Long but excellent interview with a European academic specialising in European policy responses to terrorism. In particular the interview makes some highly instructive connections between government counter-terrorism strategies and the discourse of ‘the failures of multiculturalism’ promoted some years back European leaders in cluding Angela Merckel and David Cameron, also highlighting the importance of putting responses to state policy – and behaviour – at the centre of any attempt to understand the root causes of ‘radicalisation’.
Counter-radicalisation in France draws on British and Dutch policies developed in the mid-2000s. It extends police action to areas of diversity management such as education, religion and social policy. With what results?
Rosemary Bechler(RB): Francesco, you have analysed in some detail the relatively recent French plan to ‘combat radicalization’, following a path previously trodden in the UK and the Netherlands. Could you explain how, in your view, this approach to counter-terrorism influenced the nature of the French response to the Paris attacks last November?
Francesco Ragazzi (FR): What is interesting is that the first attacks in January 2015, on the Charlie Hebdo office, came not much more than six months after the first counter-radicalisation programme ever was announced in France, in April 2014. They paved the way for this strategy with a ministerial report which was kept secret, in fact until a few weeks ago when it was made public by the French media outlet, Mediapart.
The report was headed up by Prefect Jounot who was mandated by the prime minister at that time, in 2012-2013, to try to get to grips with what was best practise in the Netherlands and the UK, as well as what was going on at the EU level. This attempt to revise policy was in turn a response to a series of developments including the Mohammed Merah killings in 2012. France had been spared terrorist attacks over a long period from 1996 to 2012, during which time it had relied primarily on a law enforcement strategy, the work of intelligence services and the police and no or very little involvement of civil society or any other groups in the counter-terrorism apparatus.
Intelligence services, specialised departments of counterterrorism in the police, and anti-terrorism judges – this was the way counter-terrorism had been structured and organised in France.
And suddenly in 2012 it appeared that the system had not only failed to prevent these killings, but that the list of people regarded as dangerous for a large number of reasons by the intelligence services kept on growing. More or less at the same time there was a new concern about the number of individuals going to fight in Syria. Intelligence services and anti-terrorist judges were in particular worried about the possible dangers of returnees. Add to this pressures at the European level to be seen to be doing something in relation to counter-radicalisation, and there is this decision by the French government to change course.
It is not really a response to a changing threat, or to an analysis of what the response should be, but a response to what was considered to be a failure in the Mohammed Merah attacks, and the pressures of the European Union.
RB: To carry on retracing our steps a little, you refer to the speech delivered by the British Prime Minister David Cameron, in February 2011, in which he talked about ‘different cultures’ living ‘separate lives apart from each other and apart from the mainstream’ and denounced ‘multiculturalism’, echoing remarks about its ‘failure’ made by Angela Merkel in 2010, as an important contributory moment, having its roots in changing models of integration resulting from the July 2005 attacks in London.
One had the sense at the time that this seemingly coordinated drawing of the line by several European leaders was an important moment, but what was that actually about? Multiculturalism was the target of all the rising populisms from Pim Fortuyn onwards.
FG: Two things happened in parallel that can only be explained if you consider the political sphere and the sphere of what Didier Bigo refers to as the ‘professionals of security’ as relatively autonomous spheres.
What was happening on the one hand was the public renunciation of multiculturalism as a particular way of managing diversity – as a failure. But this process in itself had a long history. If you look at the Netherlands it started in the mid 1990’s and was the target of all the rising populisms from Pim Fortuyn onwards. In the UK, it took off not really with the 7/7 bombings, but with the riots of 2001: that was probably the moment when the idea of “parallel lives” entered the public debate with the suggestion that multiculturalism had encouraged the development of “separate communities” which did not think of themselves as British, and so forth.
Stand-off between rioters and police in Croydon, London 2011. Flickr/ Raymond Yau. Some rights reserved.
