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Targeting the Muslim 'enemy within': The British government must come clean

The Home Office's model for 'effective communication' is to approach Muslims as dangerous, guilty and guided by a collective ideology that needs to be replaced with blind allegiance to the British state

The British government has a Muslim problem. And it chooses to address it by spending millions on deceiving the community, spreading propaganda and rendering them all suspects by introducing policies – like Prevent – which target, criminalise and further discriminate against them. 

While the Prevent agenda has received much attention (and rightly so) as the most visible and repressive aspect of the state's approach, other more insidious and indirect means are equally worrying. 

Covert propaganda

For example, the Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), which sits within the Home Office's Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT), has been described as a machine for covert propaganda mostly targeting Muslims in Britain.

Recently, the work of RICU has come under fire following its strong reluctance to publish information on a project that attempted to use supposedly independent British radio dramas to disseminate so-called counter-terrorism messages. 

A Freedom of Information request focused on a Preston FM radio drama that was made by Manchester-based film researcher Faisal Qureshi.

If a programme needs to be based on deception, silence, and covert messaging towards the state’s own population, it is probably safe to say that it is part of the problem rather than the solution

The 2010 drama, initially titled Divided We Fall, was broadcast through a community Lancashire-based station and involved professional actors including Mina Anwar as well as local students.

The plot centred around the radicalisation of Ibrahim (played by Conor Alexander), who is described as a young Muslim Asian boy, and Jonno (played by John Catterall), a white soldier who returned from serving in Afghanistan.

The drama explored how people are drawn towards violent extremism and the alternative options that exist. While the public were made aware of Home Office funding in relation to this project, nothing was said of the OSCT or RICU's involvement. 

Apparently, the government deems the disclosure of details relating to RICU's involvement to be a potential national security threat. They justify this decision as a wish to protect the identities of those people and organisations involved in order to maintain an effective working relationship.

British Muslims pray during Friday prayer at the East London mosque (AFP)

In other words, they want to use every legal loophole and manoeuvre to avoid accountability, along with other groups and individuals who are playing the role of state informants and propagandists. Not to mention the need to continue with a project dependent on deceiving the target audience. 

Silence, deception and covert messaging

The public, and in particular the Muslim community, has a right to know about projects being funded by the Home Office.

What was the nature of the work? How many members of the community have been targeted and lied to? What relationships have been built without the individuals' knowledge?

If a programme needs to be based on deception, silence, and covert messaging towards the state's own population, it is probably safe to say that it is part of the problem when it comes to radicalisation, rather than the solution.

It may seem like an exaggeration, but the Spy Cops campaign which raised awareness of the undercover police officers who duped numerous women activists into relationships to gather information, has taught us – once more – that the state has no limits or moral framework. 

How can a government that is funding such covert operations expect to be taken seriously when it claims that it will facilitate (and submit to) an independent review

If police officers were prepared to enter false relationships and marriages, father children, and lie to their (supposed) friends and colleagues in order to gather intelligence about political activists, what lengths are they currently prepared to go to in order to police and discipline the Muslim community?

Some will argue that the government is simply misguided in its method of approaching a "sensitive" minority group, but that it ultimately seeks to "do good". Well, RICU itself was a concoction inspired by a 1948 propaganda division known as the Information Research Department (IRD).

This unit was created to counter the influence of communism, target trade unionists as well as journalists who would not take what propaganda was dictated to them by the Atlee government – from the "enemy within" back then, to the "enemy within" today.

Subterfuge campaigns

The Home Office's model for "effective communication" is to approach Muslims as dangerous and guilty, guided by a collective ideology that needs to be crushed and replaced with that of blind allegiance to the British state. 

It has even been suggested that the government's resistance to sharing information about their propaganda projects may relate to the unknown scale of their subterfuge campaigns within the arts. How many more radio shows, plays, films, exhibitions etc has RICU funded? 

The UK counter-terror unit used rap, graffiti to target Middle Eastern youth (sceen grab/youtube)

The division's links to a documentary which aired a few years ago on Muslim Olympic athletes at the 2012 competition have already been exposed. RICU was also linked to the establishment of a charity for Syria and various websites, which were thought to be Muslim civil society collectives. All of these spaces were being used for the purpose of so-called counter-terrorism strategies. 

It may come as no surprise today that a drama with such a clichéd storyline (at least as far as state counter-terrorism work goes) was being used to further the work of Prevent.

However, it is down to the tireless efforts made by trade unions, students, Muslims, anti-racist campaigners, victims of counter-terrorism policies, academics, healthcare professionals and so many more that we have reached the point of identifying the state's practices and being able to call them out.  

Crushing critical thought

It is also within this context that we should acknowledge that the recent announcement of an independent review of Prevent is not a cause for celebration.

How can a government that is funding such covert operations, and has recently expanded the reach of counter-terrorism measures to criminalise internet use, international travel, and imbedded it into local government, expect to be taken seriously when it claims that it will facilitate (and submit to) an independent review? 

In fact, if the government was actually listening to the demands of those most impacted - Muslims, migrants, people of colour, students, academics, civil servants who are mandated to comply - they would scrap the policy and move towards de-criminalising an entire community, exhausted by living under continuous siege.  

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Qureshi's FOI request has now been taken as far as the courts because the information on the scale of the RICU operations has been blocked by the government's lawyers. As we await the outcomes of the tribunal, we must also mobilise against the state's attempts to crush critical thought and dissent through their racist, repressive policies.

It is this pressure that unlocked the information we already have. It is this pressure which forced the government to be seen to recognise some criticism of Prevent. And it is this pressure, and this pressure alone, that will allow us to defeat these policies altogether. 

- Malia Bouattia is an activist, the former president of the National Union of Students, co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network and presenter/panellist on British Muslim TV’s Women Like Us.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Police officers stand on duty outside a Didsbury Mosque in Didsbury, Manchester, northwest England, on 24 May 2017 (AFP)