Government policy has long seen British Muslims as bystanders at best, suspects at worst. Today is just more of the same

David Cameron’s call this morning for “Muslims” to be vigilant about terror in their midst did not come from a clear blue sky. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

David Cameron’s call this morning for “Muslims” to be vigilant about terror in their midst did not come from a clear blue sky. Government policy towards British Muslim has long treated those communities as at best passive and at worse complicit.

The new Extremism Bill, announced during the Queen’s Speech, comes from a similar place. It includes banning orders, closure orders and the introduction of employment checks. Significantly, the new bill also includes 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.

Just a few days before the bill was announced, Scotland Yard commander Mak Chishty said that countering the Jihadi threat required a move to the ‘private space’ of Muslims in order to catch non-western sentiment early and stop radicalisation. This move to the private place includes the need to monitor subtle changes in behaviour, such as refusing to shop at Marks & Spencer and sudden negative attitudes towards alcohol and western clothing. The new Extremism bill and Chishty’s comments did not happen in a vacuum. They in fact represent the logical next step in the ever-expanding Prevent programme.

The Prevent programme is the branch of UK counter-terrorism concerned with stopping people from becoming terrorists. It has grown from a modest proposal in 2006 to effectively becoming law in 2015. For years, Prevent has framed Muslim communities as being, at best, passive about, and at worst, complicit with extremism. This has resulted in an increased logic of intervention disproportionately affecting the Muslim community.

For example, until 2011, Prevent funding was distributed local authorities in priority areas to help them fight extremism. But these priority areas were decided based on demographics. Local Authorities with a Muslim population of at least 8% was automatically given Prevent funding. Figures from the 2001 census put the UK Muslim population at 2.97%. This means priority areas were those where there was almost triple the national average Muslim population. Several of the priority areas produced reports released under the Freedom of Information Act claiming that there was no evidence of extremism in their area, even though they automatically received Prevent funding. As such, British Muslims were considered targets of counter-terrorism strategy whether or not there was evidence of extremism. The rationale of Prevent was set: Muslims were the new suspect community.

Consequently, a sense of scepticism and doubt has been cast on the Muslim community as a whole, affecting projects unconnected with Prevent. For example, in 2010, 150 ANPR cameras were installed in two predominantly Muslim areas of Birmingham, three times the number of cameras used to monitor Birmingham’s city centre. Named Project Champion, the cameras were purchased with a £3 million grant from the Terrorism and Allied Matters (TAM) fund. TAM is a government fund administered by the Association of Chief Police offices and not associated with Prevent. However, Project Champion followed the Prevent rationale: Muslims must be monitored and controlled. The council argued that the cameras were to be used to monitor general criminal activities and anti-social behaviour, but the funding criteria for TAM states that the police force must prove a project will deter, prevent or help to prosecute terrorist activity. Following public outcry, Project Champion ceased within a few weeks and the cameras were removed after never being switched on.

Prevent was reviewed in 2011, and the demographic-based funding was abolished. Information on Prevent implementation after 2011 has been difficult to come by. In August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to the 30 local authorities in priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. The requests were denied on the grounds of national security. Prevent is now surrounded in secrecy, but its effect can be felt everywhere.

It was the 2009 version of Prevent that first introduced the language of shared values to UK counter-terrorism which is now commonplace. After all, the new Extremism Bill was introduced with the explicit aim of stopping extremists promoting views and behaviour that undermine British values. Moreover, the 2011 Prevent review directly connected extremism with identity, arguing that terrorism is caused by a failure to fully belong in British society. This is the sentiment echoed in David Cameron’s famous Munich Speech of 2011, when he said that many Muslims are drawn to terrorism due to a failure in their identity. But explaining terrorism through identity is problematic. Not only does it exclude historical and geopolitical factors from the equation, but it makes everyone who shares the ‘failed’ identity a potential threat.

And that is precisely what Chishty’s comments and the Extremism Bill represent: new powers to intervene and control the Muslim community based on a rationale of automatic suspicion. More so now than ever, since Prevent has been brought into statutory footing in the Counter-terrorism and Security Act 2015. This has resulted in the requirement that specified authorities, including nursery schools, have the duty to stop people from being drawn into terrorism. This is a sentiment echoed by Chishty when he suggested children as young as five need to be watched for signs of extremism. Moreover, just this month, a ‘counter-extremism’ questionnaire’ was distributed to children as young as nine in a school in East London. With the age of criminal responsibility at ten years of age in England and Wales, this arrangement sees children being monitored before they can even be held criminally accountable for their own actions. They are monitored with a view to crimes that they are seen as having a predisposition to commit in the future.

Ironically, these terrorism measures are likely to increase alienation and division, furthering the identity problems considered to be at the root of terrorism. Extremism ASBOs, employment checks and monitoring children are just the next logical step when terrorism is considered to be solely about religion and identity. It is then not surprising that Islamophic attacks on the Muslim community continue to rise. By consistently and continuously associating the Muslim community as a whole with terrorism and extremism, Prevent has ensured that this connection is engraved in the public and political psyche. These new developments in the UK counter-terrorism program are thus simply the next steps of the Prevent strategy, and just as likely to continue the controversial and problematic legacy of the last decade. 

Maria Norris is in the final stages of completing her doctorate at the LSE. She tweets as @MariaWNorris

Dr Maria Norris is a political scientist researching terrorism and national security. She is a Fellow at the  London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.