Racism, Prevent & Structural Islamophobia/ Dr. Tarek Younis

July 31, 2019


From Georgetown University, this is Voices on Islamophobia, a podcast by The Bridge Initiative. I’m Mobashra Tazamal. Today I sat down with Dr. Tarek Younis to discuss Prevent, which is one of the four components of the United Kingdom’s counter-terrorism strategy. The policy aims to prevent vulnerable individuals from becoming terrorists. It claims that there are visible indicators, or signs of “radicalization,” and calls on public sector workers to identify individuals in their care who may show signs of “extremism.”

Many rights groups, academics, lawyers, and public figures have criticized the policy stating it stigmatizes and criminalizes Muslim communities.

Dr. Younis is a cultural psychologist and deeply critical of Prevent, which he states is a racist and Islamophobic policy. His research explores the impact of counter-terrorism’s expansion on health settings and its impact on British Muslim mental health access.

We sat down and discussed the impact of Prevent on British Muslims, the so-called science behind it, and how important it is for us to recognize that Islamophobia goes beyond hate crimes and verbal assaults, as it’s institutionalized within our societies through policies such as Prevent.

MT: Can you tell us a little bit about your research and what your area of expertise is.

TY: My area of expertise is contingent on a little bit of my background. So I consider myself a cultural and political psychologist. I am also technically a clinical psychologist. In terms of my background, during my Ph.D. I was very much interested in cultural psychology and specifically how people experience distress differently across the world. So for me one of the big questions was, how is suffering understood differently. That sort of bridged into elements of political circumstances, socio-political conditions, etc. I became a sort of like a culture broker in mental health settings and institutions. This bridged into my Ph.D. research which was really interested on western Muslim youth and young adults. My entryway into psychology was because I noticed there was a lot of youth, especially among males, who were going through issues but really had no place to find support. I came in with an interest of identity, so this is where things now really bridge into the current research I have. A lot of my Ph.D. deals with this conflict between national and religious identities amongst Muslim young adults, and I was looking at Montreal, Copenhagen, and Berlin. It was really looking at it from a trans-national perspective whereby you really recognize how the socio-political rhetoric has a huge impact on how securitized and politicized even the notion of identity really is. It really dawned on me than during my Ph.D. research just how pervasive the war on terror as a frame is for western Muslims growing up in a post-9/11 context. I applied for a post-doc in London to explore the Prevent policy, which is the U.K.’s counter-radicalization policy, which makes it a statutory duty for staff working in public bodies, which includes healthcare staff, to identify and report individuals they suspect are vulnerable to radicalization. Here you see all of the strands that I just had mentioned previously sort of coming, colliding into one. There’s an element of mental health and sort of like cultural sensitivity, cultural competence. My question is how do mental health staff even recognize, how do they even have an understanding of what radicalization is. But then there’s also the element of the politics, how did this even come into play and how does counter-radicalization enter into clinical logic at all. How does psychology and pscyhologization play a role into how the threat of the radical is understood. I think my background gives at least a way to understand all these various strands of how I came to that particular work.

MT: Many of the issues you work on are derivative of a larger problem of racism, particularly structural and institutional racism. How do you explain to individuals that Islamophobia is racism especially when some individuals will respond and say, that Islam is not a race.     

