A few days ago I woke up to the sensational headline that 13 potential terrorist attacks have been prevented in the UK since June 2013. Minutes later I heard news that the government just launched a new counter-terrorism campaign: Action Counters Terrorism (ACT), and every day since I’ve been putting up with interruptions on Spotify urging me to report suspicious and potential terrorist activity when just trying to enjoy the ‘Feel Good Friday’ playlist; suffice to say each advert makes me feel less and less good.
My initial irritation was at the obviousness of the fear-mongering and perception of increased terrorist threat which coincided with calls to ‘report suspicious activity’. The ACT campaign website asks the public to ‘be our [the government and police’s] eyes and ears’ by reporting suspicious activity to the police. To me its obvious that this acts as a massive thumbs-up to racial profiling and the criminalisation of Muslim people. The idea that everyday citizens can be the ‘eyes and ears’ of the state is an incredibly explicit devolving of policing powers to ordinary people. It’s a way of saying, ‘we trust that we’ve given you enough years of rhetoric so that you know exactly who in this society is a legitimate target to report’. The very idea of ‘suspicious activity’ is made absurd by the website’s suggestion that it includes ‘anything that seems out of place, unusual or just doesn’t seem to fit in with everyday life’!
It hardly needs to be said that this gives absolute free reign to people to target any Muslim for anything at all. Don’t feel that the language those people are speaking fits in with your conception of everyday life? Report it! Does it seem unusual to you that someone takes time out of the day to pray? Report it. The examples the government themselves provide include ‘ordering unusual items online’ so I personally feel almost everyone born since 1990 should be culpable under this advice.
I really do find it absurd and hilarious, but then I realise its not a parody.
A campaign asking the public to report suspicious activity emerges in a context where we know exactly which bodies are suspicious. It won’t be the unusual activities of middle-class white people that get reported, or the ludicrously ‘out of place’ behaviours of wealthy politicians and white hipsters. Of course not. Instead we’ve long been taught that suspicion and fear are attached to non-white bodies. To beards and hijabs, ‘foreign’ clothes and ‘foreign’ tongues. I’ll place my bets on brown and black men being the overwhelming reason for many of the phonecalls that occur in light of this campaign. In fact, BBC iPlayer’s recent drama-documentary, The Attack: Terror in the UK taught me that. A dramatized enactment of the ‘most likely scenario for Britain’s next major terror attack’ proved that suspicious behaviour mainly included a) conversion to Islam and b) being a black or brown man in Britain. Thank God they made an hour-long film interspersed with threatening music and fear-mongering facts to tell me that!
It’s important to understand that devolving policing powers to everyday people, encouraging people to treat Muslims in the UK as criminal at all times, and raising levels of fear about an ‘inevitable’ terrorist attack works to justify more and more surveillance, more and more detention, and more incarceration. Numbers of Muslim prisoners in the UK rose by 122% between 2002 to 2015 – a ‘crime mystery’ in the BBC’s eyes. Well here, let me see if I can solve this one:
What better way to control your Muslim population than locking them up for minor crimes? Beats having to launch actual investigations into ‘potential’ terrorist activity and waste resources on allegations that might probably prove wrong. This way you lock away your problem populations to pre-empt their entry into terrorist activity. My guess would be that this is no ‘crime mystery’ but that we’ve made one group in our society an especially ‘suspicious’ one deserving of policing. Ironically, the BBC drama-documentary also shows prison to be a site of ‘radicalisation’… making it actually not feel too far-fetched to suggest that the government are producing the very terrorists they tell us to be afraid of.
And isn’t that interesting? Because if nothing else, this ACT campaign and the suggestion that terrorist threats have risen surely suggests that the government’s counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation programmes thus far have not worked. It seems almost as if the Prevent strategy has not been preventing this rise in the ‘inevitability’ of violence… almost as if policing, monitoring and controlling the Muslim population has not dealt with any of the political causes of terrorist violence…
But rather than addressing this and its own violence – at home and abroad – as a cause of antagonism and grievances amongst Muslims, the state would rather deflect from its own failures by pointing the finger at any and every Muslim person whose existence has been constructed for years as ‘unusual’.
The ACT website urges, ‘trust your instinct’ and ‘don’t be cautious’, because it tries to convince us that only a mass surveillance state, criminalisation, persecution, discrimination and violence against Muslims will prevent Muslim people from committing acts of violence. It says, ‘your Islamophobic instinct is legitimate and your racism will be rewarded by the badge of Good Citizen’. In fact, the lauding of public help in preventing 1/3 of potential terrorist attacks (can we get some clarification on what a potential attack is??) is a lauding of everyday Islamophobia. And it makes sense. If you’re bombarded with messages to ‘Run, Hide and Tell’, images of Muslims as always shady, always suspicious and always Other, then of course; of course more surveillance, more detention and more incarceration is in order. But I’ll also bet that means more terrorist violence too.