Hearts and minds in the domestic 'war on terror'
By Jon Burnett, 18 October 2005
While anti-terrorist legislation has been widely debated, less attention has been given to the governments attempts to win the hearts and minds of Muslim citizens, through the promotion of moderate versions of Islam and the imposition of core values.
New Labours anti-terrorism strategy continues to take shape, consolidating a number of processes that were already well underway before 7/7: increased stop and search and surveillance of Muslim citizens, the blanket stigmatisation of those seeking asylum, police shoot-to-kill tactics and control orders imposed on terrorist suspects. Derogation from the European Convention on Human Rights and an ever expanding arsenal of anti-terrorist legislation means that the shadow of Paddington Green police station, where terrorist suspects are routinely held, looms large over many peoples lives. On more than one occasion, ministers have told Muslim citizens that they should expect to be monitored closely and a new Terrorism Bill proposes the introduction of a widely drawn offence of glorifying terrorism, or affiliation to organisations thought to do this. It is, apparently, a reasonable price to pay for security.
These forms of coercion are all now familiar features of the war on terror. Yet there is a central facet of the UKs counter-terrorism strategy which underpins these coercive practices and is gathering speed with much less critical discussion: propaganda. The enemy within which carried out the terrorist attacks in London this summer is, according to ministers, dedicated to the destruction of our values, our way of life and the core of Western democracy. Thus, at the core of New Labours anti-terrorist strategy is an ideological battle, aimed at winning the hearts and minds of Muslim citizens.
This battle was already in place before the July 2005 attacks. Its centrepiece is Operation Contest, which has been overseen by Tony Blair since 2004. Its foundations were put in place following the formal occupation of Iraq and included proposals to recruit young Muslim ambassadors to promote particular perceptions of Britain, financially support moderate Islamic media outlets, arrange seminars in which to reach disaffected young Muslims, and vet foreign imams.
A recently leaked letter, entitled Hearts and Minds of Muslims, from the Head of the Defence and Intelligence arm of the Foreign Office to the governments security and intelligence co-ordinator Sir David Omand, revealed plans to instigate a campaign of black propaganda. Spies would be tasked to infiltrate Islamic websites posing as radical Muslims, draw out extremists, and then somehow dissuade them from attacking the nation. This would be achieved by bolstering moderate, Western-oriented currents of thought in Islam. Given that only individuals with impeccable Muslim credentials were deemed able to carry out the deception, the proposals were considered problematic due to a shortage of Islamic experts working for the government that are able to undertake the operation. Moreover, there were thought to be potential risks of the strategy backfiring through links back to the UK or US becoming exposed. Nevertheless, the core motivation behind the plans was seen as valid.
Strategies to battle for the hearts and minds of citizens are underpinned by a perception that a number of disaffected Muslims are being drawn into terrorist activity. The governments own estimates are unclear, yet there is a consensus that the number of such people are in the thousands. But while ideological battle is being joined, the context of such a contest is simply ignored. Tony Blair has firmly reasserted that there is no political cause of global terrorism; it is simply evil. Foreign policy is irrelevant, as is domestic policy, as is, in fact, politics in general. Consequently, strategies to win hearts and minds almost completely airbrush such considerations out of the picture. And where the political context is recognised, it is to the extent that disaffected citizens can be convinced of the fundamental good of a politics of anti-terrorism.
In a context where a vigorous debate regarding the purposes and motivations of anti-terrorism policy is desperately necessary, the result of the current hearts and minds strategy is precisely the opposite. Promoting Islam-friendly images of Britain does little. Rather than changing or altering the increasingly divisive effects of the war on terror, it merely seeks to package these effects in a presentable manner. Furthermore, while there is a coordinated attempt to win the hearts and minds of Muslim citizens, these same citizens are also increasingly called on to win the hearts and minds of the rest of the population. Following the London bombings, in particular, Muslim citizens have been prompted again and again to prove their allegiance to the state and demonstrate their loyalty. All of this calls into question the actual likelihood of winning the hearts and minds of those now cast as Britains suspect community.
The result is cultural authoritarianism, with an imposition of core values assumed to be the answer to all problems: diversity is acceptable when it is wrapped in a Union Jack. Where shared values are lacking, this is taken to be due to the absence of a strong national identity. Community cohesion thus becomes community coercion. Consequently, Muslim citizens are presented with a choice of false distinctions, echoing President Bushs bold assertion that you are either with us or with the terrorists. A core facet of Operation Contest refers to persuading young Muslims that they can be Muslim and British. It appears that it is New Labour which needs persuading. Either way, attempting to win the hearts and minds of increasingly stigmatised communities, while simultaneously expecting this to be reciprocated through an increasingly devout fervour of patriotism, makes for a perverse anti-terrorism strategy.