Anti-terrorism laws have caused citizens to rethink what being a citizen means

The UK government has introduced many anti-terrorism laws in recent years.  Lee Jarvis and Michael Lister explain how this has caused many citizens to rethink  what being a UK citizen means, drawing ESRC funded research published in Citizenship Studies.

[one_half]In recent years a lot of attention has been paid to the corroding impacts of anti-terrorism measures on the protections afforded by citizenship in the UK and beyond. While valuable, much of the research in this area has been dominated, on the one hand, by abstract theorisations of developments in this policy arena. And, on the other, large-scale quantitative assessments of public opinion. As a result of this – and with only a small number of exceptions – there has been a lack of detailed, ‘thick’, qualitative work exploring how citizens themselves understand and articulate the anti-terrorism/citizenship nexus. This is unfortunate, we argue, because if we believe citizenship is something more than a formal legal status – that citizenship is an experience, or a lived identity, for instance – then understanding changes in citizenship necessitates engaging with citizens themselves.

Over the last couple of years we have been attempting to do just this by conducting a qualitative analysis of the relationships between anti-terrorism, citizenship and security in the lives of people living across the UK. To do this, we ran a series of 14 focus groups organised around geography (metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas) and ethnic identity (Asian, black, white) in a series of locations in England and Wales. In some senses, our findings were as troubling as we had feared. Many of the people with whom we spoke told us that various aspects of their citizenship – their rights, obligations, attachment to British identity, and ability to participate in the public sphere – had all been significantly dampened by developments in this policy area. Perhaps more importantly, many of our white participants told us that they felt relatively untouched by these developments personally, indicating that anti-terrorism powers may be contributing to different or disconnected citizen experiences across the UK (see this article for more).

Without diminishing the importance of the above, we also spoke with a number of people who had sought to resist the diminishing experience of citizenship associated (for them) with new anti-terrorism powers. These strategies of resistance were numerous, and included, first, articulations of explicit opposition to recent changes to this policy area. As one black female in London put it: “Our challenge to government, if this [transcript] is going to be released to them, I challenge them with all the things that I’ve said…Creating laws don’t solve problems…it needs a social agenda to solve the social problems”. Second, others such as this Asian male in Birmingham described how they refused to accept the subject positions of victim, target or outsider that frequently appear when anti-terrorism powers were being discussed: “…the minute you start feeling subjugated, then that affects you”. Third, others argued that the response to such developments should be to attempt to enter, rather than withdraw from, political life in order to better contest what was being done in the name of security. As an Asian female in London argued, “Let’s go into politics, let’s do my degree in politics, or lets do my conversion in politics, let me get into there”

Lee Jarvis, Senior Lecturer in International Security at UEA (from January 2013)
Lee Jarvis, UEA (from Jan 2013

It is important not to overstate the significance or even frequency of these strategies of resistance. Many of the people with whom we spoke did indeed feel that their experience of citizenship had been dampened or diminished because of post-9/11 efforts to combat the terrorist threat. At the same time, these efforts to (i) critique, (ii) pose alternatives to, and (iii) resist the narration of, anti-terrorism powers are vitally important for thinking about the impact that security policy has upon citizenship. First, because these strategies indicate the continuing importance of citizenship, equality of treatment, and mainstream political participation in the lives of many people living in the UK today. Second, because they demonstrate the importance of speaking to citizens – speaking to people – in efforts to research these issues. To fully understand how – or whether – security policy impacts upon life and liberty it is necessary to do more than identify changes to legislation and policy frameworks. And, third, these strategies also point to the interplay that exists between anti-terrorism and citizenship. Developments in the former do indeed appear to impact upon experiences of the latter, as we might expect. At the same time, however, prior conceptions and experiences of citizenship and the state also appear vital to how developments in anti-terrorism powers are themselves understood. On the one hand, those for whom citizenship is already a precarious category are likely to view anti-terrorism measures as evidence of further targeting. As one Asian male in Birmingham told us: “All of these [anti-terrorism measures] are designed to control Muslims”. On the other, those feeling secure in their status as citizen might be far less likely to worry about its diminishment. As one Asian female in London put it: “if I was mistakenly identified, I think I would have enough access to legal counsel…I still have to go through a trial…a completely fair and proper trial process” (London, Asian, Female).

Dr. Michael Lister
Dr. Michael Lister, Reader in Politics at Oxford Brookes University


Lee Jarvis will be taking up a post as a Senior Lecturer in International Security at UEA in January 2014. He is author of Times of Terror: Discourse, Temporality and the War on Terror and co-author (with Richard Jackson, Jeroen Gunning and Marie Breen Smyth) of Terrorism: A Critical Introduction. His research is in print or forthcoming in journals including Security Dialogue, Political Studies, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, International Relations, Terrorism and Political Violence, and Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. Follow him on Twitter: @LeeJarvisPols.

Michael Lister is Reader in Politics at Oxford Brookes University. He is co-author with Emily Pia of Citizenship in Contemporary Europe and co-editor with Colin Hay and David Marsh of The State: Theories and Issues. His research has been published in journals including Political Studies, International Relations, Government and Opposition, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, Citizenship Studies, Contemporary Politics and Comparative European Politics. Email:

Photo credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office

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