The United States and the United Kingdom have enjoyed a close and mutually influential alliance for decades, one that leaders of both countries long considered their most important bilateral relationship. Currently, the two nations are in a remarkably similar state of affairs when it comes to security issues. Between lone wolf actors seemingly radicalised on the internet, the looming question of how to deal with foreign fighters returning from Syria, and the increasingly violent rhetoric of far-right and white nationalist extremists, the US and the UK have seen a shift from national security risks posed by international actors to a more pressing threat of domestic terrorism. One thing that has not changed in the wake of these evolving threats is the securitisation of Muslim communities, still believed by many to be a root cause of widespread instability. From something as significant as counterterrorism policies – both those explicitly as well as implicitly geared towards Muslims – to something so seemingly innocuous as the negative portrayal of Muslims on national security-themed television shows, it’s clear that the ‘special relationship’ shared by the two nations also lends itself to a shared perspective on the securitisation of American and British Muslims.
Growing up in the US, I frequently travelled to Britain to visit family. My father and his sister are the only two of seven children to have left India and settle in the US and Wales, respectively. When visiting family in Wales, I don’t remember thinking twice about our families being minorities until much later in life, but I did feel from a very young age that I could relate much more to my British cousins than to our family in India. A shared language, yes, but also a shared space within Western culture and civilisation. My cousin and I would watch episode after episode of Friends, and I would return to the US with Craig David’s latest song stuck in my head. Even as a 10-year old I could recognise the name Tony Blair, but perhaps that has more to do with his very public and unwavering support of the United States after the 9/11 terrorist attacks than with my time spent in the United Kingdom. In thinking about the ways US and UK security policies and attitudes have developed over time with regard to Muslim communities, this is a key point to which we can trace back. Two allies on the brink of two endless wars abroad that would irrevocably change the way a significant subset of their populations at home would be perceived by fellow community members and security officials alike. The UK’s response to 9/11 was immediate and mirrored that of the US, despite not being targeted on its own soil until the 2005 London bombings. As such, the administrations of President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair simultaneously introduced increased security measures at home and made costly commitments to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, resulting in permanent damage to civil liberties as well as community cohesion.
On a recent trip to visit my cousin, who now lives in Birmingham, England, we spent an afternoon at the Bullring, a popular shopping centre in the heart of the city. As we exited the main building into the outdoor market area, it was a familiar scene: a woman selling Pikachu and Spiderman-shaped balloons to a queue of people amidst tempting aromas of fresh popcorn. Yet there was also a strange addition: a kurta-clad preacher standing on a crate speaking loudly into a microphone. I was surprised. I noticed the taqiyah perched on his head and the table behind him offering pamphlets about Islam. It was not lost on me that this man was able to adopt the very British tradition of soapbox oratory and use it to spread his version of the message of Islam in the middle of a busy town centre. It had me thinking about what a reaction to something like this would be at home in the US, the world’s foremost bastion of free speech. One might see it to a lesser extent in big cities, but I struggled to imagine someone powerfully preaching about Islam while passersby carried on with their day all around him, especially in the Trump era. Upon seeing the preacher and reacting to him, my cousin remarked that it was amazing how freely Muslims are able to live and practise their faith in the UK, which struck me. I was used to hearing from subject-matter experts that Muslims are comparably much more assimilated in the US, and it goes without saying that Britain is dealing with its fair share of religious and cultural intolerance, but my cousin’s experience was different. When she made the personal choice to wear a hijab after marriage several years ago, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly worried that something would happen to her. It comforted me to know that she felt safe, while I thought sadly of the pointed anti-Muslim rhetoric being peddled in my own country and the subsequent sharp increase in systematic discrimination and criminal incidents linked to it.
At the time I was working with the Muslim Diaspora Initiative at New America, a non-partisan think-tank in Washington, DC, researching this exact phenomenon for what would eventually turn into an interactive map detailing ‘Anti-Muslim Activities in the United States’. As such, I was acutely aware not only of the lengths to which ordinary people go to harm Muslims, but also of how many state legislatures were – and still are – consistently debating anti-Muslim laws. A popular approach among local and state-level lawmakers has been to propose explicitly ‘anti-Sharia’ bills, or thinly veiled anti-‘foreign law’ resolutions, that claim to prevent traditional Islamic law from infiltrating US courts. We found that not only had at least 37 of the 50 state-level judiciaries considered such legislation, but that the language of the bills was nearly identical. It soon became apparent that the source of these copycat laws was primarily two organisations working in tandem: the Center for Security Policy, a far-right think-tank that alleges radical Muslims have infiltrated the government, and ACT for America, a non-profit that bills itself as a ‘national security grassroots activist organisation’, also widely considered the largest anti-Muslim group in the US. The legislators introducing and advocating for the bills known as ‘American Laws for American Courts’ argue that US citizens are at risk from potential acts of terrorism and from being subjected to foreign laws, specifically from refugees arriving from predominantly Muslim countries.
