Fear of/in the Ethnography

Dr Tarek Younis is cultural psychologist with a PhD/PsyD in Clinical Psychology. He is an Honorary Research Associate at University College London. His British Academy postdoctoral fellowship was an ethnography exploring the racialization of statutory counter-terrorism policies in the NHS, and its impact on British Muslim mental health access. He researches and writes on Islamophobia, the securitatisation and racism of mental health, and how counter-radicalisation enters into clinical logic. He teaches on the impact of culture, religion, globalization and security policies on psychological interventions.

Tarek Younis will be presenting at the TNE panel at the upcoming ASA Conference in September. Follow our conference attendance here

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My plane’s arrival in Luton airport marked the beginning of a two-year ethnography exploring the impact of the controversial statutory counter-radicalization duty (Prevent) in the NHS. Little had I known my first journey through the airport and beyond would paint the field I would later traverse with trepidation. Though I didn’t encounter any issues upon entry, only a month later, the UK government launched its Action Counters Terrorism campaign throughout UK airports, urging the public to defeat terrorism (in the spirit of Prevent). Outside, I took the train towards central London.

 

“If you hear or see anything suspicious, remember to report it—see it, say it, sorted.”

 

The voice behind the loudspeaker repeated the message several times during my journey. Changing trains, I noticed posters plastered along the station walls reminding me to ‘say it’ if I should ever ‘see it’, lest I forget. I reached my final destination and immediately noticed the CCTV cameras spread across street corners. I later found out it’s best not to pay them too much attention—that’s suspicious (see the whole video). As the sun begins to set, I checked the time. Maghreb (the time between the sun’s setting until the night is dark) was arriving soon, so I made my way to a local mosque. As I entered, my gaze involuntarily fell upon a luminous, blood-red poster plastered on a billboard.

 

I wondered if such posters could be found everywhere, but soon noted this was not the case. This poster was here, of course, because here was a mosque. And so, within the frame of an hour, my travels from the airport, to the train, to the streets, and finally to a mosque, was marked by incessant reminders that an impeding and uncertain threat loomed ahead.

 

There’s much to say about this initial experience, having traveled through the ubiquity and normalization of counter-terrorism into everyday spaces: how this reifies a social ontology of fatalism, drawing (literally placating) the reality of an unknown threat into the very fabric of public (and private) architecture (Joseph, 2018); how neoliberal governmentality decentralizes governmental responsibility (and accountability), diminishing policy as a mode of individual responsibilisation of the people in a supposed attempt to ‘empower’ them—with very little room to maneuver (O’Toole, Meer, DeHanas, Jones, & Modood, 2016).

 

And, of course, there’s the racism. Much has been said already about how, in the War on Terror, Muslims across the Global North are racialized as the existential threat; their bodies and behaviors under increased surveillance and suspicion (Kundnani, 2014). This is the reality which I would like to present in the following interaction from my early fieldwork, bearing in mind the environment I described above and its two actors: myself (a racialized Muslim ethnographer) and my interlocutor (also a racialized Muslim).

 

One Friday, after the culmination of Friday prayer, congregants were hastily leaving a London mosque in single-file rows. Near the exit, at the end of a hallway cluttered with brightly colored shoes across its walls, I observed a familiar sight: a health professional urging other to donate blood. These initiatives, at least in those I’ve participated in, are often successful after Friday prayers. I quickly entertained several plans to speak with him, deciding finally to wait until the hallway emptied its fill of worshippers. New to London at the time, I was keen on making some new acquaintances, especially NHS professionals who married their work with activism. When the coast was clear, I introduced myself, explaining who I was; why my accent was different; how we shared an ambition in community health; and what the subject of my research project was: Prevent’s counter-radicalization duty in the NHS.

 

The man smiled. “I stay away from politically-sensitive topics,” he told me, “but I can maybe put you in contact with others.”

 

“Oh, I understand.” I thanked him, not without some disappointment, and we parted ways. He did eventually put me in contact with others–true to his word. I don’t fault him, but I never considered the ominous possibility that, perhaps, his avoidance would foreshadow things to come. It eventually became one of many such incidents in the two years I’ve researched Prevent.

 

Sometimes I was lucky, like the case above, and British Muslims explained their rejection of me. Most times, I never stood a chance. Once I was speaking to a Muslim man after a congregational prayer. We hit it off immediately, our conversation jovial and amicable. He then asked what I did for a living, to which I responded with a question of my own: ‘have you heard of Prevent?’ Without warning, he turned and walked away. Was it counter-terrorism, the subject, or was it me, a stranger (and potential informant), which scared him off? It didn’t matter. One thing was certain—the fear was palpable.

 

How could I be certain it’s fear? There’s no way to be sure. But just as good therapy is a process of meaningful co-construction, so too is good ethnography. Looking inwardly then, I know I am well acquainted with the insecurity wrought by the securitized gaze of the other. I too would like to maintain an everyday without these incessant reminders that I embody, in fact, a particular social conflict (the War on Terror) viewed with a securitized lens. And who am I then to break their everyday? Perhaps, for them, the best they can achieve is to maintain an everyday like the posters, policies and cameras are not directed at them, while I recall in vivid detail every person who counselled me (with good intentions, no less) to shave my beard so I don’t get caught ‘accidentally’.

 

References

 

Abu-Lughod, L. (2008). Writing against culture. In The cultural geography reader (pp. 62–71). Routledge.

Joseph, J. (2018). Varieties of resilience: Studies in governmentality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kundnani, A. (2014). The Muslims are coming!: Islamophobia, extremism, and the domestic war on terror. London: Verso Books.

O’Toole, T., Meer, N., DeHanas, D. N., Jones, S. H., & Modood, T. (2016). Governing through prevent? Regulation and contested practice in State–Muslim engagement. Sociology, 50(1), 160–177.

 

 

 

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