UK Figures and Islamists Participate in International Conference on Islamophobia and the War on Terror
Arranged by the Centre for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA) at the Istanbul Zaim University, the third International Conference on Islamophobia saw the participation of a number of individuals from the UK. Notably, this year the event had a particular focus on counter-terrorism policies. Held between 26 and 30 March, the conference was subtitled “Examining the Global War on Terror: Challenges, Policies, and Consequences” and included a great deal of discussion about policies in Britain, particularly the counter-radicalisation Prevent strategy.
As with the previous two international conferences on Islamophobia (held in 2018 and 2019), the primary organiser of the conference was the Istanbul-based Centre for Islam and Global Affairs. This year’s conference was co-sponsored by a number of other organisations and institutions, including the British group CAGE, as well as the College of Islamic Studies at Hamad Bin Khalifah University in Qatar, The Afro-Middle East Centre from South Africa, and the Coalition For Civil Freedoms based in Washington DC.
CIGA’s director, Sami Al-Arian, appeared as a speaker on several of the conference panels. In 2003 federal prosecutors in the US allegedthat Sami Al-Arian was a leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, complicit in the murder of civilians. Under the arrangements of a plea deal, Al-Arian pled guilty to conspiracy to provide assistance to Palestinian Islamic Jihad. According to the terms of this agreement Al-Arian was eventually deported from the United States to Turkey in 2015.
The UK speakers listed on CIGA’s programme for this year’s third international conference on Islamophobia were:
- Asim Qureshi (Research Director at CAGE),
- Moazzam Begg (Outreach Director at CAGE, and a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner),
- Narzanin Massoumi (Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology, University of Exeter),
- Rizwan Sabir (Lecturer in Criminology in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Science, Liverpool John Moores University),
- Tarek Younis (Lecturer in Psychology, Middlesex University),
- Fahid Qurashi (Lecturer in the School of Law, Policing and Forensics, Staffordshire University, and Research Director at the Ayaan Institute),
- Usaama al-Azami (Lecturer in Contemporary Islamic Studies, Oxford University, and previously of the Markfield Institute of Higher Education),
- David Miller (Professor of Political Sociology at the University of Bristol).
At the time at which David Miller’s participation in the conference was advertised, Miller was also under investigation by his university over allegations of anti-Semitism. Miller had similarly been suspended from the Labour party over anti-Semitism allegations, before quitting the party and claiming that its new leader was funded by the Zionist movement. During the conference’s opening session, Na’eem Jeenah, Executive Director of the Afro-Middle East Centre, stated that:
“David Miller is well known as a scholar of Islamophobia, and the Zionist lobby in the UK has latched onto that, accusing him of anti-Semitism and launching a witch-hunt against him. I think that it is appropriate that at a conference on Islamophobia, that we express our support for Professor David Miller.”
Other international speakers listed included Farid Hafez (of the University of Salzburg, and Georgetown University’s The Bridge Initiative), Hamed Mousavi (of the University of Tehran), Chafika Attalai (listed as having been a member of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France prior to its dissolution by the French government), and Charlotte Kates, (described as the international coordinator of Samidoun). In 2019 it was reported that PayPal, Donorbox, and Plaid had shut down financial services for Samidoun over what was described as “overwhelming evidence” of links to a terror group; specifically the PFLP. Another speaker, Mariam Abu Ali, was described on the conference webpage as an advocate for her brother Ahmed Abu Ali, “a U.S. political prisoner for 18 years.” In 2005, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali was convicted by a US federal court for having joined Al Qaeda and plotting to assassinate President George W Bush.
The literature advertising the conference explains that; “this year’s CIGA conference on Islamophobia isolates the Global War on Terror as an international policy in the name of security and peace, as masquerading what really is an institutional language of animosity against and hegemony over Muslims and other disfavored communities worldwide.” In its description the conference literature further states that:
“the conference has moved past theorizing Islamophobia simply as an individual or communal religious prejudice. In the face of relatively fading American power, Islamophobia is better understood against the backdrop of a global racial hierarchy, which is again trying to impose a future world order.”
Alleging that the language associated with the War on Terror has allowed certain countries to stand above international law—here India, Myanmar, and Israel are specifically named—the conference description then claims that there is “an international system bent on marginalizing existing or potential independent Islamic powers.” The text continues:
“to read this global shift in Islamophobic terms means to re-frame the question: Why has terrorism as a global program resulted in a disproportionately large number of deaths and destruction of Muslims and Muslim societies as opposed to others?”