TY: I think that question comes up quite often and that’s perhaps our biggest issue right now. Even among Muslims, I think we have a difficulty in understanding how racism towards Muslims even operates. I can point people towards the Runnymede Trust and others who have explained how Islamophobia is racism. I think a good example I can give and then sort of elaborate onto my definition. One of the things that healthcare is really catching up with is racism and institutional racism. One of the experiences of racism that I’ll give is that of a Muslim who’s wearing a headscarf. She goes and sees a mental health professional, and the mental health professional tells her that at the end of therapy, one of the successful signs of treatment would be her ability to remove her headscarf. Therein we already see how a particular visual element of the individual, which is the headscarf in this case, has certain significations for the health care professional. The headscarf is deemed as oppressive. The choice of the headscarf is not attributed to her. You can see the mental health professional sitting there with a smile on his face, and trying to empower the woman. There are so many elements to draw from this, the element of how racism and racialization occur in the interaction, that someone sees something which belongs to an archetype, a belief, or it could also be a conflict that somehow Islam or Muslims are aggressive in western societies, so what are we supposed to do with them. She was completely dismissed in that racist experience. She was never really seen as a person. She was seen as belonging to that archetype. Moreover, I think what’s important about that experience is that the mental health professional who made that judgment wouldn’t see themselves as racist. First of all, they did it with good intentions. You can imagine, “Oh I just want to empower you. It’s so amazing that you’re studying.” They’re drawing upon all these archetypes without recognizing the fact that these are incredibly racialized and oppressive. We have to think of racism and Islamophobia, in particular, going beyond racial hostility, beyond that “Oh you don’t belong to this country.” It’s the signifier itself. This signifier is hijab or the niqab. It’s seen as regressive, it’s seen as oppressive, it’s seen as one in which women have no ability or agency to choose for themselves. In the interaction, the person engages that with hostility: “You should take this off or go back to your country,” or they engage with it with good will, with smiles, and saying, “Well I just want to liberate you, I want you to be empowered.” It’s completely irrelevant and at the end, it’s still a racialized interaction and considered a racist moment. It’s not only about the intent; it’s also about the effect. The effect is there because she came to me and told me you know what, that was a racist experience. That element of racialization has to do with signifiers. When we’re talking about Islamophobia, there’s a lot of signifiers whereby Muslims embody the conflict of the war on terror, all these dynamics whereby Muslims are seen as the “other.” They’re being otherized. All these signifiers can come down to the way they look, the way they act, the things that they say, their practice, etc.  It could be related to Islam, and I think it’s really important that Islamophobia is not just anti-Muslim; it could very well be related to Islam as a whole. It can also just have nothing to do with religiosity. It can be as we know during the whole “Ground Zero mosque,” and there were protesters at the time and I remember that so clearly, it was such an incredible moment of racialization. Egyptian Copts, so Christians, who I think flew down to join the protest, and when they joined the protesters against the mosques, and they’re not Muslim obviously, they were being attacked by their fellow protesters. There we see how the racialization of Islam and Muslims is embodied in the physicality of those Coptic Christians. The power differentials in society are formulated upon racial hierarchies. Muslims and Islam will necessarily enter into that without choice.

MT: You published a fantastic research-based piece for Yaqeen Institute, which our listeners should definitely check out, on the concept of radicalization and on the industry that has grown from and around it. You discuss policies that have grown out of this industry such as CVE, “Countering Violent Extremism” in the United States and the Prevent policy in the U.K. Prevent is the U.K.’s counter-terrorism strategy and it basically states that there are observable factors individuals display that makes them vulnerable to becoming radicalized. Can you talk about the “science” behind Prevent and why you argue these counter-terror policies are racist?

TY: The war on terror belongs within public consciousness- it doesn’t belong to Prevent. It’s the public imaginary that associates the threat of violence, backwardness, strangeness, etc. to Muslims and to Muslim bodies, to racialized Muslims. When I say racialized Muslims, it’s racialized Muslim behavior, thoughts, physicality, etc. What Prevent does is that it’s institutionalized that logic. Prevent is asking people in the public, especially public bodies (teachers, healthcare staff, etc.) to act upon whatever suspicion they have. That’s the racism of Prevent. It’s institutionalizing the public consciousness, which is inherently Islamophobic, and there’s enough research to show that. I think that’s what’s really important. The greatest evidence against Prevent is Brexit. We don’t bring up Brexit enough. The success of the Brexit campaign depended largely upon drawing upon this archetype of fortress Britain, protecting Britain from the foreign invader. You saw pictures of Muslims lining up to come in.

MT: Nigel Farage’s Breaking point poster (TY: Exactly, that’s exactly what I’m referring to) was the perfect imagery to illustrate what this campaign was about.

TY: When we’re talking about Prevent as an institutionally racist policy, it’s not because of Prevent, it’s because Prevent has institutionalized people to act upon their gut feelings-which in are inherently associating Muslims and Islam with threat. Now, when you’re asking the question about the science behind it. There’s something called the Extremism Risk Guidance (ERG) framework, a lot has been written on this. That science is already dubious. I think one can hardly qualify it as science. It wasn’t one that was subject to peer review, at least not that we know of, to make it statutory for the public to act upon it. The first issue here has to do with there should absolutely be no public policy that institutionalizes that logic of “see it, say it, sort it,” act upon your gut feeling. Then, when it comes to the science, there’s nothing that we know in terms of the validity or reliability of how to determine pre-criminality. I think [what] Prevent is trying to do, and you can see this in the training, is that they’re trying to give a scientific veneer to the policy. The actual thing that Prevent is trying to instill through the ERG is not that there’s a profile- that’s actually not what they’re trying to do. They’re not saying this is a profile of a pre-terrorist. What they’re saying is, “There’s a bunch of things, we’re not sure, here’s a whole host of issues we think are important; you need to trust your gut feeling.”

