MI5’s harassment of Muslim students is not exposing terrorists – it’s just alienating innocent people
Zin Derfoufi guardian.co.uk
Last week, the Independent led with the story of how MI5 agents are harassing young British Muslims and bullying them into becoming informants. Although I’m sure these cold-war tactics have shocked many, it came as no shock to me.
The tragic events of 7/7 marked a key turning point for the Muslim youth in the UK. Before 7/7, the word terrorist or extremist conjured up images of a middle-aged, big-bearded radical preacher given asylum or residence in the UK, preying on the ignorance of young people – exploiting legitimate grievances to recruit them to some seemingly noble cause. One that involves damning and bringing down western democracy – the very same democracy that facilitates his right to attack it and the very same country whose benefit system he (typically) feeds off. However, the perpetrators of 7/7 did not fit this stereotype. They were young, British-born Muslims. They were people like us.
Since then, the security services have been hellbent on “disrupting” terrorist cells in the UK, trying to use the Muslim community to weed out any would-be attackers and, with the US, stopping at nothing to destroy what they see as safe havens of extremists overseas – often, in the process, creating new enemies where it would not otherwise have found them.
I have frequently been involved in trying to persuade politicians, community leaders and activists of just how serious this issue is, yet many of them, until now, remained sceptical. They asked: “Are security services really resorting to such underhand and ill-conceived tactics?” Yes, it seems extraordinary, yes, it sounds unbelievable, but it is ordinary practice.
I have been heavily involved in student activism and politics. I’ve been engaged since I was in the sixth form, where I was elected by my fellow students as the president of their students’ union. Since then, right through to my involvement in my university’s students’ union, the National Union of Students and the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, a union of Muslim students, I have come across many cases of harassment, bullying and intimidation suffered by Muslim students at the hands of the very people who are supposed to be protecting them.
These include cases of security agents harassing Muslim student activists, members of the university students’ Islamic Society (Isoc) and general Muslim students, threatening to send them to prison if they do not co-operate, barring them from leaving the country, making false accusations that they are somehow linked to people who pose a threat to our national security, getting them to spy on each other, attending and recording Isoc lectures and seminars and pressuring university staff to spy on Muslim students. I have spoken to a number of elected students’ union sabbatical officers across the UK who have told me of how their Muslim students have been threatened and intimidated by these agents. In a few cases, which includes one prominent university in Scotland, these agents were even knocking on the doors of Pakistani students’ residences asking them foolish questions like: “Have you met Bin Laden? Do you know where he is?” As if they would say yes, even if they did. As if it were a casual game of Where’s Wally! Well, he’s certainly not in my back yard!
And then the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) recently had the nerve to say that MI5 did not have the manpower to keep a closer eye on Mohammad Sidique Khan and thus could do little more to prevent 7/7 from happening. Well, if the security services keep wasting their energy and our money on harassing innocent Muslim students instead of keeping an eye on those that actually pose a threat to our national security, then there is a real danger of another Sidique Khan slipping through the net.
To date, we have had an innocent man fatally shot in the head, one shot in the arm, many sent on rendition flights to be tortured and countless innocent international students who, if they haven’t already been unfairly booted out, are currently facing deportation. Innocent people’s lives have been destroyed, their livelihood and aspirations shattered, their faith in the system smashed and a whole community alienated. The current strategy is not working.
Recently, the Home Office published some deeply worrying figures on terrorism arrests and outcomes. Between 9/11 and March 2008, there have been 1,471 arrests on terrorism grounds. Of those, only 340 were charged, many of whom were later released, all charges dropped, leaving only 146 convicted of any offence. The figures show that a success rate of arrests on specific terrorism grounds remained stable through the seven years at just 7%, which rises to 14% if we include other terror-related convictions. These figures also include arrests of non al-Qaida-related extremism (such as the activities of IRA and animal rights activists). This means that a whopping 86% of those arrested on terrorism grounds were completely innocent of any offence. Something is seriously wrong here.
The current strategy is counterproductive, not least because it causes unnecessary damage. Surely intelligence gathered through fair persuasion and trust is far more effective than that from coercion and threats. Perhaps the reliance on evidence supplied by amateur informants is a major contributing factor behind why so many have been arrested and later freed without charge. It only exacerbates the problems, hinders progress and whips up mistrust and suspicion within the Muslim community. It also plays into the hands of the real extremists operating on our campuses – the BNP and their sympatisers – many of whose activists are actively promoting their party and recruiting members in universities across the UK, dishing out leaflets, spewing their filth, causing division within the student community and writing racist, Islamophobic, antisemitic and homophobic messages on toilet walls, library tables and in library books.
No one can deny that it is important to keep tabs on people who may pose a threat to national security. But the current draconian anti-terror strategy is not working and it has got to change. Harassing, bullying and arresting random bearded brothers or deporting international students innocent of any crime is unfair and sends a dangerous message: if you’re Muslim, you are guilty until proven innocent.
Yes, this has led to arrests of a small number of people who did pose a threat, and yes, informants do play a key role in keeping us safe; but something is clearly wrong if such a massive number of innocent people are harmed in the process. This is nothing less than systematic abuse. If the security services adopt these tactics because they are finding it hard to recruit Muslim spies, then let it look at its own track record for why this may be.
A recent poll conducted and published by Gallup (Coexist Index, 2009) revealed what we should already know: that British Muslims feel a deep sense of loyalty to and pride in their British roots. Furthermore, it found that Muslims in the UK not only welcomed but had more faith and confidence in the British democratic institutions than the general public did. However, it also showed that there were barriers to British Muslims achieving their full potential. It is these heavy-handed cold-war tactics that are preventing many Muslims from engaging fully with the political system. People are fast losing faith in the security services and in the democratic process.
Its unbelievably hard to engage any marginalised community. Each time we make some sort of progress, another wave of people innocent are arrested and later released without charge, whipping up fear, resentment and suspicion, and rendering our efforts useless.
Do the security officers really believe the current measures are actually working? Perhaps they watching one too many James Bond movies. How on earth does brutalising the Muslim youth help in winning over their hearts and minds? Finally, the “If they’re innocent, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t help us” approach does not wash. The innocent are innocent until proven guilty. So leave us alone!