Preventing ourselves from speaking out: Muslims in danger of self-censorship
Last week I attended a seminar about the latest manifestation of Prevent, the British government’s counter-extremism strategy. I have addressed this issue many times before, including in this interview carried in the Asia Times Online.
The seminar was, in general, a constructive meeting, but did not manage to address one of the biggest dangers that arises out of the government’s strategy, as well as the hostile anti-Islam mood across Europe.
The gathering brought together grass-roots activists, student representatives, youth workers, post-graduate students and lecturers, as well as members of Muslim groups – and there appeared to be a consensus in the room that the latest incarnation of Prevent presented a problem for the Muslim community.
Prevent, it was said by one contributor from the floor, was NOT about preventing violence and terrorism. It was, said the contributor, an ideological agenda that aimed to ‘westernise’ Muslims because of a mistaken belief that the more Islamic you are, the more of a potential threat you pose. Linked to this, the British government’s view (and that of many European governments and the United States) – that the more Islamic a Muslim country becomes, the more of a threat it poses to their interests – was based on the same logic, so explaining the foreign policies of these governments, which include support for regimes that suppress any form of Islamic political expression.
This contribution was by made by me! But other comments from the panel and the floor echoed some of these points, but with a little more caution and touched with personal anecdotes. Notably, a non-Muslim academic whose area of expertise is policing and security agreed almost totally with my frankly expressed indictment of the Prevent strategy.
Other contributors from both the panel and the floor that said that the aim of Prevent was to create docile Muslims; that the police were compromising their community policing strategies by pressing a strategy that was aimed to changing peoples’ beliefs and ideas (a strange role for the police one might think); that police and local councils had hijacked youth and community projects as part of the Prevent agenda; that profiling, mapping and surveillance were still taking place in Muslim communities; and that Muslims in local areas faced a difficult decision whether or not to engage with local projects linked to Prevent.
There were disturbing accounts of police intimidation, not visible to the wider society and which have consequently failed to draw criticism; as well as the cowing into silence of Muslim students because of the anecdotes about terror suspects being ‘radicalised’ at universities.
Looking for a way forward
The meeting did not have time to explore strategies of how to tackle this problematic strategy, which shows no sign of going away. It was clear that some of those present were once keen to building links with local councils and police – only to find when they did the links were exploited for ideological motives, and not in the community’s interests.
There was some talk of building alliances with civil society and some informal discussion before and after the panel discussion about various legal challenges that might be tried. One contributor, who had been targeted repeatedly by local police in a most intimidating manner, made a passionate personal plea for all Muslims to disengage with the Prevent strategy in order to send a clear message and take all (legal) measures – no matter how unpopular they seem to others and no matter how much criticism they draw – to stand up for their rights. All of these suggestions had validity – but failed to address one central problem that troubles me greatly. The most serious challenge facing the Muslim community.
If Prevent is about challenging peoples’ ideas and beliefs – where are the voices speaking out in a robust way, defending and explaining the ideas and beliefs that are vilified and misrepresented on a regular basis?
There are a handful of Imams and scholars teaching Muslims about these aspects of faith at a time when others are bullying Muslims to abandon or reinterpret these same issues? There is a very great danger that Muslims could find that even if political and legal efforts succeed in retaining a legal right to express all those aspects of Islam that are currently labelled as ‘extremism’, that they then remain silent for fear of being labelled ‘extremists’- or for fear of being marginalised by the state.
‘Extremist’ ideas or ‘extremist’ policy?
There have been various definitions for ‘extremism’ used over the years. Part of the reason that terms like ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’ remain ill defined is so that politicians can retain some flexibility to implement their plans according to their own political agenda, instead of under strict legal safeguards.
This can be illustrated by looking at these two scenarios: First, a Muslim who travelled from the UK to Libya to take up arms against Gaddafi’s regime fighting against an oppressive regime in a struggle Britain supports; and second, a Muslim who travelled from the UK to Palestine, Kashmir, Afghanistan or Iraq, to take up arms to fight against occupying or oppressive military forces. The first would be lauded as a freedom fighter; whilst the second would be labelled a terrorist.
