Trust and suspicion under ‘policed multiculturalism’

London, United Kingdom (openDemocracy) – How do counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation methods impact on ethnic and religious accommodation in our liberal democratic societies? Much of the literature draws on the concept of ‘suspect community’, and suggests that it has primarily alienated the Muslim community through an assimilationist model of ‘muscular liberalism’.

The ‘suspect community’ hypothesis has merits, but only partially accounts for the effects of counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation on multicultural societies. The literature to date has been unable to grasp the more insidious political effects of counter-terrorism policies based on the active participation and involvement of Muslims in their own policing.

Rather than promoting ‘assimilation’, as the government would expect, or alienation, as the advocates of the ‘suspect community’ hypothesis would contend, counter-terrorist policies produce and reinforce a government of society in discrete and divided ethno- religious groups.

Such ‘policed multiculturalism’—understood as the recognition and the management of diversity from a security perspective—has an important consequence in that it removes fundamental questions about pluralism from political debate, casting them instead in a depoliticised language of security.

Suspect communities in the UK

In the UK, for example, the application of community-policing principles is allegedly an effort to ‘bridge steep trade-offs between effective prevention and the social and political integration of Britain’s Muslims’(Klausen,2009). The majority of current scholarship shows however an opposite trend. Research on the impact of counter-terrorism on Muslim communities is dominated by the idea that these policies produce a ‘suspect community’. Originally developed by Hillyard (1993) in the context of British anti-terror laws in Northern Ireland, the concept has been adopted by a large range of authors to discuss the current effects of anti-terror laws, such as Christina Pantazis and Simon Pemberton, for example, in the British Journal of Criminology,

For Hillyard, a certain number of aspects of the Prevention of Terrorism Acts (PTA) led to the designation of the Irish as a suspect community: the broad scope of offences created under the PTA, the focus and unbalanced targeting of a single community, the use of police powers to gather intelligence and information and the creation of a double penal system, marking a difference between ‘Ordinary Decent Criminals’ subjected to the rule of law, and the ‘Terrorists’ subjected to an exceptional treatment. Some argue that Muslims have replaced the Irish as the ‘suspect community’ in contemporary Britain. They define suspect community as ‘a sub-group of the population that is singled out for state attention as being ‘problematic’. Specifically in terms of policing, individuals may be targeted, not necessarily as a result of suspected wrong doing, but simply because of their presumed membership in the group. Race, ethnicity, religion, class, gender, language, accent, dress, political ideology or any combination of these factors may serve to delineate the sub-group’s characteristics. Importantly, the notion of suspect community for these analysts is not conceived of as a legal category, but a broader ‘sociological study of people’s experiences of the law rather than enquiry on the application and misapplication of legal rules’. Thus, they maintain that counter-terrorism affects social identities and produces a sense of community. Christina Pantazis and Simon Pemberton, for example, envisage suspicion in the form of a pyramid, in which at the top, a minority of formal suspects is targeted by control orders and surveillance, in the middle informal suspects are targeted by stop and search orders, and finally at the bottom the ‘whole Muslim community’ is targeted by media, political and civil society discourses.
 In support of the suspect community thesis, they as well as several other authors have documented the effect of counter-terrorism measures, revealing the extent to which they have indeed predominantly targeted Muslim populations in Europe. These comprise both ‘hard’ measures that involve the use of coercive powers of the state and ‘softer’ measures, which focus on preventative community initiatives.

