Counter-Radicalization: A Critical Look into a Racist New Industry
For more on this topic, see Unpacking the Effects of Islamophobia
I suspect the reason why ‘domestic homicide pre-criminal identification’ has not been developed as a nation-wide strategy—accompanied by on-screen pop-ups in mental health institutions—may be related to the fact that the majority of victims are female, most perpetrators are White males, and alcohol use is a major factor. To make matters worse, services for women experiencing domestic abuse are facing budget cuts across the UK. It is thus important to bear in mind that the academic and financial investments in counter-terrorism and all its sub-strands (now including hate crimes, etc.) reflect specific political interests—not just public safety. It is unsurprising, then, why many believe the War on Terror and the prioritization of Muslim-perpetrated violence, above other forms of violence, are derived from wider structures of Islamophobia. Though the policy evolved over the years, its most significant development was in 2011 when the government integrated PREVENT counter-radicalization training in public bodies (schools, hospitals, etc.), requesting all staff to identify and report those they
While the parameters of what constitutes “evidence” is (rightfully) open for discussion, the scientific method of evidence-production generally involves two key concepts: validity and reliability. Validity relates to the meaningfulness of a measure’s components, in that they measure what they’re supposed to measure. In an example of my own fieldwork, PREVENT’s CR training emphasizes emotional resilience as a potential vulnerability. But what is emotional resilience? And is “lack of emotional resilience” a valid component preceding political violence? As you can see, though there are many ways of assessing this component alone (e.g., even if we had a definition for emotional resilience, how do we measure it?), validity remains important because, without it, one cannot really determine whether someone is truly vulnerable to radicalization. Reliability relates to the extent to which a measure or intervention is repeatable. In other words, if two people were asked to determine an individual’s ‘emotional resilience,’ how likely are they to come to similar conclusions? Both validity and reliability underline why a robust evidence base is so important. Otherwise, invalid and unreliable measures—unscientific, in other words—are simply subject to personal whims and social conventions, similarly to the demonization of ‘poor families’ described above. This is antithetical to the scientific enterprise.
It’s not just the lack of evidence that’s problematic. In a social and political vacuum, one might ask: what’s the harm in trying to prevent people from becoming bad, even without valid or reliable methods? But we do not live in a social or political vacuum. British and American counter-radicalization efforts operate in politically volatile, economically insecure contexts with deeply embedded racial structures inherited from violent imperial legacies. Countries across the Western world differ in their relationship with Muslim communities according to their national insecurities and colonial histories, but issues of integration remain constant. As political scientist Olivier Roy explains, governments across the Western world are struggling to come to terms with Muslims’ affiliation to the nation-state vis-a-vis the Ummah.
Counter-radicalization thus operates directly upon a long-standing logic in which Western Muslims are in need of constant assimilatory monitoring and interventions. What used to be ‘become like us or go back to where you’re from’ is now ‘become like us or you’re potentially a threat to national security.’ By employing the frame of non-violent extremism, counter-radicalization serves as a mode of regulating behaviors apparently at odds with a liberal nation-state. In this, as sociologist Nisha Kapoor explains, gender (in)equality is often employed as the measure by which one may identify potential radicals. In other words, orthodox Islamic gender roles that contradict Western liberal norms may be judged as the sort of ‘extremism’ from which political violence is suspected to arise. This has little to do with actual research into causes of political violence, and more to do with the securitization (and evolution) of a long-standing integration debate about Muslims in Western societies. All these concerns, which often fall under the heading of non-violent extremism, are not about terrorism per se, but are thought to constitute the sort of ideological soil from which political violence may blossom. Alexander argues that one of the reasons it has been so difficult to address institutionally racist policies associated with drug policing is their formulation as color-blind. Color-blindness is the assertion that racial privilege is not a factor—when of course it is. When political rhetoric speaks of drug dealers and drug users as ‘race-free,’ policy-makers cannot be held accountable for the racist aftermath of the War on Drugs: the mass incarceration of Black men. Racist incidents in the War on Drugs and Terror, irrespective of their number, are seen as ‘bad apples’ when they occur—bad examples of an otherwise guiltless framework. It’s not the policy’s fault; supposedly only a fool (not a racist, mind you) would refer a student, who wears the hijab for the first time, to CR. Anyway, CR advocates argue, the ‘system’ will iron out these kinks—the strategy itself is not racist.
