Can Europe Make It?

Why is Europe desperate to spy on its Muslims?

The Muslim, in the eyes of the west, is stuck in a perpetual condition of imminent fanaticism. This is why the west has to survey all Muslims, all of the time.

James Renton
23 September 2015
NYC protest against anti-Muslim bias after North Carolina shootings.

NYC protest against anti-Muslim bias after North Carolina shootings.Demotix/M.Stan Reaves.All rights reserved.“Is it not worrying in itself that European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian? There is no alternative, and we have no option but to defend our borders.”

These words, written by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán about Muslims fleeing to Europe from Syria, were published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 2 September. One would be forgiven for thinking that they are the extreme sentiments of a fringe figure in European politics. Indeed, prior to a meeting with Orbán the following day, the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, gave us a salutary lesson in what European Christians ought to think about the migration crisis: ‘For a Christian it shouldn't matter what race, religion and nationality the person in need represents.’ No right-thinking European policy-maker to the west of Hungary would disagree with Tusk—in public; the image of the EU as an anti-racist zone at the forefront of liberalism and democracy is sacrosanct.

The reality, however, is that in 2015 most European states see their Muslim populations as a potential threat to human security. For this reason, the UK, France and other governments are working to extend the already global architecture of Muslim surveillance. Most of the governments of Europe and the wider west are, like Orbán, frightened of Muslims. This Islamophobia has led to the biggest, globe-spanning surveillance apparatus in human history. Beyond the observation that the west has a phobia, few scholars or analysts have attempted an answer the question - why? -  why does this mean that Europe must spy on them? We must start to engage with this urgent issue; it lies at the heart of, among other crises, Europe’s current immigration panic—since 2011 most states have wanted to keep Muslim refugees out, and, now the dam has burst, what will be done about it?

The surveillance regime

The Edward Snowden revelations of 2013 unveiled the global extent of hidden internet and telephony surveillance of entire populations conducted by US and British intelligence services in cooperation with European states such as Germany. Since then, the UK Government has taken steps to legalise blanket surveillance, and, along with several other European governments, to extend the Muslim surveillance order in profound ways.

In July 2014, the British Government introduced ‘emergency’ legislation— since judged to be unlawful— that permits blanket communications data (though not content) retention without independent oversight, and requires the cooperation of overseas companies. The new Investigatory Powers Bill will, we were told in the last Queen’s Speech, go even further by ‘addressing the gap’ in the ability to obtain online intelligence and evidence regarding ‘subjects of interest, suspects and vulnerable people’. In addition, new citizen surveillance agents are being enlisted: the UK’s planned ‘Extremism Bill’ will ‘enable’ employers to check whether an employee is an ‘extremist’ and ‘bar them from working with children’; and the ‘Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015’ requires by law that those who run universities, local authorities, NHS Trusts and even nursery schools ‘must … have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’.

In France, the Constitutional Council approved on 23 July a wide-ranging intelligence law that allows surveillance in private spaces and the monitoring of internet and mobile communications without legal oversight. The new law also mandates the sharing of data by communication companies and their installation of ‘black boxes’ to detect suspect online behaviour.

Whilst the UK and France possess the most extensive surveillance systems in Europe, they are not alone. The Belgian government recently authorised the bugging of telecommunications for a wider range of 'offences', which now include 'activities of public provocation to commit terrorist offences'. And after the Thalys attack in August, the Belgian Prime Minister, Charles Michel, said, 'Increasingly, we’re going to be in a society, where we have to be ready to sacrifice certain freedoms in the interest of fighting terrorism.' Earlier in the year in April, the Italian Government introduced a decree that, among other measures, criminalised the online endorsement of terrorism. In the face of public opposition, the Government had to abandon its attempt to include in the same decree the legalisation of remote data capture. And in Denmark, the government proposed in February that the Danish Defence Intelligence Services should be able to spy on the communications of Danish citizens abroad without the permission of the courts.

The details of Muslim surveillance programmes in individual European states only gives us a part of the picture, however. Despite their differences in approach, each state’s efforts belongs to a Europe-wide (and indeed western) consensus on the problem: the urgent and unremitting need to find and track dangerous Muslims.

Not only are national European intelligence services known to cooperate on the question of mass surveillance, but the European Union has a region-wide strategy for ‘internal security’ in which surveillance plays a key role. The EU itself does not spy on Muslims. But it is working hard to enable the gathering and sharing of intelligence by Member States with the development of ever more sophisticated tools and frameworks: technological, organisational, legal, and financial.

Much of this project—monitored by the EU Council’s Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove— is set out in the ‘European Agenda for Security’, which was presented on 28 April 2015. Measures include the Passenger Name Records Directive for the collection of data on flight passengers, so that they can be assessed before arrival and departure; the EU Internet Referral Unit to coordinate and share the flagging of ‘terrorist and violent extremist online content’, in close cooperation with industry; increased intelligence and information exchange and judicial cooperation; and an EU level forum with IT companies.  

