Author Interview – Charles Husband and Yunis Alam

Charles Husband (left, CH), fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, the University of Helsinki, Finland, and Professor of Social Analysis at the University of Bradford, UK, and Yunis Alam (right, YA), lecturer and researcher at the University of Bradford, are the authors of Social cohesion and counter-terrorism, publishing this month. They very kindly agreed to be interviewed by us – please see their answers to our questions below:

TPP: How did you come to be interested in your area of work?

CH: Answering this question honestly probably requires me to say that honestly I cannot be sure; but I would point to a number of features in my background. My father lived in India and Malaysia toward the end of the Second World War and he fell in love with the people and cultures. I always felt that if he had had a choice he would have lived there. In an ambiguous way I grew up with a strong sense that ‘the British way of life’ was not the only, or indeed preferable, way of living. Also growing up in the North East of England class distinctions were a very concrete part of lived experience and that too provided a route into being aware of the construction of difference, and its potential impact upon people’s lives. Additionally I would say that my Grandfather’s Methodist values and his forensic capacity each week, after the Sunday sermon, to interrogate its theology, relevance and rhetoric gave me a taste for a critical reading of reality. Finally I would say that, amongst other things, the openness of my parents to my bringing anyone home with no warning gave me an example of human generosity that has provided a benchmark for noting the many exclusionary mechanisms that operate in our everyday life.

YA: I suppose I became drawn to the area of identity politics, ethnic relations and multiculturalism because much of the discourse, in one way or another, connects with aspects of my own identity. I know that’s not always a particularly helpful thing to say or perhaps even a premise to work with but how and why certain policies are designed as well as the ways and means through which forms of discrimination continue to develop and operate still have a personal and political resonance. That’s not to say, of course, that ethnicity is the most salient marker of my own identity; but I initially found myself naturally drawn to the area in general probably because of that connection.

TPP: What, currently, is the primary focus of your work?

CH: I think that like many fellow researchers having a single focus for my energies would be a novel experience. In the immediate present a none negotiable priority is doing the many little things that are associated with the publication and launch of our book. If you believe in the merits of a research project you cannot just walk away from it at the point at which it is put into print: issues of feedback and dissemination have a peculiarly long afterlife.

I have for the last two and half years had a Fellowship at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies so I have spent my time between Bradford and Helsinki, and one current priority is completing the final outputs from a Finnish Academy funded project on Bilingualism, Identity and the Media, which with the my friend and colleague Prof. Tom Moring and an international team of colleagues has been an ongoing activity for the last three years. Also in Helsinki I am working with my Colleague Dr Margherita Carruci in organising an international seminar on Privacy.

My major focus now is on completing a comparative project on banal interactions in multi-ethnic communities with my colleague and friend Dr Jörg Huttermann of IKG at the University of Bielefeld.

I would like to report that my major focus is upon confronting and resisting the intellectual rape that is taking place with the Government assault upon the social sciences and humanities. This is a philistine act of such awful proportions, with implications that will carry forward into the future, that it should be the absolute priority in my life at present. It is not. Shame on me.

YA:
At the time of this interview, there is the usual teaching workload that I need to attend to. Beyond that there is some excitement and I suppose anticipation about the formal launch of our two books. I’m also finishing what I hope is the last draft of another novel and I have another short story to write after that. Slightly longer term, I’m trying to put together a research idea around the notion of cars and their owners. I want to explore a range of areas linked with car ownership and usage and within this broad sort of idea, I’m really keen to talk to people about the nature of their relationships with motor vehicles as well as car culture in general: while I’m sure for many of us, a car remains essentially an object that has the function of providing transport, for others the car’s colour, marque and indeed added enhancements/extras can say something about taste, lifestyle, identity and so on.

TPP: Describe a typical day (if there is such a thing!).

CH: Get up, more or less prepared to greet the day. A quick breakfast and then start work. I usually have a plan of what I wish to do today, and that usually struggles to stay intact in the face of the ad hoc demands from elsewhere. The first exposure to diversion is opening my two emails: one Bradford, and one Helsinki. Two days ago one of these cost me half of my planned day with an unanticipated urgent admin task.