Prevent tries to argue that certain ideas create an ideological framework in which ‘terrorism’ can flourish; and political grievances are simply used as justifications or excuses for criminality. Indeed, addressing these grievances is portrayed as tantamount to appeasing terrorism.
So, it is argued, the state has to intervene to change peoples’ ideas – rather than to address any of the grievances.
The main agencies of the state that are commissioned to do this are the police and local authorities – with universities, schools and health workers all being expected to flag up possible ‘extremists’ who may need ‘deradicalising’ (a modern term that evokes Maoist type re-education). Coupled to this politicians of all parties have sent a clear signal to the media, schools, police etc. that ‘extremist’ ideas need to watched out for (which echoes twentieth century ‘McCarthyism’).
One contributor (a postgraduate student) at last week’s meeting gave his own real life experience of this, when he had to spend several days in police custody answering for possession of literature he had in his possession for solely academic purposes.
Bullying Muslims on Islam
There is now a hostile climate across the whole of Europe towards Muslims who publicly express their Islamic beliefs, in large part due to these signals from governments.
This can range from the wearing of hijab or niqab to arguing for Shari’ah law and a Caliphate as the system of government in Muslim countries that are currently governed by tyrannical dictatorships or corrupt democracies. Other issues, such as gender segregation, holding fundamental beliefs that contradict the dominant neoliberal opinions in the world, and political stances on Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan – can all qualify as ‘extremist’ ideas. The execution of the Prevent strategy on the ground – during ‘stop-and-search’ operations, arrests, at airports, ports and rail terminals – includes detailed questioning about the religious and political views of the individual.
All of these mean it’s the policies of the British state (duplicated across Europe) that are extreme – rather than the beliefs of Muslims that are so often vilified.
‘Battered person syndrome’
Abused people often adopt a guilt complex believing the abuse they endured was their own fault; or become conditioned by their abuser not to say or do the things that provoke the abuser’s anger – no matter how mundane or unreasonable those things might be.
I fear this is the current psychological state of some sections of the Muslim community.
The need to qualify ourselves before we speak by saying that we condemn ‘terrorism’ looks at best demeaning and worse as if it’s compensating for a guilt complex. One contributor at the meeting asked why, at the moving funeral of the three young Muslim men killed in Birmingham during the 2011 riots, a speech had to be made denouncing terrorism? Whether in media interviews, seminars, conferences – and now (it seems) at births, weddings and funerals – Muslims have to say something distancing themselves from 9/11, 7/7 and other such acts before they are allowed to be heard saying anything else. Even a recent conference that was leafleted and advertised to the Muslim community as celebrating the life of the blessed Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was spun to the media as being a gathering that was an ‘anti-extremism’ rally.
Silencing ourselves & becoming apologists
It would be a useful exercise to consider what proportion of press releases issued in the past 12 months from Muslim organisations have been ‘defensive’ or even ‘submissive’ – i.e. saying things that seem primarily aimed to counter impressions of ‘extremism’ and sometimes actively seeking to court favour with the governing party.
Some feel compelled to raise the fact that they are opposed to violence and terrorism so often that they do not realise that they can sound like they are protesting their own innocence a little too hard.
Contrast these apologetic messages with the absence of robust responses to ideological attacks on our faith – or indeed anyone’s religious beliefs; or the lack of robust critiques of the problems facing western society caused by consumerism and individualism; or the silence about on-going killing in the Muslim world by western governments.
Ask yourself how many times have I let insults about women’s dress, or Islamic rules, or the entire Shari’ah go unanswered, without actually explaining, challenging or provoking thought in the minds of the accusers about their own values system? When we do address such issues, how many times do we do so from the viewpoint of ‘rights’ or freedom of expression – without championing dignity for the Islamic rule, as well as defending a right for the one who sought to practice it?
There is a difference in saying that ‘it’s a person’s right, in a free society, to wear niqab’ or to add that it’s rank hypocrisy to claim the society is free when intimidating or criminalising women for wearing Islamic dress, or to add that women who wear niqab do so seeking Allah’s pleasure and emulating the dress of the Mothers of the Believers. The first is a defensive call for rights, the second exposes the weakness of the attacker, and the last tries to give some dignity to the beliefs of the victim of the criticism.
Speaking out and standing up for Islamic principles is part of the faith and character of Muslims; worrying about what anyone else felt about ones beliefs is the sign of a person’s own self-worth.
