PREVENT, Pre-crime and the Colonial Continuity


The background to this and subsequent blog to be published are the subtle transformations taking place in the context of pre-crime counter-terrorism policies and their interaction with Muslims.  Over the past few years there have been an increasing number of voices which seek to mask gaping criticisms of PREVENT by reviving previously failed strategies.  The history, details and identification of events and organisations engaged (inadvertently or otherwise) in this revival will be outlined in a further detailed piece but suffice to say, the aim seeks to develop a “community-based” response to terrorism (and extremism) in order deal with the criticism that PREVENT lacks “community buy-in” and “trust”. From within the community, the argument goes that if Muslims develop their own responses then the significance of PREVENT diminishes and religious rights for Muslims are protected.

In response to this I will proffer some further points of discussion in order to determine whether such exercises are beneficial to the Muslim minority.  This piece in particular will focus on restoring pre-crime policies like PREVENT as a method of control firmly within the discourse of colonial power relations.   Pre-crime, it will be shown, is an exemplar of the colonial continuity.

Identity and Colonialism

Over the past few years a number of the blogs here have alluded to the colonial dynamics of the pre-crime policy that is PREVENT, its proponents and in particular, the government’s relationship with the Muslim minority (see herehereherehere and here).  Neoconservatives have long argued for an alternative treatment of Muslims.  Douglas Murray’s infamous call for the rights of “West’s people” to override those of the “the Islamists in their “midst” is a typical example.  However, the central thesis of Islam itself being the problem means the entire Muslim community adhering to Islam becomes the target of pre-crime intervention.  With such neocons influencing the discourse on the pre-crime sphere in relation to terrorism pre-emption, the focus of the criminal justice system and policy formation has shifted from conduct of the criminal to “identity”.  Without this focus on identity and the accompanying political and media machinery of demonisation, the construction of an enemy, and therefore the application of counter-insurgency doctrines in punitive state systems is not a possibility.

It is in this regard that the colonial continuity can be observed.  Pre-crime, as McCulloch and Wilson highlight, embodies the hybridization of war and crime frameworks, as it “embraces the notion of presumptive enemies, which is closely linked to the continuing legacies of colonialism”. They explain,

“colonial relations of power are characterized by systems that assign different levels of rights to different categories of people… Pre-crime deepens the present-day fissures between people considered part of the community to be protected and those presumed to pose a threat based on their marginalized, racialized and demonized identities”.[1]

Pre-crime policies like PREVENT and CVE, in other words, are inherently divisive in that they manufacture the threatened and the threat. Noting the historic leveraging of colonial-era counter-insurgency doctrines by the British and the interplay with pre-crime, they elaborate,

Pre-crime can also be seen as part of a process by which colonial relations of power are imported into the colonial center. The British and French, as core colonial powers, first developed counter-insurgency military strategy to repress nationalist anti-colonial struggles in their colonial territories… Counter-insurgency, like pre-crime, seeks to pre-empt threats by targeting associates, identities and ideologies that are understood to represent a propensity towards crime or violence. Counter-insurgency doctrine defines insurgents broadly to include anyone engaged in activities, including peaceful protect or activism, designed to force the government to do things it does not want to do.

Counter-insurgency doctrine, they aver, became the basis for counter-terrorism doctrine and strategy inside former colonial powers and Western countries, bringing with it colonial relations of power within purported liberal democracies. The authors note that the colonial military doctrines were applied to the Irish from the end of the 1960s before the political discourse focussed on architecting a new “enemy within” and “suspect community”: Muslims.[2]

Pre-Crime and Colonial India

To relate to these colonial dynamics of maintaining domineering control of “natives” and forging second-class citizenry, one can draw examples from the colonial administration in India. Specifically, the British Empire exacted methods of regulation and control that mimic today’s pre-crime policies and interventions.  Islamic scholars that entrenched the colonialist control through their legal opinions were leveraged by the British to validate their rule.  The discourse on the legitimacy of the British government was “independent” in that it was seen to emanate from the Muslim scholarly circles and yet in reality, the religious conferences and debates that took place did so because it directly related to the British colonial administration’s concerns about Muslim loyalty.[3] Opinions were selectively chosen to validate and strengthen colonial rule, whilst its proponents were “honoured” as infamously demonstrated in WW Hunter’s the Indian Musalmans.  Those that opined that the British were an enemy occupier that needed to be resisted were held by the British to be “Wahhabis” – despite the scholarly authority for such opinions resting in the Hanafi jurisprudential tradition. Pertinently, the epistemology of the development of such discourses was not resistance to oppression and exploitation but maintenance of power and political interests.  They were designed to regulate in an extra-legal fashion the thoughts and ideas of Muslims and therefore their actions.

