Since the inception of the War on Terror, individual states have devised their own respective countering violent extremism (CVE) strategies, but none perhaps as controversial as the UK’s Prevent strategy. Prevent aims to “prevent people from being drawn into terrorism” by responding to the ideological challenge it poses and the threat faced from those who promote it” (Awan 2012). Commentators have asserted that Prevent’s overt focus on Muslims and Islam in the ‘War on Terror’ has imposed surveillance infrastructures on Muslim communities, serving to energise Islamophobia and the precariousness of the Muslim experience in Britain. But Prevent does not “simply function to hypervisibilise Muslim populations”, writes Ali (2020), but also serves to “invisibilise the violence of right-wing extremists”. The aim of this article will be to identify and deconstruct the neo-colonial logic and white supremacist ideologies underpinning Prevent “designed to establish and preserve racial inequity”. In doing so, I hope to expose and critique the role it plays in legitimising the regulation of British Muslims and sustaining broader structures of white supremacy in Britain.
Targets of suspicion
For the last two decades, an atmosphere of panic and fear for both personal and national security has permeated the Western collective consciousness. Terror and radicalisation have subsequently become the lenses through which Muslims are viewed; together with being conceptualised by some as the “‘ideal enemy’, a group that is racially and culturally distinct and ideologically hostile” (Kundnani 2014: 10). The UK’s security narrative is underpinned by racialised understandings of Muslims as outsiders – a collective threat to a white nation that needs to be defended (Ali 2020).
A culture of fear and suspicion has come to define this era for Muslims. It touches every aspect of their lives – home, school, university, mosques, public spaces, airports – and enhances the precariousness of the Muslim experience in Britain (Qurashi 2018). Kundnani (2014) argues that radicalisation models proliferated after 9/11 fundamentally conceptualise terrorism as a product of ‘Muslim culture’. Those coded as Muslim, who display markers of Muslimness (forms of dress, rituals, language etc.) are “most likely to be visibilised as potential terrorists” (Ali 2020: 581), and are thus at risk of falling victim to stringent counterterrorism practices. By framing the terror threat as specifically ‘Islamic’, security interventions aimed at the intimate realms of normal Muslim people’s lives are hence politically defensible. Qurashi (2018) notes that Muslims tend to be seen as reasonable targets of suspicion based on their belonging to a racialised and historically problematic group of ‘Others’. This is something I attribute to the afterlives of Britain’s colonial encounter.
In my opinion, one can also assert that Prevent functions as a neo-colonial mechanism that exercises power over groups of racialised Others, and is inseparable from Britain’s history of colonialism and empire. Colonial fears and anxieties surrounding the racialised ‘Other’ are deeply rooted in the Western psyche, and have for centuries served “to negotiate, invent, replace, transform and construct ideas, fantasies and bodies that should be feared” (Shalhoub-Kevorkian 2015: 7). In the first part of the twentieth century, more than half of the global Muslim population was under the control of the British Empire (Robinson, 1999), and the political development of Muslim states was contingent on British attitudes towards Islam, its values and adherents. The British arrived in the ‘Muslim world’ with pre-formed attitudes shaped by the Orientalist rhetoric of Europe’s long encounter with Islam, imbued with Christian conceptions of Muslims as fanatics, “prone to holy war against non-Muslims, and therefore difficult to reconcile to British rule” (ibid.: 11).
Deradicalisation narratives in programs such as Prevent have been known to promote the idea that in order for Muslims to be devout to their faith, they must subscribe to a form of Islam with a distinctly British character that is palatable to Western thoughts and beliefs (Qureshi 2015). Here, we can observe the re-emergence of colonial principles and practices through the codification of Muslim difference “and the corresponding unspoken reproduction of Britain as a white Nation” (Ali 2020: 588). Conspiracy theories popular in far-right, ethno-nationalist circles, such as the Great Replacement and Eurabia, feed off the notion that Anglo-European civilisation is under threat by a Muslim invasion, and is progressively being brought under Islamic rule. These narratives permeating the mainstream socio-political discourse oxygenate the Islamophobic vitriol of far-right extremists who are no longer on the fringe of civil society, and tenably provide grounds for ethnically or religiously motivated attacks on minority communities. It has been noted that Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist responsible for the deaths of 77 people, was heavily influenced by these concepts. Historical colonial fears and anxieties around Muslim fanaticism have just been replaced by contemporary fears about radicalisation and ‘Islamisation’.
Coding normality: the inevitable uneven gaze
While surveillance methods (such as CCTV) are indeed a recent phenomenon, practices “national security surveillance [are] as old as the bourgeois nation-state” (Kundnani and Kumar 2015: 4), and cannot be separated from histories of settler-colonialism and racial security. The nation-state, from its very inception, was designed to define ‘the people’ associated with a particular territory, and by extension the ‘non-peoples’ – threatening entities who must be excluded. Those ostensibly displaying signs of Muslimness are marked as suspect, and gauged against a standard notion of normality [coded: whiteness] – “the vantage point from which surveillance and counterterrorism is directed” (Kundnani and Kumar 2015: 11).
Prevailing notions of ‘normality’ must similarly be interrogated from a decolonial perspective in this context. In established hierarchies of race, naturalised in the colonial era and which prevail today, Europeans are the ‘normal’ standard against which racialised and colonial populations are compared. Whiteness, and the white experience, have long been privileged, naturalised and invisibilised. Other forms of being outside this unyielding mould become not normal. Colonialism was imagined as a moral project, aimed at turning ‘savage Others’ into civilised people, and introducing them to European modernity and enlightenment. Colonial populations were thus sorted and ranked not only according to race as a visible marker of inherent difference, which separated ‘us’ from ‘them’ but also “according to whether they accepted the priorities of the settler-colonial mission (the ‘good’) or resisted it (the ‘bad’)” (Kundnani and Kumar 2015: 5).
Just as the colonial nation-state sought to distinguish between ‘the people’ and the ‘non-people’, I argue that the surveillance infrastructures attributable to Prevent seek to classify those who are ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ along racialised terms (Fiske 1998). In this sense, not only are Muslims ‘abnormal’, they are the “focus of white fear” and “made to embody all that appears to threaten the social order” (Kundnani and Kumar 2015: 71). Once again, the state’s rhetoric can be found to mirror and consequently reinforce the Manichaean ‘us’ vs ‘them’ duality perpetuated by those on the far-right.
I have put forward the notion that Prevent as a government initiative facilitates the legal and ideological groundwork to naturalise the separation between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in racialised hierarchies of power established in the colonies, which in turn bolsters the exclusionary rhetoric of far-right extremists in Britain. This argument is contested by politicians and practitioners, and indeed it must be noted even by its harshest critics, that the application of Prevent ‘on the ground’ does not always pan out in the ways outlined above. Indeed, in recent years there has been a paradigm shift in the balance between referrals in response to the significant threat of right-wing extremism; in 2020, 24% of referrals were related to Islamist radicalisation and 22% were due to right-wing concerns. This said, if we are to advocate for the continual improvement and development of alternative CVE strategies, it is imperative that we expose – in the execution and presentation of such strategies – the coloniality of the institutional approach through which they are implemented, and the ways in which they are predicated on structures of white supremacy linked to Britain’s colonial encounter.
Maddie Cannon is a Research Intern at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right and a current MA student in Anthropology and Cultural Politics at Goldsmiths, University of London. See full profile here.
© Maddie Cannon. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).