Today in a keynote speech in Birmingham, David Cameron supposedly announced the government’s new strategy to fight extremism. The speech itself has been expertly dismantled elsewhere. However, what is most surprising is that there is very little that is actually new about it. Cameron began by saying that terrorism was caused primarily by an ideology, removing what he calls “grievance justifications” from the causal story of terrorism. Yet, his dismissal of grievances such as the Iraq War, the perception that Muslims are under attack and poverty, mirrors counter-terrorism strategy from previous governments. For example, Cameron’s emphases on how often Britain has “saved Muslim lives”, could be lifted directly from page 15 of the 2006 Contest strategy, titled: UK Support for Muslims across the World. Moreover, Cameron dismisses the role the Iraq War plays in in extremism, arguing that 9/11 happened before the Iraq War after all, an argument which can also be found on the pages of the 2009 Contest strategy. It is astonishing that the official British understanding of terrorism has remained practically the same after four different administrations. This suggests the presence of an established and persistent narrative which has been informing terrorism strategy for over a decade.
In his speech, the prime minister talks about the “tragic truth that there are people born and raised in this country who don’t really identify with Britain”. The idea that social problems such as political violence comes from a failure of identity is the concept of the Other at work: the one outside our boundary of identity which is everything we are not and the source of our anxiety. Saying that extremism is unrelated to foreign policy, education and inequality is part of a dissociative process which absolves the British government from playing a role in extremism, and frames it entirely as a problem of the Other. The language that frames extremism as a problem of the Other is the language of Prevent, a policy which has roots in the 2001 Northern Riots.
On the weekend of the 26 and 27 May 2001, violence erupted across Oldham, sparked by the mugging of an elderly white male and the attack, by a group of white men, on a house in the predominantly Asian Glodwick area of Oldham. Less than a month later, the unrest spread to Burnley, where violent clashes between white and Asian youths erupted. An Asian taxi driver was attacked by white youths and in response to rumours that white youth gangs were getting ready to attack Asian homes and businesses, a large group of young Pakistani men attacked the Duke of York pub. The next day, Asian businesses were attacked in retaliation. Finally, on 7 and 8 July, the violence erupted in Bradford. The overwhelming image portrayed in the aftermath of the riot was that of a divided Britain. The Cantle Report, the most influential report into the disturbances, emphasised the concept of “parallel lives”. The official explanation into the causes of the riots reduced a myriad of problems faced by Asian minorities, such as unemployment, lack of education, housing and prejudice, into a cultural problem explained by a failure of integration. This is strikingly similar to the argument framing extremism as a problem of identity.
British counter-terrorism strategy is thus part of a long process which reduces large social problems into small, cultural issues. Thus, the Northern Riots were not a British problem, they were an Asian problem. Likewise, terrorism and extremism are not British problems, they are Muslim problems. This logic reduces minority communities to outsiders, whose identity and culture is at odds with wider British values and culture. After all, the narrative goes, if those communities were more British, then the riots would not have occurred and extremism would end. This rationale problematizes and stigmatises communities, contributing to the same sense of alienation the government fears.
This problematization of communities, evident in Cameron’s speech, is not done by language alone. It finds concrete form in much of the counter-terrorism policy and legislation. I wrote previously about the Temporary Exclusion Orders, which came into force under the Counter-terrorism and Security Act earlier this month. TEOs act essentially as a form of exile, affecting primarily British Muslims. Another visual reminder of their failure to fully belong is found in the provision to remove British citizenship found in the Immigration Act 2014. This Act relaxed the protections against statelessness, where even if you are born in Britain and only have British citizenship, you may still be stripped of your nationality if the Home Secretary is satisfied that deprivation is conducive to the public good. Like with counter-terrorism powers in general, this has primarily affected British Muslims.
Both TEOs and the powers to deprive someone of their citizenship act together to turn the citizen into foreigner. So British Muslims, who are vulnerable to banishment and the loss of citizenship, are given the condition of immigrants who can be deported, rather than that of citizens, who are protected from deportation. Not only do British Muslims have to contend with calls that condemning ISIL is not enough, a rise in hate-crime, half-of non Muslims in the UK believing Islam to be incompatible with British values, and a government rhetoric reducing them to potential suspects, but also with policy and legislation which emphasises their position as outsiders in a very vivid way.
This narrative has survived for over a decade, and it is clearly not working as extremism remains a problem. The government is right in saying that alienation is at the core of extremism. But alienation depends on more than ideology. It depends on persistent inequality and a series of structural conditions that remind individuals that they do not belong in society. After all, it is hard to identify with a country that goes out of its way to signal that you do not belong. And as long as counter-terrorism strategy continues to rehash this same old narrative and disregard structural problems and its own role in radicalisation, extremism really will be the struggle of our generation.