Time to end exceptional security policies targeting Muslims: they don't work

Contemporary counter-terrorist policies often discriminate directly or indirectly against Muslims, as the recent case of Abu Qatada illustrate. This bias produces counter-productive effects.

After 9/11 and 7/7 US and UK governments introduced security policies and practices that often set different and exceptional standards for their Muslim citizens and residents. Not only has this been unfair and undemocratic it has also been counter-productive in terms of public safety.

To recall, both in political intent and in operational and administrative implementation, the war on terror often placed Muslims at a disadvantage to their fellow citizens and residents. The application of different and exceptional standards in respect of Muslims in a security context has applied to Muslims individually and collectively, directly and indirectly, intentionally and unintentionally. Direct, intentional disadvantage has occurred in security arenas such as detention at Guantanamo Bay and detention without trial more generally. Indirect disadvantage has occurred in relation to government policies that have wrongly stigmatised mainstream Muslim representative organisations as extremist or subversive.

More sober developments of counter-terrorism policies by the Obama administration in the US, and by Brown and Cameron governments in the UK, have not eradicated the excesses and legacy of the Bush / Blair era. Regrettably, in some respects the adverse treatment of Muslim citizens and residents has been consolidated. In addition, adverse consequences in terms of public safety have often arisen – sometimes unintended but rarely unforeseeable. For example, unintended but consequential disadvantage and harm has arisen with the related growth of anti-Muslim bigotry and violence in the US and UK.          

Direct discrimination

Dealing with the direct adverse impact on individual Muslims first, it will be useful to begin by considering the topical case of Abu Qatada. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Peter Oborne reminds the UK government of the value of adhering to the rule of law and the danger of endorsing and perpetuating Tony Blair’s arbitrary counter-terrorism rule changes. Oborne is right that Abu Qatada could and should have been tried as a ‘common criminal’ if the evidence allowed such a course of action.

I will develop Oborne’s point by arguing that when Abu Qatada was first subjected to arrest without trial greater consideration should have been given to his arrest and trial instead for incitement to murder and for hate crime offences more generally. This was a course of action that was successful against his fellow London-based hate preachers Abu Hamza and Abdullah el Faisal. As I describe in my recent book the subsequent convictions of Abu Hamza and Abdullah el Faisal had the advantage of satisfying and demonstrating justice to a wider Muslim community where pro-active support for counter-terrorism remains vital. These successful prosecutions also remind us that many Muslims have the capacity to help provide or locate evidence, especially valuable when covert intelligence cannot easily be divulged in court.

It is, however, unrealistic to expect Muslims to co-operate with police in this productive partnership way if some of their co-religionists are being singled out for exceptional treatment including detention without trial. This point leads on directly to the case of London Muslim, Babar Ahmad who has now been held in custody without trial, pending extradition to the US, for a record period. As in Abu Qatada’s case it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that greater consideration should have been given to Babar Ahmad’s arrest and trial in the UK instead. In both cases the public safety benefits of a fair trial outweigh any perceived short term security gains.

Legitimate terrorist suspects, Abu Qatada and Babar Ahmad fall into the first category of individuals who have been subjected to policies reserved especially for Muslims. This follows directly from the war on terror’s central belief that Al-Qaeda represents a unique and existential threat. A close reading of Richard English’s excellent Terrorism: How to Respond helps correct and contextualise this pejorative view. By placing terrorism conducted by Muslims in a wider historical context English reminds us that the best counter-terrorism responses always entail ‘respect [for] orthodox legal frameworks’ and adherence ‘to the democratically established rule of law’ and that the best remedies do not studiously ignore the root political issues and causes that terrorists exploit.

Not only have legitimate terrorist suspects such as Abu Qatada and Babar Ahmad been denied opportunities to have a fair trial, so too have other UK and US Muslim citizens been subjected to extraordinary rendition and human rights abuses. Typically, in consequence, individuals such as former Guantanamo Bay detainees, British citizens Moazzem Begg and Binyam Mohamed have been unable to establish their innocence in the way that would normally be open to terrorist suspects when dealt with by the normal rules of justice. Instead, public safety and community confidence has been weakened when Begg, Mohamed and several other Muslims have recounted their stories of extraordinary rendition and human rights abuses to domestic Muslim audiences. In the future public safety will be better served by adhering to the rule of law instead.       

