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UK anti-terror regime: creating hatred of Muslims as a suspect community - CAMPACC Statement for 21 May 2011 conference, ‘Confronting Anti-Muslim Hatred in Britain and Europe’

When Prime Minister David Cameron attacked ‘state multiculturalism’ as a failure, he embraced the right-wing populist Islamophobia rising across Europe. At the same time, he was speaking at a European Security Conference.  In that context, Cameron extended a long-term strategy casting Muslims as a suspect community, i.e. suspected of involvement in terrorism.  What does this mean in practice?  And how can we oppose this strategy?

‘War on Terror’ under New Labour policy

Since the 2001 launch of the ‘War on Terror’, when the New Labour government adopted the US Neocon agenda, Muslims have been treated as a suspect community, warranting systematic surveillance to identify potential agents and sympathisers of so-called ‘terrorism’.  This term had been defined under the Terrorism Act 2000 in a broad way, encompassing any actions which may pose 'the threat' of 'serious damage to property', in ways 'designed to influence the government' for a 'political cause' anywhere in the world. Such a broader definition was necessary for a new political aim: so that any resistance to Britain’s oppressive allies abroad could be cast as terrorism, as a basis for targeting sympathisers in this country.  Subsequent Acts have established greater powers of detention and punishment, as well as new speech-crimes such as ‘glorification of terrorism’.

Frequent ‘terror raids’ have been carried out as joint operations between the police and mass media, which simply repeat disinformation from MI5 about ‘al-Qaeda cells’.  These operations were intensified in the run-up to the March 2003 US-UK invasion of Iraq and have continued sporadically, to reinforce public fears.  As the general aim, such powers intimidate, silence and marginalize Muslim communities, while also associating Islam with terrorist threats, thus encouraging anti-Muslim hatred. Since 2001 ‘anti-terror’ laws have been repeatedly extended to authorize special forms of harassment, detention and prosecution – for targeting activities other than plans for violent acts.

Under the ‘Prevent Violent Extremism’ programme of the Home Office, a broader threat was identified as Islamist radicalization or violent extremism.  Although vaguely defined, this could mean verbal support for violent resistance anywhere in the world, and especially verbal support for attacks on UK armed forces abroad (according to a 2009 leaked Home Office document).  Such views were cast as Islamist extremism – incompatible with ‘our values’, as if only Muslims could support armed resistance against imperialist Occupation or Zionist terror.  Numerous Muslim organizations were officially engaged or even funded in an effort to counter ‘violent extremism’.  This programme has been criticized for violating privacy, undermining professional norms of confidentiality and degrading local democracy (see

The counter-insurgency role became more explicit in Contest 2, officially known as the National Security Strategy of the United Kingdom: Security in an interdependent world (2008).  It called for greater integration of policy: namely, to abandon all distinctions between domestic and foreign policy, between soft and hard power, between civilian and military approaches, etc.  Schools, youth clubs and universities were meant to monitor the views of Muslim communities.  For these surveillance and prevention measures, the strategy targeted a large group of non-violent people who ‘create an environment in which terrorists can operate’, according to Charles Farr (Director General for Security and Counter-Terrorism, Home Office, 3 Oct 2009 speech).

Under Contest 2, moreover, the broad threat justified a range of ‘non-prosecution executive actions’ in order to restrict the scope for radicalization, even by groups not advocating violence.  These measures have imposed punishment without trial, e.g. house arrest, asset-freezing, travel bans, long interrogations at UK ports, long detention periods without charge, etc.  These measures can permanently stigmatize individuals, potentially destroying their lives.

This strategy has analogies with Britain’s terror campaign against the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, when Irish people became a suspect community (see Paddy Hillyard’s 1993 book).  Both cases apply ‘low-intensity operations’ (see General Frank Kitson’s 1971 book), bringing back home the counter-insurgency strategies from Britain’s colonies to the UK.

