Metaphors For Our Time

An ounce of Prevent: why "contagion" and "diffusion" underscore everything that's wrong with Britain's counterterrorism policy. Faisal Devji explains.


"Diffusion." Photo Credit: Flickr/Amanglik2TRAILERS for the government’s new counter-terrorism strategy have been released over the past few weeks, starting with David Cameron’s speech in Munich about the failure of multiculturalism and the need for a strong British identity. His comments were followed up by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, who claimed that universities were not doing enough to monitor and prevent the radicalization of their students, and even suggesting that doctors should inform the police about signs of radicalization among their patients. These statements have been met with predictable responses from the government’s critics, ranging from mockery at its proposals to fears that civil liberties may be further eroded and Muslims in particular targeted. But on closer inspection it seems as if the government’s desire to appear decisive on the issue of security has less to do with right-wing populism and more with an attempt to conceal its lack of a coherent policy.

Instead of a rhetorical wringing of hands at the prospect of free speech and the competition of ideas being curtailed in higher education, or patient confidentiality in medicine breached, it may be more helpful to recognize how government proposals on counter-terrorism are of a piece with its policies on health and education more generally. And these latter, as we know, are all about privatization of operations and the withdrawal of state funding. Theresa May’s comments on universities and medicine, in other words, camouflage the government’s abandonment of these sectors by blaming those who work in them for not doing enough to tackle radicalization. Rather than indicating an ideological commitment to privatization in the fashion of Thatcherism, a government that must rescue failing banks and interfere ever more closely in the lives of its citizens because of security concerns, can only justify its withdrawal from society in such disingenuous ways. 

So the state will now hold the institutions of civil society responsible for a radicalization that it can no longer control. And it will do so not by stoking fears about Muslims to invoke right wing populism, but in order to prevent any mobilization of the white working class, whether along xenophobic or other lines. Muslims and other minorities must be taxed with demonstrating their loyalty to and integration within a non-multicultural Britain, just as the institutions of health and higher education are to be taxed with rooting out radicalism, so as to absolve the government from blame and deflect working class resentment in other directions. Each segment of civil society, therefore, is being invited to suspect every other, but without their mutual hostility ever running the risk of breaking out into hostilities like race riots. It is this fear of mobilization and civil strife as a result of militancy, unemployment and other, more mundane factors, that appears to be the motivating force behind the government’s counter-terrorism strategy.

While critics of 'securitisation' in the post-9/11 era have consistently pointed to its targeting and profiling of Muslims, perhaps more important is the fact that what governments really fear is not Islam, but the white working class mobilization and civil strife that it has the potential to inspire. This at least seems to explain the incoherence of counter-terrorism measures, which make little sense if we don’t take the fear of non-Muslim mobilization into account. Thus the UK’s strategy following the 7/7 bombings, as embodied in the 2006 document Countering International Terrorism, represents nothing but a grab-bag of contradictory measures that deal with violence of the Al-Qaeda type in a hit and miss way. For instance it proclaims the urgency of a “battle of ideas” while at the same time criminalizing any “glorification” of terrorism, and going so far as to deny the importance of ideas in militancy by treating them as medical pathologies that are described as “virulent.” So Theresa May’s advice to doctors is not so novel after all. Similarly the document attributes terrorism to all manner of disconnected causes, including a sense of grievance and injustice, globalisation, anti-Western feeling, unequal standards in international politics, specific events, alienation or community disadvantage and the exposure to radical ideas.

Given this list of odds and ends, it is unsurprising that both the current government and its predecessor have focused not on Muslim ideas or even socio-economic conditions so much as the diffusion of militancy as if it were a kind of contagious disease. Yet it was made evident in the government’s own reports that diffusion of this sort seems to have played very little role in the 7/7 attacks. For the bombers exhibited no cultic activity, evinced little Internet usage, did not attend the same mosques and held to no collective ideology. Indeed their “radicalization” seems to have occurred not in any closed circle at all, but by way of commonplace British activities like reading newspapers, watching television, participating in anti-war demonstrations, working out in gyms, going on rafting expeditions and the like. Their strength, in other words, came from the society around them, as is true of Al-Qaeda’s militants more generally. One of the 7/7 reports itself notes that the rapidity of “radicalization” among the bombers cannot be attributed to any traditional form of indoctrination.

To focus, then, on the conventional diffusion of radicalism in universities, mosques, etc., is not to take terrorism seriously. And to follow this prescription of the previous government at a time when there has been a massive decline in Al-Qaeda’s popularity and following is to be irresponsible, if only because no lesson seems to have been learnt from this well-known decline in militant web-forums and Internet “chat” that preceded the killing of Osama bin Laden and the “Arab Spring” by a couple of years. Since Western security agencies did not want to shut these sites down but rather monitor them, the collapse of Muslim interest in Al-Qaeda cannot be attributed to the War on Terror but appears to have been part of some internal dynamic. How then did it occur and why? Surely such questions should be at the heart of any new counter-terrorism strategy, even if they do not result in the easing of security measures. But its finger pointing at others merely illustrates the government’s failure in analysing terrorism. As with its actions in Libya, the government’s decisiveness here, too, serves only to conceal its lack of a real politics.