Muslims have become a convenient focus for the rage that the world feels after every terrorist act around the world. However, for the contributors to I Refuse to Condemn: Resisting Racism in Times of National Security, enough is enough. I agree. Muslims are being blamed too often for not doing enough to take a stand against terrorism.
It is a blunt observation, but it reflects the potent message that the writers deliver to their readers, notably that there has been an insidious but persistent effort to demonise every aspect of Muslim identity through the British government's "violent" counterterrorism Prevent strategy. The intention, political fashion author and activist Hoda Katebi argues, is to challenge Muslims' participation in public life: "Surveillance programmes in the US specifically use everyday Muslim behaviours as well as expressions of political dissent to create a rubric of criminality. Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) is a state-funded surveillance programme in the US, inspired by the devastatingly violent Prevent 'counter-terrorism' programme in the UK, and couples with existing failed racist surveillance programmes in the US that target gang violence."
She explains that "wearing a hijab" or "growing a beard" among other normal, everyday activities, are listed under CVE as behaviours of possible radicalisation.
Legislation requires public officials working in schools, universities, hospitals and local councils to report individuals who display radical tendencies which, Shereen Fernandez warns, is not only discriminatory but also counter-productive. Her recently completed PhD from Queen Mary University London looked at how schools, teachers and Muslim parents in London engage with the Prevent duty and "British values".
"Initially I planned to interview children in schools on matters relating to belonging and identity, and I was told by the committee that the school's safeguarding policy would still apply in these settings," she writes. "With the inclusion of Prevent in such safeguarding policies, I would be required to report children whom I would consider to be 'at risk' of extremism and radicalisation, thus bringing me into the fold of the school's security apparatus."
She adds that her research "inevitably" had to change. "I declined to participate in a system which sought to create insecurities through the misreading of our bodies as potential risk."
Packed with hard-learned lessons from the front line of the social-justice struggle, the contributors to this book tackle issues of racial injustice, the surveillance of Muslim communities and the shortcomings of media coverage of "white perpetrators of terror".
It is clear that since the events of 11 September 2001 in America and 7 July 2005 in London, Muslims have become a salient target for negativity and discrimination. In large part, this is due to such media coverage; not everyone treats hate crimes equally.
The harmful discourse in the media, politics and places of power continues to contribute to the increasingly hostile environment by practicing a different policy when covering crimes involving "white" terrorists who are sympathised with too quickly for their "mental illnesses".
A report published in August by the Centre for Media Monitoring shows a "significant inconsistency" in how terror attacks are reported depending on who the perpetrator is. More than half of British news stories between 2015 and 2019 used the term "terrorist" alongside the terms "Islam" or "Muslim" – nine times more than if the perpetrator was identified as "far-right", "neo-Nazi" or "white supremacist".
This includes the alleged perpetrator in Christchurch, New Zealand, who was initially described as a lone wolf only a few hours after the terrorist attack on two mosques despite supporting US President Donald Trump "as a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose." Moreover, the Australian-born terrorist filmed his massacre via a body camera in the style of a violent video game.
Book Review: There Where You Are Not
Remi Joseph-Salisbury, a Presidential Fellow in Sociology at the University of Manchester, notes in the book the way that white individuals who commit horrendous acts are portrayed by news outlets to be people deserving of humane treatment, while people of colour were more likely to be labelled by their religious and ethno-racial identities. "Whilst white perpetrators of terror are constructed as 'lone wolves'," he writes, "people of colour are seen as part of a monolith. We must come out, therefore, to condemn and disavow – or must we?"
Such shorthand minimises links or association with white supremacy groups and right-wing extremism. A consequence of this is explored by social geographer Azeezat Johnson, who looks at the dehumanisation of Muslims who are identified collectively with terrorists and, therefore, are not admitted into the moral domain and the ethical spectrum of those who are mourning the consequences of such heinous crimes.
"Four days after the Christchurch mosque shootings, I was presenting a seminar that brought the pain of these conversations into a sharp relief," she writes. "During the Q&A, I was pressed by a White female academic to defend my refusal to participate in the emotional and intellectual labour attached to 'convincing' White people of the violence of White supremacy (outside of the context of the classroom). When she finally asked, 'but what about the academic debate?' I looked around at the predominantly White audience (with only one other person of colour present in the room), and my composure broke. I felt my voice crack as I snapped, 'it isn't just academic debate because people are dying.'"
In that moment, says Johnson, she knew that there was no space for grieving the Christchurch mosque murders while colleagues argued in defence of academic debate.
With every such crime, Muslims living in Europe and the US have been conditioned to worry and face paralysing questions, which Joseph-Salisbury narrates and explains all too well: "Are the perpetrators people of colour? Are they Muslims?"
Muslims who feel obliged to condemn such attacks, still fear being unfairly targeted by a crackdown on their organisations and places of worship. What's more, they are upset by public support for the right to publish grotesque caricatures, such as those published by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which often suggest that Islam and "terrorism" are inextricably linked. The contributors to this book describe further how this perceived Islamic support for terrorist attacks strengthens the case for discrimination against Muslims.
Offering direct accounts of Muslims from various social backgrounds and occupations, this intellectual and creative engagement unfolds the impact of securitisation resulting in a perception that Muslims are not being treated as equal citizens and are instead regarded as quite separate from the rest of society.
Blatant prejudice such as predictive profiling based on travel plans and suspicious behaviour at airports, or Hijab-wearing women routinely being passed over for jobs has become more accepted in both the US and Europe. Muslims with no criminal record or background are affected badly by this, including Shafiudean Choudry, a career technologist and co-founder of the Riz Test, who writes: "Error 407: Proxy Authentication Required. I comply with each request, 'shoes and socks off, please.' The more I'm reverse engineering the data model that led to this moment, the more I feel overwhelmed. My Indian excitement for the trip makes way for acidic anxiety. I feel a cold rush of cortisol coursing into my bloodstream. A bead of sweat rolls down my back and my breathing becomes increasingly shallow. What type of personal information have Border Control and United Airlines shared to warrant me being stood here barefoot, stripped of my dignity, gaining scorn and suspicion of my fellow passengers?"
It's Islamophobic, of course, but how can this vicious cycle be broken while everyone else unites as "us" and Muslims remain "them", the eternal "Other"?
Edited by Asim Qureshi, the Research Director of advocacy organisation CAGE, this book provides a series of personal accounts in a narrative that will feel familiar to Muslim readers: the exhaustion and irritation at the ritual calls to "do more" to counter extremist ideology and to "condemn" people they neither know or have any connection with.
"Calls to condemn haunt us; follow us; threaten to overwhelm us; silence us. The pressure to condemn our own (and other marginalised) communities lingers in the air: it is ubiquitous. Sometimes the pressure is spoken, more often it is silent, but always felt," says Joseph-Salisbury. "The pressure to condemn serves a purpose. It seeks to limit our capacity to agitate. Often, it is weaponised to undermine us, or to shift the focus away from structural and state racisms, onto our communities."
This is an important point, because such an approach not only demonises Muslim and other communities, but also ensures that their options to respond are restricted, deliberately so. You have to be compliant, or else, seems to be the message from the authorities.
Adam Elliot-Cooper, a research associate at King's College London, concludes his chapter thus: "By unpacking the ways in which Britain is fondly misremembered, we can not only offer a useful corrective, but reveal the ways in which racism plays a fundamental role in imagining a better past and condemning modern multiculturalism."
The essays in I Refuse to Condemn… delve into the many ways that anti-Muslim racism remains a key feature of contemporary Western society as it deceptively perverts the course of justice by whitewashing its colonial history. It is definitely a book that speaks to our times.