Anti-racist solidarity is the cornerstone of our freedoms

Governments are manufacturing a new 'enemy within', write Yasser Louati and Malia Bouattia

December 23, 2017 · 13 min read
Image: Mohammad Hamza (c/o Intifada Street)

Recognising that the ongoing systemic injustice of the global War on Terror demands a transnational, civil society response, organisers and advocacy groups from the UK, the US and France, came together in Warsaw in October 2017 to form the Transatlantic Coordination Against Racism and Repression. Two of its participants discuss aspects of the historical and contemporary context that prompted this intervention.

Islamophobia doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It is connected to a wider culture of systemic racism and injustice, writes Yasser Louati.

As the War on Terror moves through its second decade with no sign of abating, one can only notice how well racism has served it. After the London bombings of July 2005, for example, Tony Blair responded with the following discourse: “If people want to come here, they play by our rules. If they don’t, they are going to have to go because they are threatening our people and way of life.”

A series of highly repressive measures quickly followed. The Terrorism Act of 2006 allowed for terrorism suspects to be held without charge for 28 days, and for the Bank of England to freeze the assets of suspected terrorists. It prompted widespread raids against Muslim communities throughout the UK and the implementation of PREVENT which has institutionalised suspicion towards British Muslim citizens.

US public opinion did not worry about the Patriot Act while it was being passed. It took an Edward Snowden to inform the world how the Bush administration had indulged in Islamophobia in the name of national security. 300 million Americans were put under surveillance by their own government. Instead of learning from such excesses, France followed in the footsteps of the US government and passed its own bill on mass surveillance in 2015 in the wake of a political marketing campaign against the “enemy within”.

At its most extreme, the logic of national security has allowed both the extra-judicial killing of (non-white) suspects abroad and the ongoing flouting of human rights in Guantanamo Bay.

These human rights violations of the past two decades rest on a long legacy of state sponsored racism and oppression of minorities. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for example, put thousands of Japanese-Americans in internment camps as World War II was unfolding. Two thirds of the interns were US-born.

When Fred Korematsu challenged the constitutionality of the executive order, the US Supreme Court sided with Congress in its blanket accusation against the whole of the Japanese-American community, just as it did in another landmark case, Hirayabashi versus the United States, in which it ruled that the discriminatory curfew against them was constitutional.

A year prior to that in occupied France, Maréchal Pétain signed the decree that gave birth to the national police force then put it under the leadership of René Bousquet who, in turn, went to Carl Osberg, head of the SS divisions in France and offered to help the Nazi occupying forces against the Jews, the Communists and the Resistance. 13,000 Jews were then arrested and deported. Today, 52% of the police in France vote for the National Front.

So-called national security promotes racism in government discourse, the media and policy making. Its sole meaning is to bring about a feeling of security for the dominant group, not universal protection for its citizens. Governments have always resorted to manufacture an enemy within, be it Muslims today, Jews yesterday, the Irish, Latinos and for centuries, blacks. It’s a structural racist bias that explains their capacity to see no wrong in oppressing minorities in order to appeal towards a broader public opinion.

In September 2017, Muhammad Rabbani, the international director of CAGE, was convicted of terror-related offences for refusing to supply the British state with the passwords to his computer. Reporting on his trial, Malia Bouattia argues that this marks a worrying new development in the culture of encroachment by the state on the basic principle of rule of law.

The truth is, we are living in a period of increasing repression. Indeed, whilst Western states pride themselves publicly on valuing human rights and dignity, with institutions built to symbolise and ensure such a commitment following the Second World-War, our freedoms are in fact being stripped from us by the day.

The UK Government’s growing obsession with surveillance under the guise of security is leading to the erosion of civil liberties and the rule of law. Counter-Terrorism strategies are being used as green lights for the state to infiltrate our homes, our classrooms, hospitals, and nurseries.

