Chill of Muslim speech in the UK

UK journalist Medhi Hassan published an article in The Guardian last fall that discusses the effect of counter-terrorism discourse & pervasive government surveillance on the public life of Muslims in England.

From his personal discussions, he finds that surveillance and constant discussion of radical Muslims in the UK has led to Muslims remaining silent rather than become a target of accusations of extremism or terrorism.  It has pushed UK Muslims away from political activity, particularly in regard to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, lest it put them at risk of public or criminal investigations.

“Western Muslims have been seen exclusively through the prism of counter-terrorism. Sensitive issues of integration and community cohesion have become entangled in the securitised discourse of the war on terror. Here in the UK, the effect has been a chilling of speech inside Muslim communities. I have lost count of the number of British Muslim students, activists and imams who have told me of their fear of being labelled as extremists or terrorists if they dare take an unconventional, unorthodox or radical position on a political or religious issue. It is ironic, if depressing, that a doubling of the number of Muslim MPs in parliament and the appointment of a Muslim woman to the cabinet has been matched by a narrowing of the range of opinions and views expressed by ordinary British Muslims in public.

For example, many Muslims have melted away from the antiwar movement, which they collaborated in creating. There is a growing belief that dissent by politically active Muslims has not just been stigmatised, but criminalised. From new laws cracking down on the so-called “glorification of terrorism”, to the excessive sentences handed out to British Muslim teenagers protesting against Israel’s Gaza war, to the use by counter-terrorism police of 150 surveillance cameras in just two Muslim areas of Birmingham, the past decade has seen ordinary Muslims disproportionately targeted by the authorities. A damning report by the Institute of Race Relations in 2009 described the last government’s prevent counter-extremism strategy as “an elaborate structure of surveillance, mapping, engagement and propaganda. Prevent has become, in effect, the government’s ‘Islam policy’.”

Meanwhile, the media’s coverage of British Muslims has been particularly pernicious. In 2008, a Cardiff University study of 1,000 newspaper articles revealed that references to radical Muslims outnumbered references to moderates by 17 to one. The most common nouns used in relation to British Muslims were terrorist, extremist, militant and Islamist.”