When we’re thinking about racism in the 21st-century and this sort of myth of a post-racial society, we need to talk about color blindness. We need to talk about policies which are inherently and explicitly racist to those who are experiencing it, but take a colorblind approach whereby they can evade the charge of racism themselves. Prevent will say, “We’re not racist, we’re out to find all terrorists among white people and brown people.” That’s what they’re trying to say. I just wanted to maybe bridge in a few things between the whole thing about science and colorblindness. In one Prevent training that I went to the trainer was explaining how a possible risk factor towards radicalization, or vulnerability towards radicalization, would be an adolescent who suddenly gains a lot of confidence or loses a lot of confidence. I was sort of sitting there and I’m like, this doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. We’re talking about adolescents. We’re talking about confidence. How is anyone making sense of this? I raised my hand and I’m like, I’m sorry, how does that make any sense? The Prevent trainer had said, “Yeah, I understand this is confusing but you have to trust your gut.” There are all these risk factors but they don’t actually mean anything — the most important thing is to trust your gut as I was mentioning before. What brings in this element of color blindness during training is that there are two forms of colorblindness which are taking place. The first is that Prevent, through those psychological vulnerabilities, they’re portraying colorblindness to be apolitical; there’s no color to that individual. This ubiquitous use of psychology talk is inherently colorblind. The mental health framework establishes colorblindness whereby anybody who’s listening to this podcast are all equally susceptible to the virus of terrorism if our mental health is sufficiently vulnerable. That’s one way of colorblindness; just looking at us as these universal human beings who are all equal. The second form of color blindness, which is really overt, is just saying like, “Is a vulnerability to radicalization a woman who puts on a headscarf? No, it’s not. Is it a boy that grows a beard? No, it’s not.” They’re always raising race, and then they erase it. They raise it, they erase it. They’re constantly erasing race. In a way they’re actually affirming the public consciousness, the public imagination does associate threat with Muslim bodies, Muslim behaviors. But they have to constantly perform this color blindness.

MT: What you’re saying is that, that’s used but really it’s telling you to trust your gut. Your gut is already inherently thinking, “Well, here’s a person that looks this way, they might be susceptible.”

TY: Yeah, precisely. That’s exactly it.         

MT: There’s a growing interest in far-right extremism and those who support the Prevent policy have stated it’s also used to monitor and report individuals who may be susceptible to these views. What are your views on the claim that Prevent and counter-radicalization policies are aimed at all forms of “extremist” thought and do not just single out Muslims.

TY: There’s like this political and rhetorical insistence on far-right extremism. One of the things that’s really important to be said is that when we’re talking about racism, we’re talking about whiteness as a pivot. Black bodies, Muslims bodies, all these sort of orbit around it in various ways and different forms. But the whole point is that counter-terrorism will always privilege whiteness; it’ll always maintain white innocence. One of the things that’s really significant is that we recognize the threshold differential of what would get a white person referred to Prevent, and what would get a Muslim referred to Prevent. 

In my research, Muslims have been referred — it was literally just a person who has a beard, someone who wants to go on Hajj. Someone who just comes from the Middle East as a refugee; they’re not even Muslim and that person was referred. That’s pure physicality at its most basic component. The person’s not even asking about religion but their body already exemplifies religion. For example, one mental health professional was telling me about one patient who was very violent towards people on the street, specifically the homeless. That mental health professional was actually very supportive of Prevent in the beginning. What happened with this racialized white patient that he had, he recognized that this was an ideological problem because neoliberalism as a whole, as an ideology, it marginalizes the poor. If we think about hostile architecture, the spikes on the streets and the benches so people won’t sleep there. There’s this element of demonizing the homeless. The mental health professional is like, “Oh, I see how this person needs some form of ideological re-programming,” so he referred that racialized white patient to Prevent. It was immediately rejected by his superior, immediately. His superior told him, “No, no, no, that’s not the ideology we’re looking for.” We see how whiteness is privileged because his innocence was already maintained. His violence was already privileged for not being associated with terrorism. Imagine if there was a racialized Muslim who’s going out on the streets attacking people. We have to immediately understand this element of threshold. Also, the question on statistics, which are absolutely ridiculous. I mean, honestly, a high school student can deconstruct how the government uses statistics to justify its claims. I can get to that if you want.

MT: I think it’s a great way to segue into that, of data and how statistics are used to say, “Oh look, we’ve gotten these many far-right extremists, and these many this sort of ideology,” but there’s a space, and you’ve mentioned this before, where you can’t capture that in statistics. Statistics capture those that have been to Prevent referrals; it’s actually gotten to a referral. But there’s a whole space before that, that has such a massive impact  that cannot be captured in numbers.

