We resist the UK’s discriminatory counterterrorism policy because it is our democratic right and responsibility.
It was the spring of 2008 and I was a postgraduate student at the University of Nottingham.
I was researching Al Qaeda for my dissertation and upcoming PhD and downloaded a publicly available document called ‘the Al Qaeda Training Manual’ from the US Department of Justice website. The same document could have been loaned through the library or purchased from high-street bookshops.
A staff member discovered the document, the university reported it to counterterrorism police, and I was arrested, detained and interrogated in solitary confinement for six days in a Nottingham prison.
One of the officers accused me of using my studies to conceal my true motive for possessing the document: terrorism.
It was clear to me that my race and religion is what was fuelling the suspicion. In fact, my academic supervisor told me that one of the detectives on the case said to him this would not be happening if the Al Qaeda training manual was held by a “blonde, Swedish, PhD Student at Oxford University”.
I was eventually released without charge. But the police continued to assume I had ulterior motives.
They continued their inquiries and surveillance for years after my release in the form of stops and searches at the roadside, detentions at the border, monitoring by government and police departments, and intelligence that was gathered through informants in my local community, as I document in detail in my book.
I was prompted to reflect on my traumatising experiences after reading ‘Delegitimising counter-terrorism: the activist campaign to demonise prevent’ – a recent report by the neo-conservative British think tank, Policy Exchange.
The report singles out Muslim organisations and individuals critical of counterterrorism policies, especially the Prevent de-radicalisation strategy, as being engaged in a concerted and sinister campaign to undermine the national security of Britain.
Former prime minister David Cameron provides the forward where, among many troubling claims, he writes: “delegitimising counter terrorism is, in essence, enabling terrorism”.
This is beyond offensive. Counterterrorism, and especially Prevent, has been critiqued and challenged by a whole host of organisations and people, including the United Nations, Amnesty International, Liberty, Big Brother Watch, the Runnymede Trust, the Open Society Justice Initiative, and Medact.
Even the UK’s ‘Terror Watchdog’ David Anderson QC conveyed doubts over the workability of the policy and accepted that Prevent was being applied “in a discriminatory manner”.
The subsequent ‘Terror Watchdog’, Max Hill QC, now Director of Public Prosecutions at the Crown Prosecution Service, went even further when he urged the government to consider abolishing the “unnecessary” anti-terror laws altogether.
These individuals and organisations are spared the accusation that they are somehow “enabling terrorism” for criticising and challenging the UK’s discriminatory counterterrorism policies.
The report also shows no engagement with the academic work produced by a plethora of scholars over the years that critiques and questions the goals, legitimacy, and outcomes of these security, counterterrorism and de-radicalisation policies.
When this body of academic research is mentioned, it is framed as somehow being under the spell of Muslim puppet-masters.
“Opposition [to the Prevent counterterrorism strategy] from Britain’s raucous Islamist scene [is] near total,” claims the Policy Exchange website. “From there, opposition has spread to sections of the far-left, and those parts of academia where Islamism and the revolutionary left intersect”.
Neither does the report show any interest in how the UK’s behaviour — its support for autocrats and dictators around the world who violate their own people with weapons and training provided by Western states, or its involvement in wars, bombings, and air strikes around the world — can generate resentment, fuel insecurity and political violence.
The report fails to mention these basic factors that are overwhelmingly accepted as contributing to insecurity and violence the world.
Instead, it relies on conspiratorial stereotyping that draws on a long tradition of blaming Islam and those “bad” (read: “politicised”) Muslims who refuse to buy into a state-sanctioned, pacified form of “British Islam”.
The effects of the policies that such reports and claims legitimise are deeply damaging and express themselves in a number of harrowing ways, including traumatic psychiatric and mental health conditions that require the help of doctors and mental health professionals.
However, accessing such services has become nearly impossible since the health sector, like every other public-sector institution in Britain, is under a legal duty to report people deemed to be vulnerable to being “radicalised” — that is to say, become potential future terrorists, to the authorities.
It is precisely because of the way our public sector has been forced to absorb the logic of preemptive counterterrorism policing that I was unable to get the support I so desperately needed when I experienced acute psychiatric illness in 2013 and 2018, which was connected to the trauma of being arrested and surveilled.
It is why, in the height of my condition, I was overthinking and unable to share openly and candidly what I was going through; a form of silencing triggered and amplified by the existence of Prevent.
When Muslims criticise counterterrorism law and policies such as Prevent, we are not "enabling terrorism”. We are resisting a cruel, unjust and counterproductive set of practices - as is our right in a democratic society - and holding the government to account for its excesses and violence.
And we are not only doing it for ourselves. As history testifies, many of the techniques used to surveil and discipline the rights and lives of Muslims and racialised communities are oftentimes extended to more privileged communities too.
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