Contest and cohesion

Eric Randolph
16 April 2009

Eric Randolph specialises in insurgency and is an editor at a defence analysis firm and London Editor at Complex Terrain Lab.The government released its updated counter-terrorism strategy, Contest Two, on 24 March. Last week, its continued relevance was demonstrated by the arrests of 12 people in Manchester, Liverpool and Lancashire, apparently on suspicion of involvement in a terrorist plot against major civilian targets. The news that 11 were Pakistani nationals who entered the UK on student visas has led the media to argue that the terrorist profile has changed once again – that the age of homegrown terrorism is being replaced by foreign cells entering the UK to carry out attacks orchestrated from abroad. The government no doubt enjoys the argument that the effectiveness of its counter-terrorism policy has forced a change of tactics on the part of global jihadists. However, the UK remains at such high risk precisely because of its involvement in overseas counter-terrorism operations, and because of the continued existence of jihadist sympathisers in the UK who provide an environment in which foreign terrorist cells are able to blend.The success of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy has been predicated so far on a huge policing and security effort that has included the doubling of MI5 personnel since 2001; a raft of new legislation, control orders and extradition powers targeting those who preach jihad; and improved transnational cooperation (coordination with Pakistani security services is said to be behind last week’s arrests). But the government knows that the kinetic side of its counter-terrorism strategy is not enough to pinpoint every potential jihadist in time. Testament to that is the fact that members of the 7/7 cell had appeared on MI5’s radar several times prior to the attack in 2005 but had not been identified as enough of a security risk to warrant further investigation. When the structure of the threat is a loose, decentralised network, finite resources and limited inside intelligence make such slips practically inevitable. Building cohesion of fighting terrorism?Contest Two therefore puts a great deal of emphasis on its Prevent agenda, which aims to stop people sympathising with jihadism in the first place. This is necessarily the most controversial aspect of the strategy since it deals with potential rather than actual crimes. Policymakers have been careful to avoid labelling all those who hold fundamentalist Islamic views as terrorists, but at the same time it has been forced to accept that its tolerance of extremist groups through the 1990s allowed room for violent cells, both foreign and homegrown, to incubate undetected. The new Contest strategy draws a line between ‘un-British’ views, such as the advocation of sharia law or opposition to British foreign policy at the beginning of a spectrum, and terrorist incidents at the end. In short, counter-terrorism has become embroiled in a far wider discussion about social cohesion. But while the rationale appears sound, there are inherent dangers in tackling questions of social cohesion within counter-terrorism policy. It is certainly true that the failure to successfully integrate Britain’s Muslims over the past half-century has led many youngsters to embrace ideas that stand in direct opposition to what the government calls ‘Britain’s shared values’. Although quantifying the extent of these feelings is riddled with complications, we can get some idea from polls such as that conducted by ICM in 2002 that found 15 per cent of British Muslims saying they were ‘not at all patriotic’ and 11 per cent who thought Al-Qaeda attacks on the UK were justified. Or the Populus poll in 2006 in which 7 per cent thought suicide bombing justified in certain circumstances and 56 per cent considered the war on terror a war on Islam. Such views exist, and in certain parts of the country, are far from abnormal. A survey of 600 young Muslims in London, Oldham, and Birmingham by the Association of Chief Police Officers in June 2008 concluded that ‘a disturbing proportion’ expressed support for ‘violent terrorism to articulate their disillusionment and disengagement.’The dangers of the new Prevent agenda, however, is when it goes beyond an interest in such overt support for violent jihad, and turns its attention to all those who “scorn the institutions and values of our parliamentary democracy, dismiss the rule of law and promote intolerance and discrimination”. The government is right to challenge these views, but a counter-terrorism strategy is not the place to do it. An association is being drawn between those who promote certain unpalatable ideas, and terrorists. It implies that ideas are to be challenged not simply on the basis of their content, but as a result of their association to terrorism. And once such an association has been sanctioned, it can have worrying implications. ‘Are you a homophobe? Are you also a Muslim?’ Two positive answers there, and you now fall within the remit of Contest Two without the issue of violence even being broached. No one thinks you are necessarily a terrorist – not necessarily.This is more than a question of semantics. If individuals feel that their cultural views inherently label them as terrorists, then they are likely to feel even more alienated from mainstream Britain than they already are. Even more problematic is the widespread belief among young Muslims that the government’s attempts to reach out and re-educate them are in fact disguised attempts to spy on them. This is not just paranoia. The security services operating under the more kinetic Pursue agenda are clearly mandated to use every means necessary to gather intelligence, and the outreach programmes of the Prevent agenda are an unmistakable resource in this respect.Ideas become identitiesThe government is keen to present their task as a ‘battle of ideas’. But it treats ideas as if they exist in an objective vacuum. It makes little effort to understand how fundamentalist ideas came about and what they mean to those that hold them. The sociologist Manuel Castells outlined a concept of ‘resistance communities’ that aptly describes the social status of many young Muslims in the UK. The term ‘resistance community’ does not necessarily describe active resistance in the form of protesters and opposition societies; it does not present an active danger or threat to the rest of society. Rather, it is a collective mindset that exists among many disaffected Muslims who have forged an identity that stands in opposition to a narrative of British citizenship from which they feel excluded. It