Muslims, Extremism and the ‘Suspect’ Community

In 2011 European leaders such as the former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the British Prime Minister David Cameron held an international conference in Munich to discuss issues of home-grown extremism, radicalisation, and multiculturalism, thus sparking a debate about how countries adopt counter-terrorism policies that are used to combat the extremist threat. The UK government counter-terrorism policy is enshrined in its CONTEST strategy (HM Government 2006: see https://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/publications/counter-terrorism/counter-terrorism-strategy/strategy-contest?view=Binary). The focus of CONTEST is to reduce the risk to the UK from international terrorism, and has four important strands; Protect, Pursue, Prepare and Prevent. The main aim and goal of the Prevent Strategy 2011 is to stop and prevent people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.

As noted above, dealing with the nature of home-grown extremism has inevitably led to a number of countries, particularly in Europe, using counter-extremism policies that aim to tackle the threat from extremism through the promotion of engagement and integration programmes within communities. Indeed, following a global downturn in the world’s economies and a time of austerity the British government has developed its vision for a ‘Big Society.’ Whilst a number of countries including the UK, the United States, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain have been working together in multi-faceted programmes that aim to eradicate the extremist threat, in contrast in 2010 wikileaks cables revealed the problematic nature of cross border partnership work as confidential documents revealed how United States diplomats appeared to be critical of UK policy on preventing extremism within local Muslim communities (The US Embassy Cables: Confidential Section 005958:see https://www.guardian.co.uk/world/us-embassy-cables-documents/74818).

The author examined the impact of the new Prevent Strategy 2011 upon British Muslims and the risk associated with regard to the ‘construction’ of the Muslim community as a ‘suspect’ community. This concept of ‘construction’ is an evolving metaphor which has been used to formulate the role of communities and counter-terrorism policies which have progressed from the Irish communities who had been viewed as ‘suspects’ in the past to the present debate that Muslim communities are the ‘new’ ‘suspects’. After the July 7/7 bombings in London in 2005 the UK government came under scrutiny from within Britain to improve security and resilience in the face of the ‘new’ terrorist threat.

The problem with the Prevent Strategy 2011 is that whilst the Muslim community is not a homogenous group police and state measures to prevent extremism risk creating an element of racial profiling of certain sections and factions within the Muslim community such as the Salafist movement whose close ideological alliance with the ‘Wahabism’ school of thinking has been viewed in a negative light. Moreover, the problem with Prevent is that the aim to challenge extremist ideology has been blurred by counter-terrorism policies which could be viewed as an exercise in gathering intelligence. Indeed, as part of the Pursue strand of CONTEST a local police force in Birmingham (UK) (West Midlands Police) installed a number of covert and overt CCTV cameras in predominately Muslim areas paid for by the terrorism allied fund, highlighting how in practice Muslim communities were being viewed as a ‘suspect’ community.

The initiative known as Project Champion involved the police using covert and overt surveillance cameras in predominately Muslim areas of Birmingham (in the UK) and was criticised for breaching human rights legislation. An independent report into the project concluded that there was a lack of ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability’ by the police (Thornton 2010 see www.west-midlands.police.uk/ latest news/docs/Champion_Review_FINAL_30_09_10.pdf). Therefore it does appear that whilst counter-terrorism policies such as Prevent, have an overall goal of community engagement to combat extremism, it may through counter-terrorism policing tactics alienate sections of the Muslim community because the policy is misdirected.

Also, the Prevent Strategy 2011 has now made universities more accountable when it comes to combating extremism. The Home Secretary, Theresa May suggested that universities had become ‘complacent’ in tackling forms of radicalisation and extremism on their campuses. The British Home Secretary stated that: ‘I think for too long there’s been complacency around universities…’ (Cited online by the Daily Telegraph website 2011: see https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/terrorism-in-the-uk/8558499/Universities-complacent-over-Islamic-radicals-Theresa-May-warns.html). It also risks making universities police their students in a much more difficult arena, having lecturers possibly acting as intelligence sources that gather evidence about their students thereby risking losing trust amongst students. Although lecturers should inspire students and promote learning, teaching and research it appears that the governments focus on universities being complacent in dealing with extremists’ does risk making the student experience at universities more tense and difficult for both academics and students.

In a time of austerity when universities are facing a huge budget cut this in turn could lead to universities now doing the job of the police in countering extremism which in effect could have the opposite effect as students lose trust in the role of higher education and their lecturers. The problem for universities in tackling extremism has already manifested with the high profile case of Rizwan Sabir. Sabir was arrested under the Terrorism Act, for downloading extremist material that could have been used for terrorist purposes but released without charge after 7 days (BBC News 2009: see https://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/nottinghamshire/7415685.stm).

His case highlights the dangers of tackling extremism on university campuses as students such as Rizwan Sabir could now be prosecuted for downloading material from the Internet if a jury deemed it to be material that could be used for a terrorist purpose. The case also raised important issues about how the police and universities implement counter-terrorism policies (such as Prevent) and the profound impact counter-terrorism arrests can have upon a person’s family life. The aim of this research was to shed light on a new government policy on extremism which has caused controversy and anger amongst many Muslim communities. The UK government must have a better understanding of how to prevent people following a path of extremism. This requires a stronger research evidence base which helps improve and understand the causes of extremism.

For a fuller discussion see: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1747-1346.2012.00397.x/full

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