Broadly speaking, counter-terrorism is found to generate feelings of insecurity, vulner- ability and anger among the Muslim community, its primary targets. ‘Stop and search’ powers are one of the most criticised measures. In the UK, sections 44 (1–2) of the Terrorism Act 2000 gave police ‘stop and search’ powers within entire geographical areas without the need for reasonable suspicion linked to a specific individual (in May 2012, section 44 was however repealed). A similar set of measures was introduced in the Netherlands in 2001 and reinforced in 2004 where the prosecutor can designate an entire area to be submitted to stop and search operations for a renewable 12 hours under terrorism law. In the UK, the use of these powers increased dramatically after September 11, 2001: those searched grew from 6400 to 10,200 between the 2000/2001 and 2001/2002 period, reaching 50,000 in 2005/2006. A very small proportion (never greater than 1.4%) of all searches actually led to arrests. More importantly, however, Black and Asian people were three times more likely to be searched than Whites under these powers. Similar statistics reveal a discriminatory use of stop powers at UK’s borders, under what is known as ‘schedule 7’ stops.

In addition to these measures, another broad range of legal and administrative measures is considered to generate a sense of ‘suspect community’. In the UK, the period of pre-charge detention, for example, has been extended from 48 hours to up to 14 days with the Terrorism Act 2006, while it never exceeded 48 hours in the heydays of Provisional Irish Republican Army attacks. Similarly, other European countries have introduced lengthier pre-charge (six days instead of two in France) or pre-trial detention periods (two years instead of 90 days in the Netherlands) for terrorism prosecutions. Police raids and police custody target Muslims more often, and are found to be a source of anxiety and feeling of vulnerability, even if the arrested are released without charge.

The repeated court appearances and unannounced police visits related to control orders are equally found to have a strong psychological impact on children and families. The freezing of assets, introduced after UN Security Council resolutions 1267 and 1373 have allowed states to target individuals without trial, and most of them were Muslims. It was replaced by control orders and now TPIMs, which concern predominantly Muslims. While there is no space to detail all the existing measures, the broadening of the definition of terrorism in order to criminalise humanitarian aid, and the revocation of passports of citizens travelling to Syria or Afghanistan enacted by several European countries has similarly targeted mostly Muslims. The laws passed to increase the online monitoring of websites and online activities, the proscription of organisations, the growing culture of secrecy in terrorism trials, inasmuch as they have concerned pre- dominantly Muslims, all these measures all support the thesis according to which Muslims form part of a ‘suspect community’.

A second set of counter-terrorism measures, aimed at countering radicalisation and ‘violent extremism’, while in appearance more benign, is also found to participate of the formation of the suspect community. In the Netherlands, these measures have been part of the ‘broad approach’ since 2002–2003. In the UK, they emerged with the Prevent Strategy in 2006–2007. These programmes consists in a wide range of activities: from youth camps to sport activities, debates and discussion workshops, theatre, music and film projects, and internet awareness programmes.

Snooping on the community

One controversial issue raised by several community members, scholars and NGOs concerns the partnerships established between community representatives and local counter-terrorist police. Arun Kundnani, in Spooked! How Not to Prevent Violent Extremism. (London: Institute of Race Relations.) explores whether they are used as covert means of gathering intelligence about the structure and relations within the community. The Office for Security and Counter Terrorism investigated accusations of spying in 2009 and found them unfounded, but the controversy around the covert CCTV-based counter-terrorist project Champion in Birmingham in 2010 provided concrete evidence of covert counter-terrorism intelligence gathering by the police. The focus of the most recent Prevent strategy, as well as the results of the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Tackling Radicalisation and Extremism further reinforce the fear of ‘snooping’, with the focus on institutions such as schools, universities or hospitals, where teachers, professors or doctors are encouraged to report potential ‘radicals’.

Another problematic aspect of the Prevent strategy as it is currently formulated
 and reinforced by the Task force report (HM Government 2013) consists in the ever narrower conception of ‘acceptable’ Muslim representatives. This point was forcefully made by former Metropolitan Police Muslim Contact Unit (MCU) director Lambert (2011) about the first Prevent strategy and has been confirmed since. Indeed, strongly influenced by the positions of think tanks such as the Quilliam Foundation and the Policy Exchange, the coalition government in the UK considered many of the previous partners of the Prevent programmes, such as the Muslim Council of Britain or the Muslim Association of Britain or the Islamic Society of Britain, as ‘Islamists’ and has therefore stopped involving them in Prevent-related work.

