Peace Science Digest

How Counterterrorism Practitioners Discount the Lived Experience of Racial Violence 

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Abu-Bakare, A. (2022). Exploring mechanisms of whiteness: How counterterrorism practitioners disrupt anti-racist expertise. International Affairs 98(1), 225-243.

Talking Points  

Based on British and Canadian counterterrorism practices: 

  • Academic-practitioner exchanges focused on counterterrorism policy show how whiteness is employed by practitioners to restrict certain types of knowledge about Islamophobia and systemic racism. 
  • Counterterrorism practitioners “[defend] their state-affirmed understandings of Islamophobia at the expense of important academic expertise” that details systemic racism and Islamophobia in political, social, and economic structures. 
  • In regulating what type of academic expertise is valid in discussions on Islamophobia and systemic racism, practitioners “privilege white ways of knowing systemic racism [that] are erroneous and have negative implications for racialized people.” 
  • In British and Canadian counterterrorism regimes, white perspectives on racism are institutionalized through knowledge hierarchies and self-aggrandizement. 

Key Insight for Informing Practice  

  • A political backlash to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives is yet another example of institutionalized white supremacy. The peace and security community must reaffirm their commitment to DEI initiatives as part of a larger framework to dismantle systemic racism and mitigate violent conflict.  


Critical conversations on racism and anti-racism are now prominent in the academic field of counterterrorism studies. However, among practitioners, there is significant backlash to the idea that racism is embedded in political, social, and economic structures.   

For example, in the U.K. in 2018/2019, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims (APPG-BM) offered a definition of Islamophobia based on a six-month research process and called for state recognition of Islamophobia as a form of racism. The National Police Chiefs’ Council came out against this proposal, arguing that it would undermine counterterrorism and policing policies, thereby discrediting the findings of the months-long consultative process. A similar dynamic played out in Canada following the 2017 attack at an Islamic cultural center in Québec City—the Canadian House of Commons passed a motion to condemn Islamophobia and “work towards eliminating all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination.” When academic testimony identified a systemic problem of data collection in the reporting of hate crimes, the parliamentary Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage rejected the idea that there was systemic bias in the way the government collected data, asserting instead that the government was a neutral actor.  

These two examples constitute the case studies that Amal Abu-Bakare uses in his research on how racism has shaped thinking in British and Canadian counterterrorism policy. These case studies demonstrate how counterterrorism practitioners “[defend] their state-affirmed understandings of Islamophobia at the expense of important academic expertise” that details how systemic racism and Islamophobia show up in political, social, and economic structures. Abu-Bakare argues that these academic-practitioner exchanges show how whiteness—a logic wherein “a specific socio-economic experience (i.e. European) dictate[s] how politics should be performed, conceived and organized”—is employed by counterterrorism practitioners to restrict certain types of knowledge about Islamophobia and, more broadly, systemic racism. Additional evidence includes a document analysis, participant observation at the U.K. and Canadian houses of parliament, and 35 semi-structured interviews with counterterrorism practitioners.

Counterterrorism “the wide-ranging effort by state actors and those they sponsor to sustain the cohesion of existing political, social and economic structures.”
Islamophobia “anti-Muslim racism: a system generating practices, institutions, narratives and inequities based on the perceived non-whiteness of Muslimness as an ethnic category.”
Whiteness “a mode of thought which centres on being phenotypically white as a constitutive element in the boundaries of socio-political imagination… [However] the term ‘white’ does not imply the existence of a categorical group of indistinguishable individuals. Rather, it encompasses a diverse set of persons by referring to a social positioning and the existence of ‘an unstable category’ which gains its meaning through social, political and epistemic relations of domination.”

Abu-Bakare pulls from W.E.B. Du Bois’s thinking on the color line as an analytical framework to explain how western racial attitudes, particularly in support of whiteness, continue to inform counterterrorism policy. Written in the aftermath of WWI, Du Bois “argued that western imperialism had divided the entire world into blocs of light and dark races, and that a white supremacist imagination was an organizing principle of international politics.”  He believed there was a direct link between racial violence in North America and Europe and the violent colonial histories in much of the rest of the world, noting that all of these contexts were supported by “an ideology that validated ‘the exclusivity of a white man’s world’, evident specifically in how white people maintained abstract and material control over the reality of non-white people.” Even before the events of September 11th, counterterrorism institutions were structured “by the imperial and racial attitudes of the British empire” and tied to white supremacy. Counterterrorism has its roots in colonial efforts to counter resistance campaigns in colonized territories, racializing and denigrating groups for their resistance to the British empire—for example, the response to Irish resistance campaigns throughout the 20th century.  

In the present day, counterterrorism continues to be supported by imperial and white supremacist logic. Through his examination of the dialogue between academics and practitioners, Abu-Bakare reveals how counterterrorism practitioners control what sort of knowledge is seen as legitimate, drawing on whiteness as a way to enforce modern-day imperialism. In regulating what type of academic expertise is valid in discussions on Islamophobia, practitioners prioritize knowledge about racism from a white perspective rather than from the perspective of non-white communities who experience racism, even going so far as to deny the existence of systemic racism—a move that has “negative implications for racialized people.” 