So, if the idea that separate communities within a country need to be recognised as such and that the polity at large should accommodate for difference – if this idea of multiculturalism is to be discarded, in the name not only of fending off possible riots but in tackling terrorism – then you might expect the policies of homogenizing citizenship and playing down differences, trying to get the entire population at least organised or functioning around a single set of values, you would expect that to be more or less the backbone of the new guidelines for counter-terrorism. This is the message that we hear now in the Netherlands, that has been somewhat vaguely outlined in policies in the UK, but has been very much state policy in France for a while now.
In fact, however, when you look closer at what ‘professionals of security’ have been doing in the Netherlands since 2003/4, in the UK very much after the London bombings of 2005, and at what had been going on in France for a while – it is exactly the opposite! The idea is that to tackle radicalisation as a particular social problem, you have to deal with it differentially as if it was primarily a Muslim problem. So if you are to deal with it as a Muslim problem you end up targetting specifically Muslim populations. If you are to deal with it as a Muslim problem you end up targetting specifically Muslim populations.
So, when Prevent was rolled out in the UK, it targeted particular areas where there was a determinate percentage of the population that was Muslim. It was pursued through the idea of promoting moderate voices within Islam, reforming the governance of mosques. So it was very much targeted at a community and the same happened here in the Netherlands. France, interestingly, which for a long time you could have expected to pursue a non-identity based, or non-community based way of tackling radicalisation, in fact in 2014-2015 really adopted a similar model. What I show in the study of France in this period therefore is this discrepancy between deeds and rhetoric.
There is the political discourse questioning management through difference – the policies of multiculturalism – on the one hand, and on the other, in fact, the managing of security issues through a differential approach based on the different treatment of communities. This was a paradox only at the level of appearances, and only if you believe that security professionals do what politicians say. In fact they don’t. Whatever is said, what counter-radicalisation began to do as a set of security practises was very much to reinforce a division between a Muslim community and the rest of society.
RB: This is where your concept of ‘ policed multiculturalism’ comes in, an account of a system for managing religious and ethnic diversity even in a laicist society like France, where this is not what their culture is meant to be about. So let’s come back to the impact of ‘policed multiculturalism’ on the response to the Paris attacks.
FR: ‘Policed multiculturalism’ is an idea that I have been playing around with to think about this particular set of security practises, not so much in terms of whether it is efficient counter-terrorism or not, but really in terms of what it does to citizenship.
When you do this, what immediately becomes very clear is that within this whole overarching discourse of questioning multiculturalism – both in the UK and the Netherlands that had, explicitly or implicitly, operated by the multicultural principles of governing through diversity, and in a France that hadn’t – what was really happening was the management of diversity without any open political discussions about them. Instead of saying, we need to pay due recognition to this community because this is the right thing to do, or because this is the way that we want to organise our society, now it became a question of, “We need to govern in particular these Muslim communities in such and such a way, because otherwise it will create a terrorist problem.”
Instead of open discussions about how and what should be the model of citizenship in our contemporary European societies, all the talk instead was of what kind of welfare we should provide, what kind of recognition, what kind of place we should give to religion in society, so that we don’t provoke an attack on our way of life by “angry Muslims”, and so that we can prevent people from becoming radicals, going to Syria and so forth.
Gare de Lyon. Flickr/Jon Siegel. Some rights reserved.
For the first time you had a directive from the minister to the prefects who are in charge of administering the counter-radicalisation strategy, telling them to set up dialogues with the religious representatives! This is entirely unheard of in France. This recognition that religious representatives could be part of social policy, and that the French would recognise or deal with an organised form of Islam, such as the official representative body of Muslims in France, the Conseil Francais du Culte Musulman (CFCM), was resisted by many as quite contrary to the principles of laïcité.
In fact if you dig into how laïcité is supposed to work, it’s not that clear cut, there were always debates between accommodating and maximalist positions. But this was the first time that there was an acknowledgement of Islam, and the place of religious representatives, in the management of the terrorism question, branded as “radicalisation”. So implicitly it made the recognition of the Muslim community as a community by the state something of a reality, which it had not been hitherto. And the driver for that was the fear of terrorism.