Someone who doesn’t necessarily know that Sharia is more a set of religious guidelines, and more importantly, that any foreign laws are subservient to the US constitution anyway, might not understand why these anti-foreign laws are a bad thing, which is exactly their intended use: fear-mongering resulting in discriminatory policies. This idea that Islam is not compatible with democracy is shared by many across the Atlantic. According to a report published in early 2019 by the anti-fascist group Hope not Hate, more than a third of people in the UK believe that Islam is a threat to the British way of life. More specifically, nearly a third erroneously believe in the existence of so-called ‘no-go zones’ where Sharia law is fully implemented and non-Muslims are forbidden to enter.
Considering these completely false claims are being peddled by elected officials nation-wide, it became glaringly obvious that there was next to no Muslim representation at any level of American government at the time. Only twelve Muslims ran for office in the 2016 election cycle. Fast forward to the 2018 midterms, however, and that number jumped to over one hundred Muslims, a record fifty-five of whom were elected to offices ranging from city council to the US Congress. Call it the Trump effect. When considering trends in the UK government by comparison, British Muslims have also suffered from disproportionate under-representation, but they’ve had more success reaching high-level, highly visible offices: Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, for example, as well as Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, who held several prominent positions in Prime Minister David Cameron’s cabinet. And that’s not to say Muslims being elected or appointed to office is a guaranteed win for the overall community; of the nineteen Muslims who won seats in the 2019 parliamentary election, four are Conservatives belonging to the very party that is facing repeated calls for an inquiry into Islamophobia. Perhaps they hope to effect change from within?
It was during the same trip to Birmingham that I watched the first episode of the critically acclaimed BBC show Bodyguard in which a veteran suffering from PTSD is installed as the personal bodyguard for Britain’s hawkish Home Secretary. In the first episode, said bodyguard thwarts a terrorist attack by talking down a trembling, hijab-wearing woman strapped into a suicide vest. Certain aspects of the show reminded me a lot of Homeland, the popular American television show that focuses on US counterterrorism and intelligence operations – namely that both were met with tough criticism for their portrayal of nearly all Muslim characters as violent extremists. I used to watch Homeland with my sister when I was in college, and she once teased me for saying I wanted to be like Carrie Mathison, the main character of the show. What I meant was that I wanted to be a gifted intelligence analyst who travelled around the world helping to thwart terrorist attacks. ‘You want to hide the fact that you’re bipolar from the CIA and make extremely questionable decisions when you decide to go off your meds?’, she laughed. She had a point, Carrie was not an ideal role model, but I did eventually go on to pursue a Master’s degree in Non-proliferation and Terrorism Studies with hopes of being an intelligence analyst.
This was not a degree that many in my extended family, or many outside of my family for that matter, understood very well. My dad’s family in India is Muslim, and my siblings and I were raised as such for several years, though it began to wane quite early on. For me, it was around the time I was in elementary school. We had moved to a new city and never found the same sense of community that we felt at our prior mosque, and so we gradually stopped attending as a family until only my dad was going on Fridays. Eventually he stopped, too. Each of us had our own personal reasons for disengaging, but I can say with confidence that it had a lot more to do with organised religion as a whole, as well as adapting to a post-9/11 America, as opposed to issues with Islam specifically. When I took my first course on terrorism in college, I began to visualise how my background could be of use in the diplomacy or security field. I considered myself somewhat of a ‘cultural Muslim’, that is, a Muslim not in practice but rather in name and heritage, allowing me a unique combination of empathy and objectivity. Although I didn’t identify as a Muslim myself, I felt the same desire as many Muslims across America in wanting to be the conduit through which my mostly white, conservative childhood friends and their parents would realise that Islam is not a monolith. Look to my loving father and his jovial, non-terrorist, Muslim Indian family, not Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. And look to me, someone who doesn’t practise and yet understands that the vast majority of Muslims interpret theirs as a religion of peace, to the point that I’ve pursued a career in deterring those who would instead use it to cause death and destruction.
