threat, British Muslim communities are identified as the most likely source of individuals actually holding, or potentially developing, violent radical views and intentions in line with those of Al-Qa’ida. Concomitantly, the notion that ‘communities defeat terror’ underpins CONTEST, and charges Muslim communities with the responsibility to help disrupt and prevent terrorist activity. In the case of the Pursue strand this involves, for example, the provision of intelligence and community information to root out dangerous individuals, and hence an expectation that Muslim communities will build resilience and intervene against militant ideas and pratices.

As comparatively new forms of security policy and practice, it is unsurprising that this strategy has been subject to a great deal of analysis from practitioners, academics, think tanks and the media. However, surprisingly little attention has been given to the perspectives of Muslim communities, on whom the impact has been the greatest, but whose voices are heard the least. It is therefore the aim of this article to explore some of these perspectives, drawing upon research with Basia Spalek and Dr Salwa El-Awa at the University of Birmingham, funded under the auspices of the AHRC Religion and Society Programme entitled ‘An Examination of Partnership Approaches to Challenging Religiously-Endorsed Violence involving Muslim Groups and Police’; its new sister project, ‘Partnership between Police and Muslim Communities in the Prevention of Violent Extremism amongst Muslim Youth’; and the author’s own engagement with Prevent policy and project implementation at the community level.[1]

Context: The Impact of Counter-Terrorism Measures on Communities

To better understand Muslim community attitudes towards countering terrorism in the wider context, it is important to reiterate the impact of discourse and practice in shaping perceptions found within Muslim communities, many members of which, like Irish communities during IRA bombing campaigns, feel they are collectively treated as suspects.[2]

Wider social discourse, especially as articulated through much of the media, is often perceived to homogenise, stereotype and stigmatise, strengthening the perception that Muslims and Islam are intrinsically linked with terrorism and other forms of dangerous or repressive behaviours, beliefs and practices. Discrimination and Islamophobic abuse, whether explicit or implicit, are also perceived as having greatly increased since 9/11. This has added to a sense of victimisation, further exacerbated by long-term structural disadvantages within Muslim communities such as lower levels of employment, pay and educational achievement.

Relating to security practices more specifically, ‘hard’ measures practiced insensitively have greatly contributed to feelings of fear, injustice, and mistrust in the state: from lower-level but alienating experiences of stop and search under Section 44, to aggressive informer recruitment by the security services and high-profile raids and arrests carried out with violence, such as Forest Gate and the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes. This fearful atmosphere is made worse as the actual experiences of individuals, as well as people’s perceptions of security practices, are viewed against the backdrop of the international War on Terror: Bush’s apparent ‘crusade’, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the rendition and torture of prisoners and the continued existence of Guantánamo Bay. The effect is to strengthen the idea that British counter-terrorism efforts are part and parcel of a rejection of Muslims and even a war on Islam. This feeling is exploited by Al-Qa’ida-inspired rhetoric, which undermines potential community/state counter-terrorism initiatives.

In addition to this socio-political context, it is also important to emphasise the plurality of Muslim communities in Britain, not only in relation to the complex intersections of numerous social factors (ethnicity, culture, theology, religious practice, language, national heritage, clan or tribal affiliations, gender, class, generation, politics) but in the internal diversities within these groupings, which render the identification of any homogenous ‘community’ as problematic. To talk of ‘Muslim community perspectives’ must therefore be understood as snapshots of experiences and ideas, in which trends of opinion may be identified, but which do not represent the whole British Muslim community. This level of complexity and variation also poses a challenge to policy development in relation to asserting wide-reaching expectations on ‘British Muslim communities’, an issue explored in the following section.

CONTEST

Some Muslim communities have minimal experience of violent extremist ideology and consequently little engagement in government counter-terrorism policy. For those who do, however, including those who recognise the necessity of countering terrorism, the CONTEST strategy contains a number of elements of which they are critical.