There are many reasons why Nicolas Sarkozy built on the initiatives of the previous ministers before him and created the CFCM. Not all of them had to do with security. Some of them were to do also with short-term electoral expectations that he would get something of a Muslim vote, and that didn’t really work out for him, so he abandoned the idea. But the institution stayed. And so progressively the French state started changing in its approach to Islam and to Muslim communities. Now, many of the initiatives that are taken by the French state are done under the rubric of a partial recognition of communities. There is a hotline that can be called if you think somebody is at risk of radicalisation.
Various local schemes will be based on religious cults, so Salafism and violent Salafism can be treated like sects, like scientology or something that you should be protected from, or that can be observed under the heading of youth violence. But underpinning all of it is always this idea that it is a Muslim problem. The minute you ask a French official about this they will say, “Of course we don’t recognise communities.” But this is how it actually works on the ground. It always ends up being about Imams, communities, what does the Muslim community want, how is the Muslim community making an effort to tackle radicalisation and so forth. So I think it has had quite a strong impact.
RB: I was interested in your comments about the contestation over the nature of radicalisation that took place in Europe as this set of security practises, with these similar identifiable features in different countries, emerged… and the jettisoning of the ‘expert’ view.
FR: Yes, you are referring to a particular episode that I looked at in 2008 when the discourse around ‘radicalisation’ was not yet fully formed. A few scholars working on terrorism and on Islam in Europe saw the opportunity to query the term and in particular the simplistic description of radicalisation as a predictable linear process along which intelligence services, police or social workers could intervene in order to prevent the next step from being taken, as if this was inevitable.
An expert group had been set up in 2006 by the European Commission which was meant to be supplied with the findings of four smaller groups who were writing more grassroots-based or more technical short reports. The expert group would draw up the final report. I spoke to some of the people who participated in these various groups and interestingly the expert group, which contained the most highly recognised scholars, thought that the whole idea of radicalisation was a little bit silly and didn’t in fact make sense in the way that it was being interpreted by the Commission and by the emerging ‘common sense’ on this subject.
They were particularly dismissive of the four reports that were meant to feed into their reflections because they saw them as narrow, poorly documented, and in fact heading in the wrong direction. Essentially, they were giving a picture of radicalisation as a process in which any kind of politicised Islam was a conveyor belt to violence, or where radicalisation was seen essentially as an individual process regardless of the wider group dynamics, and in particular the escalating dynamic in the relations between individuals, groups and state practices. This they thought was pretty poor and not particularly helpful.
But in the end what happened was that the short reports got published, but not the overview of the expert group, which was questioning the entire enterprise around radicalisation. What became very clear was that the discourse of the ‘professionals of security’, essentially the discourse reproduced in the four smaller reports, was the dominant one for the institutions, and not to be questioned. So where did the notion of radicalisation come from? Essentially from those security circles before they turned to the academic world in order to find out more about these contemporary problems.
At that time it might still have seemed possible to challenge and even dethrone the notion of radicalisation. But right now, seven years later, maybe twelve years after it was first introduced into the European Union in various public documents, we have to concede that this attempt was a failure. ‘Radicalisation’ is here to stay and if we want to produce interesting knowledge about what is going on, I think we have to deal with the term in another way. Maybe we have to show that the process so identified doesn’t work at all in the way that has been theorised by government, by the intelligence services and some of the scholars who reproduce this rhetoric.
RB: Would you say that this is the value of Arun Kundnani’s concept of ‘radicalisation as a relational process’ ? Is this where such a concept fits in?
FR: Yes absolutely. One of the characteristics of the way radicalisation is conceived is almost teleological, an inevitable set of steps in which people are first attracted to religion, either by going back to their traditional faith or as converts, and are put in touch with preachers who bring them to a more fervent way of practising their religion. There are a few more steps and then basically they commit an act of terror.
