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Arun Kundnani’s The Muslims are Coming! lays bare the racist victimisation visited upon Muslims in the UK and the US as a result of state policies on terrorism, finds Elaine Graham-Leigh


Arun Kundnani, The Muslims are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism and the Domestic War on Terror, (Verso 2014), 327pp.

In April 2014, the Met police appealed to Muslim women to prevent their sons from going to fight in Syria, and to report any ‘concerns’ they might have to their friendly neighbourhood counter-terrorist bobby. The appeal came only days after the death of a young British man, Abdullah Deghayes, in Syria, but it was clearly not concern for young people’s safety that moved the police. The issue was rather that young men trained to fight in Syria could be a security risk when they came back home to the UK. You might think that the risk of having trained killers on our streets is one with which we live daily, since there are more than 160,000 British army members stationed here, and a far larger number of ex-soldiers, but fighters returning from Syria pose apparently a special risk, as they might have been ‘radicalised’ by their experiences.

This notion of radicalisation as a danger to which any Muslim in this country is exposed, which is specific to the Muslim community, and which is a necessary pathway to terrorism, is at the heart of the counter-terrorism agenda both in the UK and the US. It underlies the many denials of civil liberties to which Muslims in both countries are subjected and is, as Kundnani shows, not only racist but precisely the wrong way to deal with a real threat of terrorism.

The abuses perpetrated by anti-terrorist police on both sides of the Atlantic are unfortunately legion, and Kundnani is not short of examples. These include the case of Iman Luqman Abdullah, a radical black preacher in Detroit who was targeted by the FBI as a Muslim extremist along the lines of Malcolm X. The FBI did not have any evidence against Iman Luqman so they spent two years infiltrating the mosque and trying to get some of the poor, unemployed congregants to get involved in fencing stolen goods. Finally they got a warrant against the Iman on a charge of conspiracy to sell stolen goods, lured him to a warehouse where the goods were being held and shot him dead. An investigation by the Department of Justice declared this a lawful killing, but as Kundnani says, ‘there is little doubt that if the government had chosen not to … entrap him in a criminal conspiracy of its own invention, he would still be alive’ (p.5).

Iman Luqman was never charged with a terrorist offence, but it is clear that supposed terrorist plots themselves can, like his involvement in stolen goods, owe more to the imagination of FBI agents than to reality. Take for example the case of Farooque Ahmed, who was arrested in 2010 for planning to bomb stations on the Washington DC Metro. All well and good, you may think, except that Farooque’s plan had been to travel to Afghanistan; the bomb idea had come from an FBI agent provocateur.

Examples like this raise important questions about the extent to which the threat of terrorism is a creation of counter-terrorism. In the wake of Farooque Ahmed’s arrest, security on the DC Metro was stepped up, as officials argued that now that the FBI had raised the idea of bombing it, others might try to follow their example. The effects of the war on terror however go far beyond those directly implicated in terrorist activity by the security services.

As Kundnani shows, the counter-extremism approach involves the entire Muslim community, rather along the lines of Martin Amis’ infamous comment in 2006 that: ‘There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say “The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order”’ (p.112). By casting terrorism as a problem of the Muslim community generally, encompassing people from many different countries and cultures, the conclusion inevitably becomes that terrorism is therefore an issue inherent to Islam itself. In this view of the world, there is something within Islam which makes its adherents likely to commit terrorist acts. It is however a continuum, with some safe, acceptable versions of Islam (Sufism) existing alongside the dangerous, radical ones (Salafism). The problem is that any Muslim can be in danger of ‘radicalisation’; of moving from the safe to the dangerous versions of their faith.

The obvious questions arising from this understanding for law enforcement are ‘what radicalises people?’ and ‘how can we tell when someone is radicalised?’ There are a number of answers to the second question, including a study published by the NYPD in 2007 which identified four stages of radicalisation, from ‘unremarkable’, through exposure to ‘jihadi-Salafi Islam’, and indoctrination to jihadism (p.134). That the signs of the second stage include wearing Muslim clothing and growing a beard suggests that the thinking behind this is a feeling that if being Muslim at all is problematic, becoming more obviously Muslim is clearly a danger signal. The stages are a conveyor-belt, a ‘funnel’ in the NYPD’s terminology, where growing a beard leads you inexorably on to planting bombs on the subway unless law enforcement steps in.

The question of how someone gets onto this conveyor belt in the first place should be an easy one to answer. The perpetrators of terrorist acts have not been exactly silent about their reasons for doing so, Lee Rigby’s killers being an obvious example. The reasons they give are political: the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, the ongoing mistreatment of the Palestinians. Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical preacher who was regarded as one of the major terrorist threats to the UK and US until the US killed him in a drone strike in 2011, even put an account of his radicalisation on YouTube:

‘I for one was born in the US. I lived in the US for twenty-one years. America was my home. I was a preacher of Islam involved in nonviolent Islamic activism. However, with the American invasion and continued US aggression against Muslims, I could not reconcile between living in the US and being a Muslim. And I eventually came to the conclusion that jihad against America is binding upon myself just as it is binding on every other able Muslim’ (p.147).

