The government this week asked Muslim women to turn in family members should they detect any behaviour that shows a willingness to travel to Syria. But this has caused an outcry from many in the Muslim community, as many feel such policies have the potential to pit family members against one another, for little or no reason. Human rights solicitor Fahad Ansari says Muslims are right to be suspicious.
When Mohammed Irfan Raja’s mother contacted the police out of concern that her teenage son was planning to travel abroad to fight in a foreign war, the last thing she expected was that he would be arrested and jailed for terrorism. But that is exactly what happened to the 17 year old schoolboy from Ilford after his mother persuaded him to return home prior to his leaving the UK.
Encouraged by his mother, Raja spoke at length with police officers about what had motivated him to participate in a battlefield thousands of miles from home. Raja was prosecuted and convicted for reading extremist literature. Although his conviction was overturned on appeal, it was little consolation for Raja’s mother who lives with the regret that her actions led to her teenage son spending several years in prison for a crime that was not even a crime.
If the latest initiative by New Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism unit to tackle British Muslims fighting alongside Syrian rebels is viewed through the prism of the Raja family’s experience, it is bound to fail. Although DAC Helen Ball, who is coordinating the project, claims that it is not about criminalising people but preventing tragedies, this clearly conflicts with the rhetoric of senior police officers who have made it clear that fighting in Syria is a serious crime which will be aggressively prosecuted.
In January this year, Commander Richard Walton, then head of the Met’s SO15 anti-terror unit, warned British Muslims to be “under no illusion” that they could escape arrest on their return from Syria, saying “if you travel to fight jihad, British law says that you are a terrorist.”
His comments were shortly followed by Sir Peter Fahy, who leads the Association of Chief Police Officer’s “Prevent” strategy on counter-terrorism. Fahy told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that those returning from Syria “may well be charged and investigated, but they will be put into our programmes”.
Two weeks later, the head of counter terrorism at the Crown Prosecution Service Sue Hemming said that it was a crime to fight in another country even if it was to topple a “loathsome” dictator such as Bashar al-Assad. Those accused of engaging in any conduct in preparation to travel to Syria to fight or to assist another to do so, face life imprisonment on conviction under Section 5 of the Terrorism Act 2006.
DAC Ball’s reassurances are also undermined by the behaviour of the security services and border police who continue to subject hundreds of ordinary British Muslims to harassment due to their assumed and imputed political beliefs. Independent advocacy group CAGE reports how it receives first-hand reports of such harassment which will only increase where mothers, naturally anxious in the current climate of fear, may report that their son or husband is intending to travel to Turkey.
It is irrelevant whether that individual is going for the purposes of tourism, business, a beach holiday or delivering humanitarian aid, this factor alone will be enough for them to come under the radar.
Good cop, bad cop
The new strategy ought to be viewed with a degree of cynicism. Just three months ago, Commander Walton issued a stark warning to the wives and girlfriends of British Muslims fighting abroad that they could be “complicit” if they failed to report their loved ones to the police. Now, the police are appealing to those same women claiming that it is not about criminalisation but preventing tragedies.
This Good Cop, Bad Cop approach is not lost on the Muslim communities who have born the brunt of heavy-handed and disproportionate policing for over a decade. The campaign is not about preventing tragedies but nothing more than a duplicitous attempt by the police to exploit the natural anxiety of mothers in the Muslim communities to assist them in their counter-terrorism work, yet another example of the far-reaching tentacles of the government’s Prevent programme.
For a mother or a wife, it is arguably more tragic for their family member to be incarcerated for life with the associated stigma of being a terrorist, as it is for them to lose their loved one in a foreign battlefield, with the comfort of at least knowing that in the latter case, they died fighting for a just cause, as heroes, not terrorists.
Fahad Ansari is a human rights solicitor who has authored a number of articles and reports on international human rights, social discrimination and anti-terrorism legislation. This article first appeared on the CAGE website.