counter-extremism 🤝 catastrophe: an interview with arun kundnani (part 1)
"'Inherent to the idea of CVE and Prevent is that governments have the capacity to make...predictions about the future trajectories individuals or even whole communities are going down.'"
Breaking the Spell of the Official Terrorism Narrative, Arun Kundnani and Jeanne Theoharis — “In the early years of the war on terror, suspects had been rendered to oppressive regimes where they could be subjected to abuses not permissible in Europe or the US. Now, the US was playing the role of the oppressive regime, where British citizens could be disappeared to.”
A Body of Work That Cannot Be Ignored, J. Khadijah Abdurahman — “Dismantling racial capitalism and displacing the carceral systems on which it relies requires an understanding of how technology produces ‘new modes of state surveillance and control,’ Dorothy Roberts argues.”
The Interminable Catastrophe, Bedour Alagraa — “…modern-day ecological emergencies in societies haunted by plantocratic social relations gesture towards a need to understand catastrophe as both a semiolinguistic imposition and a repeating structure tied to the inauguration of racial slavery and plantation modes of production.”
earlier this month, NAZAR published testimonials from Fatema Ahmad, the executive director of Boston’s Muslim Justice League, and Azfar Shafi, a researcher at CAGE. the idea came from my revisiting NAZAR’s coverage. after a nearly year-long hiatus, i only wanted to take up NAZAR again if both the project and myself as a journalist grew — rather than return to something that was wavering.
these thoughts were happening during my step back from social media. i say this because online, growth is odd. disagree with what you said a year or two ago? then you’re a liar and illegitimate. in online spaces (not that offline is much better but it hits different), i had to be “on” and perform constantly. as a Black Muslim woman in journalism, with no degree to offer “credibility” through white institutions, it felt like i always had to be an expert.
but offline i’m not on display. i can do whatever i want.
i thought about how branching out of my journalistic comfort zone would be integral to NAZAR moving forward. born, raised, and still living in the united states, surveillance here is what i’m most familiar with. i’m aware of surveillance and counter-extremism elsewhere but i didn’t often cover it. why? it felt like it wasn’t my place. like i didn’t know enough. that’s an excuse, isn’t it?
not to say i’m an “expert” or want to raise myself above all others. but growing requires de-positioning the United States as the center of my counter-extremism and surveillance analysis / coverage. as i put it in my earlier newsletter: “[counter-extremism] is the underlying pulse of the World, yes, but that pulse is expressed differently across borders.”
NAZAR’s last edition was meant to include three testimonials. when i hopped on a call with Arun Kundnani, author of The Muslims Are Coming!, i realized his interview needed to stand alone. actually, it’s two-parts, and this first one takes us through the underlying assumptions driving counter-extremism globally. but i’m especially thrilled to have pulled Kundnani’s interview out separately because it compliments some of my own outside reading pursuits.
lately, i’ve been sitting with catastrophe in relation to surveillance and counter-extremism. in Logic, J. Khadijah Abdurahman wrote, “Black study would have us trouble this notion of catastrophe as a singular event or a state of exception.” in other words, “we find ourselves in what scholar Bedour Alagraa calls ‘the changing same’…still in 1492, circling the drain of the ongoing catastrophe initiated by white contact with the ‘new world.’”
this notion isn’t totally new to me. i’ve talked about surveillance within that sort of framing before. still, i’m thinking about Alagraa in “The Interminable Catastrophe” calling for catastrophe to be taken up “not as Event, but as a political category or concept that offers an analytic for the manner in which people structure their political and social lives.”
i can’t write it all out, yet, but it is giving me pegs to tether what has been floating around and getting jumbled up in my head. before i let y’all go with this interview, i want to quote an excerpt from The Interminable Catastrophe:
Essentially, certain forms of human life are proscribed as harbingers of calamity and are therefore antagonistic to the future of the earth itself. The logics of ‘rule’ and governmentality are then offered as the antidote to the perpetual threat of calamity (as theorized by Cuvier, Darwin, and Malthus), and consists of a host of legal, normative, and discursive impositions on land and peoples, defined by both a ‘low hum’ and explosions of violence.
for me, this interview becomes richer when thinking counter-extremism 🤝 catastrophe. as you read, i hope you keep in mind this line: “the logics of ‘rule’ and governmentality are then offered as the antidote to the perpetual threat of calamity”.