According to the now-numerous counter-radicalisation experts, however, the real roots of terrorism are not political but cultural and theological. Since the vast majority of Muslims disagree with American foreign policy, the argument goes, it is not credible that only five or ten percent of them would be prepared, when asked in surveys, to express approval for violent acts against Western civilians. (Given the behaviour of Western security services towards Muslims, it could on the contrary be argued that ‘five or ten percent’ is remarkably high). This gap between political discontent and terrorism must be accounted for by some other, primary, factor, which sets the terrorists apart from everyone else with the same political views, and that other factor must be Salafi-jihadism. As Lars Berger summed up the argument in a review of Kundnani’s book in the Times Higher Education Supplement, ‘it is not perceptions of US foreign policies … that shape approval of terrorist violence against US civilians, but the rejection of US culture and some of its most prominent manifestations, such as freedom of expression.’[1]

This understanding of terrorism as a problem arising from religion rather than from political beliefs means that counter-terrorism includes governments taking a position on how people should practice Islam. The British government’s official recognition of ‘moderate’ Islam, in contrast to ‘extremists’ has also been taken up in the US, with government representatives there ‘coming close to speaking of a “true” meaning of Islam that should be officially recognised as the acceptable way to be a Muslim in America’ (p.84), and lecturing Muslim students on the real meaning of jihad. That these governments are intervening in religious issues in opposition to an enemy who supposedly wants to introduce theocracy, with no separation of state and religion, is apparently an irony which has escaped them.

It also means intensive surveillance of Muslims. In the UK, the government in 2006 launched the Preventing Violent Extremism programme (Prevent), aimed at catching and changing Muslims who were not committing crimes but who were considered at risk of radicalisation. It has clear civil liberties implications. Under Prevent, teachers, youth workers and so on are supposed to report young people for crimes like handing out Hizb ut-Tahrir leaflets in response to leafleting by the BNP, or expressing ‘strong views’ on Palestine. Despite the official position that radicalisation is a theological not a political phenomenon, Prevent interventions often end up targeting political ideas: Kundnani cites a case where a youth worker was assigned to mentor a young person identified as being risk ‘in a bid to change his views about the war in Afghanistan’ (p.179).

Kundnani points out that under Prevent, ‘British Muslims became, in the imagination of counterterrorism officials, not citizens to whom the state was accountable but potential recruits to a global insurgency’ (p.163).[2] As such, views which would be perfectly legal for non-Muslims become problematic and evidence of potential criminality when held by Muslims. When Jameel Scott, a seventeen-year old SWP member, demonstrated against the Israeli ambassador at Manchester University in 2010, he became the target of a two-year Prevent intervention which included police talking to his parents, other relatives and his school, banning him from demonstrations and preventing him from going on a school trip to the Conservative Party conference. Jameel was not, of course, the only person on the demo, but white SWP members do not usually have counter-terrorist police warning their parents that they are getting in with a bad crowd. Jameel’s political trajectory was only seen as worthy of law-enforcement intervention because his father is Muslim.

The effect of policing the political opinions of the Muslim community, whether in the US or the UK, is of course to deter members of the community from expressing themselves. As a young Somali-American from Minnesota told Kundnani, ‘“You see all these people that are locked up without just cause, without due process. And then you start getting worried. It could be you, just because you spoke out. And to be honest, most of us feel that we don’t have that so-called freedom of speech”’ (p.231). This gives the lie to the idea that the war on terror is about ‘defending freedom’ when it proceeds by denying basic civil rights to so many people. It also exposes how as a counter-terrorism strategy it makes more likely the terrorism it is supposed to prevent.

Radicalisation theory may regard going on anti-fascist demos as, for Muslims, a stepping stone on the path to planting bombs, but this is to misunderstand the relationship of mass protest and terrorism. As Kundnani points out, Trotsky said that the ‘very fact of individual acts of terror is an infallible token of the political backwardness of a country and the feebleness of the progressive forces there’ (p.289). In other words, the lack of other meaningful ways in which to express political dissent and to fight for change creates the circumstances in which a few people may come to feel that the propaganda of the violent deed is the only way forward.

Thus, in the Minnesota Somali community, support for al-Shabaab has grown as the policing of people’s political views meant that ‘the possibility of generating a radical politics that could provide a genuine alternative … was closed off’ (p.231). In Boston, Tamerlan Tsarnev, who would go on to bomb the Boston marathon, was thrown out of a mosque for heckling the imam as a sell-out, but ‘because discussions of foreign policy have been off-limits in mosques since 9-11 [he and his brother] were unlikely to have had their anger acknowledged, engaged, challenged or channelled into non-violent political activism’ (p.288).

According to the youth workers Kundnani talked to about the Prevent programme, the young people they work with tend to have ‘“a totally uncritical way of looking at the world” that is apolitical, conspiratorial and narrowly identitarian’, full of conspiracies about Tupac or the Illuminati, ‘built on the understanding that nothing about the fundamental socio-economic constellation can actually change, that no one ever talks about class, no one ever talks about capitalism, no one ever talks about working-class access to the world and the good things in life’ (pp.285-6). Treating Muslim political activism as criminal does not avoid ‘radicalisation’, nor does it remove what one youth worker called ‘people’s revulsion at the existing state of things’, it simply means that they have no avenue through which to express it and work with others to change it.

Kundnani shows clearly how terrorism is a problem of the war on terror, and how the violence of the neo-liberal state cannot be removed from discussions of the violence perpetrated by a small number of individuals. The question which he raises but does not explicitly answer is whether for the US and UK governments that small number of terrorists is a price worth paying for a subdued, inactive Muslim community. After all, as he points out, ‘the real fear that lies behind US Islamophobia is not the Muslim fanatic but the possibility that this new generation of American Muslims might express itself politically’ (p.275). This book is a reminder of the continuing importance of fighting Islamophobia on the streets and resisting its dissemination from the government. It also underlines the centrality of the war on terror to the current political climate, to the legitimacy of the social order and so to the whole range of struggles that we face.


[1] Lars Berger, Times Higher Education Supplement, 27 March, 2014, p.55.

[2] For more on Prevent, see http://www.counterfire.org/index.php/articles/41-interview/4361-spooked-how-not-to-prevent-violent-extremism.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and her latest book, Marx and the Climate Crisis is out now. 


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