I am a Muslim, not a terrorist

The UK Government's Extremism Taskforce report came out yesterday, containing recommendations that will simply further stigmatise Muslim communities. A drastic change in how we talk about "terrorism" is needed, not to mention counter-terrorism policies based on the risks we actually face.

Imran Awan
5 December 2013

Protestors at an anti-drone demonstration at the US embassy in London. Credit: Demotix

The long-awaited report from the UK Government's Extremism Taskforce was published yesterday. It contains key recommendations regarding online extremism and countering institutions whereby people can become vulnerable to radicalisation. The recommendations include new ASBO-like Terror and Extremist Behaviour Orders: methods that aim to cause shock, rather than help eradicate the real causes of extremism. And with the report referencing previous discredited strategies, it risks further stigmatising Muslim communities.

What is the “war on terror”? And how do we define “terrorism”? There is no universal definition. This has left a vacuum of ambiguity in which many Muslim communities feel they are targeted by the overtly intrusive nature of surveillance, police stop and search powers and pre-charge detention. According to the UK Government, “terrorism” must include the use or threat of action which is designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public, for purposes of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause. Yet this leaves us with more questions than answers: a grey area between “terrorists” and freedom fighters.

In some cases we have witnessed a state-sanctioned and deliberate use of the term “terrorist” to stigmatise individuals and small group acts of civil resistance as being of a “terrorist” nature. The US have labelled Edward Snowden's recent National Security Agency’s (NSA) revelations, for example, “helping the cause of terrorists”. During a recent public parliamentary hearing before the intelligence and security committee in the UK, Sir John Sawers, head of MI6, warned that terrorists are “rubbing their hands” with glee after the Snowden leaks. These spurious links and play with words are further reinforced when animal right activism, anti-capitalist and anti-abortionist actions are equally portrayed as being of a “terrorist” nature. But can we really call them all terrorists?

There is also a compelling case to describe as “terrorist” countries' use of torture and drones to kill innocent people in Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the past terms such as “terrorist” and “extremist” have been used to describe social activists such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. As times change, so the word “terrorism” evolves. The three are now widely considered freedom fighters, combating inequality and promoting fairness and justice for all. In 1969 Laila Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, took part in an airline hijacking that was viewed as an act of “terrorism”. To this day many of her supporters have argued that resistance is not the same as terrorism.

The term has also been used to label and stigmatise Islam and Muslim communities. Parts of the media exacerbate this, creating a moral panic and contributing towards the ‘othering’ of Muslims (so that Muslim communities are seen as intrinsically different). After the Woolwich attack in the UK in the summer of 2013, Prime Minister David Cameron was quick to label it “an act of terror”. Nick Robinson, the BBC’s political editor, described the attackers as of “Muslim appearance” (though he has since apologised for these comments). But when Mohammed Saleem, an 82-year-old grandfather, was murdered by far-right racist Pavlo Lapshyn in Birmingham, the incident was widely reported at the time as being a hate crime. Even after Lapshyn was convicted, few media outlets referred to him as a “terrorist”. These events and responses reveal how the terms “terrorism” and “counter-terrorism” can stigmatise communities.

My research has shown that the media have vilified and demonised Islam, making it comparable to terrorism. Following the Woolwich attack, former Prime Minister Tony Blair has publicly spoken about the “problem within Islam” and former Ukip leader, Lord Pearson, has warned that there is “a growing dark side” within British Muslims. At a time when local communities need to be reassured and rebuild trust, there also needs to be a new process of demystifying the way we talk about terrorism. The lack of a universal definition, for instance, has led to parts of the media and some politicians often portraying terrorists solely as “Islamists” or “jihadists”, evoking images of Muslim men with long beards and flowing robes, and Muslim women wearing the full face veil (the Niqab) as not wanting to integrate into society.

Within the consequently increased atmosphere of fear, securitization and anti-terrorism rhetoric since 9/11, Muslims have come under increasing pressure to distance themselves from terrorism and extremism. At the same time, UK counter-terrorism policy has itself become used to create further intrusive surveillance and over-policing to “control” Muslim communities. Counter-terrorism strategies in the UK such CONTEST, for example, have caused huge damage to Muslim communities who view one of its four strands, ‘Prevent’, as a tool for ‘spying’ on them. The focus of CONTEST is to reduce the risk of international terrorism to the United Kingdom, while the Prevent Strategy's main aim and goal is to stop and prevent people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism, using soft forms of community engagement to achieve this aim. Prevent, however, also gathers intelligence and data about many innocent people based on Muslim belief rather than extremist behaviour. The effect is to malign Muslim communities.

Such close monitoring of Muslims can obscure the fact that Islam is a religion which encourages social justice and order, community cohesion, freedom, equality, morality, and mutual understanding and respect. The Quran states: “O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm for Allah, witnesses in justice, and do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness…” (Al-Ma’idah 5:8). Indeed, the word “Islam” means “submission” or “surrender”, and derives from the Arabic root term “Salaama”, which means “peace” and “safety”. Similarly the word “jihad” is often associated with terrorism and “holy war”. It has come to apply to any form of warfare committed by ‘fundamentalist Muslims’ in the pursuit of ideological and religious goals. Yet the word actually comes from the Arabic root term “Ja ha daa” which means to “strive and to struggle” or exert “some form of effort”. This distinction is important because the misrepresentation leaves the incorrect perception that this so-called “holy war” involves a clash of civilizations. And we know after Woolwich, for example, more than a quarter of 18 to 24-year-olds in Britain did not trust Muslims, according to a BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat poll.

Politicians and the media need to look at counter-terrorism with a more nuanced eye. A perspective that views communities as working together rather than against each other is sorely required. This requires an open and honest debate about terrorism, what it means, and how it affects us. We also need to de-glamorize terrorism. Earlier this year, Rolling Stone magazine used a picture of the Boston bomb suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its front cover with the words “The Bomber”. Naturally, it created a lot of controversy and played into the hands terrorists by creating a cult celebrity figure.

Society should not downplay the serious threat from terrorism but, instead, try and get to grips with how we view the word “terrorism”. What we need is a more balanced way of reporting “terrorism” cases. The Bush-Blair “war on terror” mantra did a lot of damage to possible cohesion. It helped create a ‘Them versus Us’ culture and mentality. It also played into the hands of terrorist groups who also used it to engage and recruit vulnerable people to the “war”.

So far, counter-terrorism policies have had a damaging, counter-productive effect on Muslim communities. In 2008, for example, Rizwaan Sabir downloaded an al-Qaeda training manual from the US Justice Department website, as part of his PhD research on counter-terrorism. He was arrested under the Terrorism Act (2000) for downloading extremist material, and held for seven days without charge before being released. My study with Muslim communities regarding counter-terrorism legislation and policies has led many of the participants to say they feel they are being targeted and unfairly labelled as “suspects”. Policies need to be more proportionate, based on the risks we actually face, otherwise surveillance of communities can become too overreaching and leave communities vulnerable to outside forces.

I would argue what we now need are for governments across the international community to place more emphasis on working with local communities and empowering voices. Empowering voices means not just working with Muslim communities, but working with all faith groups to start a process of engagement with communities. This could help bridge the gaps of perceived difference. Societies need to work towards demystifying the media-driven connections between Islam and the word “terrorism”, which at present puts Muslim communities in the spotlight by default whenever an incident of “terrorism” occurs.

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