UK speakers were featured throughout the conference, with most speaking about counter-terrorism policies in the UK, and especially about Prevent. In one of the early conference sessions, titled “Islamophobia and Domestic Control of Targeted Minorities”, CAGE’s Asim Qureshi spoke under the heading, “Prevent: Analyzing Government Programs to Monitor UK Muslims”. Qureshi argued that as part of the War on Terror, those in the human rights world are having to “operate under a different set of norms and laws than the vast majority of society”, and that this involves representing clients who are “subject to a two-tier system of the law.” Qureshi explained:
“not only do we have to deal with the inadequacy of laws that are clearly discriminatory, we also have to deal with the human beings who are responsible for upholding those laws. And we have to deal with juries who are constantly fed a narrative of fear and discrimination, not just by policy makers, but by the media as well.”
Later during his remarks, Asim Qureshi spoke about the shift by authorities to not simply talking about terrorism, but also about extremism, and this Qureshi argued had been a purposeful move. Yet notably, Qureshi claimed that even counter-terrorism had really been concerned with targeting people for their beliefs, even if plots sometimes had to be “manufactured” to justify this. As Qureshi argued:
“what the word extremism then does is that it takes terrorism as an act, and it brings the word extremism in as an idea. And so now we’re able to expand the scope of what can be problematised. We already knew with terrorism that it was already ideological; that they were going after people because of their beliefs. But what it still required was some kind of act. So, when we heard Kathy and Steve speak about the way in which plots had been manufactured, they still had to manufacture these plots, in order to suggest that there is something kind of tangible at stake here.”
Asim Qureshi also co-chaired a session later in the conference on “victims of the War on Terror”. CAGE’s Moazzam Begg was one of the speakers on that panel. In the course of his remarks Begg argued that, “it doesn’t really matter whether you’re in Guantanamo or in the United States of America” because in one place “you’ll get imprisonment for 14, 15, 16, 17 years without charge or trial”, while in the United States “you’ll get it with trial, and even more; life sentences.” He continued by claiming that in these cases people were being imprisoned despite—according to Begg—there not being any victims. As he stated:
“And you have to ask for what? Victimless crimes. In all of these cases. In the almost hundreds of prisoners in Guantanamo, and even many, I mean the multitude, the overwhelming majority in the United States of America; people going to prison for decades on end, and there is no victim. In fact, the victim is the one that has been targeted by the State.”
Another session at the conference, titled “Unpacking Islamophobia’s Consequences”, featured two UK speakers, Narzanin Massoumi and Rizwan Sabir. During his remarks Rizwan Sabir argued that in western countries, counter-terrorism is being conducted as a form of counterinsurgency legitimised through the law. Sabir stated that here the law “becomes a tool through which the state exercises violence, but it becomes also a propagandistic cover to legitimise in the minds of the general population that this is what’s happening and this is okay.” Sabir argued that this use of the law was historically consistent, listing the War on Terror alongside the “genocide of Native Americans in the U.S.”, as well as “the Holocaust, and transatlantic slavery, and colonialism, and all the other tyrannies of the world, like Apartheid”. Massoumi focused her remarks on the impact of the Prevent programme on Higher Education, alleging that “neoconservative” and Islamophobic groups have been particularly influential on Prevent, and even the Home Office’s Extremism Analysis Unit. Through this influence within Prevent, Massoumi claimed that such groups “enable the state to put in place this programme of political repression.”
In a later session, titled “the Alarming Effects of the Global War on Terror”, Tarek Younis gave a presentation under the heading “the Psychologisation and Securitisation of Muslim Youth.” Younis argued that despite a “performative” effort by Prevent to appear “colour-blind”, the scheme’s racism still becomes apparent. As Younis put it:
“There is this unfolding and refolding of trying to maintain this colour-blindness through the Psy disciplines, but inevitably the racism, the racist enterprises of the War on Terror, always reveals itself. And so that’s why I call it performative, because intentionally what the Government is trying to do is constantly maintain a veneer of colour-blindness which keeps falling apart.”