TY: It’s really important to understand the nature of impact. One girl I had met, a racialized Muslim girl who wears a headscarf: she was 17 and she had mentioned in an event discussing Prevent that she — because of Prevent — had been self-censoring for years. We’re talking about a 17-year-old girl self-censoring for years, afraid of sharing her opinions, her political views. The question is how do we even measure that. What is the weight of one girl who’s afraid of sharing her thoughts? Do we measure that in moments? Do we measure that experience in years? Our means of measuring these very subjective but very powerful experiences are incredibly, incredibly limited. There’s that weight, that grievability, towards that racialized Muslim girl. I always think about her because how much weight are we giving to just one girl? Isn’t that one girl’s anguish and self-censorship enough? And why isn’t it enough? And here again we have to talk about to what extent Muslim suffering is given equal weight in society versus, let’s say, a middle class white male who feels self-censored. All of a sudden, it’s all about free speech, etc. We have to start putting these things into context. To give another example from my field work, a GP [general practitioner] told me she was critical of Prevent, which is really interesting and important to the story. She saw a racialized Muslim patient who came in with a long beard and wearing Muslim garb. He mentioned that he wants to homeschool his children. That immediately evoked in her a question of, “Oh, is this a Prevent referral?” Now she’s critical of Prevent; that’s really important because she doesn’t actually want to do a Prevent referral. But it doesn’t make a difference: all of the sudden she’s thinking, Is this Prevent referral worthy or not? She’s wondering, Does he want to withhold his children from a secular institution, things like that? He doesn’t want his children to integrate? Here, right away is racialization. Would this thought process have occurred if the patient was a racialized white female, middle class, who wants to homeschool her children? We can most definitely say it wouldn’t have. A white middle class lady comes and tells us about wanting to homeschool her children. We’re not thinking about terrorism. So the racialization element occurred right away. The problem is the very nature of what constitutes as evidence in the first place. That’s what I’m getting at, especially quantifiable evidence. There’s this belief that we have to always somehow compartmentalize all these terrible experiences in ways that are digestible for policy makers. But why aren’t policy makers actually listening to these experiences? Why don’t policy makers actually take that 17-year-old girl’s experiences into consideration?

MT: In the case of CVE in the U.S., Muslim communities who’ve been targeted by CVE programming: Obviously CVE in the U.S. is not statutory but there’s programming that is funded by the federal government that goes into these communities. A lot of Muslim community activists and organizations have said they’ve been surveilled, they’re being monitored, so kids won’t go to the afterschool program because they don’t know if there’s an informant there taking their information and passing it along to who knows. You can’t capture that in data or statistics. You can’t capture that feeling in numbers. Because these programs are, well…at least in the U.S., there’s no transparency. There’s not much information on what is happening and where this information is going. How do you explain that and how do you put that in numbers is very, very difficult. I think the grievability point you made is really relevant here because here you have Muslim communities who are saying, “We’re being surveilled. We’re being monitored. This is really affecting our community.” But no one’s taking that seriously. It’s kind of like, “You’re Muslim. You’re going to be surveilled. Eh, what can we do about it?” So I think that point is really, really important.

You were talking about the GP and her interaction with that man. I wanted to go along that point and ask what are the risks associated with mandating teachers, and especially health care workers where there is that patient-doctor confidentiality — that ethical element to it, mandating that they monitor and report on youth and individuals in their care. What is the larger impact of that and if you want to talk about the type of training public sector workers receive when it comes to Prevent?

TY: The way this impacts patient-professional relationship is two-fold. I would say in terms of the Muslim community, my general awareness and just being in the field right now for two years, is that the Muslim community as a whole is just not aware of Prevent in healthcare. If we’re going to talk about the social repercussions for such a policy and its impact on patient healthcare professional relationships, it’s probably going to be very minimal. Charlotte Heath-Kelly found out through Freedom of Information requests that there’s four mental health trusts that we know of here in the U.K. that are screening for risk factors of radicalization among all their patients. You’ll get this pop on your screen. You have a list of 20 factors like the ERG [Extremism Risk Guidance]. If you list six of them, that’s sufficient to be flagged. We weren’t told about it. We found that out by actively engaging with the government with the Freedom of Information requests. So there’s a lot of, sort of, this very secretive element. To my knowledge and my experience, that secretive element just has never diminished. I think they just have a much more public face in what they’re presenting. This lack of awareness then becomes really significant, whereby for individuals and some people that I’ve met who’ve gone through … being taken aside because of Section 7 [From Liberty Human Rights: “Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 is a breathtakingly broad and intrusive power to stop, search and hold individuals at ports, airports and international rail stations. It can be exercised without the need for any grounds of suspecting the person has any involvement in terrorism – or any other criminal activity. This means it can be used against anyone a police, immigration or customs officer chooses”] at the border. These are really random stories. People sometimes just come up to me and they’ll be like, “Tarek, you know, I was reading the Qur’an in a train and someone called counter-terrorism on me.” What ends up happening is that it creates a moment I see whereby everything just falls apart and all of the sudden you’re like, wow, what the hell is happening? That can be really, really detrimental to one’s relationship with institutions, etc. It’s not just about healthcare, it’s not just about education, it’s literally about your place in society. It’s almost like these continuous reminders of this second-class citizenship.         

