The recent unveiling of the identity of Islamic State (IS) fighter Mohammed Emwazi, otherwise known as ‘Jihadi John’, underlined once more the challenges facing UK authorities in their fight against radicalisation. 26 year-old Emwazi gained international notoriety for his role in the multiple beheadings of Western hostages which have then been disseminated by IS as part of their propaganda war via social media platforms.
Emwazi is a British citizen whose family migrated from Kuwait when he was six; he was raised in London and attended Westminster University to study computer information systems and business management. Inevitably, the spotlight has fallen on Westminster University and his former school Quintin Kynaston Academy as to whether he was radicalised in these institutions. In contrast, Cage, a human rights advocacy group which has lobbied on behalf of prisoners of the ‘War on Terror’, insist British intelligence service MI5 is in part responsible for his radicalisation given their treatment of him in the past six years.
Debates about the radicalisation of Emwazi reflect dominant political and scholarly explanations for why terrorism occurs in Western states. Since 9/11 and the advent of the ‘War on Terror’, policy makers have been preoccupied by the conundrum of Muslims born, raised or living within Western states who commit acts of terror. Therefore, since the launch of the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy ‘CONTEST’ in 2006, terrorism has been framed as the product of ‘radicalisation’. Warped interpretations of Islam and adopting an Islamist ideology feature as key characteristics of the radicalisation process. In response, successive UK governments have introduced a wide range of counter-radicalisation measures.
To this end, the ‘CONTEST’ strategy is composed of four strands: ‘Prevent’, ‘Pursue’, ‘Protect’ and ‘Prepare’. The ‘Prevent’ strand is concerned with countering radicalisation through the pre-emptory governance of Britain’s Muslims in order to shape their thoughts, values and behaviours so they do not become radicalised. Through its different iterations in 2006, 2009 and 2011, ‘Prevent’ policies have sought to intervene in Muslim communities in a number of ways in order to create ‘resilience’ against lure of radical narratives.
In the forthcoming Fairbrother Lecture at the University of Reading I discuss the conceptual underpinnings of counter-radicalisation measures from 2006-2015 and assess whether they have fulfilled the purpose for which they were intended. The pre-emptory logic of ‘Prevent’ is manifest in the breadth and scope of the counter-radicalisation practices that have been in place for the past decade. These practices cut across traditional counter-terrorism areas such as policing, criminal justice and intelligence gathering to include health, education and the regulation of the charity sector. Examples of ‘Prevent’ policies include the development of Muslim-specific ‘citizenship education’ for madrassas, reforms to mosque management, the ‘professionalisation’ of imams and the establishment of Islamic study circles.
While the notion of radicalisation remains central in UK counter-terrorism in the last decade, the way it has been understood and acted upon has undergone three distinct evolutions. These are:
- 2006-2010: New Labour’s ‘multicultural’ approach
- 2010-2014: The Conservative Party’s ‘muscular liberal’ approach
- 2014-present: The Conservative Party and the ‘medieval’ approach
New Labour’s multicultural approach entailed engagement with Muslim communities and dialogue with organisations like the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). This was because radicalisation was understood to be the product of socio-economic disadvantage, misperceptions of UK foreign policy and the dislocation wrought to identities by globalisation. Prevent money was channelled into areas with high Muslim populations to fund a range of community projects. These were aimed at promoting social cohesion, promoting ‘moderate’ Muslim voices and creating leadership within Muslim communities.
After the election of the Conservative-led coalition 2010 many of New Labour’s multicultural assumptions were challenged. David Cameron did not conceive of radicalisation as the outcome of social and economic alienation. In his address at the Munich Security Conference in 2011, Cameron stated his belief that Islamist ideologies exist apropos of nothing. From this perspective, New Labour’s multicultural approach was thought to encourage implacable difference between Muslims and non-Muslims. Cameron argued for the uncompromising assertion of British values through the notion of ‘muscular liberalism’. Under the Conservative-led Coalition, the government ceased working with Muslim partners deemed to be illiberal and cut funding from a range of Prevent projects.
The rise of IS has ushered in a new era of UK counter-terrorism which can be thought of as the ‘medieval’ phase. IS has attracted anything from 500 to 2000 British Muslims to parts of Iraq and Syria. The spectacularly gruesome nature of the actions of IS, an organisation described as too extreme for al-Qaeda, has shaped governmental responses. The UK foreign secretary Phillip Hammond has argued that the Treason Act of 1351 should be resurrected to deal with chose who pledge allegiance to IS. More concretely, the Counter Terrorism and Security bill (CTS), passed in February outlines plans to remove British citizenship from suspected IS fighters, extend the power of TPIMs (Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measure) and make Prevent a statutory obligation for all public sector organisations, including universities.
Two important conclusions can be drawn from analysing UK counter-terrorism since 2006. First, counter-radicalisation as a form of governance which relies on dialogue with Muslim partners has ceased. The resort to measures which rely solely on punishment, exclusions and the suspension of civil liberties signals the failure of the rationale and practice of counter–radicalisation. According to Baroness Sayeeda Warsi this approach is part of a policy of deliberate disengagement with Muslim groups favoured by some in the Conservative cabinet.
Secondly, the impact of the ‘medieval’ phase on civil liberties cannot be underestimated. The CTS bill requires public sector workers to spy on students, patients and even nursery children. The push to enforce poorly defined ‘British values’ and ambiguously understood ‘extremism’ narrows space for questioning and dissenting against government policy. These issues raise serious questions about whether counter-terrorism policies which reduce dialogue and further alienate Muslims are making the UK any safer. They also beg the question whether the defence of the ‘British way of life’ is best served by forfeiting the right to liberty, equality and justice.