What we know from the work of John Horgan, an original member of the expert group, is that it is actually much more complicated than that. It has a lot to do with individual trajectories and choices, as opposed to people being a product of what an ideology or a group would like them to do. In the dominant discourse there is always this passive idea that you are radicalised, but never a political actor or the driver of your own radicalisation, right? You are at risk, a victim. This is to do away with the free will.
Scene from Pontecorvo’s 1966 masterpiece, The Battle of Algiers, a film about the Algerian War of Independence.
The ideas of escalation that Arun Kundnani has developed with others, alongside the earlier work of Didier Bigo on the ‘terrorist relation’, that of Martha Crenshaw and also Donatella della Porta from a social movements theory perspective – all of these help us to see that in fact if you don’t take the state into account, whether it is the state of origin, as in Egypt, Syria, or Algeria where we think about the GIA and the civil war that happened there – but also the state over here in our liberal democracies, you are ignoring an essential component in the escalation of violence.
So if you don’t include the state, the foreign policy of the UK or other countries, the sense of discrimination created by law enforcement and other agencies, if you don’t factor in all of these elements you have a very very partial account of why at any given stage people decide to engage in political violence. So if you don’t include the state, the foreign policy of the UK or other countries.. you have a very very partial account.
These are some of the ideas that we have been including in our recent reports and others have argued this as well. And the reason why it is important to insist on this is that recently the French Prime Minister has come out and said that, “to explain is already to justify the attacks”. This was a heavy anti-intellectual attack that must be challenged. Actually the exact opposite is the case. We need to understand why some individuals decide to carry out this kind of violence and this will give us insight into how we can prevent it.
RB: As you put it rather well in the Sciences Po study, “The Egyptian military government’s brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood or the Syrian government’s slaughter of civilian populations can of course not be compared with practices in European countries. It would be just as mistaken, however, to disregard the significant role of the “illiberal” practices of western democracies, particular in matters of discrimination, surveillance, and even torture (for instance in Guantanamo) in certain individuals’ decision to engage in political violence.”
Can we turn now to some of the perverse effects of these choices that have been made in counter-terrorism?
FR: Yes. Here the reports of the UK’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, David Anderson, were really clear in documenting how a certain number of state practises in counter-terrorism such as stop-and-search in the streets (section 44.1 and 44.2, now revoked), the Schedule 7 stops at the borders when people travel used by the UK authorities, and many other measures have adverse effects and touch a very large population that has nothing to do with terrorism.
These procedures have in common that they involve extensive contact with the authorities, despite the fact that there is no clear idea that the person involved is a suspect in a terrorist investigation. In France, we are talking about such techniques of counter-terrorism as those in which a very large number of people are arrested and detained pre-emptively while officials see what comes out of the interrogations, even if they have to release a lot of these people in the process. If you look at the official numbers published by Europol you will see that France carries out the largest number of counter-terror arrests, but then also has the largest number of individuals ‘released without charge’. Laurent Bonelli has documented rather well how that works.
But France has other techniques, like the regional units for the disruption of radical Islam (Pôles régionaux de lutte contre l’Islam radical), which consists of agencies from non-law enforcement services such as tax, veterinarian, health and safety and the police going into cell-phone stores, butchers, different kinds of shops, raiding entire streets because they have targeted one shop or business which they think supports terrorism.
But in order to be invisible and not seen to target specifically Muslim businesses, they go and visit the entire street. Then they look in detail into a particular business, trying to find anything they can peg onto its business practise, which has nothing to do with terrorism. It might have to do with a breach in health and safety for example, or irregularities in how the taxes were declared – but they scour the business for sufficient fines they can levy to disrupt the activities which they consider might be linked to the financing of terrorism. These raids are a concern to a lot of people in France.
