Astroturfing and the rise of the Secular Security State in Britain

Yahya Birt
Aug 17 · 6 min read
Astroturfing in action

Opaque government manipulation of British Muslim community life has become pervasive. Time to roll back the secular security state, Yahya Birt argues.

Imagine you are a British Muslima writing content for an online website that discusses heartfelt issues of importance to your community. Your posts strike a chord because you are writing from authentic personal experience, and they get the most attention. But you are the only person of colour and the only Muslim in the office. The rest of your team are middle-aged white men pretending to be “sisters ” online. You smell a rat. You thought this was a legit job, but investigating further, you find out that this organisation is funded by the Home Office either through Prevent or Prevent-related funds. You resign in protest at the clandestine co-option of your voice for the needs of what I shall describe below as the secular security state.

This story is not made up. This was told to the poet and civil rights activist Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan this week. As she comments on Twitter, “The betrayal of trust that we face at every level of every institution including online spaces, media platforms, arts and culture events, civic life and everything else is honestly something I think everyone concerned w[ith] racism at ALL needs to be SCREAMING about! This is urgent!”

It is indeed urgent. And what is particularly urgent is to call out the “astroturfing” that is going on and adversely impacting our community.

What is astroturfing and why does the British government practise it with respect to British Muslims?

Astroturfing is designed to give the appearance of “grass roots” mobilisation, or community-led bottom-up civil society initiatives, when in fact it is driven from above by state funding, patronage, training, in-kind services, etc. channelled through proxies. It is at its most pernicious when this state support is opaque or invisible; if it is open and transparent then at least it can be publicly scrutinised.

Astroturfing at its most secretive subverts the normal, healthy and authentic development of Muslim youth cultures by chaining it to the War on Terror logic of the good/bad Muslim binary driven by political purposes (as proposed by Mahmood Mamdani). But when uncovered it also creates fear, suspicion and distrust within Muslim cultural and intellectual spaces — something that is also a negative dividend of the policy.

By and large, New Labour (with exceptions) went for a partnership approach that was relatively open, or one could say relatively “weak” forms of astroturfing, as there was a measure of dialogue and consent and openness in it (and therefore the possibility of scrutiny and contestation). The Coalition and the Conservatives have gone for a much more opaque or strong form of astroturfing.

With regard to British Muslims, astroturfing has its historic roots in counter-insurgency practices and doctrine developed in colonial British Malaya, named the battle for “hearts and minds”. The battle was 10% military, 90% political. This was taken up by the Americans in Iraq under David Petreaus, and this revived “hearts and minds” approach duly influenced British domestic policy towards British Muslims recast as an insurgent population after 2005. “Hearts and minds” was a common mantra under New Labour’s Prevent policy. Prevent funding for community partnerships was distributed on the basis of the Muslim demographic as recorded in the National Census.

The picture became murkier after 2011 with the revised Prevent strategy alongside the counter-extremism strategy that grew out of Prevent after 2013. Briefly some of the key opaque or non-transparent strategies have been as follows:

(a) Use of subcontracted private companies (e.g. Breakthrough Media) with Home Office funding to deliver counter-extremism/counter-terrorism messaging in astroturfed forms. Through this is provided funding, training, in-kind services (e.g. website development), public relations and press promotion. One good example has been the intensive support given to Inspire whose founder went on to head the Commission for Countering Extremism.

(b) Renaming entities or funding streams with the same overall purpose to avoid association with the toxic Prevent brand. This is to allow for a technical defence that “Project X is not Prevent funded”. Or the rebranding of Breakthrough Media as the Zinc Network. This can also be seen in the creation of a new fund delivered through a charity and an advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, “Building a Stronger Britain Together”, with Prevent-related counter-extremism goals, which has funded projects for cultural bodies like the Bradford Literature Festival.

(c) Intersectionality from above. Direct interference in ethical and theological debates within the Muslim community, which itself operates along an axis of positions that increasingly mirrors those of post-Enlightenment European Jewry from orthodox to reform to secular. It means weaponising certain vectors of Islamic reform or mobilising wedge issues, especially those pertinent to Muslim youth, for the purposes of state security policies. The dynamism of digital Muslim youth culture makes it both open to astroturfing as well as resistant to it at the same time. It rides parasitically on youth countercultures more generally that British Muslim youth activists tap into, e.g. African American civil rights movements like Black Lives Matter, with projects such as “This is Woke”.

(d) Subverting Cultural Outputs. The growing evidence that cultural outputs on television and the stage are put out to provide counter-terrorism/extremism messaging with secretive HO assistance. Similarly there is the silencing of counter-establishment art and culture outputs that question the dominant narrative, e.g. Homegrown’s cancellation by the National Youth Theatre.

(e) Business and think-tank support for Astroturfing. There is a think tank and business element to astroturfing that was particularly evident in the American-influenced Obama-era “Countering Violent Extremism” strand. This has led to additional support from Silicon Valley companies such as Google and Twitter, who have supported initiatives such as Imamsonline in UK for instance.

In my judgement, all this is doing is retarding and holding back the organic and authentic development of British Muslim communities from one generation to the next by bringing it into the domain of securitization.

What is securitization and why is it important to understand this critical term?

The concept of securitization was developed just after the ending of Cold War by a group of academics in Copenhagen. In essence, the state deems a population (or sector) as a security risk, in this case British Muslims, and while this is disputed by said population (or sector), this allows for the state to indulge in “exceptional measures” that would not be acceptable in normal (or non-security) issues.

That is how it is with us British Muslims. We now live under the secular security state. Now one classical conception of secularism is the theory of “twin tolerations” as outlined by the late political theorist Alfred Stepan. In essence, state-religion relations are characterised not by the intensive state management of religious life and community but by recognising certain fundamental religious freedoms of conscience, association, etc. This can be defended as a classic liberal democratic ideal of secularism, and indeed it can be characterised as a British inflection of moderate political secularism in the terminology of political scientist and philosopher Tariq Modood.

However, I would contend that this tradition of “twin tolerations” or “moderate political secularism” has been under huge pressure in the last twenty years, and one overriding factor in this has been securitization.

In Britain, securitization creates, in sum, what I define as the “secular security state”. My hypothesis is this: securitization acts as a trump card to cancel out moderate traditions of secularism and gives license to a stronger laic or interventionist and policing role for the state vis-a-vis Islam and indeed some other religious groups too like Orthodox Jews or Evangelical Christians.

The SSS can intervene directly or indirectly into the religious, intellectual and cultural lives of British Muslims that would not be tolerated or supported by any other community. And it can do so with relative impunity and legitimacy.

This is where a second concept developed by the Copenhagen School becomes important. This is desecuritization, namely the need to move a sector or a population out of the security domain back into normal politics so that crucial human rights, civil liberties and other social values can be restored to their proper place with respect to it, i.e. to British Muslim communities.

As the War on Terror drags on without end, we British Muslims are entitled to ask with the philosopher Georgio Agamben whether what was once seen as a temporary emergency measure has become our new and continuous reality, “a permanent state of exception”. Britain is no longer a temporary “secular security state” but is abandoning its traditional moderate secularism for the coercive policing and religious remodelling or marginalisation found in France, Turkey, with even some features of the formally atheist communist states.

Let us wake up and consider how far we have let matters slide — we have normalised the abnormal and internalised an unacceptable and unwarranted level of state interference in our community life. Now is the time to take a stand.

Yahya Birt

Written by

is a PhD candidate in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds. He is researching the history of postwar Muslim political activism in Britain.

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