Protests against British research council: "Recruits anthropologists for spying on muslims"

Reading my earlier post “The dangerous militarisation of anthropology” you might get the impression that this is something that only regards the U.S. But the same thing is happening in Britain. A few weeks ago the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth (ASA) passed a resolution that criticized a huge British research program that recruits anthropologists for “anti-terror” spying activities, and anthropologist Susan Wright (Danish University of Education) called for global coordination on this issue.

Here is ASAs resolution:

The ASA notes with concern the formulations of the recent ESRC/AHRC/FCO funding initiatives (Programmes) on ‘New Security Challenges’. While welcoming the withdrawal of the first proposed Programme, it considers that the revised initiative, particularly as set out in section 3.2. (that the research should inform UK Counter Terrorism policy overseas), is prejudicial to the position of all researchers working abroad, including those who have nothing to do with this Programme”.

This meeting thus proposes as follows:

* that all anthropologists in the UK, and members of the ASA in particular who might have applied for funding under this Programme, consider carefully the position in which they could place themselves, the people with whom they work in the field, and other colleagues. They should also note that research of this kind may well conflict with the ASA’s Code of Ethics,

* that the office-holders and Committee have the confidence of the ASA membership to discuss these issues with colleagues within this and other disciplines, both through networks and professional associations, and decide on what further actions are appropriate.

“This is a major issue that professional associations in the UK and the US need to take a hard line on”, writes Susan Wright in Anthropology Today February 2007:

It’s no use one country’s professional association taking a hard line and another not: it will make it impossibly difficult for politically marginalized people to decide who to work with and who not to if any country’s professional association condones academic enquiry being confused with spying, surveillance or counterinsurgency.

What’s this all about?

In July 2006, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) invited chosen academics to bid for funding under a £1.3-million research initiative entitled ‘Combating terrorism by countering radicalisation’. It is a research program that is based on the premise of a link between Islam, radicalization and terrorism. ‘Radicalization’ is a new buzzword in intelligence circles and was nowhere defined.

As Gustaaf Houtman explained in Anthropology Today 6/2006:

The ‘initiative’ was not openly advertised and MI5’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (which in 2003 brought together counter-terrorist expertise from 11 key government departments and agencies, including the police), was understood to have participated in its design. The programme was jointly sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) under the direction of Professor Stuart Croft, the Director of the ESRC’s five-year New Security Challenges Programme (a programme that began in 2003, and sponsors 40 research projects aiming ‘to try to offer fresh insight into the security challenges faced in the post-Cold War and post-9/11 globalized world’).

Under the ‘Combating terrorism programme’ six regions – Europe, Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, North Africa and the Gulf – and five specific countries – Jordan, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan and Turkey – were chosen for study.

Academics would be asked to ‘scope the growth in influence and membership of extremist Islamist groups in the past 20 years’, ‘indicate where intervention strategies might have a disproportionate influence’, ‘name the key figures (moderate and extreme) and key groups (including charities and proselytising religious groups) influencing the local population’ and ‘understand the use of theological legitimisation for violence’. Among the main topics mentioned were ‘radicalisation drivers and counter- strategies in each of the country studies’ and ‘future trends likely to increase/decrease radicalisation’.

But these plans were suspended soon after the Times Higher Educational Supplement got hold of the story and this spring, a revised version was launched.

Nevertheless, the focus doesn't seem to have changed a lot as we see in these lines in paragraph 3.2:

The FCO’s interest in this initiative stems from the recognition that independent, high-quality research on radicalisation issues can inform UK Counter Terrorism policy overseas. As part of the Prevent strand of that policy in particular, the FCO seeks to use research to increase its knowledge and understanding of the factors associated with radicalisation in those countries and regions identified as high priority. The Prevent strand is concerned with tackling the radicalisation of individuals, both in the UK and elsewhere, which sustains the international terrorist threat.


Proposals with a country or regional focus should address questions arising out of a critical engagement with the conventional wisdom and scholarship on topics of relevance to the initiative.

These include:
• Key political, social, cultural and demographic factors that impact upon Muslim populations in the area of study
• The social profile of those who may support or be attracted to violence, in terms of gender, age, class and ethnicity
• Diverse forms of avowedly Islamist mobilisation, both political and non-political, violent and non-violent
• The diversity of Islamic schools, organisations, political parties and social movements and the divisions between such bodies, movements and sects
• Patterns of migration, identity formation, and mobilisation among Muslim diasporic communities and their impact on ‘radicalisation’

The project is not an entirely British affair. According to Jeremy Keenan (Anthropology Today February 2007) it has been designed to meet the needs of its US ally, whose counter-terrorism initiatives have been running into an increasing number of difficulties in several places in the world. The FCO, he writes, had been asked by the Americans to help them in their "counterterrorist efforts" in the Sahara-Sahel. The FCO was now asking the ESRC and AHRC to get British academics involved. Keenan who has done reearch in this area for 30 years in this area has also been asked to advise them.

This ‘second front’, he writes, has played a key role in furthering US interests over the last five years. In particular, it has created the ideological conditions used to justify and legitimize the current militarization of Africa for the purposes of securing US strategic national resources – notably oil. The ‘front’ has also been used by the Pentagon’s controversial Office of Special Plans to ‘cherry-pick’ now largely disproved intelligence to support its invasion of Iraq. It has also helped to keep a more sceptical ‘old Europe’ supportive of the ‘global’ ‘war on terror’.

But as his research has shown, there are no terrorists there. Most, if not all, of the ‘terrorist’ incidents in this region, which justified the launch of the ‘second front’, Keenan writes, were fabricated by US and/or Algerian military intelligence services.


The dangerous militarisation of anthropology

"Tribal Iraq Society" - Anthropologists engaged for US war in Iraq

Fieldwork reveals: Bush administration is lying about the "war on terror" in the Sahara

San Jose: American Anthropologists Stand Up Against Torture and the Occupation of Iraq and AAA Press Release: Anthropologists weigh in on Iraq, torture at annual meeting

"War on terror": CIA sponsers anthropologists to gather sensitive information / see also debate on this on Savage Minds

Anthropology and Counterinsurgency: The Strange Story of Their Curious Relations

Bush, "war of terror" and the erosion of free academic speech: Challenges for anthropology

USA: Censorship threatens fieldwork - A call for resistance

Two Books Explore the Sins of Anthropologists Past and Present

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