MT: …of “you don’t belong.”

TY: Exactly, you don’t belong. And you constantly have to prove that. 

MT: We often talk about Islamophobia, we often associate it with far-right, right-wing, that sort of side of the political spectrum. However, Islamophobia isn’t relegated to one side of the political or ideological spectrum. Prevent was formed under a Labour government and counter-terrorism and counter-radicalization strategies and policies are supported by people on the Left and the Right. I’d really like to get into your thoughts on liberal Islamophobia.

TY: That’s a really, really excellent question. You really just hit the nail on the head. One of the things I really, really want us to go beyond is focusing on Islamophobia as forms of racial hostility, discrimination. That’s usually attributed to the margins of society. Even among a lot of people I know who are interested in Islamophobia, I see them regurgitate that opinion that somehow Islamophobia only belongs to Nigel Farage or people like that. That’s really, really problematic if we want to start addressing the real issues of racial hierarchies and things like that in society. First of all, a very, very fantastic book, published by Verso Books — the author’s name is Liz Fekete: This is a great book on this subject called The Rise of the Far Right. I think what’s really important is that she draws attention to…that many people for a long time have drawn attention to, is that the Global North as a whole is moving towards the right. It’s not the margins of society. We notice in research that anti-immigrant policies, so xenophobia as policies are accepted among the Left and the Right: “Less immigration, more integration.” All these things have been taken by the Left as well. It’s not a partisan issue. We’re talking about Islamophobia. It’s literally institutionalized across parties. I become very disappointed when our only focus is on those people and policymakers who explicitly pick on Muslims. Tommy Robinson is like, he’s nobody compared to the entire apparatus which has institutionalized policies. As you were saying, how like Prevent was brought up under the Labour government. One of the successes that we’re somehow overcoming Islamophobia in a way, is that we’re able to mobilize on issues beyond what we’re given, beyond the frames that we’re allowed, and I think that’s really significant.

MT: Our focus on far-Right, explicitly anti-Muslim groups, individuals like Tommy Robinson, groups like Britain First: I’m not denying that they are extremely dangerous and extremely problematic, and they’ve caused a lot of havoc in society. There’s no denial of that. I think we forget that they are building on a discourse that has been developed through mainstream society. So, post-9/11, what was the imagery and what was the messaging we were getting of terrorism? It was Muslims. That was the picture that was given. That was what was pushed out through all sorts of mediums in society, whether it be through our media, through our education system, through politics, through all of that. All parties played a role in that. I think a very clear example of this was the Christchurch mosque gunman. If you have any sort of understanding of where our society is, you’re not shocked by his thoughts. I was not shocked by what he said. For me, his thoughts and what he believed is exactly what I see when I turn on the news. You hear the media talk about Muslims, and people of color, and immigrants as invaders. That’s not something new. We’ve heard politicians talk about them as invaders. We’ve heard about the talk of “demographic change,” which is a code word for “brown and black bodies are going to come here and overtake us. The white population will no longer exist.” It’s a symptom of the mainstream.

TY: Someone who has the exact same philosophy and ideology as the Christchurch killer, that person can get elected based on ethnonationalist logic. 

MT: You can be elected into office and the perfect illustration of that is look at European governments right now.      

TY: Yes, absolutely

MT: Look at Hungary. You saw the campaign, the French election with Marine Le Pen. Austria, Italy. It’s growing. It’s there. They’re at the seats of power. It’s not a fringe movement.

TY:  That’s it. Not at all. Germany as well.

MT: The United States. The policies that are being put in place. The rhetoric that’s in place. It’s not far-Right, it’s not a fringe. It’s mainstream now and I think once we understand that as a society, then maybe we can do something about it.

TY: Exactly. That’s it.        

Conclusion: To stay informed on this topic and other issues related to Islamophobia, follow The Bridge Initiative’s research on its website, bridge.georgetown.edu. If you liked what you heard today be sure to subscribe to this podcast, Voices on Islamophobia. Thanks for listening and tune in next time.