Speaking during the same session about the implementation of Prevent in Higher Education, Fahid Qurashi introduced his remarks by explaining, “I want to show how liberal Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion agendas have been complicit in institutionalising the Islamophobia of Prevent.” Qurashi’s part of the session was titled “the intertwining of Islamophobia and contemporary racism”, and later during his presentation he went on to state:
“the Prevent duty in Higher Education creates an environment in which Muslim identity is often times threatened, and Muslim students reported feeling excluded. And so Islamophobia, interestingly, is practiced in Higher Education in the name of anti-racism and safeguarding. The language of anti-racism and EDI agendas is deployed to justify the practice of Islamophobia on campus which is itself seen as a commitment to anti-racism.”
Later, the panel chair referred to the American Jewish campaign group on anti-Semitism, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and asked Qurashi; “in the United States, the ADL, the Anti-Defamation League, has been very aggressive in making itself involved in the countering violent extremism programmes; holding itself out as the expert that must be advised and consulted in everything—do you see this as well in the UK in terms of pro-Zionist groups that are trying to stifle and shutdown freedom of speech on campuses?” Qurashi agreed, and suggested the accusations of anti-Semitism against David Miller as one such example of a “long running campaign”.
Although not focusing on the UK, the third speaker in this session, Leena Al-Arian, Executive Director of the Washington DC-based Coalition for Civil Freedoms, commented on a number of cases relevant to activities and campaigns in Britain. During her remarks, Al-Arian claimed that the domestic tactics of the War on Terror are “all done in service of disciplining a community viewed as merely possessing the potential to pose a threat to a white supremacist imperialist order.” Al-Arian provided several examples that she presented as miscarriages of justice within the War on Terror. For instance, she told listeners that, “there are many others, like the leaders of the largest Muslim charity in America; the Holy Land Foundation, who are currently serving life in prison, by the government’s own admission, for simply giving charity to Palestinian widows and orphans.” The Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development was designated a domestic terrorist organisation by the United States in 2001. The US Treasury Department website states that the Holy Land Foundation “provided millions of dollars of material and logistical support to Hamas”, and that the foundation had previously been identified as “the primary fund-raising entity for Hamas in the United States”.
In a further example, Al-Arian spoke of the alleged mistreatment of Aafia Siddiqui, describing her as a victim of extraordinary rendition; one of those “serving horrific life sentences in federal prison under extremely punitive conditions, after being tortured abroad at the behest of the US government.” In 2010, Aafia Siddiqui had been found guilty by a US court of attempting to murder Americans serving in Afghanistan.
Another session, titled “Autocratic Regimes and the Politics of Islamophobia”, featured David Miller discussing “the case of UAE”, and Usaama al-Azami presenting on “the role of state-sponsored Ulama in promoting Islamophobia.” Al-Azami’s remarks also gave particular attention to the UAE, and both he and Miller spoke about the alleged influence that countries like the UAE have on western policy. Al-Azami pointed to the example of the UAE ambassador to the United States Yusef Al Otaiba, and as part of his talk, Al-Azami used a video recording in which Al Otaiba could be heard warning that in the future more extremists and terrorists would come out of Europe because of European political correctness, indecision, and ignorance about the Middle East. In the part of the clip played, Al Otaiba did not specify what European countries should do about this. However, referring to the clip, as well as to David Miller’s remarks from earlier in the session, al-Azami explained:
“the point of this is to illustrate how, in a sense figures like this who of course, as David pointed out, they can actually wield considerable power over western capitals like London for example, through the sorts of contracts that they have the power to buy from western military- well from government- western governments, and military industrial complexes, very costly sort of military hardware that these western states are desperate to sell to make money, so to speak. But in that process they can basically impose upon them certain conditionalities. In DC it works slightly different, as David was pointing out. But in a place like the UK that sort of [unclear] can be quite heavy handed.
And you could see the language of terrorism, saying; look you’re incubating these vast numbers of Muslims and they basically are a terrorist threat, and you need to sort of keep them under control, you need to surveil them, and control them in various sorts of ways.”
Later, Al-Azami raised the question of whether it was possible for Muslims to be Islamophobic. He answered his question by suggesting that “Arab autocrats” and the “scholars who are on their payrolls” do not “hate Islam per se”, but rather they fear an existential threat from “Islamic orientations that demand accountable and democratic government”. It is perhaps notable that Islamophobia is represented here as being hatred of Islam the religion, rather than prejudice against Muslims as people. Al-Azami then concluded by saying that, “Islamophobia is a highly expedient tool for opposing democratic Islamists in particular.”