Since 9/11, there has been a shift from catching terrorists to policing Muslimsby Zaheer Kazmi / April 11, 2017 / Leave a comment
Recent moves by the Trump administration to ban entry to the US of citizens of several Muslim-majority states seem to be a striking departure from western counter-extremism policies. These strategies have focused until now on the proscription of specific individuals and terrorist groups rather than on blanket bans on whole countries.
Meanwhile, the administration’s parallel desire to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organisation is also gaining steam. This has revived perennial tensions in western policy circles over how to deal with the apparently non-violent Islamist “movement,” which has been notoriously difficult to define as a unitary entity.
But while they may appear to augur a new era, Trump’s actions have deeper roots, which reveal the coming together of two distinct but related policy developments since 9/11: attempts by western governments at proscribing non-violent Islamist groups; and the direction of travel in definitions of extremism. The pattern has been to target violence, then non-violent extremism and now, it seems, followers of a particular faith.
The growing intimacy between these trends has been most apparent in the evolution of the UK’s counter-extremism policy, especially since 2014 and the subsequent period of Conservative ascendancy following their election victory in 2015. The problems associated with these recent policy developments point to three underlying issues the Trump administration now also faces: the need for clarity in defining “extremism” and “political Islam”; the limits of policing transnational movements by unilateral domestic means; and the efficacy of using proscription as a policy tool.
In the UK, these issues have been especially apparent in evidence presented to two influential cross-party parliamentary committees, whose reports were published last year—one by the Joint Committee on Human Rights in July 2016 addressing the government’s proposed Counter-Extremism (and Safeguarding) Bill, the other a House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee report on the Muslim Brotherhood published in December 2016. Both provide windows on to the growing impasse in western counter-extremism policy. As products of cross-party deliberation, they are also unusual for being non-partisan interventions in a public policy debate so often dominated by polemic.
The shift from focusing on both violent and “non-violent” extremist ideologies that “lead to terrorism” was originally broached in the UK’s Prevent Strategy in 2011. It was the object of some criticism then for its introduction of an ambiguous definition of “non-violent extremism.” More recently, the tortuous passage of the government’s Counter-Extremism Bill, announced in May 2015 and touted in the previous two Queen’s speeches, but as yet not published, has led to further definitional slippage. Outlined in its Counter-Extremism Strategy in October 2015, the proposed bill would appear to shift the focus from non-violent extremism leading to terrorism to other forms of non-violent extremism leading to other unacceptable behaviours such as FGM, forced marriages and racism. (These are certainly social ills but what they have to do with terrorism is less certain.) To add to the confusion, the government contends that its Counter Extremism Strategy is separate from the Prevent Strategy as the latter remains part of its Counter-Terrorism Strategy, or CONTEST, although, with so much overlap, it has not properly accounted for this distinction.
In July 2016, the proposed Bill was heavily criticised in a parliamentary report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Central to the report was a profound unease with the “incoherence” and “imprecision” of the use of the concept “non-violent extremism.” The chair, Labour MP Harriet Harman, has repeatedly asked the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, for clarification. The Joint Committee has also called for an independent review of Prevent and for extensive consultation ahead of the Bill. This echoes calls for an independent review from the UK’s former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson QC.
Despite the government publishing a response to the report in October 2016, these requests have been kicked into the long grass. This suggests the government has talked itself into a corner by pushing for a concept that is both vague and unworkable. The Joint Committee’s report argues cogently that operationalising the notion of “non-violent extremism” would only lead to confusion among both citizens and law enforcers as to what precisely is lawful or not and that, in any event, it would not add anything substantive to current legislation.
Announcing a headline-grabbing but confused policy to deal with Islamist terrorism without sufficient thought for its legal and practical implications has also been one of the main lessons of Trump’s recent Executive Orders. It remains to be seen if his administration will pursue banning the Muslim Brotherhood in a similarly muddled mode but here too lessons might be learned from the UK’s recent experience.
In April 2014, a year before the Conservatives announced the Counter-Extremism Bill, former Prime Minister David Cameron commissioned an internal review of the Muslim Brotherhood and its “ambiguous relationship to violent extremism.” At the time, it was widely suggested that pressure for the review came from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The move from policing violent and non-violent extremism opens up the government to this kind of pressure from allies who wish to see people who oppose their governments targeted.
The declassified findings of the review were presented to Parliament in December 2015 and, like the Counter-Extremism Bill, the review was addressed by a cross-party parliamentary committee—this time the Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by Conservative MP Crispin Blunt. It published its report on “Political Islam” and the Muslim Brotherhood Review in November 2016.
