Dismantling the counterterror narrative is long overdue

Dismantling the counterterror narrative is long overdue
Comment: The language and logic of counter-terrorism established by the US has been used to justify a devastating spectrum of Muslim persecution from France to China, writes Mobashra Tazamal.
6 min read
15 Oct, 2020
The narrative used by US counter-terrorism has been harnessed by China against its Uighurs [Getty]
Concentration camps, facial recognition cameras, razing of mosques, networks of government informants, and separation of families: this is what the Uighur people, a Turkic ethnic Muslim minority numbering around 11 million, are currently reckoning with in their occupied homeland.

It is estimated that Beijing has detained between one to three million Uighur, Kazakh, and other Turkic Muslims in a network of concentration camps. Stories from survivors of the camps relay horrific tales of cruelty involving political indoctrination, medical experimentation, enforced hunger, abuse, and rape. It is the largest mass incarceration of a racial or religious group since the Holocaust. 

A recent report revealed more about China's actions in the settler-colonial region of Xinjiang (literally translating to "new frontier"), identifying at least 380 detention facilities and analysing the destruction or damage of thousands of mosques and cultural sites. The Australian Policy Strategic Institute's analysis adds to the mounting evidence demonstrating China's genocide against the minority Muslim community.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has defended its actions in the region, describing the camps as "re-education centres" and "hospitals" needed to de-radicalise and rehabilitate Uighurs who are infected by an "ideological virus," that virus being the second largest belief system in the world: Islam.

Beijing maintains its discriminatory policies are needed because Uighurs are a threat to the stability of China and thus mass imprisonment is necessary "to turn them [Uighurs] into normal persons…" 

While China's violence against Uighurs dates back decades, the language of terrorism entered the government lexicon shortly after US President George W. Bush inaugurated the global 'War on Terror'

While China's violence against Uighurs dates back decades, the language of terrorism entered the government lexicon shortly after US President George W. Bush inaugurated the global "War on Terror".

This war created a transnational undefined enemy who was not just a political foe but a fundamental threat to the safety of the wider population. Today, Chinese authorities claim that camps and surveillance are needed in order to fight the "three evils" of "separatism, extremism, and terrorism."

Following the 9/11 attacks, words and phrases such as "radical Islam", terrorism, and extremism went mainstream.

The hyperfocus on counterterrorism resulted in the development of a cottage industry of self-styled experts who cashed in on lucrative government grants and opportunities. Their studies and analysis were used to support the construction of "radical" or "extremist" Muslims who represented the primary threat to global stability.

Read more: Stop using Islam as the yardstick for white terrorism

Government policies, cushioned by academic papers, such as Prevent in the UK and Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in the US, were presented as "soft counter-terrorism" aimed at identifying potential extremists based on a set of indicators. These indicators of "radicalisation" were more often than not expressions of Muslim identity and religiosity, such as praying or wearing the hijab.

Such a framework has resulted in the criminalisation and stigmatisation of millions of Muslims in the West and the murder of millions more in Muslim-majority countries.

In his latest book, Sean Roberts notes how the war on terror discourse has facilitated a "logic of eradication or quarantining a threat that is culturally profiled as an 'extremist' strain within Islam [and that] fosters an aggressive Islamophobia that is ultimately pregnant with genocidal tendencies."

By marking Muslim populations as 'terrorists', states brand the entire population a threat to the global system

By marking Muslim populations as "terrorists", states brand the entire population a threat to the global system, "making them not just deserving of marginalisation but of complete obliteration or intensive quarantining." Such is the "logic" China uses to defend its genocidal campaign against Uighur Muslims.

Governments across the world continue to use the counterterror language to target, scapegoat, persecute, and eliminate Muslim communities in their own countries. The authorities label these groups "extremist" or "terrorists," allowing them the space to carry out violence without much international condemnation.

This is visible not only in China but in India, where the country's almost 200 million Muslims are facing increasing violence and discrimination at the hands of the Hindu nationalist government.

Separately between 2016-2017, the Myanmar army employed these same arguments to carry out a horrific genocide against Rohingya Muslims. Military officials, government figures, and monks used the narrative of the "Muslim terrorist" to defend instances of mass rape and targeted murder.

Similarly, in late 2018, the Chinese Foreign Minister justified the concentration camps claiming, "The efforts are completely in line with the direction the international community has taken to combat terrorism, and are an important part of the global fight against terrorism... If we can take care of prevention, then it will be impossible for terrorism to spread and take root."

Today in France, President Emmanuel Macron is levelling accusations of "Islamist separatism" at the country's nearly 6 million Muslim citizens. In a speech delivered on the first on the month, Macron proposed to defend France's secular values against what he decried as "radical Islam". Echoing orientalist views, he went on to claim that Islam is "in crisis" around the world.

Much like Roberts' description, Macron is signalling to the wider public that threats to the nation's identity and safety emanate from a fifth-column in the form of France's Muslim community. French authorities view expressions of Muslim religiosity as attacks on French national identity, similar to the Chinese government rhetoric framing Uighur Muslim identity as a "separatist" movement threatening the nation.

Both governments have instituted policies aimed at curbing the "Muslim threat": in France, this means discriminatory and restrictive policies curbing the human rights of millions; in China, it has resulted in full-blown genocide.

It is much too simplistic and frankly incorrect to claim that China's targeting of Uighurs is a result of the "War on Terror". The government's colonisation of the Uighur homeland and campaigns of repression against the community has its own history that predates 9/11. However, it is important to identify how China has harnessed the "Muslim threat" to justify its drastic assault against Uighurs.

The counterterrorism playbook has served as a useful tool to governments across the globe. Whether it be to scapegoat a community for the failures of the state or to carry out campaigns of terror, the narrative of a "Muslim threat" has resulted in mass-scale human rights violations. It's (long past) time we dismantle it. 

Mobashra Tazamal is a researcher on Islamophobia at The Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera, The Independent, Middle East Eye, and AltMuslimah.

Follow her on Twitter:@mobbiemobes

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.