Abu-Bakare identifies how counterterrorism institutionalizes these white perspectives on racism in the case studies detailed above through knowledge hierarchies and self-aggrandizement. Academic knowledge on racism, especially when it centers the voices of the historically marginalized and those victimized by racist violence, is constrained by government officials due to “institutional logic” that upholds whiteness and the political status quo. The U.K. example demonstrates how counterterrorism practitioners establish a hierarchy between different forms of knowledge, asserting their own “expertise” on issues of racism over the lived experience of British Muslims (as expressed in academic research on Islamophobia).  In this instance, these practitioners suggested that the proposed definition of Islamophobia muddled the distinction between race and religion. This reflects an imperial impulse to neatly demarcate groups of people into distinct categories even when “the intersectional nature of racial and religious discrimination is important to anti-racist action and intellectualism because it draws attention to the need for reflexivity when attributing people to categories.” The Canadian example shows how practitioners are subject to self-aggrandizement because they cannot see themselves as biased data collectors and data interpreters despite the influence of white logic and systemic racism embedded in counterterrorism institutions.  

This research points to a larger problem wherein there is no consensus among British and Canadian policy circles that systemic racism—let alone Islamophobia—is a real security concern or that knowledge from people experiencing racial violence is a valid source of information in defining systemic racism. The reality, according to Abu-Bakare, is that practitioners are only willing to address matters of social injustice that “do[ ] not inherently undermine their position.” Thus, continuing to call out how whiteness is prioritized within political institutions is critical to support future anti-racist action.  

Informing Practice  

In the early morning hours of March 26th, 2024, the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, Maryland, collapsed after a cargo ship accidentally collided with it. The collapse of the bridge along with the closing of the Port of Baltimore ushered in an emergency response, revealing key economic and human security concerns detailed by the city’s mayor, Brandon Scott. In a bizarre turn of events, right-wing critics referred to Scott as the “DEI mayor”  and linked the bridge collision and collapse to DEI policies. Implicating the Maryland state governor Wes Moore as well, Utah Republican Phil Lyman commented that emergencies like these “happen[ ] when you have Governors who prioritize diversity over the wellbeing and security of citizens.” It is no coincidence that Brandon Scott and Wes Moore are Black men and subjected to meritless, racist attacks as elected officials. The accusation that DEI policies are responsible for the bridge collapse is ridiculous but part of a larger conservative effort to root out DEI policies from public life—from universities to government agencies.    

Like efforts to define and respond to Islamophobia in the U.K. and Canada, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies in the U.S. are intended to confront white supremacy and various manifestations of systemic racism. The popularity of such policies skyrocketed in 2020/2021 following the murder of George Floyd. Today, DEI drives the ire of many conservative leaders and is part of the focus among the Trump campaign and allies to subvert the “interpretation of Civil Rights-era laws to focus on ‘anti-white racism.’” To be clear, “racism equals power plus prejudice” so the idea of “anti-white racism” or “reverse racism” is an incorrect interpretation of historical and modern racial realities wherein white people maintain control over economic and political power while entrenching systems that dominate other racial groups. Attempts to focus on “anti-white racism” therefore reaffirm racist and violent institutions and white people’s domination over others. This political backlash to DEI initiatives is yet another example of institutionalized white supremacy. 

There has been a waning interest in DEI since 2020/2021, and the peace and security field is not immune from this trend. The effects of systemic racism in the policy and practice of peace and security have been well-documented, including the ways in which aid and funding is structured, how knowledge is produced and expertise is defined, and the demographic make-up of the field. These are still systemic issues that need to be addressed and require long-term, committed action. Importantly, this research also calls on those of us in peace and security to deeply reflect on and understand our own role in perpetuating systemic racism. Systemic racism is a form of violence and one that disproportionately harms people of color. In this political moment, it becomes even more critical to publicize our commitment to DEI as part of a larger body of work to mitigate violent conflict. [KC]

Continued Reading

DuBois, W. E. B. (1925). Worlds of color. Foreign Affairs, 3(3), 423–444. (open access) 

Operario, D., & Fiske, S. T. (1998). Racism equals power plus prejudice: A social psychological equation for racial oppression. In J. L. Eberhardt & S. T. Fiske (Eds.), Confronting racism: The problem and the response (pp. 33–53). Sage Publications, Inc.  

Peace Direct. (2021). Time to decolonize aid: Insights and lessons from a global consultation. Retrieved April 11, 2024, from   

Peace Science Digest. (2022). Racism as a foundation of the modern world. Retrieved April 11, 2024, from  


Decolonizing Wealth Project:  

Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security (WCAPS):  

Keywords: racism, whiteness, counterterrorism, islamophobia

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons