The Muslim, State & Mind: A manifestation of state-sponsored violence
There is a disbelief that runs through the pages of Tarek Younis’ The Muslim, State and Mind.
As you read and engage with each page, you have to try and remind yourself that the discipline he is writing about is not policing, but rather psychology.
Much is made of the need for mental health support within public discussions (particularly post-pandemic) and yet this work reminds you that ‘support’ is conditional.
Tarek shows us, through his wide understanding of history, through his intimate knowledge of the psy-disciplines, and through his working with communities, that where therapeutic approaches are needed, Muslims can instead be subject to violence.
From the outset though, Tarek is not interested in the ways that Muslims experience Islamophobia, as much as he is in a more pressing question, “what does Muslim distress reveal about psychology and the Global North?”
This reframing of the central question sits at the heart of everything that Tarek intends his readers to take away from his work – what can we learn from the ways society has organised itself from considering the pain that Muslims feel in their everyday lives?
This reframing is in itself revolutionary, for it forces your mind to think of the structural issues Muslims are forced to contend with on a daily basis, as opposed to thinking of their pain as individual moments of difficulty.
"Critical race theorists remind us that the issue of White supremacy is not about white people, but the structures – liberal/capitalist/nationalist – which privilege whiteness. Similarly, the marginalisation of Muslims, and their experiences therein, are a by-product of many conditions endemic to the West itself – economic uncertainty, decentring in globalisation, etc"
There are few experiences that Muslims have that exist outside of the ‘political’ – everything carries meaning in their lives because they live in the very societies in which they experience their disenfranchisement, “the political is infused organically in all things, including the fabric of psychology and psychiatry.”
Tarek spends a great deal of time setting the scene for understanding the importance of politics, but it serves an ultimate purpose, which is to remind us that psychology cannot claim to be apolitical – that it is somehow immune to what is taking in wider society, but more than that, “this division is not only artificial, it is also political.”
To understand where Muslims find themselves situated in countries such as the United Kingdom, Tarek sets out the dominant ideology that they are forced to contend with: nationalism. The perennial question, “where are you really from?” has served as a consistent reminder for people of colour, that tied to the nation’s idea of itself, is the notion that the nation is supposed to be White.
Thus, regardless of the generations that Muslims have now been present in the UK, they must hold a constant vigil to proclaim their equal citizenship – it’s a never-ending process of proving they belong.
So it is, that in this environment, Muslims are regularly pathologised and psychologised in relation to the nation’s own founding and continued myths – if Muslims step outside of a narrative that has been predetermined for them, it indicates sedition – and thus danger”
"If it can be said Muslims should not express anger in general, this is especially true if directed towards the State. Discontent and protest are precisely what counter-extremism strategies hope to capture. Should a Muslim be stricken by “extremism”, rehabilitation is questionable. The signs of extremism are considered encoded within the very symbols of Islam, which must be handled with moderation and with careful attention to secular sensibilities. Instead, the only solution for “extremists” is to engage in the never-ending performance of State solidarity, performing one’s allegiances continuously and without interruption, while managing one’s religious practices and convictions accordingly"
As Tarek highlights, anger and moral outrage are psychologised based on larger political narratives.
So, expressing a desire to defend those losing their lives in Syria is signalled as a sign of extremism, while other citizens (suicide bombers among them) are lauded for travelling to Ukraine to defend against Russia. Not that Tarek is encouraging young Muslim men and women to travel to war zones, but the double standards inform us of the causes that are considered righteous, and the ones that are not.
For Tarek, this is not a recent phenomenon, but rather one that is rooted in colonial formations of psychology. In this regard, Frantz Fanon is cited as a young man who volunteered to militarily fight on a number of occasions, including against the Nazis as a young man, but who:
"Employed the psychological to diagnose the socio-political. He understood that the psychological is better clarified through the political forces of domination and violence. This is how Fanon’s approach is best described as sociogenic"
Yet, when the state owns framing of politics through a nationalist lens, its own relationship with its citizenry becomes about those who acquiesce to its every thought, and those who seditiously choose to think of alternative politics.
Tarek reminds us of the 1977 case of Rozhdestvov in the former Soviet Union, who was admitted into a psychiatric ward because his political thinking was not aligned with the Soviet State.