I try to work on a specific task in a bloc of time: so today I will work on a final draft of a paper with an ex-Marie Curie Doctoral Fellow, and now friend and colleague, Dr Joanna Fomina: that I am looking forward to. Then I will do some admin. Then a quick lunch with a colleague to catch up on plans for a three day workshop that we are planning for the Sami University College in Kautokeino, to be held just after Easter: and he will take the opportunity to remind me of our deadline for two chapters we are working on, and I will remind him of another deadline he has strategically evaded . Then I will check up on the resources I am hoping I have put in place for an intensive postgraduate lecture course that starts soon. I hope after that to spend at least three hours working on writing up some research notes. Then a final blast of admin, and then, I hope helpfully, playing Devil’s advocate with a colleague’s new research proposal.
I am required as a part of my Fellowship to keep a daily log of my working hours. If only effort could be directly equated with desired output! But it is a privilege to be allowed to do a job you love.

YA:
There’s no such thing, really – every day brings its own surprises but generally speaking, unless I’m teaching first thing, I spend some time going through emails and attending to various ‘admin’ tasks. I try to spend some time preparing for lectures and also talking to students outside of lectures either in tutorials or just in passing. When there are gaps in teaching, I try catching up with reading and writing, mostly linked with my teaching and research interests.


TPP: What is your opinion on the Coalition’s Government’s measure to replace control orders with ‘surveillance orders’? Does this strike a good balance between liberty and security?

CH: Liberty and security are not terms that I would in the current British context take at face value. Since 9/11 there has been a significant retreat from an unqualified commitment to fundamental human rights amongst democratic states. The ubiquitous securitisation of everyday life has meant that the political usage of the language of security has become a discursive tool for the erosion of freedoms. The balance between liberty and security in contemporary Britain is fundamentally problematic.

The Coalition Government’s transition from control orders to surveillance orders should first of all be recognised as a response to critiques of the existing control order regime; not an act of largesse on their part. We should note, amongst other things, the extent which the judiciary in protecting human rights have been subject to exceptional vilification by government during the last ten years or so. The capacity to hold the government to account for their pragmatic ‘flexibility’ in balancing liberty against security is an ongoing challenge to the mechanisms of democracy and justice in contemporary Britain.

In this context this variant on control orders is essentially a cosmetic change that will need careful scrutiny in order to evaluate whether it represents any meaningful difference in practice.

YA: There are some differences which are said to rebalance the liberty/security tensions inherent to the old control orders but it’s clear that the new measures (TPIMs: Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures) have the potential to be just as robust as their predecessors which essentially aimed to maintain liberty for the majority while restricting the same liberty for a supposed minority. Semantics aside, what’s still worrying is that despite the claims from the government that the new measures remedy the unjust nature of the old control orders, the fundamental shift in the British tradition of justice and due legal process remains in place: by shift, I mean it no longer applies. So, we still have a situation in which it’s quite possible to be framed as a suspect even if it turns out nothing illegal has actually taken place. For example, possessing documents which happen to be public and, in some cases, authored by government agencies can still create suspicion. If the Home Secretary has reasonable grounds to ‘believe’ you are a terrorist, then you’ve had it. Previously, the Home Secretary only had to ‘suspect’ you of being a terrorist, potential or actual. I’m not sure if there is a huge difference between suspecting and believing something in this context; there may be distinctions between ‘I suspect it will rain today,’ and ‘I believe it will rain today’ but in both cases, if you have an aversion to rain, you’ll take an umbrella with you. Suspicion and belief, then, may well be different ideas theoretically, but their practical consequences and impact are likely to be identical.

Similarly, and alongside the power to hold individuals without evidence, TPIMS will continue to function with a capacity which correlates behaviours with ethnic or faith identity. This consequence is deeply racist: if you’re a white atheist, for example, a copy of the terrorist cookbook is not a big deal; if you’re a Muslim, you might want to think again about what lies on your digital and hard copy book shelves. The myriad of possible outcomes and abuses that this kind of open and flexible policy and practice can lead to is more than worrying but even the concrete aspects of the new framework are problematic. It’s still possible to hold and detain people without trial for up to two years and even then, extensions to this span of time can be applied. While the TPIMs have lost some weight around the edges, it’s still overweight: suspects will still be tagged, have their movement restricted and essentially be subject to curfews; for some reason, the government believes calling these curfews ‘overnight residence requirements’ somehow enhances liberties lost and rights removed.