Meanwhile, all of these techniques have clearly signalled to the Muslim community in Europe that they are under suspicion.
Manuel Valls, Prime Minister of France. Zaer Belkali/Demotix. All rights reserved.
RB: We heard so much about free speech during the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, but here again we have very mixed messages being raised at the EU level where such questions are put forward for consideration as, “to what extent online content can be blocked if it does not directly violate the law?” – this, against a background in which hate speech legislation seems to creep into more and more of the ways in which we deal with each other as citizens?
FR: Absolutely. This was one of the elements of the latest legal changes in France, in which a website can now be pre-emptively blocked and the only recourse is to an administrative judge, after the fact. So the authorities can decide to block from one day to another a website whose content they consider may be too close to radical Islam or justifying terrorism.
Another cause for concern is the very problematic climate set up by the new 2015 law in the UK alongside its ‘counter-extremism strategy’. It is interesting that we are no longer talking about preventing terrorism, but countering it now – and no longer targeting violent extremism, but ‘extremism tout court’.
It has set in motion a huge debate and multiple problems on British university campuses regarding academic freedom and freedom of expression. This I think, and I go back to what I was saying before, is a direct outcome of some of the understandings of how radicalisation works; because, the only justification you can have for preventing somebody from speaking, even if they are not advocating violence at all, is by arguing that, well, extreme or radical ideas end up leading to violence in the medium or the long term.
This is the argument that I think is being deployed in the UK. It was quite shocking that the newly-appointed Vice-Chancellor at Oxford, Louise Richardson, felt she had to argue in defence of the right of organisations like Cage, for example, to be invited to talk at Oxford University. The fact that this became a piece of news, that an organisation like Cage was “allowed to speak”, is surely quite telling about the climate of severe limitations on freedom of expression when it comes to anything related to questioning the practises at Guantanamo, the drones policy, the foreign policy of the UK, its counter-terrorism strategies and so forth – a climate that it seems we are now in.
Flickr/ codepinkhq. Some rights reserved.
RB: What is very noticeable about these perverse effects, taken in the round, is the way they revolve around the predictive capacity of the state, an anticipation of radicalisation which ensures that in all our countries minority populations are caught up in the broadening nets of counterterrorism and suspicion in significantly swelling numbers…It is no longer proof but just suspicion which is sufficient.
FB: I would like to say two things on this point. The first of course is that you are right that all of this is grounded in a predictive, anticipatory idea of security. Probably one of the more significant paradigm shifts of the past ten to fifteen years has been the increasing belief that law enforcement and policing should be predictive rather than reactive, and this is changing the entire system of criminal justice, so that it is no longer proof but just suspicion which is sufficient to enact a certain number of either administrative practises, such as the freezing of assets, control orders – they have now been transformed into temporary measures (TPIMs) – measures that operate below the threshold of proof, but that are thought to be enough to restrict liberties and prevent people from engaging in terrorist-related activities.
Certainly, this is anchored in that kind of predictive understanding of policing and that shift has been discussed a great deal in terms of algorithms, mass surveillance, the Snowden revelations and how all of the justifications for this mass surveillance lie in the promise – and it is very much a promise and maybe a myth – of the ability to predict through numbers, big data and so forth, who the next terrorist is going to be.
Now, of course some of that can be put down to an element of, “Let’s trust the numbers.” But I would like to raise a different point that is emerging from our current research, and that constitutes another important part of the rationale behind counterterrorism and these new security measures. This focuses rather on trust in society, and the ability of intelligence services, the government, the authorities, to hijack existing relations of trust in society and to use those relations of trust in order to make predictions. Who do we know that you also know who is going to give us a lot of information about you?
So it is not the logic of Google or the database that we have here, so much as it is, to remain with the technology metaphors, the logic of Facebook. Who do we know that you also know who is going to give us a lot of information about you, not because of some kind of algorithm that has computed that you might be representing this or that risk category, but through these particular relations, whether they are interpersonal relations or professional relations? We think we will be able to anticipate the future of these suspect individuals by getting at them through these relationships.