“The paradox of stigmatising a community to protect it from itself explains why the focus can slip from the margins of Islam to its centre”
The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, is a loose association of Islamist groups which straddle the globe and operate in various ways in different domestic contexts and political climates. While some of its domestic affiliates may be well-organised, if not always disciplined, most commentators today would not regard it as a rigidly coherent and unitary global organisation with a defined world leadership, agenda and structure, though it retains elements of all these attributes in diffuse and largely theoretical ways. The findings of Cameron’s internal review pointed to the persistence of the Brotherhood as a “secretive, centralised and hierarchical” movement. While there is some truth to this characterisation, it only emphasises the profound difficulties in legislating to ban such an obscure movement and downplays the varied global manifestations of it. Having been banned in several countries throughout its history, not least currently in Egypt and the Gulf, it has frequently been driven underground by necessity.
This is a point echoed in the Foreign Affairs Committee report. Moreover, as Michelle Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace has argued recently, the Egyptian branch, its most important, is increasingly fractured over strategy, including over the use of violence, and suggests that banning it may “push the debate over using violence in the wrong direction.” This is not atypical. In fact, the difficulties faced by western governments in dealing with the increasingly fractious nature of leaderships across various Islamist movements, violent or otherwise, from the Afghan Taliban to al-Qaeda, is a sign of the times. Policies must, by necessity, be shaped in ever-more nuanced and targeted ways if they are to prove effective.
A further thrust of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report was the need to recognise that a “one size fits all” policy on political Islam is inappropriate and that genuine Islamist participation in democratic processes should be encouraged. Understanding the dynamic relationships between variant Islamist formations across the globe, and being open to engaging with those which are non-violent, seek to protect fundamental freedoms, and aspire to democratic participation, rather than caricaturing “political Islam” as a whole as extreme, would, the Committee suggest, be a more effective approach.
The problem with this approach, of course, is that not many Islamists, if indeed any, currently fit neatly with all three of the report’s principles for engagement. (The Tunisian Nahda party or perhaps Turkey’s AKP.) But neither is a blanket ban on the Brotherhood likely to encourage Islamists groups further in this direction.
Ambiguities in definitions of extremism in western policymaking are not new: in the early days of the Cold War, they were a hallmark of anti-communist rhetoric. Neither are attempts to use proscription as a tool against ostensibly non-violent individuals and groups the preserve of the right: it was under Tony Blair that attempts at banning the Islamist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, were first pursued. Both issues go to the heart of debates about what constitutes subversion of western liberal democracies by means other than violence in the post-Cold War world. Having receded in the 1990s, these discussions reappeared after 9/11 but have taken on far more urgency recently with the rise of right-wing populist movements and with them anti-Muslim sentiment. (Neo-Nazism has become a growing target of UK counter-extremism policy in recent years but Al Qaeda and ISIL remain its overwhelming focus).
The climate which has enabled Trump’s policies stems from a long-standing fault-line in the western counter-extremism policy community—between those who contend that Islam is intrinsically subversive of western values and those who do not. And between those who think Islam and ideology are central to a counter-terrorism strategy and those who see other political, social and economic factors as at least equally relevant. Trump has simply brought this fissure into the open. As he is finding, however, it is the constitutional checks and balances inherent in the democracy he seeks to protect that may yet put the brakes on any desire to codify into law an ever more expansive definition of extremism which risks alienating a whole faith community. Indeed, as the UK parliamentary committee reports I have discussed show, the legislative branch can bring to light shortcomings in the short-sighted inclinations of an executive.
The profiling of Muslims has been a part of all counter-extremism policies since 9/11. In this way, the current “targeting” of Muslims as suspect communities may have as much to do with the internal incoherence of such strategies than with any consciously anti-Muslim sentiment. It is impossible for the state to engage a faith community with a view to preventing extremism without marking out and profiling it in some fashion. This tension makes the problem of Muslim stigmatisation harder to resolve than if it were simply due to anti-Muslim prejudice.
The paradox of stigmatising a community to protect it from itself helps to explain why western policies towards Muslims in the struggle against terrorism can so readily slip from focusing on the margins of Islam to stigmatising its centre, as Trump has now done. In this sense, Trump’s recent actions can be seen not as aberrations but extensions of counter-extremism projects which seek Muslim engagement, however well-intentioned and distant from current agendas they originally were. The UK’s Prevent Strategy, created by a Labour government, is a case in point.
Since 9/11, the language used to describe terrorism has been a battleground of competing vocabularies in which Islam has often been the first casualty. During his election campaign, Trump and his supporters linked the shortcomings of Obama’s counter-terrorism policy to his reluctance to use the term “Islamic” to describe the threat—if you don’t name it, the argument went, you can’t defeat it. But until western policymakers find a way of divorcing terrorism from Islam in more than just a rhetorical way, the wholesale discrediting of a faith in the name of global security will always remain a latent possibility. Seen in this light, the current wave of populist anti-Muslim sentiment acts more as a catalyst in bringing these policy tensions to the surface than being their underlying cause.