Here the question often arises, ‘how can one be racist towards Muslims?’ Perhaps the two Egyptian Christians who were attacked by their fellow protestors—in a rally opposing the building of a mosque—might give us an indication. But racism is not only contingent on the color of one’s skin. It’s a social construct, as Professors Michael Omi and Howard Winant argue, ‘a concept that signifies and symbolizes social conflict and interests by referring to different types of human bodies.’ When an erroneous counter-radicalization referral is made towards a woman wearing the hijab, this is a racist referral in that her physicality embodies a social conflict (the War on Terror, the non-integration of Muslims) in public consciousness, of which the hijab is a popular signifier. Thus, the racism in counter-radicalization policy is not only how Muslims are represented (in documents or training), but indeed that the terrorist threat is widely associated with perceived Muslimness—in appearance and expression. In other words, even if a public counter-radicalization strategy were to exclude references to Muslims altogether, it would still be about Muslims. Accordingly, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims in the UK recently proposed a definition of Islamophobia as: ‘rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.’ This short definition lacks the centrality of how Islam itself is perceived as a foreign, backwards, and dangerous ideology but it’s a positive step towards recognizing how racism targets Muslims (I would also add that any definition of Islamophobia that does not hold politicians or policies accountable is ultimately futile).anyone may be susceptible to radicalization—just like a brown and white person is equally likely to be a drug dealer in the War on Drugs, so too can
 Two-hundred and ninety psychiatrists were divided into five groups to evaluate the same case of a patient save for key differences in race and gender (white male; white female; black male; black female; race and gender undisclosed). It came to light that the race of a patient influenced evaluations: Black people were more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia than White people. The reason for this was simple: schizophrenia was commonly associated with aggression within the logic of mental illness, and the United States has a history of associating violence and criminality with Black bodies.
Divisions among Western Muslims have always existed, though they are often spoken about, for brevity or from ignorance, as a monolithic community. The political categorization of Western Muslims however is inherently problematic. The term glosses over a wide range of groups, political affiliations, migration histories, and religiosities. Counter-terrorism strategies, directly and indirectly, play upon these divisions. The most glaring direct State intervention is the demonization and favoring of certain groups over others in the name of counter-terrorism, thereby endowing internal divisions (i.e., Sufi-Salafi) with political significance. Arun Kundnani reports, for example, how the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB, the overarching umbrella organization of UK mosques) fell out of the UK government’s favor when it voiced disapproval of the UK’s illegal invasion of Iraq, stating it might cause more violence. The government then funded the Sufi Muslim Council (with £203,000) instead, in the hopes of elevating their status and ‘moderation’ within the British Muslim community. This political siding with certain groups while demonizing others (often under the elusive rhetorical categorization of extremism) remains prevalent to this day. Preferential treatment by the State has created a lucrative industry for self-described Muslim experts such as Maajid Nawaz, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Tarek Fatah to rise in prominence; voices who represent, as David Cameron described in his infamous speech, ‘an active muscular liberalism,’ ‘made by those within Islam.’ This has created an ominous feeling of always being on the alert—an affective surveillance. As we now see, even families have seen internal divisions due to securitized concerns, with the government putting the responsibility on mothers to prevent their children’s radicalization. In my fieldwork, I met mothers—some shaking and crying—scared of having their children removed, simply because the line between pre-criminality and criminality is so elusive. These complaints have been raised by many, including the UN Special Rapporteur.
I always paint the following analogy when discussing bad policy: imagine a rat-infested town. As the infestation worsens, the mayor decides to kill all the rats by poisoning the water. The rats die, but people also become sick. So, even if a policy were hypothetically successful in its objectives, its “success” is not the only measure of impact. Despite all the criticism levied towards CR efforts, there are still those who argue that “doing something is better than nothing” which, as this analogy conjures, is not only false (one can always make things worse) but is also a common logical fallacy called the politician’s syllogism: ‘We must do something. This is something. Therefore, we must do this.’ This logic immediately dismisses structural faults at the heart of any policy. I hope, as I explained with the analogy of the poisoned water, that we look beyond the narrow definitions of CR’s alleged “success” to see its devastating impact on communities. The recognition of such devastation should be sufficient to rebuke public CR and CVE efforts and call towards a rethinking of how best to approach the subject of political violence. This act confirms a terrible suspicion many British Muslims hold: they are second-class citizens in a racist, two-tier justice system that privileges their White counterparts.
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