Therefore, the current approach, focusing on partnering only with ideologically moderate representatives, contains the danger of being counter-productive, in portraying partnership programmes as purely mouthpieces for the government and shifting the legitimacy towards organisations that oppose a government perceived as biased.

‘Policed multiculturalism’

While the “suspect community” thesis is absolutely to the point when it comes to highlighting the discriminatory effects of “hard” as well as “softer” counter-terror powers, it however leaves out an important part of the problem: not everyone is a suspect. In fact, in order to work, the current regime also needs co-opted, “trusted” Muslims. In addition to its discriminatory effects, I therefore argue that we need to approach counter-terrorist and counter-radicalisation policies as a specific form of ‘government through community’, based on a differentialist approach to suspicion and recognition. This is characterized by the blurring of two sectors of governmental activity: policing and the traditional functions of the multicultural welfare state. Thinking about counter-terrorism in terms of ‘Policed multiculturalism’, opens up three broader fields of investigation for academic research: the formation of distinct categories of trust and suspicion; the enactment of differentiated techniques of power; the impact of these forms of power on forms of solidarity and identification.

The ‘suspect’ community can only be understood in relation to at least another category: that of the ‘trusted’ Muslims. An important section of the Muslim population supports or actively collaborates with state institutions in carrying out both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ counter-terrorism. The function of this category is in part captured by Mamdani’s notion of the ‘good Muslims’ namely ‘modern, secular, Westernised’ who share the values and norms of liberal society. Yet, while in Mamdani’s conception the ‘good Muslim’ is a passive one, I suggest this category perform an additional, active, function: they are also ‘trusted’ Muslims: it is among them that the state institutions will find those to employ in its ranks, as police officers, community organisers, ‘Prevent coordinators’ or local authority equalities officers.


Image Source: Michael Coghlan, Flickr, Creative Commons

On the one hand, trusted Muslims are necessary for the state to ensure its legitimacy. Precisely because they are Muslim and belong to the alleged ‘community’, the aim is to ‘tap’ into their real or purported network of relations, their social capital, and their fine-grained knowledge of cultural specificities. These are perceived to be required to best communicate, understand, but also convince, the ‘community’ they come from. Their value is not only that of having accepted the legitimacy of the state, but also to form literally a necessary channel between the white middle class milieu of security and political circles, the ‘professionals of security’ and ‘professionals of politics’ and the Muslim neighbourhoods of Birmingham, the Hague or Toulouse. In that sense, the ‘trusted Muslims’ occupy a similar function to that of the local leaders trusted by colonial powers to properly carry out the demands of indirect rule.

On the other hand, the ‘bad Muslims’, the ‘suspect’, the ‘radicals’, the ‘extremists’ are those considered unable or unwilling to serve as such a ‘conduit’. As such, the category is not dependent on the ideological or religious orientation of these individuals and groups, but upon their failed alignment with the bureaucratic or political requirements of the moment. As the fall from grace of organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain or the Muslim Association of Britain after the election of the Coalition government in the UK showed, the border between the ‘trusted’ and the ‘suspect’ is extremely narrow. Within the category of the suspect, however, a further distinction is operated, between those who can still be re-incorporated in the political body, and those about whom there is no more to be done. It is in this light that the ambivalent category of ‘risk’ should be understood: on the one hand, the ‘unable’ are victimised as being ‘at risk’ of becoming radical, portrayed as the powerless subjects of radical preaches, online propaganda and Youtube videos. This category that can still be reformed. On the other hand, the category of the ‘risky’ refers to those for whom it is too late. They represent a threat of contagion which must be stopped in order to avoid the spread of the ‘disease’.

This is an excerpt from a fully referenced longer study, ‘Suspect community or suspect category? Counter-terrorism as ‘policed multiculturalism’’, published in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (2015).

This report prepared by Francesco Ragazzi for openDemocracy.