is the result of historical segregation, inherited cultural baggage, a lack of political representation, poor economic opportunities, and most of all from the prevalence of Islamophobia in the mainstream British press (more on this below). Many British Muslims who have grown up in these conditions have nonetheless succeeded in forging a strong hybrid identity that mixes the best aspects of their inherited and native traditions. But many others have failed to find a stable sense of self-empowerment within this context and have instead forged an identity in distinct contrast to that of mainstream Britain. For many young Muslims, this has involved turning to religion – not the Islam inherited from their parents, with all its anachronisms and detachment from life in Britain, but to a form of Islam built through informal networks of young friends and peers, whose main objective is less based around spiritual insight and more about finding a way to resist the stigma and rejection of British society. Emerging through the 1990s, it was a new, postmodern form of religion based on individualism and identity politics, far more than religion per se.The government often describes these young individuals as ‘vulnerable’, but they are quite the opposite. These are individuals who have found a stability and security within difficult cultural conditions. They have turned the sense of humiliation that can result from minority status into a source of empowerment. The price of this empowerment, however, is to construct further boundaries between them and mainstream Britain, perhaps manifested in Islamic forms of dress or a withdrawal from certain aspects of British culture (such as alcohol). Fundamentally, this also means drawing an allegiance to the global brotherhood of Muslims, the ummah, which offers profound psychological rewards. Any personal feelings of alienation or humiliation resulting from discrimination are placed in a global and historical context, becoming part of a narrative of global oppression of Muslims, taking on a deeper significance and allowing the burden to be shared and alleviated through the solidarity of a brotherhood. These ideas are now a deeply embedded part of many young Muslims’ sense of identity – in many cases a necessary defence mechanism against the ongoing Islamophobia in society. It leads them to instinctively oppose aspects of British governance and foreign policy and perhaps even sympathise with the symbolic blows enacted by the global jihad (even if they have no intention of engaging in violence themselves). This has become a fact of life in modern Britain, and after decades of promoting multiculturalism and turning a blind eye to the emergence of alternative ideational communities, it is a little late to be acting shocked at their existence. Efforts to draw young Muslims back into society’s shared values are laudable, but this is necessarily a long-term project ill-suited to the short-term priorities of a counter-terrorism policy. Social cohesion for its own sakeInstead, the discourse about social cohesion needs to happen away from that about terrorism. It should be considered an end in itself, rather than a weapon against terrorism. And the glaring hole in the government’s discussion is its failure to discuss the role of the press. The Labour government has actually done a great deal to reduce discrimination for all sorts of minorities. It finally answered a major complaint of the Muslim community when it introduced the Religion or Belief Regulations in 2003 that prohibited discrimination on religious (rather than just racial) grounds. But Islamophobia remains rampant in Britain’s mainstream press. Muslims are continually identified either with terrorism or as culturally incompatible with the British way of life. A study by students at Cardiff University found that two thirds of Muslim-related articles published in the mainstream press between 2000 and 2008 focused on Muslims as a threat, a problem, or both. For example, the idea that Islam is dangerous, backward or irrational was present in 26% of stories. The shrieking reaction of the tabloids to a tiny handful of protesters at a recent army parade in Luton shows that little has changed in 2009. Of course, it is no surprise the government avoided the wrath of Fleet Street when compiling Contest Two. The Cardiff study showed that stories about Muslims have increasingly been focused on their perceived failure to assimilate into British society. It consistently fails to see its own role in this process – the effect of constant negative caricatures appearing on front pages across the country. The worrying thing is that Contest Two bears the hallmarks of the press narrative – unproblematically tying social alienation to terrorism, without concern for the message this sends out. The bottom line is that the government needs to be very clear about who are the radicals in a given context. When talking about terrorism the only ideologies that ought to be addressed are those that justify jihadism against the British state. A recent paper from the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence offers some excellent suggestions on how the global jihadist culture might be undermined – for example, by showing the fallacy of the movement’s claims to be a unified brotherhood using examples of betrayal, racism and self-interest that have occurred within the movement; by illustrating the rifts between Arabs and Pashtuns or Sunni and Shia and the reluctance of certain leaders to actively fight; and by presenting counter-narratives that reject the obligation to violence. It does not concern itself with alienated Muslims who legally protest aspects of British policy.If the government wants a serious debate about building shared values, it could do worse than revisiting the controversial speech given by the Archbishop of Canterbury in February 2008. At the time, it was presented as an outrageous call for sharia to be incorporated into British law, but what he was essentially daring to suggest was that there had to be accommodation of diverse religious and moral principles if our multicultural society is to survive. Above all, he took the existence of myriad, often conflicting, cultures as a fact of life in modern Britain – a fact that must be the starting point for any discussion about social cohesion. Somewhat inevitably, he was vilified in the press, but his ideas were some of the most unflinchingly sober appraisals of a country that has long been proud to open its borders to a world’s worth of culture. And he presented them without once referring to the word ‘terrorism’.

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