Counter terror policies must deliver nuance

HA Hellyer wonders how Donald Trump will balance security and equality

The inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States is scheduled to take place next month. Carlo Allegri / Reuters
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One of the most disturbing things that Donald Trump, the president-elect of the United States, has suggested is a ban on Muslims from entering the country. No one is entirely sure about what's going to happen, but as the day approaches for Mr Trump to be sworn in as president, his ideas have to be turned into policies. He might learn from the United Kingdom, America's closest ally in the western world, in terms of what not to do.

Any policy pertaining to Muslims is going to be primarily the job of the Department of Homeland Security. Josh Rogin reported in The Washington Post earlier this week that the main contenders for leading on that issue are Michael McCaul (a Republican congressman from Texas), retired Marine Gen John Kelly and Kansas politician Kris Kobach.

This week, Mr McCaul made his pitch on how to put the ban into effect. All things considered, it was markedly more nuanced than what Mr Trump had suggested, but that wasn’t particularly difficult. Early reports about the speech suggested that it bore some similarities to the UK government’s Prevent policy, which seeks to empower particular domestic Muslim British voices against extremism. The flaws in the approach in the UK are in danger of being repeated and amplified in the US.

When Muslim Americans were brought up in the context of the presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Mr Trump, they were often mentioned as parts of the counterterrorism paradigm – either as part of the problem or solution. All too often, the recognition of Muslim Americans as simply American citizens was lacking. That is especially true of the Trump camp.

In the UK, the Prevent part of the counterterrorism strategy from the early 2000s has suffered from two basic problems. One is some faulty policies embedded within the wider strategy. Unfortunately, even in those parts of the strategy that are sounder than rest, the perception of the policy within the target community is terrible.

Evidence seems to suggest that there is a large swell of dissent from within the Muslim British community against the Prevent strategy. It is certainly deeply controversial, which is why it has led politicians in Britain to voice concern about the efficacy of the strategy.

Indeed, many politicians have called for the policy to be completely replaced with something more practical and workable within communities. The key problem is determining what that alternative is supposed to look like and there has been little discussion on that matter.

It is not that British Muslims are somehow ambivalent about extremism. They suffer from it just as others do. In fact, they suffer more due to the added repercussions of being associated with extremism. The same is true for American Muslim communities. When the US is attacked by extremists, Muslim Americans feel the effect as much as non-Muslim Americans do. But then Muslims face a backlash from populist Islamophobes. The ambivalence that many of them have about counterterrorism is about what is identified as problematic and what is a genuine threat. For example, religious conservatism in Muslim communities are often identified as enabling extremism, even though data shows otherwise.

Moreover, non-representative voices who are uncritical of the political establishment but are given media space to decry Muslim communities, already figure greatly in American media. After Mr Trump’s victory, nearly all Muslim groups and individuals expressed concern about hate crimes against their community from bigots who openly supported Mr Trump. Yet a good deal of media space was provided to Muslim voices who praised Mr Trump and ignored his incendiary remarks about Muslims, even though they had no currency in their own communities.

The concern now is that Mr Trump’s counter-terrorism efforts are not going to address these errors. On the contrary, he may very well build on those flaws. Any effective counterterrorism strategy has to recognise, first and foremost, that Muslim Americans are citizens of America, rather than tools in counter-terrorism or counter-radicalisation measures. Those voices that are promoted ought to have currency on the popular level either as community figures, or as genuine experts, rather than simply being supportive of the political executive – even when they are openly opposed to the political power of the day.

If Mr Trump’s counterterrorism policies are based on that recognition, then there may be some hope for the success of those policies. Unfortunately, nuance has not yet been identified as a trait of the forthcoming American administration.

Dr HA Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington and the Royal United Services Institute in London

On Twitter: @hahellyer