LONDON, Feb 28 — Muhammad still does not know for sure why British counter-terrorism police came to the door of his east London home shortly before dawn one morning in March 2012.
It was 5:30am on the day of Muhammad and his wife’s third wedding anniversary. The couple’s two young children were sleeping in their cots, and his elderly parents were also visiting. “My mum woke me up, saying: ‘There are police at the door. Get up! Get up!’ My wife grabbed her headscarf and we all went into the living room,” Muhammad told Al Jazeera, requesting only his first name be used for legal reasons. “I counted 12 police officers in there and there were others lurking in the other rooms. They said they had a warrant to raid my house and my car.”
As police searched the property, Muhammad’s father suffered a heart attack. An ambulance was called to take him to hospital. The police eventually left at 2am the following morning, taking with them money, documents, electrical equipment, phones and Muhammad’s passport. Muhammad, a British-born Muslim of Bangladeshi origin in his late 20s, was not arrested, detained or questioned as a result of the raid.
His father made a full recovery. But the incident has turned his life upside down. He has subsequently been routinely stopped and questioned at airports under Schedule Seven counter-terrorism powers, making his work as a guide escorting British pilgrims to Saudi Arabia on Hajj increasingly untenable. In October last year he said he was held for 26 hours at Riyadh airport before being deported back to the UK without explanation.
Last August, he was invited to visit a London police station to collect the belongings and money seized from his house almost a year and a half earlier. “Two officers from SO15 (the London Metropolitan Police’s counter-terrorism unit) were waiting for me. You know they play good cop, bad cop? Well, that day they were both playing good cop, just chatting about stuff. As I was going to walk out they said: ‘Hold on, there’s someone that quickly needs to speak to you.’” Muhammad was shown into a room where two men he said he believes worked for MI5, the UK’s internal security service, were waiting. He said they put him under pressure and offered him incentives to inform for them. “They asked me about my friends, about Syria, stuff like that. They said they believed there were people who wanted to come back and cause mayhem in the UK. I said I had no intention of going to Syria. They gave me a phone number and told me to call if I heard anything.”
Muhammad’s story, according to the civil liberties group CAGE, is merely one case demonstrating how many British Muslims are becoming ensnared by increasingly intrusive and illiberal counter-terrorism policies targeting those deemed to be “extreme” in their faith. In a report published this month into the UK government’s Prevent counter-terrorism strategy, CAGE warned that Muslim communities were being subjected to “cradle-to-grave” levels of surveillance and discrimination that go beyond the policies used against suspected communist sympathizers in the United States at the height of the Cold War.
It highlighted how Prevent had put mosques, Muslim institutions and charities under scrutiny and how public officials, including teachers, lecturers, chaplains and healthcare workers, were being urged to inform on schoolchildren, students and patients deemed to be at risk of radicalization. CAGE’s director is Moazzam Begg, who was arrested on Tuesday for alleged terrorism offences related to Syria. The former Guantanamo Bay detainee was captured in Pakistan in 2002 by US forces. He was released from the American prison camp in Cuba in 2005 without ever being charged.
In December Begg wrote about how he had been continually harassed by the British government and members of its security services and had his passport confiscated because of his investigations into British complicity in rendition, and because of his work supporting humanitarian-aid efforts for Syria. In a statement CAGE said it was “outraged” by the detention. “We do not accept involvement by Moazzam Begg in any form of terrorism,” it said. “He is simply one of many individuals and charities involved in Syria being viewed with suspicion in an effort to send a message to the wider Muslim community that working in Syria is no go area for them.”
The CAGE report highlighted the case of a nine-year-old boy alleged to have shown signs of extremism who was referred to authorities for “deprogramming”. Police figures show a steady increase in referrals among young people, with 748 referred for assessment in 2012-2013, compared with 580 a year earlier and more than 2,600 in total since 2006. In other cases, youth groups and mental health projects aimed at Muslim communities found that access to public funding was conditional on sharing data and information with law enforcement agencies, while university Islamic societies have faced pressure to hand over membership lists and other data to counter-terrorism police.
“There has been nothing like the Prevent policy since the McCarthy era, but Prevent goes a lot further; it goes into every aspect of Muslim life,” Jahangir Mohammad, the co-author of the report, told Al Jazeera. “Prevent has created a climate of fear and alienation in the Muslim community. People feel they can’t challenge this stuff and they don’t have any rights.” Yet recent proposals to further toughen the UK’s counter-terrorism laws in the aftermath of the killing of British soldier Lee Rigby last May, and amid current concerns over the security risk posed by British Muslims travelling to Syria, could make Prevent even more draconian.
In December, Theresa May, the British home secretary, announced plans to introduce legislation that would place the policy on a statutory footing. While local authorities, mosques, universities and other institutions are currently under no legal obligation to cooperate with Prevent, such a move would force them to do so by law. Critics argue the government’s efforts to enshrine Prevent in law are driven by a neo-conservative ideology that conflates conservative interpretations of Islam with a heightened risk of violent radicalization. Teachers, doctors, police officers, civil servants and local government officers are effectively being trained and indoctrinated with a politicized understanding of Islam,” the CAGE report states. “It is a policy to silence Muslims and pacify/de-politicize their faith. In short, it criminalizes political dissent or alternative political thought.”
Many of those on the sharp end of Prevent measures believe the policy has already proved counter-productive by alienating, rather than engaging, Muslim communities. Shakur Rahman, an imam at the Redbridge Islamic Centre in east London, told Al Jazeera that he and other mosque officials had been regularly visited by Prevent officers voicing concerns about invited speakers and other events. “We have people claiming to be Special Branch (SO15) coming in and demanding a meeting with the imam and saying: ‘If you do not comply we are going to make your life difficult,’” Rahman said.
“The implication is: ‘We are watching you. We have got our eye on you and we are going to be keeping our ears to the ground.’ Then you find certain people coming along to the community and asking strange questions. They turn up every now and then and then they disappear. “We know, as every imam knows, that if you say something which they do not like you could be raided that night. They are creating that fear so that we are afraid to speak about fundamental issues that pertain to our community. If the whole strategy of Prevent is to minimize problems in the community then it is doing the exact opposite.”
Al Jazeera contacted the London Borough of Redbridge’s Prevent officer but she declined to comment. A spokesperson for the council said queries regarding Prevent should be directed to the Home Office. A Home Office spokesperson told Al Jazeera: “Our Prevent strategy challenges extremist ideology, helps protect institutions from extremists, and tackles the radicalization of vulnerable people. “We work closely with local authorities to engage with faith institutions, civil society groups and other organizations and ensure they have the support and advice they need. We are also giving additional support to local communities on the frontline of tackling extremism by supporting integration projects and setting up a dedicated public communications platform.” It’s UK government policy for spokespeople not to be named.
The only reason that Muhammad can think of to explain why the police raided his home is that he had been collecting money for a Syrian aid appeal outside his local mosque the previous Friday. “There was a group of brothers and they asked me to hold a tin for them,” he recalled. “Maybe MI5 was watching someone at the mosque and I was with that person and that’s how I got dragged in. The raid has made me fearful of going to mosques. I think, what if I go and it makes the situation worse?” Muhammad is convinced he is still under surveillance. He has started wearing casual clothes rather than traditional Islamic dress to avoid drawing attention to himself. He often gets unknown calls on his phone, but the line is silent when he answers.
“Even when I came here tonight [for the interview] I saw a car parked up. You can tell what police look like when they are undercover. I have MI5 on my back, I have SO15 taking my stuff, and I am fearful. There is a question mark at the end of this because I don’t know what is going to happen to me.” —IINA