Disobedience to Aunty Sara Khan - By Asim Qureshi
I’m not merely being facetious in my reference to Sara Khan, the UK government’s newly appointed Counter-Extremism Tsar, as ‘Aunty’. I thought of the word ‘aunty’ due to Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ having been brought to the small screen recently. In her dystopian novel, Atwood perfectly describes the role played by the ‘aunts’:
No empire imposed by force or otherwise has ever been without this feature: control of the indigenous by members of their own group. In the case of Gilead, there were many women willing to serve as Aunts, either because of a genuine belief in what they called "traditional values", or for the benefits they might thereby acquire. When power is scarce, a little of it is tempting.
From both of my cultural heritages, the idea of the ‘aunty’ looms large. British culture references the ‘nanny state’, carrying with it connotations of the interfering figure that goes beyond bounds. Similarly, those who are familiar with Pakistani culture, will relate to the idea of ‘Aunty Jee’, the aunt in the community who knows everyone’s business. More than that though, the Aunty Jee figure consistently spreads the worst possible interpretation of any situation, all in the goal to create scandal without care for consequences.
The role that Sara Khan has been appointed to by the government, reminds me of this relationship. With no legislation enacted to help define extremism (and rightly so), and with the vaguest of definitions, we are placed in a situation where powers have been given to an individual whose credibility is questionable, in order to encroach in the area of ideas from the very community she is from. Let us remind ourselves first then, that the definition of extremism is laid out in the Prevent strategy alone as a matter of policy, it is not a legal definition, and that it is described as being active or vocal opposition to fundamental British values. These values are described as democracy, the rule of law and equality.
This lack of clarity of what is the problem in the first place means that the foundation stone – the definition – is a stumbling block to any form of engagement. It is the view of CAGE that Muslim communities and organisations should not engage with the Commission for Counter-Extremism (CCE). It has been formed with no definable terms, with an unknown mandate and powers, based on a science that has been withheld from public scrutiny, and placed in the hands of those who have unaccountable relationships with government.
One of the major themes in my forthcoming book A Virtue of Disobedience is to ask questions on the politics of representation from within communities. To what extent do we, as those who are being impacted by legislation and policy, become complicit within a system that is structurally racist? How can we understand the way this CCE has been formed, and the role in plays in relation to us.
It is unknown at the moment, what Aunty Sara Khan’s role will be exactly, but initial indications are that she will first attempt to root out the extent of extremism in the UK, and then build a plan to combat it. Except…this is an individual who has written a great deal about her positions on ‘extremism’…particularly when it has been orchestrated by the Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), the propaganda section of the Home Office.
P icture: Leaked Home Office document highlights how Sara Khan’s #MakingAStand project was a ‘RICU’ product.
At the time of these revelations coming to light one year ago in January 2017, my organisation CAGE commented on the leaks:
“These revelations call for a serious dialogue within the Muslim community on the legitimacy of government sanctioned activism. It also highlights the government’s deceptive approach in engaging with Muslim communities and again calls into question the failing PREVENT policy and its shadow, the global CVE campaign.”
It is the degree of secrecy and lack of accountability that sits at the heart of almost every single part of the government’s counter-extremism strategy. A place where the government has sought to control ideas, not simply hold criminal acts to account. In the words of counter-extremism and counter-terrorism police officers and policy makers, this is about the ‘pre-criminal space’. Of course, pre-criminal being an idea that we traditionally relegated to the worlds of dystopias, particularly to the imagination of Philip K Dick in his ‘Minority Report’.
Throughout ‘A Virtue of Disobedience’, I intersperse the text with references to dystopian novels. My purpose in doing so, was often to tell a story of how my fieldwork experience of injustice was actually reflected almost perfectly within these fictional tales. At one point, I even sent a quote from Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’ to a group of teams involved in litigation at Guantanamo Bay. They were being forced to work in horrendous conditions, and Kafka captured in his own story how defence teams are often made to physically suffer indignities, in order to make representation more difficult.
What are the hallmarks of these dystopias in relation to a form of oppression that is structural? What did these sages of the future politics of this world envisage as the dark paths to injustice? Perhaps the most obvious, is the role of secrecy. The lack of transparency is an endemic feature to any system that seeks to criminalise and destroy one particular section of society, in the name of keeping us all safe. Across nearly all of the 40 dystopian novels I read over the last year, secrecy was the one theme that kept on emerging again and again.
It is particularly when secrecy is coupled with the idea of thoughts, that the activities of the state become particularly pernicious. The counter-extremism commission, by its very definition will be interested in the notion of thought-crime in the space that is pre-criminal. After all, they will not be investigating actual acts of violence or preparation of violence, but rather correcting what is inside, as if they can read your inner thoughts and must correct them. I am of course reminded here of George Orwell’s ‘1984’. We speak of certain policies being Orwellian or Kafkesque as a figure of speech, but not as a reality of the world we occupy:
‘What are you in for?’ said Winston.
‘Thoughtcrime!’ said Parsons, almost blubbering. The tone of his voice implied at once a complete admission of his guilt and a sort of incredulous horror that such a word could be applied to himself. He paused opposite Winston and began eagerly appealing to him: ‘You don’t think they’ll shoot me, do you, old chap? They don’t shoot you if you haven’t actually done anything–only thoughts, which you can’t help? I know they give you a fair hearing. Oh, I trust them for that! They’ll know my record, won’t they? YOU know what kind of chap I was. Not a bad chap in my way. Not brainy, of course, but keen. I tried to do my best for the Party, didn’t I? I’ll get off with five years, don’t you think? Or even ten years? A chap like me could make himself pretty useful in a labour-camp. They wouldn’t shoot me for going off the rails just once?’
I wanted to meditate on these works of fiction throughout the other literature on faith and civil rights in my book, as they spoke to the heart of so much of what I wanted to say or engage with. In many ways, these writers of fiction were far more discerning of the human condition and the nature of the system than those who occupy reality, perhaps because it was easier for them to project their anxieties on a world that did not exist. What they taught me, is that this virtue of disobedience that I am seeking, must be realised into action. It is not good enough to simply identify problems, we must also come together to ensure that they do not reach that eventual place of total oppression.
England, the land of Shakespeare, the land of ideas, prosecuted a young Muslim woman for writing poetry on the back of a receipt. It prosecuted another man for selling books that were readily available on Amazon and other outlets. So when people tell me that it is impossible that the UK might eventually ban ideas, I will point them towards Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’, and say look, Ray said don’t wait until it is already too late:
Faber turned the pages. 'Mr Montag, you are looking at a coward. I saw the way things were going, a long time back. I said nothing. I'm one of the innocents who could have spoken up and out when no one would listen to the "guilty", but I did not speak and thus became guilty myself. And when finally they set the structure to burn the books, using the firemen, I grunted a few times and subsided, for there were no others grunting or yelling with me, by then.
At all times, the law should be knowable and linked to deeds, not ideas. The Commission for Counter-Extremism risks creating an alternative justice system, one in which the marketplace of ideas is replaced with a dogmatic view towards what citizenship and homogeneity should look like. This is not in the tradition of freedom, such moves have always been linked to the rise of repressive states. Having a female person of colour at the top (although she’s not really), will do little to assuage the concerns of those interested in long term solutions and due process for all.