The latest development in this tale of increasing encroachment on individual freedom is the state’s demand to access our computers and phones and is why the recent case of CAGE’s international director, Muhammad Rabbani, who was put on trial for his refusal to provide authorities with his passwords, has been so significant.

Rabbani was stopped at Heathrow Airport in November 2016 under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act: a power that allows border forces – without needing to prove any reasonable suspicion at all – to interrogate and detain anybody for up to 6 hours. When Rabbani was asked to hand over the passwords to his electronic devices, including his mobile phone and laptop, he declined.

He claimed that his computers held confidential information relating to a torture case, which in turn implicated the US Government and he said that he was not prepared to allow UK border agents to peruse the critical material. He was subsequently arrested and almost a year later put on trial.

The trial, which took place in September at Westminster Magistrates Court, was a stark example of the flaws of the current counter-terrorism regime. For not providing the state with his passwords, he was convicted of terrorism-related offences, yet he should have been perfectly within his rights to do this given the changes made to the code of practice that protected people including journalists, lawyers and individuals working for an organisation from being forced to provide the border police with documents belonging to clients. (This decision was made following the infamous detention of David Miranda under the Terrorism Act 2000 at Heathrow airport in 2013 whilst he was carrying files related to US whistleblower Edward Snowden.) Rabbani’s comment, following the decision, was that “the level of absurdity of the law” is such that “a person is considered a terrorist just by protecting the privacy and confidentiality of others”.

Muhammed Rabbani’s case speaks to more than just our right to privacy though. It also highlights the institutional racism practiced and facilitated through these laws.

One of the most shocking moments of the trial was just prior to recess, when the Chief Magistrate, Emma Arbuthnot, asked whether he did not think to have made the necessary arrangements to not travel with any confidential material given he had been stopped over 20 times on previous trips. The collective gasp from the observers in the courtroom was audible. The racist tendencies of the UK government and its institutions are known and often discussed, but there is nothing quite like hearing it directly from the mouths of those responsible for upholding the “justice” system. Mr Rabbani might as well have been told that as a serial victim of systematic islamophobia at the borders, he should have come to expect it by now and therefore not be surprised by such a treatment.

People of Colour are 42 times more likely than their white counterparts to be stopped under Schedule 7, a power used on around 50,000 people a year. It should be no surprise either, that a huge proportion of those who are stopped under these circumstances are Muslims.

Through a disclosure in the context of the legal proceedings, it emerged that airport searches also serve to collect data on the religion of those stopped, despite Freedom of Information requests denying this in the past. This information, CAGE argues, has been suppressed by the Home Office because it would point directly to the practice of religious profiling within a system supposedly designed to protect us without discrimination.

This hypocrisy is nothing new. We live in a society that has enforced racial legal and structural profiling through the PREVENT strategy, under which it is actively training doctors, social workers, nurses, teachers, councillors and many other civil servants to spot so-called “non-violent extremists” on an incredibly vague and discriminatory basis. Indeed, public servants are now legally obliged to report on signs of “extremism” that can range from critiques of foreign policy and support for the struggle of the Palestinian people, all the way to changing friendship groups and “relevant mental health issues”.

Again, the numbers point to a disproportionate targeting of Muslims. Between 2012 and 2014, 56% of those referred to PREVENT were of the Islamic faith despite only making up 4.4 per cent of the UK population. Over 80% of those referred to the program were released without further action. In 2015-2016, the first year after PREVENT became a legal duty for state-funded institutions, 2311 children under 18 were referred to the program, including 352 under the age of 9. We are living through a period where a pre-crime space is becoming the norm. It encourages people to act on their conscious and unconscious biases, and is increasingly criminalising an entire population – from nursery onwards.

As so often with racist policies, the process moves from the periphery to the centre. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act of 2015 has served to demonise an entire community, but it has also facilitated the broader curtailing of civil liberties for all UK citizens and encouraged the development of distrust and fear amongst families, neighbours, friends, educators, students, healthcare professionals and patients. The PREVENT agenda has been applied against anti-fracking activists, living wage campaigners and Palestine solidarity movements to name a few. The normalisation of the criminalisation of dissent is well under way.