In the scholarly study of terrorism, it is widely accepted that modern global terrorism is comprised of four overlapping waves beginning in the 1880s: Anarchist, Anti-Colonial, New Left, and Religious. Just a few years ago, when the Islamic State had reached its zenith, it was painfully clear that we were still riding the fourth wave and seemingly would be for some time. It made sense, then, that many of my graduate courses between 2015 and 2017 covered ‘Jihadi’ terrorism, the catch-all phrase for security threats posed by radicalised Muslims. I also enrolled in a course called The American Radical Right, for which the syllabus read ‘certain violent far-right paramilitary organisations nowadays constitute the greatest terrorist threat to the US homeland (apart from foreign jihadist groups).’ In fact, as I would come to learn, the FBI concluded in 2017 that ‘white supremacist groups had already carried out more attacks than any other domestic extremist group over the past sixteen years’ and were likely to carry out more attacks against minority groups. But these types of organisations and the closely related white nationalist movement was, and still is, completely absent from the national discussion about domestic terrorism.
I had all but decided that I wanted to focus my degree and my career on the threat of far-right domestic terrorism when my world was turned upside down by the election of Donald Trump. I immediately felt deflated, and that it would be a waste of time to focus my energy on countering a group of people that this president was actively courting. When I voiced my concerns about working for the Trump administration to peers and mentors, some understood and agreed, while others countered that people with my background – and my values – were needed there more than ever. And anyway, how much does policy really change from one administration to the next? Quite a lot, as it turns out, but this is no ordinary administration. As a new graduate embarking on the job hunt, I half-heartedly sent in a few applications for intelligence positions, but ultimately decided I could not stomach the thought of entering the government sector, especially in this capacity, at a time when I whole-heartedly disagreed with the direction it was taking.
While I was grateful that my institution was offering such a relevant and timely course about far-right movements despite the lack of national coverage, I was also cognisant that something was missing. One brief session of a broader Counterterrorism class aside, there was no course dedicated exclusively to the concept of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), a central tenet of President Obama’s counterterrorism policy, particularly in the domestic sphere. In fact, one simply cannot discuss the securitisation of Muslims in the West without discussing CVE, or its counterpart more often referenced in the UK, Prevent. While it has no agreed upon universal definition, much like the term ‘terrorism’ itself, CVE/Prevent focuses on cause rather than effect. Ideally, the concept is to counter the appeal of extremist ideologies and organisations by convening community groups, such as non-profits and universities, as a complement to law enforcement efforts. It sounds so promising in theory, and I think it could be, if only it didn’t end up stigmatising Muslim communities and ultimately being used as a proxy for intelligence gathering.
A perfect case study is one of the US cities involved in the Department of Justice’s 2015 pilot CVE programme, Minneapolis-St. Paul, chosen for its significant population of Somali-Americans. The Minneapolis programme was focused on preventing recruiters from both al-Shabaab, a terrorist group based in Somalia, as well as the Islamic State from reaching Somali-Americans. This effort brought together community-based organisations and local partners including public school systems, interfaith organisations, non-profits, NGOs, and governments on every level. Together, the organisations offered community-oriented programmes including after-school mentoring, scholarships, and job training in order to address several identifiable ‘root causes of radicalisation’. The programme suggested intervention models both within the school system and in the wider community that would reach students and families before law enforcement was ever involved, ideally before a crime was ever committed. In reality, the framework faced tough criticism from the very Somali-American community it was supposedly trying to protect. For one, CVE is meant to tackle these issues using primarily a non-security approach, and frankly it’s hard to separate a programme funded by the Department of Justice from the idea that it is simply another law enforcement measure. This left some feeling like the programme was merely a veiled means of government surveillance on the Muslim community. It also came under fire for relying on unfounded theories about radicalisation that assume there are consistent and predictable behavioural indicators of who will become a terrorist, despite admitting themselves that there is no such identifiable path. As a result, the communities where CVE efforts are focused – the overwhelming majority of which are Muslim – are considered inherently violent. In fact, some organisations identified by Department of Justice as key partners are avoiding participation in the framework altogether citing the stigmatising and discriminatory focus on Muslims.
President Obama’s CVE pilot programme was directly influenced by the Prevent programme implemented in the UK as part of a wider counterterrorism strategy following the 2005 London Underground bombings, with the aim of preventing individuals from being radicalised or supporting terrorism. The Prevent policy faces much of the same criticism as CVE programmes in the US, namely that it disproportionately impacts people of the Muslim faith or background and is just another surveillance mechanism. Ever since the Prevent policy became a legal duty for public sector institutions in 2015, however, revelations about just how far the programme goes have led to increasing public mistrust. Schools and universities, for instance, are required to monitor students and report incidents they consider extreme, while many teachers are not only uncomfortable in this role but also say they haven’t received adequate training that might help them differentiate an ‘extreme’ idea from an exploratory one. Unsurprisingly, this requirement has resulted in several highly discriminatory incidents: a thirteen-year-old boy using the term ‘eco-terrorist’ during a class discussion about environmental activists was subsequently being asked by Prevent if he was affiliated with ISIS. A graduate student of a Terrorism, Crime and Global Security masters programme – much like the one I was enrolled in myself – was questioned by Prevent after he was reported for reading an academic book entitled Terrorism Studies in the campus library. I may have opted not to bring my assigned reading from Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden with me on the flight home when I was a grad student, but I certainly could not have imagined triggering a negative response in my own school library.
