Global Extremes

What the ‘war on terror’ can teach us about the fight against COVID-19

‘Extremism’ must not be cast as an epidemic. But we can learn relevant lessons from the problems created in countering it.

Richard McNeil Willson
27 March 2020
Health worker checks the temperature of people in Sanaa, Yemen, March 24, 2020
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Photo by Mohammed Mohammed/Xinhua/PA Images. All rights reserved
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It may be tempting to draw comparison between COVID-19 and discussions over terrorism. However, it is not only inadequate to do so, it is dangerous to civil rights and human wellbeing.

The medicalisation of ‘extremism’ has become a weapon in the arsenal of governments who seek to hold up the most problematic elements of the ‘war on terror’ from colonial and racist practice. The blurring of medicalised terms into discussions on ‘extremism’ must be resisted, but the failures of counterterrorism show means of creating positive societal responses to insecurity and international emergencies.

On 23 March, the Economist wrote, “The arrival of COVID-19 was expected. The spread of radical Islam has been more of a surprise”. Describing jihad as something “as contagious as COVID-19”, it used the case study of the Maldives to directly frame “Muslim extremism” as “a no less dangerous contagion” than the coronavirus, an “affliction” and a “plague”.

The Economist is by no means alone in using such language, with other articles describing extremism as “another disease” that “needs sanitising”.

Much of current counterterror law and practice treats ‘extremism’ as something that can be spread by sight or interaction. ‘Extremist’ thoughts and ideas have become something that ‘induces’ terrorism through exposure, a ‘gateway drug’ or ‘symptom’ of political violence. Dangerous media is ‘spread’ online, and recent legislation – such as the UK’s Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill (2019) – has criminalised the viewing of ‘extremist’ content on this basis.

Much of current counterterror law and practice treats ‘extremism’ as something that can be spread by sight or interaction

But ‘extremism’ is not something that can be caught nor isolated – it is impossible to even ascribe an agreed-on definition. It must not be forgotten that both ‘extremism’ and counter-extremism are highly political and politicised terms, subject entirely to the government in charge at the time. As McNeil-Willson, Gerrand, Scrinzi and Triandafyllidou state: “Terms such as radicalism and extremism have a normative, relational and context-specific value: one is judged radical or extremist against culturally specific benchmarks, and this label is dependent on who is doing the labelling”.

The medicalisation of ‘extremism’ forms part of its wider de-politiciation. Terrorist-style violence is the result of several causes that are highly dependent on political and societal context. It might seem mindless, but often there are mechanisms we can surmise as having led towards it. Every instance of violence relies on context, prior events and complex action and response mechanisms.

The blurring of medicalised terms into discussions on ‘extremism’ must be resisted

In medicalising ‘extremism’, we remove the political element of violence, we make it something exceptional and, at the same time, we sanitise the context in which it occurs. Actions or thoughts that are anti-establishment or pro-violence are no longer understood as the result of political factors – an unequal status quo, political injustice or structural racism, for instance. Instead, they become the result of a malign mutation of an otherwise healthy body or cell in society.

Frantz Fanon offers some important guidance on the medicalisation of violence. In his work, The Wretched of the Earth, he explores the European state’s use of physical and mental disorders as a means of replicating and embedding colonial violence and structural inequality. In French Algeria, for instance, the colonialists were framed as ‘building’, ‘revitalising’ and ‘caring’ for Algerians and Algeria, whilst the ‘terrorist’ acted out in psychosis to ‘kill’ and ‘destroy’ the individual body and the corpus of wider society. In linking COVID-19 to extremism, recent articles have articulated these same colonial tendencies.

Thus, the problems of counter-extremism are replicated because we fail to hold the political context accountable. The rise of the far-right is not the result of a cancerous malformation – it is the impact of years of austerity politics, the mainstreaming of anti-migrant and anti-minority policies, and of governments that have used (and continue to use) incendiary populist-style rhetoric to secure their own democratic fortunes. Similar regional politics and instability have led to the rise of groups such as Islamic State. But by making the spreading of ideas the focus of concern and avoiding critically addressing the context in which violence happens, we exacerbate existing problems.

The rise of the far-right is not the result of a cancerous malformation

There is, however, some relevant overlap between terrorism and COVID-19. Both have exposed elements of structural inequality and racism throughout western society. Both have demonstrated examples of either the manipulation or complete disregard of research data that conflicts with political ideologies – seen in Boris Johnson’s terrifying dalliance with ‘herd immunity’. And both have raised questions of civil rights, with the latest UK Coronavirus Bill banning protests, allowing for powers of detaining, increasing data surveillance and removing vital social care provisions. The ways that contemporary states respond to emergencies may exacerbate inequality and structural racism – a point as important in counterterrorism as with responses to COVID-19.

The ways in which contemporary states respond to emergencies may exacerbate inequality and structural racism

But the actual processes and threats posed by terrorism and COVID-19 are entirely incomparable. Experience shows ‘terrorism’ does not threaten the continued existence of European states. Meanwhile, in a few short months, COVID-19 has changed the way we view elements of society and killed more in the West than ‘terrorism’ has in 20 years. COVID-19 may therefore revolutionise politics and possibly allow for a pivot away from the ‘war on terror’ and populist isolationism.

Instances of ‘terrorism’ have the tendency to push voters towards traditionally right-wing policies – military security and anti-immigration – but early trends suggest that this international health emergency may encourage the opposite. The renationalisation of health services and travel, governmental takeover of payrolls, the acquisition of hospital beds for the ill and hotel room for the homeless – such current policies were derided as beyond the realm of political possibility in some European states just a few months ago.

Democratic processes and human rights must be protected in finding a response

When discussing issues of ‘extremism’, we must resist the language of the medical. Individuals with political views, no matter how distasteful, are neither infected nor afflicted by them. Imagining this ignores massive societal inequalities – not least those caused by the worst excesses of the ‘war on terror’.

But there are lessons to be drawn from counterterrorism. Democratic processes and human rights should be protected in finding a response, and governments would do better to rely on decades of existing legal practice than rushing through too many extraordinary powers. Business and capital should not be framed as the victims of COVID-19 – as they have been so often in the ‘war on terror’ – and people’s health and wellbeing must be prioritised over state economies and political ideologies.

Governments must take a strictly evidence-based approach to COVID-19 – something so often lacking in the ideologically-driven counterterrorism – or risk the quick loss of lives. And we must recognise how the virus exposes inequalities, such as those present in the structurally racist approaches of counterterror and migration policy in Europe.

‘Extremism’ is not an epidemic. But we can learn relevant lessons from the problems created in countering it.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, under the GREASE project (grant no. 770640) and the BRaVE project (grant no. 822189).

The opinions expressed in these blog posts are the sole responsibility of the authors. The European Union is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information or opinions contained herein.

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