Rabbani himself has no record of criminal activity. It was made clear several times in court that the police officers who stopped, detained, and interrogated him had no reasons to suspect him of being linked to any terrorist activities whatsoever. However, one of the officers admitted that the stop was not random when he was questioned at the stand. Whilst the senior officer would not tell the court what the exact reasons were, it doesn’t take a genius to understand that it has much to do with the work carried out by CAGE, an advocacy organisation that attempts to hold the state accountable for its actions in the name of the supposed War on Terror. In fact, the officers repeatedly made clear that they knew about Mr Rabbani’s organisation and one of them acknowledged that he was aware of who Mr Rabbani was before the stop.

Not a single reason though was given for his targeting or for the need to obtain access to his devices, either at the time of his arrest or in court and as the day went on it became increasingly difficult for the prosecution to continue to hide behind the legal powers awarded to them by Schedule 7, without discussing the specific targeting of Mr Rabbani, the harassment at the hands of the state he goes through every time he travels, and the politically motivated nature of his arrest. These developments – sanctioned by UK law makers – should worry all of us who believe that we should all stand as equal and innocent until proven guilty, in front of the law.

Through his actions, Rabbani has put himself at the centre of a hostile public battle that highlights these double standards, but this has been made even more difficult by the fact that so many civil liberty groups have not focused on Schedule 7 and its human rights violations. When I asked Rabbani why he thinks this is the case, he answered that “they [mainstream civil liberty groups] haven’t been personally affected by this, none of their people have been affected by it so it’s totally overlooked”. In reality, whilst there is a disproportionate targeting of Muslims and People of Colour under these stops, this development affects everyone. It’s something, if we believe the state’s powers should remain democratically accountable, that we all need to resist.

As with the PREVENT agenda, a worrying logic is at play here. Under the cover of the so-called War on Terror, and with the help of the daily vilification of Muslims in the mass media and the rhetoric of too many of our politicians, a series of crucial rights are being undermined. If asked whether we live in a state in which thought or pre-crimes exist, most people in the UK would laugh. If asked whether the targeting of political and civil rights activists, or organisations that oppose government policy occurs here in Britain, most people would say no. If the idea that state intelligence agencies use doctors, teachers, lecturers, and mental health professionals to gather information on citizens was to be suggested, most citizens of this country would call it common sense to say that such things do not happen here.

Yet, for Muslims, and other communities of colour, it is increasingly clear that these things happen every day here, and that these are state practices that are increasingly being used not just against our racialised minorities but on the white majority as well, encompassing not just so-called religious non-violent extremists but practitioners of political dissent more broadly. It is our collective duty to stop these developments whilst we still can before all of our personal freedoms are sacrificed on the altar of state-sanctioned secret “intelligence”.

The more I think about PREVENT, about Schedule 7, the case of Mohammed Rabbani, and the countless others whose names I don’t even know, the more I am reminded of that poem by the German protestant pastor Martin Niemöller about the rise of Nazi repression in 1930s Germany. Niemöller himself spent many years in Nazi concentration camps for his opposition to the Nazi regime. After the war, reflecting on the rise of fascism and his own pre-war anti-Semitism (and early membership of the Nazi party), he famously declared:

First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out —

Because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

In the current political climate, both in Britain and across Europe and North America where we see the rise of fascist movements in the streets and the increasingly repressive apparatus of democratic states, this poem sounds less and less like hyperbole or metaphor. It comes across as an urgent call for action from the past. They are coming for the Muslims. The time for action is now.

Yasser Louati and Malia Bouattia are civil rights activists based in France and the UK respectively.

This article was commissioned through the Black Journalism Fund in collaboration with Red Pepper magazine.

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