On the wrong side of history: the dangers facing Brexitland
By Tahir Abbas – openDemocracy: A few days ago, I packed my bags and left. After two years of living and working in London, I took the decision to leave the UK and take up an academic appointment at Leiden University in The Hague. Not only am I now able to teach in the area of sociology of terrorism that fascinates me but I can also continue my research and writing in what is a specialist field of study that combines different social science interests, including the important area of social policy. However, the timings of my movements could not have been more prescient. I arrived in London ten days after the Brexit vote. I had followed this issue closely from Istanbul, where I was living and working, and believed there would be no way that a discerning British population would ever accept this useless Tory ruse. To say that I was flabbergasted when the result emerged would be an understatement of immense proportions.
Before returning to London, I was living in Istanbul for nearly six years. I moved to Turkey at a time when it was ‘the model’; balancing the forces of Islam, democracy and capitalism; becoming a beacon to all. However, this changed in recent years as the country headed towards authoritarianism, nationalism and populism – diseases affecting many Muslim majority countries led by strongmen seen in mythical terms.
After many years of teaching and living in a country with so much richness, history and character, the politics began to change and I ended up on the wrong side of history. Less than ten days after I left the country, Turkey endured a failed military coup that resulted in the loss of 250 lives and the introduction of emergency rule. It ultimately led to hundreds of thousands of people purged, arrested or incarcerated for their affiliation (alleged or otherwise) with the movement alleged to be at the centre of this dramatic political event.
Suffice to say, my former University disappeared from the face of the earth, students were scattered all over the public sector and academic staff, both foreign and Turkish, had their contracts cancelled with immediate effect. Existing divisions in Turkish society heightened because of this event, leading to the emergence of an executive presidential system that effectively places one man at the helm but with few internal checks and balances.
A climate of fear
Populism, nationalism and a form of fascism and the deeply flawed inward-looking myths about the greatness of the nation have engulfed many western European nations, with Britain sadly leading the way in a regressive, narrow-minded and divisive politics led by the uber-elite and ultra-nationalists. This manufactured climate of fear, hate and indifference has seeped into all aspects of social, cultural, economic and political life. It is a disdain towards the poor, the old and the infirm. It is racism, snobbery and cronyism of the highest order. It is a sad state of affairs reflecting a decline in thinking, lack of new ideas of any sort and the desire to hold onto the existing but repeatedly-proven-to-be-failing neoliberal globalisation economic model at all cost.
The British ‘Brexiteers’ have come to dominate the debate on Britain leaving the EU – a decision made upon a referendum that was not legally binding. This uber-elite, with their tentacles in politics and government, could not muster the idea of the EU legislation against offshore tax havens that London has become famous for over the last five decades. For this they are willing to overhaul forty years of integration with the continent on all matters of trade, movement of labour and the exchange of intellectual, political and cultural ideas. This exclusive sub-set of the population felt that external agents hell-bent on undermining the ‘will of the people’ were controlling ‘their country’ and used all the dark and dubious methods at their disposal to whip up an already beleaguered and battered Britain.
Because of the selfish perspectives of individuals with limited outlooks that promulgate this whole endeavour, I am leaving behind a Brexit Britain that is rudderless, leaderless and completely hollow within.
From the initial campaign to today, the British people have endured a hoodwinking of immense proportions. Since the introduction of austerity in 2010, a completely avoidable policy that was always going to create more problems, divisions in society have continued to grow. The superrich are becoming an even greater subset of the population that has more wealth relative to others but is also distancing itself from the ordinary people more than ever. Austerity led to resentment towards immigrants, minorities and the ‘undeserving’ poor. These sentiments were ratcheted up further by carefully targeted online and off-line messages to appeal to the disaffected, disillusioned and disagreeable who were directed to blame those closest to them geographically but presented as seemingly the most distanced culturally.
The refugee crisis that arose because of interventions in Syria affected populations across Europe as groups made their way through the Balkan route into western Europe. Islamophobia and racism went hand-in-hand, with Brexit permitting self-selecting elites to reproduce but also legitimise this animosity and intolerance towards others. These are dangerous times globally, with populism affecting the US, Italy, Hungary, Germany, Turkey, India and potentially Pakistan. I could see it bubbling away in Turkey, especially towards the end of my time there, when ISIS had come to the fore and terrorism was increasingly becoming the new normal in Turkey. When I lived on Fifth Avenue during my NYU Fall Semester stay, I also saw it in New York after the 2015 San Bernardino attacks. These led one neighbour on my street, Donald Trump, to state on record his desire for a ‘Muslim ban’ if he got elected as President. In the UK, there were five terrorist attacks in 2017. Now the UK is in an unprecedented time of uncertainty, affecting every part of society, public and private, open and closed. As the Brexit campaign revelations increasingly reveal foul play, this further sullies the already shadowy waters that surround this redundant escapade.
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In moving to The Hague to research and teach in areas deemed too sensitive in the UK – namely, the sociological parameters of what drives extremism and radicalism – I take on a fresh outlook. Ever since the ‘war on terror’, the UK has focused on a narrow perspective on the causes and the solutions. Prevent is a focus into communities based on the view that by de-radicalising Muslims through top-down measures, terrorism can be prevented. It is also an attempt to connect UK internal issues with those leading to the movement of foreign fighters into theatres of conflict. The net outcome is to pathologise communities by taking attention away from local-structural issues and global-geopolitical matters. In the Dutch context, where concern exists on matters of radicalisation and terrorism among diaspora Muslim groups, analysis, engagement and policy development have nuance. The norm is less alarmism in general and more sensitivity concerning the delivery of effective solutions while working with an array of partners.
Stark differences between the academy, government and civil society lead to gaping holes in the UK. Left-leaning academics regard all ‘Prevent’ as necessarily bad in the main. The UK government is paralysed by Brexit, but the internal departments working in the area of countering violent extremism are too numerous and are spread across Whitehall, with a lack of clarity on what each is doing and to what end. Civil society organisations are active, vociferous and confident of expressing their reservations about policy and practice. However, all of these UK constituents talk past each other, such is the intensity with which individuals and groups are entrenched in their positions.
Fortunately, options are on the table. This includes abandoning the whole idea altogether; carrying out a second referendum where the people will get to vote on the ‘deal’; and the possibility of a Tory government collapse in the autumn with another election on the horizon. However, various Blairites and other right-leaning politicians within the Labour Party may push for another attempt to unseat Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the party. It is easy to feel disempowered.
However, it is important to remember that the people, not the politicians who rule over them, often define history. A great deal of momentum is shifting attitudes and changing political behaviour around Brexit. This is emerging from all sides of the political divide. With this in mind, I remain optimistic that the British people will do the right thing in the end. Meanwhile, I continue my work and my ongoing engagements with colleagues in the EU, the UK, North America and across the Middle East.