UK: Counterterrorism Laws Make the Practice of Islam a Thought Crime.
When you say, “Islam is dangerous,” what you’re saying is Muslims are an object to be securitized. You’re saying Muslims are a threat to national security, and, in turn, policing and counterterrorism policies must be mitigate against this threat by deploying tactics and measures that monitor and suppress Muslims.
This, more or less, is the logic that underpins much of the West’s hyper-legislative response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. More worryingly, recent public surveys show a hardening of attitudes towards Muslims in Western countries, and this all but promises the continuation and expansion of draconian counterterrorism policies that not only unfairly discriminate against Muslim communities, but also, ultimately, are self-defeating in the effort to both defeat “Islamic” terrorism and defend democratic values.
Billed as “one of the most comprehensive studies of English attitudes towards contemporary issues,” a report, conducted by Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation, found that 52% of Brits believe Islam “poses a threat to the West,” alongside another 25% who believe Islam is a “dangerous religion that incites violence.”
Hardening attitudes towards Islam, no doubt a reflection of both negative portrayals of Muslims in the media, and the fear in which “Islamic” terrorism invokes, create the political space for anti-Muslim opportunists to mobilize a political base.
A space that was made even wider the very day after the Bertelsmann Foundation report was published when the European Union’s counterterrorism coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, announced without evidence that Britain was home to up to 35,000 “fanatical Islamists,” and also warned of more terrorist attacks if “greater measures” weren’t put in place to prevent them.
When you combine the public’s growing anti-Muslim hysteria with unsubstantiated, off-the-cuff claims disseminated into the media by political elites, you create the conditions in which the Islamic faith becomes all but illegal in the eyes of the police and counterterrorism agencies, which is pretty much where we are today.
Muslims living in the West are already living in the dystopian future portrayed in Stephen Spielberg’s 2002 film The Minority Report, which foretells of a future world in which law enforcement can prosecute and incapacitate future killers before they actually commit a crime. In other words, future criminals are apprehended based on their thoughts, rather than their behavior. It is from this film and the novel that inspired it that the word “pre-crime” is borrowed to describe the interdiction of threats before they materialize into actual criminal acts.
Since 9/11, Western governments have chosen to ignore the actual root causes of violent “Islamic” extremism — such as blowback from Western foreign policy, structural inequalities, and socioeconomic marginalization — and instead fixate on ambiguous notions such as “radicalization,” which not only inculcate Western governments from criticism, but shift the blame to Islam and Muslim communities.
In actual counterterrorism policy, it looks like this: pre-crime measures are put in place to apprehend Muslims before they commit an actual crime by criminalizing non-criminal actions and thoughts that the government imagines are stepping stones on the way to an act of political violence.
This is the logic that underpins both Prevent in the United Kingdom, and Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) programs in the United States. This pre-crime logic effectively deems all Muslims as potential terrorists in waiting, and worse, it essentially determines pious practice of the Islamic faith to be a stepping-stone to violent extremism, despite the fact Britain’s top spy agency, Mi5, says the evidence suggests “a well-established religious identity actually protects against radicalization,” and despite the fact more than 140 of the world’s leading academics determined Prevent to be based on junk science.
“Criminalization, like counterterrorism, is essentially a political process that happens outside the courts,” observes Jude McCulloch, a professor in criminology at Australia’s Monash University. “Counterterrorism and the pre-crime framework it animates formalizes the self-fulfilling prophesy of selective law enforcement by embedding preemption into formal law, increasing police powers and increasing the intensity and duration of coercion linked to police discretion and action.”
McCulloch also notes that where only the courts have the legal capacity to determine who is a criminal, it is politics and politicians who determine who is and who isn’t a terrorist. “The label ‘terrorism’ precedes, extends beyond and exists independently of reasonable suspicion and evidence-based criminal justice processes,” notes McCulloch.
It’s in this light that counter-terrorism policies underpinned by a “pre-crime” logic, such as Prevent, have produced interventions that make a mockery of the absurd. British Asian kids have been referred for displaying the Palestinian flag on their schoolbags; Muslim university professors who are studying terrorism have been detained for purchasing a book on, well, terrorism. As have young Muslim adults who attend their local mosque more often than usual.
In fact, only around 20% of those referred to the authorities under the Prevent program were assessed at risk of being vulnerable to violent extremist groups.
A Justice Initiative report, entitled “Eroding Trust,” concluded, “Being wrongly targeted under Prevent has led some Muslims to question their place in British society.”
Cerie Bullivant, a human rights activist with CAGE UK, told me that these “pre-crime” counterterrorism laws are so draconian and repressive against Muslim communities that we may very well see instances of terrorists not only citing British foreign policy as their primary grievance, but also domestic policies like Prevent.
Against this backdrop one can see how increasingly dangerous the current political climate is becoming for British Muslims. Hope Not Hate, an advocacy group that counters racism, argues that hardening British attitudes towards Muslims and Islam has created the space for extreme anti-Muslim political opportunists, like Nigel Farage, to launch a far right populist political party.
A political climate that rewards an ever-increasing hostility towards Muslim communities puts the legality of the Islamic faith in Britain under further, intense pressure, and it’s likely this pressure will produce ever more draconian “pre-crime” counterterrorism policy. In this sense, it’s not unthinkable to imagine a future Britain that prosecutes the practice of Islam as a thought crime.
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