It is all very well fighting for rights in the face of an oppressive state or bullying media – but what would you be fighting for if you silenced yourself in the very manner that advocates of the Prevent policy want?
To only ever speak behind the shield of well-meaning socialist activists, or borrow their political language may seem appealing to some, particularly as it allows the Muslim community some opportunity to speak. But this not only means often compromising on a message that’s the lowest common denominator. It also dangerously neuters our own community of any courage or resource to undertake independent expression when we face issues that others with different political or social views disagree with. Moreover, as has been seen in some of the more aggressive anti-fascist or anti-capitalist demonstrations in Britain, as well as in mainstream politics, we have increasingly seen fewer questions asked as to which political tactics are actually legitimised by the Shari’ah and which are not permitted.
The International Picture
This mind set is, sadly, not unique to our situation in Britain. Earlier in 2011, as we started to see popular uprisings in the Arab world, we heard some voices from the Muslim world who had for decades called for an Islamic system of governance suddenly changing their tune in a way that seemed to want to keep western powers on their side.
From a principled perspective, to make statements targeting western government opinion at the height of popular uprisings in the Middle East can make one look like one is abandoning what you believed in or sacrificed for over decades. From the viewpoint of tactics, it makes no sense to sound like a pale imitation of secular nationalists or left-wing groups? And from any viewpoint, how can it be dignified to sound like you care more about what the ‘international community’ thinks than Allah (swt), His Messenger (saw) or the Ummah?
The result of a timid mind set
The result of a timid mindset would be a group of Muslims who would only engage politically if they had cover from other groups in society; who would continue to apologise for things they haven’t done; who accept every norm of geopolitics, even if it is not correct from an Islamic viewpoint or are actually harmful to the Ummah’s interest (like the division of Muslim land into ever smaller countries, or the legitimisation of the Israeli occupation of Palestine in a two-‘state’ model, or the legitimacy of the UN-Security Council that imposes its hegemony of the world); who would be too scared of being labelled ‘extremists’ to speak out or say the right thing on Islamic issues; who silenced themselves over atrocities committed against Muslim countries under western foreign policy; who cared so much about what western governments thought of them that they lived their lives in constant hope of attaining their favour, and consequently allowed themselves to be trampled upon; and who would break fast with the representatives of governments who break their brothers’ bones.
May Allah save us from that – for that is the danger if we do not wake up to the challenge we face. This would not merely be a betrayal of the legacy and sacrifice of the Prophets (peace be upon them all), their companions, and generations of martyrs who suffered at the hands of oppressors – it would show a complete failure to learn political lessons from others who strove for recognition of their status in the past.
Something positive to offer
Muslims are, for the most part, a very average bunch of human beings – except for one thing – and that is our beliefs and values. It is our Islam that dignifies us, yet this is the very thing we are being expected to stop expressing.
In France, any sort of public manifestation (including prayer) is being clamped down by the law. While in Britain there is an approach that focuses on political and social views in a less legalistic but more underhand way.
Many of us can see deep problems in the societies we live in. If we fear to be critical of the systems, values or policies of the states where we live – or if we silence ourselves from speaking about Islamic values, the Shari’ah, Khilafah and other issues – we would not merely be letting ourselves down, we would be letting those around us down by not holding a mirror to society.
We have, in Islam, a way of life that gives the much-needed answers for humanity about how to address human problems. We have views on the economic and social problems that trouble western countries today; and an antidote to the rampant materialism and consumerism that dominates the world. How can we share this most precious gift if we silence ourselves?
A sincere reminder
The thoughts expressed in this article are not meant as an attack any single individual or group. None of us is perfect; and anyone who has engaged in political or social activity will have made mistakes along the way.
But in the context of the policies directed at Muslims in Britain and Europe today, it is vital people understand the greater danger is the one we face from ourselves – by silencing ourselves, avoiding controversial issues and failing to uphold the very beliefs that give us life.
In the end, to face this hostile policy by surrendering our expression of Islam would be a far greater tragedy than to struggle and be forcibly silenced, in both the dunya and akhira.
29th September 2011
Dr. Abdul Wahid is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. He can be followed on Twitter @abdulwahidht