Responding to the attack that killed over 30 British citizens in Tunisia last week, the Prime Minister stated that Isil had declared war, not just on Britain, but on ‘our way of life and what we stand for’. But after over a decade of the war on terror, what is most striking about Cameron’s remarks is how similar they are to Tony Blair’s response to the 7/7 attacks on the London transport system. Almost exactly ten years ago, Blair spoke of an extremist minority in every European city preaching ‘hatred of the west and our way of life’. Cameron said that it was vital to defeat the poisonous narrative of Isil. Blair spoke of an evil ideology. Cameron: “we must stand together with those that share our values”. Blair: “we need to defend our common values.”
The similarities in these remarks, separated by almost exactly ten years, should give us all pause. Terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and Isil rely on the creation of sharp boundaries between Muslims and the west. Theirs is the narrative of the clash of civilizations; of the incompatibility of Islam and so-called western secularism. For years, Al Qaeda claimed that the west was attacking Muslims all over the world. Isil added to this narrative by claiming that one cannot be a true Muslim unless one is living under a pure caliphate. And it seems that for over ten years, successive British governments have been reinforcing and replicating those same boundaries.
Political violence is a complex social problem with an almost infinite number of variables. And yet, successive British governments have produced an extremely reductionist understanding of terrorism. Throughout the years, the role of grievances, for example, moved from taking a central place in the strategy in 2006, to being framed as “perceived or alleged” in the 2009 strategy to almost disappearing altogether in the 2011 review. In its place was an increased focus on identity and lack of shared values. And as the focus on identity grew, the target of counter-terrorism policy widened. In 2006, CONTEST, the UK´s official counter-terrorism policy, contained explicit distinctions between violent extremism and terrorism, declaring that the strategy would focus on the former. However in 2009, focus of the strategy widened to include violent extremism. Finally, in 2011, the qualifier ‘violent’ was dropped and the focus turned to extremism in general.
The combination of placing identity at the root of the threat and making extremism the main focus of the strategy resulted in the reduction of terrorism to a dual question of ideology and identity. The result is a counter-terrorism strategy that reduces the complexity and diversity of the Muslim community into a homogeneous group of potential extremists.
The scrutinising and judging of identity continues, as public authorities are now under a statutory duty to combat extremism. Since this Wednesday, public authorities including primary schools and even nurseries must now observe and monitor their students for extreme behaviour. But since there is no consensus on what extremism is, it is patently Muslim pupils that will be under scrutiny. Cameron´s call for Muslims to stop quietly condoning extremism also carries with it an inherent connection between Islam and extremism. A recent survey has shown that over half of non-Muslim Britons believed Islam was incompatible with British values. Unsurprisingly, crimes against Muslims are on the rise, yet almost none of these crimes are considered to be acts of terrorism, even when they fall under the legal definition of terrorism.
This is the product of a clear boundary of ´us versus them´ created by the government counter-terrorism policy which directly mirrors the one created by Isil and Al Qaeda. The diversity of the Muslim community is erased, and their place inside British society is questioned; their faith, behaviour and attitudes under increased scrutiny. Beyond this, there are now specific terrorism powers which visually reinforce this boundary. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, which came into force on Wednesday, contains a provision for the effective exile of British citizens. Temporary Exclusion Orders (TEOs) prevent people from returning to the UK, effectively invalidating British passports for a period of up to two years, rendering them stateless in all but name for that time period. Significantly, TEOs were introduced with the direct aim of excluding British citizens from the UK as the government felt there was a need for a discretionary power to allow for the exclusion of British nationals from the UK. The expected primary target are Muslims, as they are the most likely citizens to fight abroad, making British Muslims almost exclusively vulnerable to exile. TEOs represent physical reminders of the “us versus them” boundary separating British Muslims from the general British population.
This boundary is not only reinforcing the narrative from groups such as Isil and Al Qaeda, it is also contributing to the same sense of alienation from British society which the government sees as a central to the threat. As a result, the past ten years of counter-terrorism law and policy have enabled the same extremism it is seeking to address. Both sides of the conflict reinforce the same boundary, proclaiming Muslims as the ‘Other’ in British society. After over ten years of division, maybe the time has come for some radical new thinking on counter-terrorism. A good place to start would be the demolishing of the boundaries constructed by both the terrorist narrative and current counter-terrorism policy. This could be achieved by policies that defend Muslim citizens, rather than vilifying it, by treating crimes against minorities as terrorist acts, and by having to courage to recognise that we are all caught up in the extremist narrative that is indeed toxic to British society.
But sadly, it seems we are stuck with the same decade old narrative, the same boundaries – and the same problems.
Maria W. Norris is a PhD candidate and a teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD is on the UK counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 and its relationship with identity. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.