Let me give you a few examples. The first is the idea that Muslim communities need to police themselves, or that the authorities can pick and choose some Muslims who are not suspect Muslims, but who are in fact the trusted ones. They will occupy functions like maybe the local police officer, or the Prevent coordinator: or maybe they will be part of an NGO working in a specific neighbourhood on countering radicalisation. These individuals will be co-opted into the law enforcement counterterrorism logic in order to reach those individuals who, let’s say, the white middle class policeman is not able to reach, because they don’t trust him.
But then there is a second category of people. The first category taps into community relations, interpersonal relations, people – say – who grew up with each other, so that law enforcement thinks, ‘if we are able to bring one of those people into our ranks, then we will have a key informant (like some anthropologists would say) for our communities over there to know what is going on’. This is recognisable as very much a colonial logic. But the other dimension is that this trust is not confined to interpersonal relations. And this is the second category.
There are a whole set of professions that also operate on the basis of trust: teachers, kindergarten instructors, university professors, doctors, lawyers… all having a certain privileged relationship with their clients, the students, patients, general public that they work with, that is based on trust. And indeed they depend on those trust relations as the only possibility for them to carry out their work properly. Right?
So in a way, these are professions that have the opposite a priori relationship with the public to the law enforcement and security professionals. A customs officer or a policeman should be a priori suspicious of what she or he observes, or they won’t be doing their job properly, whereas a doctor must have her or his trusting relationship with the patient or be unable to understand what is going on. The same goes for a teacher or a professor: you cannot create a proper learning environment if you don’t establish a proper relationship of trust in the classroom.
Now, what is interesting is that the logic of counter-radicalisation is to ask those professions to go precisely against the necessities of their profession which are to build trust, and to replace it with a logic of suspicion. Not only are they asking the impossible, but they are asking these people to undermine the very basis of the relationship they must have with those they work with. I think this is really a recipe for disaster, since it can only take us in a few directions and none of them is desirable.
Either, let’s say, the teacher decides, “OK, she or he is not qualified to detect signs of early radicalisation or to deal with it”, and as soon as a young boy reads the words “terrorist house” instead of “terraced house”, the teacher had better report them to the police because “they know better.” What that does is to completely undermine any trust the class might have in its teacher. They will be afraid that the next time they write or say something dodgy or suspicious, they will be reported. When you read about this in the news, it might be funny and absurd if it wasn’t so tragic. But on a day to day basis, how will this teacher deal with a relationship of trust that has been entirely undermined in this classroom? This remains an open question.
I have carried out some research with some social workers here in the Netherlands who are extremely alert to this phenomenon. Two things happen. Either they behave like this teacher and they report, but the reporting only works for them if nobody else can disclose the fact that they have reported a person. A youth worker working with a group of young men from the neighbourhoods of the Hague, for example, will tell the police, but only on condition that the police never tells anyone that he or she is the one who has reported that individual. So the trust relationship that she has can continue, but on the basis of a lie. This is one way that it can work, but only by asking the social worker to be untruthful about the relationships they establish.
What is the other outcome? The other possibility, and I have evidence of this first hand, is for the social worker to tell the youth they work with, “Well listen. I have to tell the police everything that you say, so don’t tell me anything that I might have to report. We can talk about anything but that…” In which case the whole purpose of using the trusted workers to report signs of radicalisation is defeated because they would prefer not to listen rather than have to report!
RB: Could you also explain the negative impact of the Prevent strategy in relation to social and economic inequality, where assumptions regarding the cause of radicalisation led to the UK Department for Communities and Local Authorities prioritising areas with a larger Muslim population. But this coincided with substantial cuts in spending earmarked for developing disadvantaged neighbourhoods, so that Prevent became one of the sole sources for funding… Could you explain how this exacerbated the stigmatisation of the ‘suspect community’, so that by 2010, the Communities and Local Government Cttee. of the House of Commons was denouncing this focus as having “increased the risk” and “not been constructive”.