For now the UK government is determined to insist that Abu Qatada sits within a special class of Muslim terrorist who pose such a unique threat to public safety that the rule of law should be suspended. As a result Abu Qatada remains under virtual house arrest while diplomatic efforts are made to deport him to Jordan where torture or evidence resulting from torture might be used against him. Instead of seeking to circumvent European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rulings government ministers might reflect on the ability of UK security services and police to bring individuals like Abu Qatada to justice while at the same time preserving public safety. The notion that Muslim terrorists alone pose such a risk that they must be arrested before evidence exists to prosecute them needs to be reviewed.

Similarly, in Washington, the US government takes the view that innocent Muslim lives may well be necessarily lost in the pursuit of key terrorist targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan by military drone air strikes. This does not impact directly on US and UK Muslims but it does consolidate their perception that different rules of engagement apply when Muslims pose a terrorist threat.

Direct discrimination also arises in connection with US and UK policy towards Hamas. Whereas US governments encouraged and supported UK negotiation with an organisation – the Provisional IRA – that posed a limited terrorist threat to the UK, both governments have resolutely refused to negotiate with Hamas, a Palestinian Muslim organisation that poses a limited terrorist threat to Israel. Uncompromising support in Washington and Whitehall for Israel against the interests of Palestinians during the course, and under the rubric, of the war on terror has convinced many US and UK Muslims of the failure of their governments to apply fair and equal standards to Hamas.

It is equally true that al-Qaeda has sought to benefit from a perception of government bias against Palestinians when recruiting or radicalising a handful of US and UK Muslims to conduct terrorist operations in their own countries and abroad. This is not an outcome that US and UK governments should take the blame for. But it is one that they should have anticipated when framing, launching and executing the war on terror in partnership with Israel.     

Indirect discrimination

Since 9/11 indirect discrimination against Muslim citizens and residents in the US and UK has most commonly arisen when their governments have wrongly conflated their religion – Islam - with terrorism and a ‘clash of civilisations’. In an era of pro-active anti-racism, Muslim communities in the US and UK saw their religion being singled out for exceptional treatment in a security context. It became commonplace for al-Qaeda terrorism to be diagnosed as Islamic terrorism and for remedies to be couched in a religious context.

Significant improvements have been made during the Obama administration but even today US and UK governments are reluctant to tackle divisive anti-Muslim commentators who insist on the reform of Islam as a necessary prelude to public safety and community cohesion at home and abroad. To illustrate, anti-Muslim activists have been allowed to infiltrate the counter-terrorism and public safety community. Recently, the New York Times reported that an anti-Muslim propaganda film The Third Jihad ‘was shown to more than a thousand officers as part of training in the New York Police Department.’ According to the film’s narrator, the ‘true agenda of much of Islam in America’ is to ‘infiltrate and dominate America. . .This is the war you don’t know about.’

Indirect, collective and counter-productive discrimination against Muslim citizens and residents in a security context in the US and UK also arises from the notion of guilt by association – either explicit or implicit in the worst excesses of the war on terror. Muslims are not the first minority community to suffer this kind of stigmatisation but in the last ten years they alone have been singled out by aspects of government policy and discourse.

Whereas US and UK government’s have been inclined to engage with representative bodies of other faith communities as they present themselves, in the case of organisations representing Muslims much effort has gone instead into engaging selectively. In particular mainstream representative bodies such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in the US and the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) in the UK have often found themselves cold shouldered and stigmatised by government.

In one important respect the Cameron government has taken this discriminatory policy to new lengths by excluding certain Muslim groups from key public safety roles where they have previously successfully tackled the influence of hate preachers like Abu Qatada, Abu Hamza and Abdullah el Faisal. It does so on the false premise that such groups, often ‘Salafi’ or ‘Islamist’ in complexion, are themselves extremist, albeit non-violent.

