Trauma, power and hope – an interview with Rizwaan Sabir

Rizwaan Sabir on discovering - and overcoming - the structures of state power and oppression.

July 15, 2022 · 9 min read

In 2008, Rizwaan Sabir was arrested at the University of Nottingham for suspected terrorism and, eventually, released without charge. His book The Suspect: Counterterrorism, Islam, and the Security State, details the traumatising legacy of surveillance, coercion and violence at the hands of the British state. It is essential reading for anyone looking to understand the ongoing criminalisation of Muslims and the oppressive power structures that supposedly act to ‘keep us safe’. Interview by Liam Kennedy.

Red Pepper: The book is unique in that it’s a very intimate and personal account of the impact of state violence. It’s evident that the process of writing was in itself arduous. So with that in mind, what were the main motivations to write it and how do you feel now it’s published?

Rizwaan Sabir: The main motivation was to have a centralised account of everything I went through to educate readers on how counterterrorism operates. Writing the book was also a way of challenging the assumptions that somehow everything the state does through law is always appropriate, legitimate and trauma-free.

The broader reason for writing the book was to challenge common-sense assumptions around what counterterrorism seeks to do. Counterterrorism is sold to the public as being about protecting national security but we find through my story as well as others that anti-terror activity is overwhelmingly against people who possess information and documents.

So, it’s not a violent threat the UK is predominantly dealing with alone. It’s actually using the law and arrest powers to deal with what is essentially an ideological threat. The book seeks to show that in practice, whether it’s arrest or deradicalisation, they are two sides of the same coin. I suppose it’s about challenging and remedying the disconnect between what the public thinks of as counterterrorism and the reality of it.

Red Pepper: I’ve got a quote that stood out to me while I was reading, from just after your interview with the police. It reads: ‘In that moment after the interview concluded, my trust in the UK, the country where I was born, raised and educated, its institutions, its criminal justice system, its police service, its courts and its people had shattered into a thousand tiny pieces… In that moment, there emerged a sense of liberation from the ideological shackles that had been placed on my mind.’

It’s not often that people have a kind of political rupture like that; it’s often a more gradual process. So I guess if you could reflect on the change in your worldview, that sense of liberation still rings true today?

Rizwaan Sabir: There was definitely a rupture, that’s a good word. I finally understood that the world is not divided between good and bad, black and white. So when I talk about that sense of liberation, there was an immediate understanding that showed me that as a Muslim of colour, you can do and say all the right things and act as an exemplary Muslim citizen but you will still be treated as a suspect because of your Muslimness.

Prior to the arrest, I always operated on the assumption that the state and the police, though they did abuse and commit injustice, were generally trying to prevent harm and crime, or that they weren’t as bad as we often thought. But when they subjected me to arrest and detention, I understood first-hand how deep the racism went. So it led to a mental rewiring that led me to doubt my entire ideological worldview that I had been socialised into. It made me realise that in the war on terror, the line between the good and bad guys wasn’t clear at all. It was here that, despite being in a prison cell, that sense of liberation emerged.

Red Pepper: How do we broaden the public’s understanding of that, because obviously not everyone is going to have those exposures to the police, counterterrorism or state violence. By their very nature, some arms of the security state are very secretive. Nisha Kapoor’s work on the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC), for example, is almost hard to believe because it describes processes that are so ridiculous, but at the same time these are real arms of the state that wield real power. So how do we promote that message?

Rizwaan Sabir: This is actually a critical question: how do we educate and inform the public in a system of power where certain representations dominate and are therefore invisible? And this is precisely the reason why I wrote this book: to make visible how power and laws are employed in counterterrorism policing on no real evidence of criminal wrongdoing but mere suspicion and profiling.

It isn’t ‘conspiratorial’ or controversial to say this since it’s the lived reality of so many people, though their stories don’t get told often because they don’t have networks or privilege to share them. So it’s about centring and sharing voices and experiences of survivors all the way from a stop and search to an airport detention, to a counterterrorism arrest, to a SIAC court hearing to show how state violence works and the effects it has.

