Friday, 31 March 2017

Identity and Counter Terrorism in the UK by Michael Lister

In a recent paper, “‘As a woman…’; ‘As a Muslim…’: Subjects, positions and counter-terrorism powers in the United Kingdom” published in Critical Social Policy, Lee Jarvis and I seek to explore how identity claims interrelate with counter-terrorism powers. Our questions focus on whether certain groups feel directly targeted by counter terrorism powers; whether such dynamics are totalising, such that all Muslims or all (south) Asians, for example, relate to counter-terrorism measures similarly?; what the impact is of counter-terrorism powers on experiences of collective identities such as “Britishness”? and what types of subject position do counter-terrorism powers and discourse facilitate? Our findings draw upon 14 focus groups conducted with a range of UK-based communities. Following an ‘immersive’ reading of the transcript data, we generated a thematic framework of four broad identity positions: ‘the Muslim’, ‘the target’, ‘the woman’ and ‘the unaffected’ 

Image: Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

Numerous individuals spoke in our focus groups of being singled out by the state and its counter-terrorism measures for especial treatment because they were Muslim, with several arguing that such measures contribute directly to a climate of fear. In some cases, individuals referred to specific, personal experiences of counter-terrorism policies (stop and search, for example). In others, it was a broader sense of social dislocation and stigmatisation: what Blackwood et al. (2013) refer to as the ‘shadow of the collective experience’

The experience of riskiness was an outcome, for one participant, of the widespread view of Muslim communities as unknown and other to majority (ethnic, national and religious) groups in the UK. He argued that the “unexceptional” lives of many actual terrorists create additional policy challenges whereby because no specific Muslims are exceptionally suspicious, no Muslims can be fully trustworthy either:

Every terrorist that’s ever been, ever died blowing something up, the local community talk about how lovely and normal the guy was… our kids played together and all this kind of stuff, so then I think that’s going to instil a sense of paranoia in the community, because people will think, well… all these Muslims, they might seem fine, but tomorrow are they going to blow us up? (Birmingham, Asian, Male)

This discussion emerged in a debate about the extent to which “Muslims” are viewed as a homogenous bloc. This distinction between an “English” “them” and a “Muslim” “us” was contested by some of our participants (see Lister and Jarvis 2013). It was, however, widely shared, including amongst those who believed their “Britishness” now contested by others:

I've been here for 40 years. I wasn't born here but I was very small when I came here, and I’m still a foreigner, I’m still an alien … And I can't go back to Pakistan. Part of me is Pakistan [but] I've hardly got anything… to go back to… Nobody thinks of me as British. I’m a Paki middle-aged woman. That's how they see me, Paki. They don't know I've got a British passport and I've had it for such a long time, for 37, 38 years or something. That still does not make me British. (Oldham, Asian, Female).

This woman’s attachment to Britain had been eroded by a post-9/11 narrowing of access to British identity. For many of our participants, this environment’s contribution to the (re)production of particular subject positions directly influenced their own self-identification. Counter-terrorism practices, in our findings, add further complexity to this by inflecting certain categories with meaning (Muslim as “other” or threatening), which in turn shapes self-identifications (the extent to which individuals see themselves, and/or the extent to which they can attach themselves to different categories such as “British”).

This perception of targeting, however, was far from limited to Muslim individuals, with a number of participants in our research identifying as black expressing similar concerns. Frequently, such views were related to prior experiences of discrimination and particularly the “Sus” laws of the 1970s and 1980s. As one participant put it in relation to discriminatory policing: ‘when you select a few, and target a few, and then only use those laws because you think they're not from, shall I say indigenous people, and you use these laws on them… that’s the major problem for me’ (Swansea, Black, Male). Another, reviewing recent developments in this area, suggested:

Maybe if I were, if I weren’t black, I'd feel safer… but I feel that I’m the victim in this… But having at the back of my mind that I'm being watched, I'm being searched, I'm a target group, I'm not safe.’ (Swansea, Black, Female).