When you're looking at the United States' Countering Violent Extremism and the United Kingdom's Prevent, what similarities do you see between the two programs?
The similarities are [in] the assumptions that shaped the two policy programs. Both programs assume that the problem of political violent extremism — which is never really precisely defined, I prefer to talk about political violence — is a consequence of particular kinds of radical ideology. Historically, at least, the main radical ideology that has been focused on is officially defined as "Islamism" [in Britain] and, in the United States, some people talk about "radical Islam" or some other term like that. Which again, are very hard to define — or often not defined.
Then the second assumption is: Because the consequences of acts of political violence can be so devastating it's not enough to [treat] them as criminal investigations. It's not enough to have any kind of investigative approach where you try and identify individuals who are involved in plotting, financing, or inciting acts of physical violence. What you need is something that gets, as they would put it, into the "pre-criminal space".
They're talking about how on the one hand you're going to investigate and prosecute in the criminal space where someone might be involved in crimes. Prevent and CVE [operate in] what's called the pre-criminal space based on the assumption that there's ways to know that someone is going to be a criminal in the future and commit acts of physical violence — but they're not doing that right now. Inherent to the idea of CVE and Prevent is that governments have the capacity to make these kinds of predictions about the future trajectories individuals or even whole communities are going down.
The basis of that claim is the claim that ideology is the driver of physical violence. It's very hard to identify people who are plotting acts of violence. But it's much easier to identify people who are expressing certain ideologies. If you think that the expression of an ideology is an indicator [of] a future terrorist than [it opens up] the possibility of policy interventions into those people's lives — that's what CVE does.
You want to say that expressing an ideology in the UK and the U.S. is something that you have the civil right to do that. In the U.S., that would be [protected by] the First Amendment. That isn't actually true in the context of counterterrorism policy because there's all kinds of people in prison right now for nothing else than expressing an ideology. What CVE does is enables you to deal with the cases of people who are expressing an ideology that can't be prosecuted criminally because they're not fully into that category of ideology that can be prosecuted. In the U.S., that would be things like material support — [like] if you translate texts that the government considers to be terrorist literature. They're the people you can prosecute. They're doing material support for terrorism by contributing a translation. That would have been considered a First Amendment protected activity until the last few decades.
There's a lot of cases of people who are expressing an ideology but they don't meet that threshold where —even in today's circumstances — [you can] prosecute them. That's where CVE comes in. It says, "Well, we're not going to prosecute these people who are displaying these 'indicators' that they're going to be future terrorists but we're gonna have other kinds of intervention." What that might mean is gathering lots of information about that person's life. It might mean some kind of intervention that’s about mentoring, trying to intervene in that person's life to change their ideology in all kinds of ways. From there, other possible interventions open up both towards the individuals and targeting communities as a whole. [Because] it's not that we're going to identify one individual who's saying these indicators that they're on this pathway of being radicalized to become a terrorist but the community. So intervention needs to be down to that level.
All of what I just described are common assumptions across the Atlantic. In fact, this is the world over. It's not just the U.S. and the UK. The United Nations has said every country in the world needs to have some kind of CVE. The European Union says that every European country needs to have some kind of CVE. All these political parties around the world share this basic assumption. The British policy has been the most intense and the model for everyone else internationally — although the British themselves were influenced by the Dutch who started it one or two years earlier.
The key difference between the United States and the UK relate to the two key differences between the way Britain and the U.S. are socially [and] politically organized. In the United States there's a different way of thinking about the separation of the church and state. There is a much more cautious, I would say, approach in the United States. The United States is a more religious society. It's much more opposed to government intervening into religious life. That's an area that has a tougher set of legal norms around when that's considered appropriate.
When [the U.S.] introduced CVE, this was the Obama administration around 2010. At that time, there were all kinds of officials from the Obama administration traveling to England, turning up in the neighborhoods where Prevent had been working. They'd be taken around by British officials who wanted to celebrate what they were doing, show how good it was, and persuade the Americans to do it as well. One of the things that the American officials were saying at the time was, "We can't bring Prevent to the United States."
