Countering the Radical Right

Treating white men as a new suspect community is not the answer

The recent rise in radical right extremism is a concern, but defining a new 'suspect community' needs to be avoided.

Natalie James
1 October 2020, 12.01am
English Defence League protest in Newcastle. May 2010
Gavin Lynn / (CC BY 2.0)
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This article is part of a debate on Countering the Radical Right inviting people to answer the question: “should we be worried about white men?

There is no doubt that a recent rise in radical right extremism is concerning, and nor is there surprise that efforts to counter it are called for. Suggesting that those likely to be radicalised or commit such acts are easily identifiable through visible signifiers of gender and race, however, is not the way in which radical right extremism should be and can be countered. A brief look into the history of the UK’s counter-terrorism/-extremism approach provides ample evidence as to why defining those most likely to be radicalised, or a ‘suspect community’, is damaging to not only state efforts, but state-civilian relationships and trust. In other words, suggesting that we should be worried by ‘white men’ serves only to replicate past approaches through defining a new ‘suspect community’.

This piece draws on a plethora of academic studies which have long examined UK counter-extremism and counter-terrorism policy and programming, stemming back to the Northern Irish conflict, to the era of heightened powers after 9/11 against Islamist-inspired ideologies. Though more recently the radical right are becoming a key target of government strategies, and thus of scholarly interest in relation to their countering within the UK, this literature remains in its infancy. Earlier studies, therefore, provide a sound basis for not only scholars, but practitioners, policy makers, media outlets and the general public to heed the warnings of existing research and refrain from making the same mistakes that made Irish Catholics in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s and Muslims following 9/11 (though these depictions began earlier and were heightened by the 2001 events), what Paddy Hillyard labelled ‘suspect communities’.

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The notion of ‘suspect communities’ is disputed for both its ambiguous and unhelpful definition, and its usefulness for understanding policy impacts and without re-securitising (and homogenising) individuals. The term nonetheless offers a route through which approaches to countering extremism based on identity signifiers can be problematised. The term, originally used to describe the state’s discriminatory treatment of Irish Catholics during the efforts to counter Northern Irish terrorism, was reapplied to the case of Islamist-inspired counter-programmes whereby Islam became a synonym of Islamist terrorism and Muslims became viewed solely through a lens of security. In other words, in attempting to counter the threat of Islamist inspired terrorism, the state identified Muslims as those most likely to become radicalised to this ideology and thus targeted Islamic communities in their programming.

The basis of such an approach became cemented through Prevent, one of the four strands of the UK’s strategy, now referred to as CONTEST, but was within legislation from 2006. Prevent was, as it says on the tin, the strategy to prevent people from becoming involved in extremism and terrorism. It worked in the space of pre-crime, prior to any offence being committed. It was therefore concerned with identifying those who might become radicalised; ergo in understanding Muslims as those likely to be radicalised by Islamist-inspired groups, the strategy targeted Muslim communities.

The lens of suspicion is so deeply rooted, it is almost impossible to completely remove it

As a result, it stated that priority areas, and therefore those which would receive funding, were dependent on the Muslim population of the local area being over 5%. Simultaneously, the strategy utilised existing community cohesion agendas and co-opted programmes which had previously been concerned with integration to now be used for surveillance. In other words, in viewing Muslims as those most likely to become radicalised, both programmes which already engaged with Muslim communities and those which were created to do so as a result, resulted in a counter-terrorism approach which was concerned with a singular community as suspect – Muslims and preventing their radicalisation.

This singular community, however, was defined upon highly gendered and racialised lines. For scholars, identifying Muslims became about identifying a Muslimness, someone who looked Muslim, whether they were or not. South East Asian appearance and a beard became symbolic of the terrorist male, whilst the hijab or niqāb came to represent either the victim of radical Islam (being forced to cover herself) or the pillar of the community and family who could act to prevent their husbands, brothers or sons from becoming terrorists.

As a result, experiences of these highly problematic stereotypes which homogenised different groups of people, primarily through their race and gender and its synonymisation with a form of extremist ideology, revealed the dire consequences that emerged from tackling extremism and terrorism in this way.

For example, research has found the disproportionality with which Muslims have faced Section 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, being stopped at airports for search without suspicion of anything but their appearance; University activists have had their voices silenced on the basis of their religion, rather than their activism; Muslim women have been co-opted into spying on their communities; and physical surveillance placed in schools with a high level of students from BAME backgrounds, to name only some of the findings of scholarship into the impacts of profiling within counter-terrorism in the UK.

Islam and Muslimness became securitised as those understood through these lenses saw their identity, or visual signifiers of difference, used to determine their level of threat and their capacities to engage in everyday life.

As I have written about elsewhere, there have been many lessons learned from the Prevent strategy’s past, and no doubt a significant number of people working to move away from its disproportionate focus on Muslims in its more recent iterations. However, as participants in my research demonstrate, the long standing focus on a sense of Muslimness has had irreversible consequences on who becomes seen as the potential recruits for terrorist and extremist organisations.

Put simply, the lens of suspicion is so deeply rooted, it is almost impossible to completely remove it. If all we do now is simply replicate our history by defining an imagined identity who “fits” the profile of radical right extremism – white and male - we are poised only to repeat the stigmatisation, division, and resentment between not only those who might be deemed vulnerable to becoming radicalised, but also those who are not, but become stereotyped and victimised by yet another suspect community narrative.

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