It is important to note that this experience of targeting was – again – far from universal amongst individuals identifying as members of minority ethnic communities. One Asian (non-Muslim) participant, for example, recounted being frequently stopped by border police when travelling for employment yet stated ‘if you’re a good citizen going about your day-to-day life, it doesn’t necessarily affect your day-to-day life’. This invocation of the figure of the “good citizen” signifies a far stronger attachment to a (British) citizenship than that of some of the participants above who believed themselves denied access to such a category. The participant above – a lawyer – may have benefited from a class-based ability to claim the labels of “good citizen” and “British” in a way unavailable to individuals living more (economically) precarious lives. This in turn, spotlights the complexity of ethnic labels such as “black” and “white”. What is important here, however, is the extent to which counterterrorism powers shape the extent to which individuals claim (or are able to claim), or reject (or are rejected from) specific identity markers, such as “black”, “white”, “Muslim”, and “British”.

In the some of the discussions there was a debate over the significance of particular identity markers (such as facial hair, headscarves or veils) in a counter-terrorism context. An important aspect of this is the impact of gender on expectations of stigmatisation and targeting. One mother, for instance, worried about her son, as ‘he’ll have a stubble and sometimes he lets it grow quite long… and you do worry up all night, thinking, when is he going to get home?’ (Birmingham, Asian, Female), suggesting that, for her, male identities were particularly at risk “of being [seen as] risky” (Heath-Kelly, 2013). Another female participant seemed to agree, suggesting she was less likely to be viewed with suspicion because, ‘as a woman I don’t have a lot more pressures than my [male] colleague’ (London, Asian, Female). In other discussions, however, performances of gendered identities by (some) women, especially with regard to religious dress were seen to increase one’s risk of suspicion from other citizens or the state. As one female put it: ‘With the burqa, I stand out and I’m conspicuous… And you get the looks and the sly nudges and the comments behind your back’ (Oldham, Asian, Female). Thus, there may be a distinction here between those risks of social stigma to which women may feel more vulnerable because of, for instance, the veil and, on the other hand, being targeted by official security processes (which may disproportionately affect men). Discussions around gender such as the above also took place within focus groups of individuals not identifying as Muslim. These reinforce the importance of recognising intersectionalities between ethnic, gendered and other subject positions in the context of counter-terrorism powers.

In our research we also spoke with a number of individuals who felt that their identity and lifestyle rendered them distant from, and unaffected by, the workings of counter-terrorism powers. As we have already seen, for some participants, variously being female, a “good citizen”, or of higher socio-economic class could reduce concerns about such powers. Beyond these, a number of white individuals in particular saw themselves as beyond the interest of those responsible for countering terrorism. A sense was articulated that counter-terrorism is ‘happening on a level that never touches us’ (Oldham, White, Male) and this, in some instances, further buttressed by a nonchalance toward the threat of terrorism. As one participant put it: ‘They say terrorism is the big threat, but you’ve got to think where that would be in Britain. It wouldn’t be in Swansea, it wouldn’t be where I live anyway’ (Swansea, White, Male). This distance can thus function in at least two ways. The first is to generate support for extensive counter-terrorism powers – if you are unlikely to experience such powers, one may feel more inclined to support them. The second, as with the respondent from Swansea, leads instead to a critical questioning, whereby feeling unthreatened by terrorism might lead to a questioning of the necessity of counter-terrorism powers.

This article has assessed the relationship between identity claims and subject positions, and attitudes toward counter-terrorism powers within the UK. The article illustrates what appears to be a co-constitutive relationship between identity and counter-terrorism powers. Thus, on the one hand, how people make sense of their own sense of self (and the identity of others) impacts upon how counter-terrorism powers are understood and evaluated (as necessary, discriminatory, acceptable and so forth). At the same time, (understandings of) counter-terrorism powers appear to create specific identity positions (‘the unaffected’ or ‘the target’), which are subsequently negotiated and inhabited by individuals. Such subject positions variously draw upon or resist traditional identity categories (relating to ethnicity and gender, in particular), while other types of (class, sexual, cultural, and other) identity less-explored in our discussion no doubt also play into these dynamics in complex ways. Finally, our research also suggests that if creating a more cohesive society is considered a goal of counter-terrorism – if, as David Cameron (2011) suggested, the creation and sustaining of very different lived, social experiences is a barrier to security – then counter-terrorism powers, as experienced by many of our respondents, may complicate such cohesion.

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