Published by Verso on January 6th 2015
Genres: Academic Publishing, Non-Fiction, Political
Death came instantly to Imam Luqman, as four FBI agents fired semiautomatic rifles at him from a few feet away. Another sixty officers surrounded the building on that October morning, the culmination of a two-year undercover investigation that had infiltrated the imam's Detroit mosque. The FBI quickly claimed that Luqman Abdullah was "the leader of a domestic terrorist group." And yet, caught on tape, he had refused to help "do something" violent, as it might injure innocents, and no terrorism charges were ever lodged against him. Jameel Scott thought he was exercising his rights when he went to challenge an Israeli official's lecture at Manchester University. But the teenager's presence at the protest with fellow socialists made him the subject of police surveillance for the next two years. Counterterrorism agents visited his parents, his relatives, his school. They asked him for activists' names and told him not to attend demonstrations. They called his mother and told her to move the family to another neighborhood. Although he doesn't identify as Muslim, Jameel had become another face of the presumed homegrown terrorist. The new front in the War on Terror is the "homegrown enemy," domestic terrorists who have become the focus of sprawling counterterrorism structures of policing and surveillance in the United States and across Europe. Domestic surveillance has mushroomed--at least 100,000 Muslims in America have been secretly under scrutiny. British police compiled a secret suspect list of more than 8,000 al-Qaeda "sympathizers," and in another operation included almost 300 children fifteen and under among the potential extremists investigated. MI5 doubled in size in just five years. Based on several years of research and reportage, in locations as disparate as Texas, New York, and Yorkshire, and written in engrossing, precise prose, this is the first comprehensive critique of counterradicalization strategies. The new policy and policing campaigns have been backed by an industry of freshly minted experts and liberal commentators. "The Muslims Are Coming!" looks at the way these debates have been transformed by the embrace of a narrowly configured and ill-conceived antiextremism.
Arun Kundnani is a veteran human rights activist, former editor of the journal Race & Class and author of The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st century Britain. A prolific writer on issues such as Islamophobia, surveillance and political violence, his book opens with a chilling scene that describes the killing of Detroit Imam Luqman Abdullah by four police officers in October 2009. This barely reported death is likened to the assassination of thousands of unnamed Muslims in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen by US drones and sets the tone for the book.
Based upon three years of field work, Kundnani offers a searing critique of the post-9/11 counter-radicalisation strategies embraced by successive administrations on both sides of the Atlantic. Part reportage, part social science research, he discusses the growth of counter-terrorism policing and surveillance structures in both countries and analyses how the idea of radicalization has become the dominant paradigm for managing Western Muslim populations at the beginning of the 21st Century.
Structured over ten chapters, it combines penetrating deconstructions of the concepts of radicalization, extremism and terrorism with detailed case studies. The first half of the book examines the efficacy of dominant radicalization theories used to explain why some Muslim youth become terrorists and argues that they suffer from a mistaken central assumption that distorted theology is the root cause for terrorism rather than grievances generated by the War on Terror’s political and military legacies.
One of book’s main contributions is to identify two modes of thinking which predominate security responses to Muslim theo-political violence – “culturalism” and “reformism.” The first, popular among conservatives, the other favoured by liberals. Culturalist approaches locate the aetiology of terrorism to Islam as a religion, viewing it as inherently violent, historically militaristic and whose cultures have failed to adapt to the requirements of modernity. It implies that ‘Muslim politics can be explained simply as the mechanical and repetitive expression of an underlying cultural abstraction called Islam that is preprogrammed for fanaticism, has remained the same over centuries, and who content can be known through a reading of its religious texts’(p.57).
Reformists, instead argue that the problem is not with Islam, but early 20th Century thinkers who politicised the faith into a totalitarian ideology akin to communism. Islamism, which refers collectively to a diversity of political movements, is blamed for radicalizing young Muslim minds in the Middle East, South Asia and the West and can only be defeated by winning the war for their “hearts and minds.”
Later chapters examine how state interventions in the US and UK have attempted to promote acceptable de-politicised readings of the faith against violent versions by supporting ‘moderate Muslim’ leadership to challenge the ‘extremists.’ While the approaches differ in analysis, they agree on the idea of a “Muslim problem,” a concern which is shared across the political spectrum and amplifies the belief that the root cause of terrorism is either Islamic culture or Islamist ideology. This policy ironically also precipitates a form of bi-lateral radicalisation where Western governments apply greater levels of lethal force to combat terrorists and therefore sustains never ending cycles of violence.
The repercussions of these counter-radicalisation strategies produce two further social phenomena – the first of which is a structural and the other social. Prejudice against Muslims has quantifiably grown in the post 9/11 era resulting in both discriminatory institutionalized practices and increasing negative public attitudes towards Islam. Anti-Muslim sentiment has been further enabled by well funded overlapping networks of interest groups, think-tanks, journalists, and politicians which are highlighted and discussed in both American and British contexts.
Among the most illuminating chapters is ‘the Myth of Radicalisation,’ for its challenge to popular thinking on the causes of terrorism. Contextualizing the emergence of the term, the author describes how radicalization provided an analytical basis for preventative strategies that did not require violent state intervention. He argues that radicalization discourse was constrained by the demands of counter-terrorism policy makers instead of objectively trying to understand its emergence and inability to jettison latent presuppositions. This “radicalization industry” has so far been unable to answer the central question of why individual Muslims from very different backgrounds support extremist interpretations of Islam.
Rather than acknowledge any causative role to Western governments and their allies, most radicalization theories focus on specific drivers such socio-economic profiles, individual psychological or theological journeys detached from geo-political crises. At the most, these frameworks may recognise the role of politics but belittle them by using euphemistic phrases such as “grievances against real or perceived injustices.” Deliberating down playing the role of US-UK foreign policy, abdicates state responsibility which neither states are prepared to acknowledge, despite the advice given by their own security and intelligence services. The refusal to look at root causes also ignores what perpetrators themselves have said after committing their crimes. As the author notes, ‘terrorism is not the product of radical politics but the symptom of political impotence’ (p.289).
The various case studies illustrate how the impact of the “Home Front” on the War on Terror has affected people’s lives. Particularly disturbing are the many accounts of police entrapment and criminalisation of African-American Muslims and harassment of Arab-Americans after 9/11. The author also explores how UK government counter-terrorism strategies such as PREVENT, have been influenced by self-styled Muslim anti-extremist think-tanks and organisations like the Quilliam Foundation and now defunct Sufi Muslim Council. Both initiatives failed to meaningfully engage the issue of violent religious extremism and lost credibility within British Muslim communities.
The Muslims are Coming, is a brilliant, incisive disassembling of the political ideologies and law enforcement strategies used by governments in both countries. It is a provocative, perhaps polemical assessment of current policies and will make uncomfortable reading for some, but should be taken seriously for its rigorous analysis and sobering conclusion which warns that failure to address the causes of terrorism will make it more, not less, likely.3