Theresa May at al-Madina mosque, East London. Flickr/Home Office. Some rights reserved.
Successive governments have framed terrorism as a problem of the Muslim community. As such, the focus on the behaviour and identity of British Muslims has become almost inevitable. It is part of a deeply ingrained narrative, which judging by the Prime Minister’s announcement, less than a week after the General Election, of a new counter-terrorism bill, shows no sign of being dismantled. One of the new powers proposed by the bill is the creation of extremism disruption orders, which would give the police powers to apply to the high court to limit the “harmful activities” of an extremist individual, where harm includes risk of public disorder, harassment, alarm, distress or creating “a threat to the functioning of democracy”.
These powers, dubbed extremism ASBOs by some, were first proposed last March, but were vetoed by the Liberal Democrats. They made their way to the Conservative Manifesto and are now are on course to be made into law. These measures, which would include a ban on broadcasting and a requirement to submit to the police in advance any proposed publication on the web and social media or in print, will almost certainly cause a new wave of civil liberties infringement, continuing to disproportionately affect the Muslim community.
The fallacy of a neutral definition
The narrative of terrorism developed in the UK over the last 15 years has ensured that the definition of terrorism in the Terrorism Act, 2000, is not neutral in practice. For example, research by charity Tell MAMA has shown that attacks on Muslims are on the rise. There have been several mosque attacks involving arson or the threat of arson. In 2013, a cleaner disrupted an arson attack on a mosque in Luton as she found engine oil being poured on the ground of the mosque and an aerosol can thrown through a window.
In June 2013, two men were convicted of arson with reckless endangerment to life for an attack on a mosque in Gloucester. These men had links to the English Defence League (EDL) and were considered to hold extremist views by the judge. However, their action was never labelled an act of terrorism and they were sentenced to just under three years in prison. Also a member of the EDL, John Parkins was given a Criminal Anti-Social Behavioural Order (CRASBO) and banned from every mosque in England and Wales after attempting to burn down his local mosque in Rhyl in retaliation to the Lee Rigby murder. He was also not charged with terrorism.
After sending threatening letters to Mosques in Plymouth and being found in possession of terrorism kits and the Al Qaeda training manual, John Roddy was still not labelled a terrorist, instead receiving a suspended sentence. More recently Ryan McGee, who had downloaded a video of apparent executions committed under a Nazi flag, openly supported the English Defence League and had a cache of weapons in his room, including a nail bomb, was not charged with a terrorism offence. McGee also wrote in his diary of how he vowed ‘to drag every last immigrant into the fires of hell’. And yet, he was prosecuted under the Explosive Substances Act, the Crown Prosecution Service having decided that it was never McGee’s intention to use the device for any terrorist or violent purpose, and that he had no firm intention to activate the device. All of the examples given above fall under the definition of terrorism as stipulated in the Terrorism Act 2000. And yet, none were considered acts of ‘terror’.
“Terrorism” and identity
Ironically, the measures proposed in the new bill come from the extremist taskforce created in the wake of Lee Rigby’s killing in 2013. And yet, these attacks on the Muslim community have not caused any national soul-searching, let alone any taskforce being announced to combat far-right extremism. This lack of neutrality in the use of counter-terrorism powers has been achieved primarily through the problematisation of Muslim identity as well as framing extremist ideology as the root cause of terrorism. As David Cameron himself stated in his speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2011: “I would argue an important reason so many young Muslims are drawn to [extremist ideology] comes down to a question of identity."
Moreover, the Counter-terrorism and Security Act 2015 effectively brings the Prevent agenda onto the statute books, creating a statutory duty to prevent individuals from being drawn into terrorism. Clause 21 establishes a duty on a specific authority to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism in the exercise of its functions. Schedule 3 lists the authorities to which this applies, including local councils, schools, NHS Trusts, and even nursery schools. So now Muslim toddlers are under the microscope.
This is the same Prevent strategy which insists that terrorism is not caused by grievances and that events such as the Iraq War have only a limited role to play when it comes to radicalisation. The blame is placed entirely on extremists who “distort and manufacture” grievances. Prevent thus works together with the counter-terrorism legislation to construct a narrative where terrorism is a problem of the ‘Other’, an Other that must be controlled even at the cost of their human rights.
As the government makes a grab for new terrorism powers, this lack of neutrality in how they are deployed should give us all pause. The new bill will further reinforce the othering of the Muslim community, contributing towards a more divided society. As someone who wishes to be the leader of “one Nation Britain”, the Prime Minister should beware legislation which stigmatises communities and divides us even more.