Charlotte Heath-Kelly – Counter-Terrorism and the Counterfactual: Producing the ‘Radicalisation’ Discourse and the UK PREVENT strategy


Event Date: 22 February 2011
The River Room
King’s College London, Strand Campus
London WC2R 2LS

Problematising Danger

ESRC Seminar Series- Contemporary Biopolitical Security


Co-sponsored by the Biopolitics of Security Network,
and the Emerging Securities Research Unit @ Keele University

Charlotte Heath-Kelly
Aberystwyth University





This paper considers how ‘knowledge’ about ‘radicalisation’ produces a dangerous Muslim subject, but also how opacity concerning transitions to terrorism generates that will to knowledge. Looking at the underpinnings of the UK PREVENT strategy, this paper utilises conceptions of risk and governmentality to understand how the radicalisation discourse produces criteria of dangerousness and opportunities for intervention in British Muslim communities.

The major assumption which underwrites UK PREVENT strategy is that a ‘radicalisation process’ actually exists; this conception evolved from academic and policymaking discomfort with post-Cold War ‘religious’ terrorism and from the discourse of ‘New Terrorism’ – which produced knowledge about increasing connections between religiosity and violence. As well as focusing policymaking attention on religious ideas as the ‘contagion’ behind contemporary violence, and producing understandings of ‘vulnerability’ and ‘intervention’ within PREVENT, the idea that a ‘radicalisation process’ exists presents a counterfactual to terrorism – which enables governmental intervention in its supposed production. This presents an interesting overlap between disciplinary and security governance, as those presenting vulnerability indicators for radicalisation are also (viewed as) threats to the wider collective – they are both ‘at-risk’ and ‘risky’, vulnerable and dangerous.

Converse to the role of knowledge, Lacher’s (2008) conception of opacity is also used to explain governmental mapping exercises of Muslim communities. Perceived illegibility drives a ‘will to knowledge’, which reproduces understandings of disorder in Muslim communities (post-Bradford, Oldham and the Satanic Verses controversy) and upon which calculations of dangerousness and risk (qua terrorism) are made. This paper argues, then, that a combination of knowledge and opacity (the perfect conditions for risk) concerning Muslim ‘borderlands’ produced governmental mapping strategies and ‘knowledges’ which underwrite PREVENT.


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