Since the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled in April 2014 that the EU’s 2006 Data Retention Directive was invalid, the Commission has left Member States to develop their own statutory instruments. But it is certainly not getting in their way. In addition, the digital environment is only one aspect of the surveillance machine. Just as significant is the development of a transnational support-system for networks that are designed to spot ‘radicalisation’ in local communities. The EU’s Radicalisation Awareness Network is said to connect over 1,000 ‘practitioners’, which can include teachers, social workers, local authorities, and health workers. And, significantly, the EU is extending its ‘radicalisation prevention’ project to the Middle East, North and sub-Saharan Africa, and the Western Balkans. Indeed, partnerships with so-called ‘third countries’ are a central plank of the EU’s security strategy for the next five years.

The principal target of this surveillance order is rarely articulated—the word ‘Muslim’ is difficult to find in official European Union counter-terrorism strategy documents. But the west’s ‘radicalisation prevention’ project requires—demands— spying on Muslims. Non-Muslims might get caught up in the net, but European states do not expect them to become ‘radicalised’. In EU and Member State parlance, ‘radicalisation’ is short-hand for a political process that only involves Muslims. This is the reason why the EU and its Member States require a transnational network to get into the nooks and crannies of all communities in which Muslims can be found. The surveillance order is, therefore, chiefly a Muslim surveillance order—even if Europe dare not utter those words.

Surveillance and the war machine

The surveillance of Muslims is not a stand-alone project merely confined to the act of looking. The spying system is but one part of an inter-related security or war machine that western states have developed to fight the Muslim enemy. The other features of this machine—incarceration, killing, management of population movements, and propaganda— follow, always, from the findings of the intelligence system. The process of seeing, therefore, must not be understood as merely a question of State snooping or unpleasant voyeurism. It is, rather, a component of a war system. Any civilian response to the surveillance order must conceive it in these terms, otherwise its purpose and significance is lost. Once these connections are understood, we can start to appreciate the enormity of the consequences of its globality and power.

The official explanation

As an explanation of our current politics, the burgeoning western security policy elite point to the very real threat of terrorist organisations or movements. From 2001, Muslims have murdered and harmed members of the public in New York City, Madrid, Paris, London, Moscow, Mumbai, Baghdad, the beaches of Libya—the list goes on. And, this elite emphasises, the hidden internal threat in the west has been magnified exponentially by the phenomenon of western Muslims enlisting with Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. When these fighters return to the west, it is argued, they will be radical, military-trained agents ready to wreak havoc.    

But is the threat posed by some Muslims enough to explain today’s surveillance order? Every state involved in the extension of world surveillance has faced numerous internal and international threats in the past. Revolutionary socialism and the Cold War, fascism, imperial struggles for power, colonial rebellion: in the last one hundred and fifty years western states have arguably faced several existential threats. And in response, each state created and extended its own espionage machine. But the reach of today’s world surveillance blanket far exceeds what preceded it. And it keeps growing; indeed, the very nature of the anti-Muslim surveillance order requires its exponential expansion.   

To understand the extent of today’s global surveillance order, and why it will not stop spreading its tentacles into human life, we must look away from rational motives—of an assessment of objective causes and effects. Muslims cannot be said to pose a greater threat to liberal-democracies than communism or fascism, military invasion by foreign states, or inter-state nuclear war. There is no rational explanation as to why the west requires a bigger, more intrusive apparatus for detecting threats from Muslim civilians than it did for identifying plots by pro-Soviet Communists. We could turn to the transformative effects of technology as a partial explanation. Developments in digital identification and the internet clearly provide greater opportunities for watching populations than was the case in the past. But some of the most significant changes to the western political order have nothing to do with technology, such as the proposed use in France of surveillance in private spaces.

Europe’s idea of the Muslim

It is to Europe and the wider west’s idea of the Muslim—not the reality— that we must turn if we are to understand the surveillance order. Research on the intellectual roots of the Islamophobia-surveillance connection has barely started. Nonetheless, the core questions that we need to answer are clear: when and why did western policy elites start to see all Muslims as being a potential danger to society? What are the triggers that initiate the move from prejudice to state policy? What are the precedents for the current moment, and what can they tell us?

To start moving towards answers to these questions, Edge Hill University is hosting an international symposium this month. It will explore a range of key points in the west’s political history: from colonial Bombay and the US Empire in the Pacific to the EU’s policies towards its borderlands. In addition, the symposium will pay close attention to Christian theology and its place in the west’s supposedly secular politics.

At the base of the surveillance order is the idea of the Muslim as a potential fanatic. Certainly, western policy-makers consider that non-Muslims can become fanatics of some description, but their path to fanaticism is assumed to be an anomaly. Not so the Muslim. This western association between the Muslim (and, it is critical to note, the Jew) and fanaticism derives from a long European Christian tradition.

The nineteenth century French scholar of the Orient, Ernest Renan, articulated a scientific, academic version of this tradition in his hugely influential histories of Christianity. Abrahamic monotheism was founded, he argued, thanks to the single-minded fanaticism of what he called the Semites of the desert— the Arab peoples that, he argued, included the Israelites.

Why the west of more recent times came to see the Jew and the Muslim as being separate, has its own story. But that separation does not alter the umbilical connection between the west’s Christian view of itself and its understanding of the Muslim: Christianity—Europe— became liberal, universal, and sophisticated; but the Muslim could not leave behind his or her fanatical roots. The Muslim, in the eyes of the west, is stuck in a perpetual condition of imminent fanaticism. This is why the west has to survey all Muslims, all of the time. And that is why the public disavowals by west European politicians of the views of figures like Viktor Orbán are disingenuous. They all fear the Muslim.

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