“In the U.S., [CVE] is less direct in the way that it responds to a particular interpretation of Islam. But in little ways, it still ends up doing that.”
Prevent in Britain is about saying, "We're going to give this mosque a lot of money and not this other one." We're going to give this imam a lot of money and not this one because this mosque and this imam are promoting the idea of British Islam — the 'moderate' version of Islam that we want to support. Whereas the other one we consider to be promoting this version of extremist Islam that we don't want to support. So we're going to use government money, public money, to promote a particular interpretation of Islam over another.
You can do that in Britain without it being considered a violation of any kind of church- state separation laws because we don't have them. In the U.S., you'd run into some problems around that. So in the U.S., [CVE] is less direct in the way that it responds to a particular interpretation of Islam. But in little ways, it still ends up doing that. The other key difference is in Britain you've got a much more centralized and elaborate public sector. It enables Prevent to do things that are harder to do in the United States.
In Britain, every single public sector worker is required to be part of the Prevent program. Every single teacher, doctor, university lecturer, person working in mental health, youth workers, housing departments, public authorities...It's a very long list of different areas of public life. What that means is all of those individuals — which is millions of people who are employed in these fields — are expected to be part of Prevent. They're likely to get training in what would be described as spotting the signs of radicalization.
That's possible because in Britain, politicians, Westminster, and the central government can pass legislation and impose that across the country. That's how government works in Britain. It's much more centralized in that way, especially around public services. In the United States, it's not the case. The Obama White House — which was the most enthusiastic for something like CVE — even if they wanted to, couldn't create a policy where every school teacher in the United States was doing this kind of CVE surveillance. It's just not possible because policy doesn't work like that in the U.S.
You mentioned that the UK was influenced by the Dutch when it was developing Prevent. I was wondering if you could talk in more detail about that?
You go back to that first couple of years after 9/11. What's happening is there's a disagreement between the United States and Europe over how to deal with what they consider to be the problem [of] terrorists. [With the] United States, this is George W. Bush in the White House and the advisors are neoconservatives. What they're saying is, "What we're dealing with is this organization called al-Qaeda and rogue states like Iraq. We need to use military force." It's a problem that, for them, is centered on: How do we use our military capabilities to bring about the defeat of al-Qaeda — as understood to be one particular organization. And how do we get about the regime change in Iraq? Which is what they do with the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In Europe, intelligence agencies are taking a different view right from 9/11. They're saying the problem is not al-Qaeda. The problem is broader ideology in Muslim communities around the world. They're talking about this problem of ideology and the concepts of radicalization before anyone in the United States is. This is when a new term comes about. Radicalization — which comes from the Dutch. They say that the problem we're up against in Holland is we have a Muslim community that is alienated and young people are susceptible to being recruited — not to a particular organization but to this broader ideology. That ideology then leads them to potentially become terrorists.
From their point of view, it's not enough to deal with al-Qaeda as an organization because if you do that there's still the problem of the ideology. There's still the problem that people can be radicalized through that ideology to commit acts of terrorism. Remember that part of what they're thinking of here is that the 9/11 people spent some time in Germany. So from their point of view, this is a European problem as well.
By the time you get to 2004, the US strategy clearly isn't working. Because al-Qaeda has only grown in its recruitment and ability to conduct acts of violence. Saddam has been overthrown but, clearly, the Iraqi people are launching an uprising against the US occupation. They don't want the U.S. there and so that's giving al-Qaeda opportunities in Iraq itself which wasn't even true before 2003. The whole thing is looking counterproductive and there needs to be some kind of reset and some kind of new strategy.
So what happens in 2004 is that the US [officials] suddenly say, "Well, you know what? These Europeans have a point. We've been focusing too much on military solutions and defeating particular organizations and governments rather than thinking about this broader problem of ideology and radicalization." The US thought to do the same. Then a key moment happens in Holland in 2004. You have the murder of the filmmaker Teddy van Gough by a Dutch Muslim.
Before that event might have been interpreted as, okay, this is just another murder. Another criminal incident, you know, the person is to be investigated, prosecuted, through the courts. In the context of all this discussion about radicalization, that murder becomes the anchor around which policies are developed in Holland that are really the first iteration of what will later become Prevent.