For example, the idea of the Pursue strand – to disrupt and stop terrorist plots – is less problematic than the practices sanctioned to carry it out, such as Section 44 stop and search, pre-charge detention and control orders, as well as other ‘hard’ techniques practiced by both security services and the police. Examples engendering fear and mistrust include:

  • Actual and/or perceived levels of surveillance used in Pursue, seen as further evidence of Muslims being treated as suspect citizens
  • Intimidating recruitment (or attempted recruitment) of informers by security services
  • Aggressive over-use of stop and search powers, where individuals feel harassed and profiled.

The alienation created by such practices undermines the strategy’s foundational idea: to engage communities and develop levels of co-operation. However, communities also see positive dividends from increased engagement that should be borne in mind as well (see boxes for further analysis).

Policy in Practice

As well as debate around policy and strategy, community voices have engaged critically with counter-terrorism programmes such as Channel and Prevent-funded community projects. It is important to note that the implementation of policy has been localised – there is no ‘national picture’ per se, and therefore the experience of community members can differ greatly according to locality. However, certain issues have been raised repeatedly within the research. Prevent projects have been viewed as particularly problematic where there appears a disconnect between local government and communities. For example, through claiming representation and expertise, groups without grassroots support have gained financially and socially, while marginalising others who may have more to contribute to the prevention of violence in the long term.

More positively, Prevent projects have allowed community groups to engage in and influence local policy and practices. In Birmingham for example, West Midlands Police, the City Council and community organisations have developed strong relationships within the Prevent programme, with greater levels of engagement by community members as the programme has developed. Trust has been built between practitioners and community members, a transparent process of funding developed, and an open approach to Prevent as a community-based programme to counter violent extremism. Importantly, community members and police officers are also keen to develop spaces for debate, recognising that the airing of grievances and addressing of concerns regarding counter-terrorism activity is vital to long-term successful partnership.

Channel projects, in which multi-agency collaborations assess and intervene in cases of individual vulnerability, also inspire mixed reactions, to some extent reflecting differing local interpretation and implementation of policy. While in the early stages, the research suggests that Channel’s definition of ‘radical’, and therefore the suitability of a programme looking to intervene and in some cases ‘de-radicalise’, is problematic for community members. Yet, Channel can also enable the inclusion of community members in sensitive counter-terrorism work, for which community perspectives and expertise are vital and valued.

While difficult to measure success, especially in relation to the prevention of violent extremism, there appears to be agreement on successful approaches based on the inclusion and empowerment of communities. While broader Prevent work seems to have provided wider opportunities for communities to engage and address issues locally, much evidence of success points to specific engagement with community members who hold credibility and expertise on violent extremism and other ‘hard’ issues at a grassroots level. While politicians may appear keen to exclude such groups, practitioners interpret the policy to include the development of bottom-up approaches.

In London for example, community partnership by police officers in the Muslim Contact Unit and officers from the National Community Tension Team – in many cases established before official Prevent policy – has resulted in successful interventions with vulnerable individuals, the reclaiming of mosques from violent ideologues, and increased levels of mutual trust between the police and the community. This has all led to greater levels of understanding and more reliable sharing of community information. Similarly, the West Midlands Counter Terrorism Unit is currently developing forms of outreach and building police-community partnerships using a form of neighbourhood policing in a counter-terrorism context. And while such initiatives raise the suspicion and cynicism of sections of the community, policy-makers and practitioners alike, evidence suggests that success in these case studies has been achieved by turning traditional, covert approaches to security on their head.

By embracing communities as partners rather than suspects, a joint effort between the government and Muslim communities may succeed in creating compatible and sustainable forms of state and human security for the future.

Dr Laura Zahra McDonald
Communities, Securities and Justice Grouping
University of Birmingham

NOTES

[1] Department of Communities and Local Government, The Prevent Strategy: A guide for local partners (London: The Stationery Office, June 2008), <http://www.communities.gov.uk/publications/communities/preventstrategy>.

[2] Paddy Hillyard, Suspect Community: People’s Experience of the Prevention of Terrorism Acts in Britain (London: Pluto Press, 1993).

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