Instead, the Cameron government promotes a counter-subversion strategy of sorts in which organisations like the Quilliam Foundation are encouraged to ‘de-radicalise’ Muslims who pose little or no threat to public safety. This is to develop a negative element of the ‘Prevent’ strategy, first anticipated by Ruth Kelly and Hazel Blears when in charge of the Department of Communities and Local Government, that seeks to undermine mainstream Muslim organisations. 

In the future the Cameron government, or its successor, will need to review this discriminatory and counter-productive policy and treat all Muslim organisations according to their merits and not on the basis of a neo-conservative aversion to politically active or religiously fundamentalist Muslims.

In a recent article for Newsweek, Ayaan Hirsi Ali claims that Muslim lobbying groups including the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and CAIR have been ‘remarkably successful in persuading leading public figures and journalists in the West to think of each and every example of perceived anti-Muslim discrimination as an expression of a systematic and sinister derangement called “Islamophobia”—a term’ Ali suggests, ‘that is meant to elicit the same moral disapproval as xenophobia or homophobia’. In reality the notion of Islamophobia has gained little traction in Washington and Whitehall, where instead it has become acceptable to apply different and discriminatory standards to Muslims in ways that have hindered public safety and community cohesion.

In the same article Ali promotes the notion of a growing international war between Muslims and Christians. Given the extent to which she has the influence to fan the flames of such violent hatred it would be helpful if US, UK (and other European) governments embraced and applauded many of the Muslim organisations she condemns. In truth, the OIC, CAIR, MCB and hundreds more responsible Muslim bodies worldwide are at the forefront of constructive inter-faith dialogue and public safety work. Recent efforts by responsible Egyptian Muslims to protect their Christian neighbours after an attack by violent extremists is a case in point.  

Ali’s article also serves to underline the extent to which US and UK governments are encouraged by powerful lobbyists to deny or downplay the level of anti-Muslim violence inflicted on their Muslim citizens and residents by fellow citizens who often feed off mainstream Islamophobia. A paucity of anti-Muslim violence in the US and UK prior to 9/11 and the war on terror can be contrasted with a decade in which Muslims and their places of worship have become routine targets for violent attack. In part this is an unintended but foreseeable consequence of the war on terror that has had a uniquely negative impact on Muslims.

Way forward

Terrorism is by definition a tactic adopted by a handful of fringe players outside of the political mainstream. If political terrorists inspired or directed by al-Qaeda succeed in attacking US or UK targets again in the next ten years it is vitally important that mistakes are not repeated and that each country’s burgeoning Muslim populations are encouraged to feel part of the solution, not part of the problem. Effective counter-terrorism does not resort to military action at the drop of a hat nor does it encourage guilt by association but is instead kept tightly focused on terrorists and terrorist suspects within an orthodox legal framework.

Muslims have a positive part to play in future community based counter-terrorism strategies. To that end, public safety and security will be enhanced if Muslims and the organisations that represent them are treated in exactly the same way as other US and UK citizens and residents, and the organisations that represent other faith communities.

The impeccable FBI investigation of the first attack on the World Trade Centre in 1993 provides a template for an effective response to any future terrorist attacks in the west. So too the investigation of the attack by Anders Breivik in Norway last year. There is no need to over react, create new rules and play into the hands of terrorist strategists who often thrive on the implementation of draconian anti-terrorist measures.

Still less should governments maintain those discriminatory policies grounded in the war on terror that stigmatise and alienate Muslims. The sooner Muslims are treated the same as all other citizens and residents the better for all of us.

About the author

Robert Lambert is Lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, University of St Andrews. He is the author of Countering al-Qaeda in London: Police and Muslims in Partnership, Hurst, London in September 2011. Previously a Metropolitan Police Special Branch detective, his final police role was head of the Muslim Contact Unit; other roles included undercover police officer.