This is a point where we can see an interesting divergence between the UK and the US, especially considering their usually quite parallel counterterrorism policies. With the pilot programmes now stalled, the US hasn’t done much in the realm of CVE other than awarding grants to non-profits committed to the cause. While the Obama administration funded organisations geared towards countering both Islamic extremism and white supremacism, any hopes for an all-encompassing CVE effort effectively died with the election of President Trump, whose administration fails to recognise the threat posed by the latter while continuing to fixate on the former. And it has become increasingly clear in Britain that government-led efforts are generally both unpopular and counterproductive – perhaps rendering Prevent an example for policymakers in the US of what not to do. It is doubtful that the US’s CVE efforts will get a boost any time soon given the current political climate, however, there is no lack of well thought-out, research-driven suggestions on the table when the tide eventually turns, even if it means withdrawing the federal government from CVE-related partnership building entirely.
While the overall number of terrorist attacks in the US and Western Europe has decreased over the past few years, we are still grappling with huge security issues that disproportionately affect Muslims. Now that the Islamic State has lost its territory, one of the biggest dilemmas facing several countries is how to deal with their citizens who left home to join the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria. For months now, this issue has seemingly paralysed Western countries; some have outright refused to take back militants as well as their wives and children citing obvious security concerns. Many simply do not have a policy in place to handle this particular situation. But all will eventually be put to the test as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made it clear that he will deport all foreign fighters currently detained by Turkey. Here is an instance where the policy decisions of the US and the UK have diverged; while the US has already repatriated several of its own citizens, Britain has instead stripped dozens of former militants of their citizenship and refused to allow them into the country. It is of course easier for the US to make this judgement call given the comparably far lower number of American foreign fighters, and President Trump has walked back earlier comments about detaining thousands of militants in the wartime prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The US government is putting increasing pressure on allies to take back their foreign fighters, undoubtedly driven by the worsening security situation in the region after the abrupt pullout of American troops. It is true, however, that the Department of Justice has been able to charge several American citizens for their alleged involvement with the Islamic State.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has taken a case-by-case approach to the question of repatriation, and Britain has demonstrated a slight shift in policy with its recent decision to accept several orphans and unaccompanied children from former Islamic State territory. A controversial proposal to renew the Treason Act 1351, initially designed to punish anyone caught plotting the death of the monarch or ‘adhering to the King’s Enemies’, has also gained traction since the idea was first put forth by the Policy Exchange think-tank in mid-2018. As the UK was weighing what to do with Shamima Begum, the 19-year-old who wishes to return after running away from her London home to join the Islamic State – and whose case is at the centre of the overall debate, the then Home Secretary Sajid Javid noted in early 2019 that the idea of updating the six-hundred-and-fifty-year-old treason legislation to apply to home-grown extremists was worth considering. Since then, Boris Johnson has also expressed support for reforming the law to better deal with transnational terrorist groups, while critics maintain that the offence of treason is outdated and that modern counterterrorism measures are better equipped to deal with today’s problems. It remains to be seen how the UK might move forward in this regard, but the pressure is mounting at home and abroad as questions arise about the implications of citizenship, and the limits to which it offers protection.
Both the US and the UK are helmed by leaders who, despite having an unwavering contingent of supporters at home, are seen internationally as reckless and divisive, and both are in the midst of an inward turn: President Trump touts an ‘America First’ agenda while Prime Minister Boris Johnson is forging ahead with completing the Brexit process. In fact, for many Americans, the passage of Brexit served as a defining moment in 2016 as their presidential election grew nearer. Would the political revolution that had just transformed the UK extend across the Atlantic? I, for one, was firmly of the mindset that it could not possibly happen. As I would come to find out, a much larger portion of the country than I previously understood was emboldened to ensure that it would. But to the extent that there is a continued Atlantic approach to securitisation and counterterrorism policies under the leadership of such similar characters, there is also a burgeoning Atlantic response. Muslim actors, activists, comedians, authors, ordinary citizens – they are all carving out a space from which to forcefully challenge what has become the status quo. In this way, I think the resolve of British and American Muslims to not only remain but continue growing as a visible and active segment of society, and to advocate for fair treatment from fellow community members and security officials alike, is stronger than ever.