In some ways, the new measures only deal with overt and superficial details, all of which mask the underlying premise which is built through escalating and indeed promoting a sense of national fear as well as a near innate distrust of all Muslims. The rhetoric, of course, doesn’t say this explicitly. Those who have spoken in support of the surveillance orders have continually stated that these measures and even the language applies only to a small minority – a very small number of Muslims. I don’t doubt this. The problem is, how and by whom membership of this very small minority is decided. With some imagination and will, any Muslim has the potential to be suspected but only by virtue of their faith; if that’s striking a good balance between security and liberty, then we all need to recalibrate our scales.

TPP: In your opinion, what has the effect of the media been on social cohesion?

CH: This is a big question with no simple answer.

First of all I do not regard social cohesion as an unproblematic concept. The British version of social cohesion, namely community cohesion, is profoundly ideological in its construction and usage. Amongst other things the media were instrumental in framing the popular understanding of why community cohesion was an appropriate policy. The success with which they disseminated the language of ‘self segregation’ and ‘parallel lives’ as the key terms for discussing the Muslim presence in Britain was an integral part of legitimating the introduction of community cohesion as state policy.

Additionally there is an extensive literature on the role of the media in the production and dissemination of Islamophobic imagery and values. Both news and entertainment media have been culpable in this regard. But to the extent that they both reflect what is going on in the ‘real world’ we should look to Government policies,and the rhetoric that they have employed to legitimate them, as one potent source of these opinions and values.

At the same time the media have also been a critical voice in exposing inequalities and discrimination.

YA: Mass media, on the whole, do not work independently of other actors, agencies, institutions and interests. Generally speaking and in relation to social cohesion in particular, mainstream media producers and channels have, however, had a very active role in the reporting and shaping of reality. This, in turn, has often fed into wider public perception and then, of course, into policy responses. It’s not that mass media are necessarily malignant but they do have within them a sense of morality and even political consciousness; different news organisations, for example, have their own style and their own message: although Fox News is probably the most well known mainstream media outlet with a very particular ideological lens through which it views, constructs and represents reality, it’s not the only one.

In relation to social cohesion – especially the kind that appears to be or is said to be deficient in Muslim communities – the media narrative for the most part has echoed central government voices and ensuring policy direction and scope. At the same time, the ways in which white working class identity is often represented also appears to be quite closely tied in with government responses to social issues in especially inner city Britain. So, rather than focussing on unemployment, social inequality or even the impact of deindustrialisation, it’s much easier and possibly more entertaining to talk about ‘chavs’, single mothers and welfare scroungers/cheats. After all, constructing and perpetuating narratives that are simple and also emotive does help establish news stories with their own sense of drama, conflict and sometimes resolution. With the social cohesion narrative, there has been a one sided representation of British Muslims as essentially the problem to be solved. While on occasion British Muslims have been invited to solve the problems of their communities, there are also claims that British Muslims are insular and segregated. These simplistic, one dimensional and arguably damaging representations may not be constructed by mass media, but mainstream mass media do a good job of perpetuating them.

TPP: What are your views on Baroness Warsi’s recent comments that prejudice towards Muslims has become socially acceptable?

CH: As a generalisation she is right. But our response to this must be to open up anti-Muslim sentiment for scrutiny: we must deconstruct it in order to recognise the many elements that may be active ingredients within the too easily used term ‘Islamophobia’. Anti-Muslim sentiment takes many forms and feeds on a variety of personal and political dynamics. We need to tease these out and address the conditions which give them legitimacy and vitality.

YA: I was surprised to learn of her views. I don’t know the extent to which she is believed within her own party, let alone the government of which she is a part. What’s also a little hard for me to swallow is that she remains part of the machine that’s helped this prejudice and stigmatisation become acceptable in the first place. Her attitudes toward multiculturalism and especially minority rights have not always been particularly helpful. In the past, she has made comments suggesting immigrants need to do more to integrate, for them to learn English perhaps at the expense of their mother tongues and, by extension, their cultural heritage and identity. Despite my cynicism about politicians and what motivates them, in this case I find myself agreeing with her; anti-Muslimism, as explored in the book, has routines which are multi-faceted and diverse but it has become a real, normative and acceptable form of prejudice.


Charles and Yunis, thank you very much for answering our questions. Social cohesion and counter-terrorism is now available with a 20% discount. You can order your copy here.

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