In the wake of the 1857 freedom struggle, a climate of suspicion and aggressive policing saw PREVENT-style witch-hunts instituted to catch this enemy “Wahhabi”.  Due process and rule of law was defenestrated as dubious “informers” and torture-extracted testimonials were used in kangaroo courts set up to effectively rendition “rebellious” elements to the Andaman prison island.

Pre-emption also extended to the education sphere with knowledge of the West being posited as the antidote to the Muslim problem.  Hunter advised,

we should develop a rising generation of Muhammadans, no longer learned in their own narrow learning, nor imbued solely with the bitter doctrines of their medieval Law, but tinctured with the sober and genial knowledge of the West …”[4]

“No young man, whether Hindu or Muhammadan, passes through our Anglo-Indian schools without learning to disbelieve the faith of his fathers.[5]

The strategy was to retain a translucent hue of Islam to gain credibility of locals whilst embedding firm belief in Western ideologies, and resultantly, docility to the Empire.

Present-Day Colonialism

Today, conversations are handed to Islamic scholars under a climate of pressure to discuss the problem of terrorism and promote other identity-creating topics like integration, selective, British-empire-friendly history and the legality of joining the army. Conversations about Muslims are had in every level of society to discern the problem of this future threat.  And without exception, this threat is spoken of in the counter-terrorism vernacular of “extremism”.  Whilst Muslims may be sincerely talking of rooting out some form of theological “extremism”, the terminology operates and publicly draws meaning from a pre-crime framework which is designed to demonise Muslims on the basis of their religious identity, and therefore the Muslim collective.  In this regard, the throwback to colonialism is more than noticeable. British historian Arnold Toynbee’s quote below succinctly summarises the linguistic implications of problematized and demonised identities.

“[w]hen we Westerners call people ‘natives’ we implicitly take the cultural colour out of our perception of them.  We see them as wild animals infesting the country in which we happen to come across them, as part of the local flora and fauna and not as men of like passion with ourselves. So long as we think of them as ‘natives’ we may exterminate them or, as is more likely to-day, domesticate them and honestly (perhaps not altogether mistakenly) believe that we are improving the breed, but we do not begin to understand them”.[6]

The society-wide resistance to today’s PREVENT has seen an effort, coaxed by state actors and assumed by a blinkered Muslim leadership, to superficially “fix” the negative perceptions around it. This “solution” being formed to keep the state at bay from encroaching on religious rights, is firmly within the neoconservative-established War on Terror metanarrative. It internalises the second-class citizen status and entrenches the parameters of discussion that are also systemically set by a neocon state. Ultimately, the “solution” will be one which is palatable to the centres of power and the “domesticated” tastes of particular Muslims.  Like the mistake of many a colonised people, Muslims are bargaining their conditions of acceptance by the very logic of a framework that represses their Islamic identity and problematizes them as an enemy.

To reiterate, demonised identities are integral to pre-crime policies which themselves derive from military counter-insurgency doctrines formed in the pre-twentieth century colonial era that saw the decimation of the economic, cultural, political and legal Islamic infrastructures in the Middle East and South Asia. When this is understood, what then is the term “extremist” but the modern re-rendering of the colonialist reference to the “native”? It strips the ascribed of intelligence, renders them barbaric and resigns agency to innate violent tendencies which must be mentally gutted and replaced with the embalming fluid of state propaganda in order to civilise or “moderate” them. If their resistance is stubborn they must be isolated and demonised, if their resistance is manageable then they must be brainwashed by the officialdom of Civilised Inc. The application of the term “extremism” and associated rhetoric (Islamist, Wahhabist, moderate, extremism-based “safeguarding”) is the anchor of contemporary colonialism.

To internalise this colonial power relationship by orchestrating “community-driven” solutions to terrorism and “extremism” is to develop a fatal step in embedding a historically devastating system of oppression deeper into the hearts of Muslim communities.

It is tantamount to self-destruction.


[1] McCulloch J., Wilson D., Pre-crime: Pre-emption, Precaution and the Future, 2015 p.27

[2] Ibid. pp.28-29

[3] See Hunter W.W. The Indian Musalmans, 1876, p.122

[4] Ibid. p.213

[5] Ibid. p.144

[6] J. Toynbee, A Study of History, I, 36, quoted in Hallaq, W.B., Shari’a: Theory, Practice and Transformations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, p.37

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