The issue is that resistance to hegemonic power means you’re not generally allowed to communicate with the masses because your message is deemed too disruptive and radical – but that’s okay because resistance or struggle always starts off small. Take the critique of Prevent and de-radicalisation. It was small when it emerged but is now shared by mainstream human rights groups and a much larger segment of society. So it’s about a small group laying the groundwork and reaching out to others and allying with them until the message becomes more mainstream.

Red Pepper: Well, I guess the ‘Trojan Horse’ affair [about a spurious Muslim plot to take over Birmingham schools] is maybe simultaneously a good example and a challenge to what you’ve just said. The podcast [exposing the ‘plot’ as false] was met with almost complete silence from the government and the media.

Similarly, the People’s Review of Prevent’ was released in February and was a very convincing exposé of the flaws inherent within the Prevent programme. Of course the programme is disproportionately targeting Muslim communities, but, once again, there was no media interest.

Rizwaan Sabir: Power doesn’t always engage you in order to silence you. Any form of engagement with the podcast or even my book will lead to more questions for power. So silence from the powerful is perhaps as revealing a response as engagement.

I think it also comes down to alternative spaces and media platforms being used to raise the profile of cases like Trojan Horse with the goal of generating enough awareness that they can’t be ignored by the mainstream. But the hard groundwork has to be laid by agitation and contestation outside of these mainstream institutions – arts, culture, music, education, films, documentaries and so on.

Red Pepper: The book is filled with references to global struggles. During the 1960s, there was a very strong, international movement that had a vision for the world beyond the kind of racial capitalism promoted by the west. The international zeitgeist now is very different, defined by anti-Muslim and anti-Islam sentiment. How do we begin to rebuild that alternative internationalism?

Rizwaan Sabir: Part of the process is about connecting the local struggles, the stop and search, the profiling, the border detention, the Prevent programme, to their global companions that Islamophobically police Muslimness. So, for example, it’s about showing that Islamophobia in the west draws on the same tropes in places like India, where the Hindutva government is encouraging anti-Muslim pogroms and genocide. The same with the cultural genocide against the Uyghur Muslims in China, which is an obvious outcome of a policy that draws on similar logics of counterterrorism created by western countries. The only difference is China is able to act more aggressively because it’s an openly authoritarian society that doesn’t pretend to believe in universal human rights.

What I’m saying is that it’s about connecting more liberal and structural forms of violence practices in the west to the more overt and obvious violence taking place around the globe, which uses the language of the ‘war on terror’ to police, control and kill Muslims. It’s about showing that even though the methods of violence vary, their foundations and logics are similar. Joining the dots is a way of learning from each other’s struggles, standing in solidarity, and empowering one another to resist.

Red Pepper: Talking of communities of struggle and solidarity, what sources are currently giving you some form of political hope, or what are you looking to for inspiration?

Rizwaan Sabir: More people are coming out in support of BDS, calling out Israel for being a settler-colonial apartheid state, becoming aware of how globalised Islamophobia is, and taking anti-racism and decolonisation more seriously. These things show that the global tide is turning because of struggle and resistance.

And what inspires me is those people who have the bravery and courage to speak out despite all the odds being stacked against them – the countless examples in history of people fighting for justice, the Palestinians resisting Israeli apartheid, the Kashmiris demanding their freedom, the survivors of the ‘war on terror’ smiling, joking and resisting no matter how much the US tried to break them through torture.

All of these things give me hope that no matter how powerful a government, country, or policy may seem, it can be defeated as long as we persevere and stand united.

Rizwaan Sabir is a lecturer in criminology at Liverpool John Moores University. Liam Kennedy is a Red Pepper editor. The Suspect: Counterterrorism, Islam, and the Security State is out now from Pluto Books.

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