ConDem government: renouncing multiculturalism, targeting ‘non-violent extremism’

During the general election campaign, in response to widespread protest, both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats promised to re-balance civil liberties with counter-terrorism powers. When the Coalition government took office, it faced a dilemma: How to refine and extend the counter-insurgency strategy, while also deflecting criticism?   Last January the government’s review suggested only minor cosmetic changes, e.g. maintaining control orders by renaming them – and even extending powers of punishment without trial.  The announcement affirmed the New Labour rationale that such powers are necessary to protect us from the threats of international terrorism.  Likewise, according to the government’s review of the Prevent programme, the UK faces a severe terrorist threat from ‘violent extremism associated with al-Qaeda’.

In parallel, Cameron’s attack on ‘state multiculturalism’ signaled a change in counter-insurgency strategy, especially by broadening the threat narrative.  He abandoned New Labour’s language about ‘moderate versus extremist Muslims’, as follows:

It is vital that we make this distinction between religion on the one hand, and political ideology on the other.  Time and again, people equate the two.  They think whether someone is an extremist is dependent on how much they observe their religion.  So, they talk about moderate Muslims as if all devout Muslims must be extremist.  This is profoundly wrong….  As evidence emerges about the backgrounds of those convicted of terrorist offences, it is clear that many of them were initially influenced by what some have called ‘non-violent extremists’, and they then took those radical beliefs to the next level by embracing violence… And to those who say these non-violent extremists are actually helping to keep young, vulnerable men away from violence, I say: nonsense. Some organisations that seek to present themselves as a gateway to the Muslim community are showered with public money despite doing little to combat extremism.

Thus he asserted that terrorist threat comes from political views – from ‘Islamist extremism’, which has ‘hostility towards Western democracy and liberal values’.  He drew an artificial distinction between religious and political views, as if the counter-terror regime was not targeting Muslims or Islam.  Cameron also blamed ‘state multiculturalism’ for government programmes funding organizations which promote ‘non-violent Islamist extremism’.  (Thus he defined multiculturalism to suit his political argument.)

Towards a remedy, Cameron argued:  “We need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active, muscular liberalism to counter the non-violent and violent forms.”  This concept will guide the government’s review of the Prevent programme.  Participating organisations will be expected to disavow ‘extremism’, i.e. to dissociate themselves from any resistance against state terror.

‘Radicalisation on campus’ soon became a flashpoint for Cameron’s argument.  Responding to criticism from the previous government, Vice-Chancellors issued a report arguing that universities should ‘engage – not marginalise’ extreme views on campus.  Lord Carlile denounced the report as inadequate, especially because it proposed no means to identify individuals who may be radicalised. Moreover, ‘We should put out a clear narrative as to what is and what isn’t acceptable in this country, about the extent to which....  freedom of speech may or may not be extended to non-violent groups’ (Guardian, 19.02.11).  Thus Carlile attempted to impose new duties: namely, universities must screen individuals' views before inviting them as speakers.  Of course, support for state terror is not extremism, according to muscular liberalism.

Conclusion: oppose the ‘anti-terror’ regime

So-called ‘anti-terror’ laws authorize special forms of surveillance, harassment, detention and punishment without trial.  Such measures intimidate Muslim and migrant communities, thus potentially undermining opposition to the UK’s imperialist wars.  The counter-terror regime associates (religious and/or political) Islam with terrorist threats, thus encouraging anti-Muslim hatred and promoting a politics of fear.  The entire regime justifies state terror as counter-terrorism.

The strategy has attempted to incorporate some Muslim groups into surveillance efforts.   Cameron equates this incorporation with ‘state multiculturalism’ – now to be abandoned in favour of a ‘muscular liberalism’ targeting all ‘violent extremism’, which is supposedly a political ideology rather than a religious view.  This false distinction helps to justify further surveillance and punishment measures as if they were not targeting Muslims.  To fight anti-Muslim hatred, an effective response must oppose the entire anti-terror regime and its political rationale in the supposed threat from ‘non-violent extremism’.