Asim Qureshi explores the similarities between Britain’s PREVENT programme and how a state matrix profiles young black lives to ‘prevent gang crime’

When violence occurs, we reach for answers that seem quick and easy and that appear to be able to help us make sense of the world we live in and keep our loved ones safe.

This is understandable and natural. However, our first reaction is often to point fingers at the behaviour and thoughts of the community that mainstream media frames as being responsible for the said violence.

As such the following assumptions arise and are propagated: “terrorism” occurs because of a purported “ideology of hate” among Muslims; stabbings and shootings occur because black men (and women), are somehow inexplicably drawn to gang culture and violence.

With this approach, the problem lies in the beliefs, or the behaviour of the “other”. Therefore the solution is presented as identifying ‘problematic’ beliefs and behaviours and intervening in them in order to stop violence before it can happen.

On the surface this seems like a fair argument, however, it is ultimately dangerous. It ignores two important aspects to violence that continue to go unaddressed.

Firstly, by shifting the blame to minority groups and vague, nebulous concepts of “ideology” and “behaviour”, the critical social and political inequalities at the root of violence are ignored and the powerful are absolved of any effort to bring about change.

Secondly, it allows for the development of policies that securitise belief and target cultural inclinations such as dress and taste in music, within a fear-based and often racist paradigm. The state is able to criminalise swathes of innocent people, especially among the youth.

Both of these results are deeply counter-productive.

The black and Muslim experience must be seen as similar and linked

The last time I wrote for Media Diversified, I drew on the similarities between the treatment of Muslim lives and black lives when it came to popular culture. I wrote that culture was being blamed for crime, rather than being a reflection of the unequal and unjust world we live in.

Newspapers such as The Times recently have reinforced such narratives by blaming cultural trends and social critiques within rap and grime music. These tired tropes are the tools of lazy journalists, held hostage by outdated beliefs that have little resonance on the street.

However we cannot dismiss them. What such narratives do, is they fail to hold up a mirror to society’s failings at large. Rather, they set up both black and brown lives, and indeed minds, as existing outside of ‘acceptable’ human behaviour, and so potentially ‘dangerous’.

As a result they contribute to the precise inequalities and assumptions that prop up a largely ‘white’ elite, and that are truly at the heart of the anger and frustration within minority communities. This facilitates a vicious circle.

These narratives go further than just press reports. They have now infiltrated policy and police procedure. As reported by the Guardian in the past, and more recently, music choices, ‘gang videos’, and other forms of popular culture manifestations are being used as markers of future criminality by police who are using them to compile a matrix profiling young black lives.

Muslims are familiar with this modus operandi. We are currently being profiled using parameters drawn up in the government’s secret radicalisation study, that effectively informs the PREVENT policy. This policy compels frontline public sector workers to report on those in their care who display what the government terms as ‘markers’ for ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’.

Not only are these ‘markers’ based on a faulty science that criminalises normal behaviour and religious practice, but it assumes that future ‘radicalisation’ (another malleable and subjective term), like gang violence, can be predicted based on social and behavioural markers.

Against the acknowledgement of even those within the security industry, absolutely no allowance is given to the validity of political and social grievances, as being at the root of a mistaken choice to turn violent against innocent people.

Besides this huge omission – which places a substantial barrier to finding solutions – these ‘markers’ are so broad they are ridiculous. According to the UK government, being at ‘a transitory phase of life’, or exhibiting ‘a desire for moral or political change’, are just two of the many markers that are used to detect future threats among its own citizens, especially young people, and report them through the counter-terrorism programmes of Prevent and Channel.

What follows for Muslims is often a nightmarish invasion of belief and home, where individuals and families are intimidated, coerced and sometimes even threatened with harm should they not agree to comply with the behavioural and surveillance interventions of the state.

Aside from the personal trauma brought by being put on a pre-crime database, the harm these interventions do to society is of key concern in light of recent revelations that the state is maintaining a similar ‘matrix’ profiling and predicting violence among black communities.

Databases and matrixes do not keep us safe; they embed prejudice

The problem with pre-crime databases, is that they are predisposed to finding threats, particularly when they are based on algorithmic data. But this data in itself is constructed by a human being, whose bias has been worked into the system.

The consequences are far-reaching. In the US, these psychological tools were used to determine whether individuals should be sentenced to death, part of a psychological tool known as ‘future dangerousness’. Using this tool, hundreds of individuals were executed, only for the ‘science’ to be later debunked after proof emerged that the tool was inaccurate 95% of the time.

What we put into any system, is what emerges on the other side of it. A system that is developed to predict, will nearly always be based on the bias and limited understanding of the ones who create the system. This will do nothing but lead us to a state founded on endemic prejudice:

“This tension is difficult to reconcile with our usual notions of technological progress. It’s tempting to presume that technology changes more quickly than society and that software can reinforce social progress by rapidly encoding new norms and insulating them from regressive or malicious actors. A sentencing algorithm can do less harm than a blatantly bigoted judge. But it can also obscure the history and context of bias and hinder, or even preclude, progress. Infrastructure is sticky and the window of opportunity is narrowing: Technology can improve in the future, but we’re making decisions about what tradeoffs to make now. It’s not clear how often, or even whether, we’ll get the opportunity to revisit those tradeoffs.”

Violence is not innate or characteristic of any one population group. It is a construction of factors that are environmental. The government, rather than spending so much time, effort and public resources in producing systems that further criminalise black and Muslim lives, should rather spend their resources on ensuring that the levels of social inequality we see are reduced.

It is key to all of our safety and security, that those who suffer the inequities of society are not further criminalised by racist and frankly inhumane psychological tools or algorithms. The reactive response is far from the best one. Rather, we must exhort ourselves and others to carefully address context and history when confronting violence of any kind.

This means that the government must finally and completely recognise, that the society that exists, is one that it is a participant in making. It is not one that exists in a vacuum outside of its policies. Only then, can we be bring about effective change.


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Asim Qureshi graduated in Law (LLB Hons) and LLM, specialising in Human Rights and Islamic Law. He is the Research Director at CAGE, and since 2004 has specialised in investigations into the impact of counter-terrorism practices worldwide. In 2009, his book, Rules of the Game: Detention, Deportation, Disappearance, was published by Hurst, Columbia University Press and later by Oxford University Press. In 2010, he began advising the legal teams involved in defending terrorism trials in the US and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Main image by Johnny Silvercloud via Flickr.


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