FR: Well, this I think is quite specific to the UK. Community projects flagged as Prevent became one of the only sources of funding.There might be a manifestation of it in other countries, but we should look at the evidence first. Because Prevent was initially based on the assumption that the recourse to politically motivated violence was due to dire economic and social conditions, it was deployed in local authorities through the Department of Communities and Local Government – on the controversial basis of the percentage of Muslim population in designated target areas.
This coincided, after the economic crisis of 2008, with important cuts in community-related spending. Community projects flagged as Prevent became therefore one of the only sources of funding for several NGOs, who then had to take the difficult decision whether to accept abundant ‘counter-terrorism’ funding for their activities or chase meagre alternative sources.
The ‘Muslim community’ here, is therefore understood as a reified, monolithic and cohesive group which is collectively responsible for the violence emerging from its midst, and perceived as a result to be collectively responsible for addressing the issue. This led some to ‘tweak’ regular community projects to match the descriptions of the funding stream (in particular refocusing on Muslim beneficiaries), irrespective of the risk the beneficiaries posed in terms of radicalisation. For others, this focus amounted to pure and simple stigmatisation of the Muslim community, considered as a suspect community composed entirely of potential terrorists.
As Paul Thomas has shown rather convincingly, for non-Muslim community leaders, it generated frustration, as the traditional funding sources they relied on became unavailable, and they could not claim the new ones. The Channel mentoring programme raised similar concerns. Individuals are identified by or referred to professionals (police, local authorities, teachers, doctors, social workers, youth services, offender management services) who then devise a ‘support plan’ for the individual, generally through a mentoring programme. Between 2007 and 2010, 1120 people were referred to Channel.
Although Channel is not purely targeted at young Muslims, there is a widespread feeling in the Muslim community that regular activities such as political involvement in peace movements or a pious religious practice, when carried out by young Muslims, trigger unnecessary referral to the Channel programme, due to the lack of experience of those who refer them.
RB: Do we have any idea then, what kind of chilling effect these trust-destroying practises are having on the everyday lives of Muslim youth in European countries, and in particular activists enjoying what rights our democracies have to offer them ?
FR: A good example to illustrate this is the case of Rizwaan Sabir. He was one of the two students at Nottingham University – you might remember – who was arrested on terrorist charges for having downloaded the Al Qaeda manual from the US Department of Justice website. He was preparing a thesis on Al Qaeda so it made perfect sense for him to have this on his hard drive, but he was nevertheless reported to the police and was only freed after six days of detention. He then won a subsequent court case against East Midlands Police for having fabricated evidence against him. There was already a file on him.
But what is interesting about his case is that as he learned more and more about what the police had on their files against him, it was clear that it was not so much the terror charges that first marked him out as a potential radical, but it was when he attended pro-Palestinian demonstrations a few years before these events that had already placed him under surveillance. There was already a file on him, nothing to do with terrorism, but for participating in a march in favour of peace in Israel.
And certainly this is one of the effects of this suite of policies. Because radicalisation is such a vague term, and because nobody knows what one sign of radicalisation actually looks like, and frankly I don’t know what that sign would be… everybody is working with the stereotypes they have about what constitutes a radical. And for many, including civil servants, police officers or maybe local intelligence services, participating in perfectly legitimate political events which question UK’s foreign policy, or which might question the war in Iraq or in Afghanistan, or any other topic that may not be very palatable to the administration, or to the authorities – is considered to be a sign of radicalisation.
Therefore, yes, I think this is an open door to all sorts of limitations on freedom of expression, or at least, the categorisation of a perfectly regular political activity as a form of radicalism that in the future might lead to a possible terror attack. And this is distinctly worrying.
2003 No to Iraq march. Flickr / Vertigogen. Some rights reserved.
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