While such cases might be in a different context, they are not so far from the current counter-extremism regime that exists in the UK, where according to the National Prevent Coordinator Nik Adams, the interventions that are made by the state with regard to accusations of ‘extremism’ are the “clinicalisation of preventative counter-terrorism work.”
Because we know that the Prevent programme is ostensibly about stopping individuals from forming anti-British attitudes, the clinicalisation relates most directly to the views they hold, as opposed to any acts they might be engaged in.
What is ascribed to be a set of political beliefs that run contrary to British values – and thus markers of ‘extremism’ are inscribed entirely by the state and its accompanying institutions. It is not just an individual psychologist who determines to her patient Layla, that part of her treatment would be to remove her niqab – her face veil. The psychologist has internalised and reproduced what she feels the state has informed her as being necessary to treat a Muslim woman who covers her face out of a religious sense of duty to God:
"We notice a distinct pattern: the logics of Islamophobia belong to public consciousness. In other words, the distinctive attitudes which sees Muslims as external to the West are embedded within all mental health settings. Given Islamophobia is encoded in common sense, attitudes such as the therapist’s are customary. Layla may have been shocked by the Islamophobia of the therapist, but her therapist is not immune from a society which has long vilified the figure of the ‘Muslim’. In other words, the therapist was like this before Layla entered the room"
The fear of Muslims means that almost any part of their lives and beliefs can be pathologised and psychologised as potentially dangerous. Tarek writes of Khalid, who had been arrested and detained by the British authorities but ultimately found to be innocent of any terrorism.
Despite being innocent, the authorities required a risk assessment be carried out of his pre-criminal potential for violence based on the Extremism Risk Guidance (ERG) 22+ - a tool used by probation officers and Prevent officials to determine whether someone was at risk of ‘radicalisation’ in the future.
Khalid did not exhibit worrying signs based on the 22 factors that were explicitly mentioned, but the probation officer recorded that she was worried about Khalid’s altruism – that he had the desire to help others – and thus this placed him at risk of radicalisation. He had not exhibited any signs that he was violent or aggressive in any way, his risk, lay in his care for others:
"Care for the ummah – the global Muslim community – for example, was how the probation officer made sense of Khalid’s vulnerability. This is because a Muslim already sits on the boundaries of national belonging; any love towards a universal system outside the Nation-State is a step in the wrong direction"
Through my own work, I know as well as Tarek that it has been impossible to get a hold of the science that produced the ERG 22+. The government has protected that research behind layers of national security and through claims of its commercial value.
The latter reason is particularly worrying, especially as Tarek shows because the British government has been training Chinese police in their Prevent tactics and policies – which have been used against the Uyghur population in East Turkestan. The value of selling such products is placed at a higher premium than the severe human rights violations that flow from their sale.
During his research, Tarek was forced to undergo the very Prevent training his book seeks to critique. The trainer sent by the Home Office to instruct him and fellow staff explained how they all need to look out for ‘emotional signs’ among adolescents, leaving the staff perplexed as to what the trainer might mean:
"Raising my hand, I admitted my confusion: what does the trainer mean, speaking of adolescents who may fluctuate in confidence? Others nodded in agreement, equally muddled apparently. The trainer smiled and assured me it may be confusing, but the point of the exercise was the following: to trust our gut feelings when something doesn’t feel right and, ultimately, “refer every minuscule of concern.” That was her point"
Returning to Tarek’s ultimate point, that Islamophobia, racism and nationalism are so inscribed into the everyday thinking of the British public, that the treatment of Muslims in this environment tells us more about the state than it does about what Muslims are experiencing – that their beliefs are being clinically determined based on the political assumption that is made of them, and it is in that domain, that we find violence in the very therapy that they might seek. A double penalty.
To be harmed by the way the world has constructed itself, and then to be maligned for caring by the very people responsible for helping you to navigate all the violence we see. Like an ouroboros – a serpent that eats its own tail – the government’s violence becomes inescapable.
Dr Asim Qureshi is the Research Director of the advocacy group CAGE and has authored a number of books detailing the impact of the global War on Terror
Follow him on Twitter: @AsimCP