Disobedience To Liberal Complicity
In his scathing critique of the black power and civil rights movements in the US, James Baldwin, in ‘The Fire Next Time’, accused black Muslims of not going far enough in their critique of the system. Despite this, Baldwin’s sympathies lay more with them than with the NAACP. He felt that the NAACP, in working within the legal system, could not provide an adequate riposte to the narrative that was being set by Malcolm X and others:
“Malcolm's statement is not answered by references to the triumphs of the N.A.A.C.P., the more particularly since very few liberals have any notion of how long, how costly, and how heart-breaking a task it is to gather the evidence that one can carry into court, or how long such court battles take. Neither is it answered by references to the student sit-in movement, if only because not all Negroes are students and not all of them live in the South. I, in any case, certainly refuse to be put in the position of denying the truth of Malcolm's statements simply because I disagree with his conclusions, or in order to pacify the liberal conscience.”
"I realise that to confront others for their complicity within systems of injustice, I must first confront my own complicity."
These are words I find myself returning to again and again as I think about my own position in relation to challenging the excesses of governments in their global War on Terror, but also when I reflect on my position in relation to ‘partners’ who supposedly stand with my communities, ostensibly to hold these governments to account, also within a legal framework that is in many ways fundamentally unjust.
When I do this, I realise that to confront others for their complicity within systems of injustice, I must first confront my own complicity.
This is in fact the second writing of this article, as the first was perhaps less self-reflective. It was on speaking with a survivor of the War on Terror, who reminded me that our theories of resistance should never be devoid of practice. Yes, it is relatively easy for me to pontificate on the principled stances we should take, but at the same time, for those who are impacted by the excesses of the War on Terror, there are times we may have to engage with a system that is unjust.
James Baldwin rightly questioned the tactics of the NAACP, whose legal challenges produced limited results, but further, sought to challenge the system from inside the structures of racism themselves. How do we understand this though, when systems have been constructed so that individuals are reliant on, indeed beholden to, this system of injustice to claim their rights?
Where does complicity begin and end when the legal process itself flouts the Rule of Law?
I find the complexities of these questions to have real implications in the UK. Here, under the banner of the War on Terror, a system has been constructed where the Home Secretary can issue arbitrary orders to remove the citizenship of individuals, to deport others out of the country, to refuse citizens to return to the UK, to detain individuals within a specific geographic space, and even to revoke the passports of others.
These sanctions are not based on a trial, but can only be challenged through a specially convened court. This tribunal allows the government to present evidence in secret, evidence that neither the appellant or his/her lawyer can see. Instead, the court appoints a ‘special advocate’ to represent the rights of the sanctioned person.
These special advocates play the role of representing individuals by listening to secret evidence presented by the government, but without being able to confer with their client or the client’s lawyers. This means there is no chance to accurately evaluate or respond to evidence, and the very concept and principles of legal representation are drowned in obscurity.
"...I wonder to what extent this reasoning serves to ease their liberal conscience? I hope this question prompts us towards more positive and effective methods of resisting..."
Eventually, in 2012, after a decade of the system having been in place, 50 of these advocates came out to describe that the processes ‘are inherently unfair and contrary to the common law tradition’, but only a few went on to resign.
Some of these special advocates use the argument, that if they did not do this job, then perhaps someone worse would do it, and so they become paid and complicit with a system that is unconscionable to the Rule of Law. But I wonder to what extent this reasoning serves to ease their liberal conscience? I hope this question prompts us towards more positive and effective methods of resisting such an unjust system.
But it is precisely in this type of space, that we find complexity when addressing the topic of complicity. I take my friend and colleague Cerie Bullivant as an example. This is a man whose life was systematically destroyed for two years as he was placed under a control order (a form of house arrest). His mental health was impacted so much, that he was forced to flee the order, only then to give himself up to the police. In the end, it was found that there was no case against him, and the control order was struck down.
But herein lies the irony. In order for Cerie to fight the sanction placed on his life, he was reliant on the ‘special advocate’ to make representations on his behalf. He was reliant on his lawyers to engage with a system that they all considered to be unjust in its entirety.
"...we must begin our understanding by building concentric circles around the victims of policy. The one who is impacted is least complicit."
It is in relation to the special advocate issue, and cases like that of Cerie that lead me to think that in our assessment of complicity, we must begin our understanding by building concentric circles around the victims of policy. The one who is impacted is least complicit. The system is structured to harm them the most, and all they wish to seek is their rights. Perhaps their one desire is to simply return to their families or working lives.
Moving out from the impacted individual, is the family and close circle of the person, who are often terrified by what the state is capable of doing. To a large extent, they are also victims of the structure. As we move out further, the larger communities they come from, also feel a degree of connection, they ultimately understand that they are future potential victims, and so are caught by the logics of the system, but are not directly impacted. As we move away from the victim in degrees, complicity increases, for each degree is less likely to be affected, and so there is greater opportunity for these individuals and groups to challenge the injustices threatening the individuals, families and communities concerned.
For me, the special advocates sit somewhere between the liberal NGOs who ostensibly challenge structures of power but still work very much with the system, and the state, which dictates policy. They recognise the inherent Rule of Law flaws in the system, but many of them are still willing to be paid to engage with it.
This gives rise to the unfortunate but very tangible conclusion we have reached through our work: that complicit liberals take the view that somehow their position and politics is necessary for our communities – but engagement with the issues is still taking place on their terms.
The media as an agent that blinds us to our own complicity and often excuses it
This attitude is not just limited to the field of law, but spreads across other sectors such as journalism. Within the world of journalism, one specific twitter conversation stood out for me in this regard. After being attacked in a ridiculous piece by the Daily Mail, the UK rapper Stormzy tweeted his frustration, aiming it at those who would receive a university education but then go on to work for the newspaper. The tweet became particularly interesting due to a defence that was mounted by a white journalist, Thea de Gallier, who responded to Stormzy with:
“journalism is a dying industry and writers need to pay their rent. We're certainly not rich enough to choose our morals over the need to survive. I know people who work at the mail, the sun, the express... normal people just trying to make a living”
"Complicity within a structure that is wrong, or even evil is nothing new."
An interesting dynamic emerged, where de Gallier was appalled by the notion of ‘don’t treat them all the same way’, in defence of a newspaper that routinely treats Muslims, immigrants and people of colour ‘all the same way’. For de Gallier, there is no moral contradiction when people are trying to survive, they have to do their job, even if it means working for an outlet that can be described as odious at best. As Nikesh Shukla, editor of ‘The Good Immigrant’ wrote in response to these tweets:
“When their job involves actively dehumanising people, saying ‘hey they’re people too...’ feels like a hard argument to make.”
Complicity within a structure that is wrong, or even evil is nothing new. In my forthcoming book ‘A Virtue of Disobedience’, I write more about ‘the banality of evil’ as it was once described by Hannah Arendt in the context of the Holocaust. For her, the shock was not so much in the fact that evil was taking place, but that it was so banal; people just did their jobs, and those jobs led to the extermination of millions of Jews.
"Complicity in injustice is not necessarily noticed as much as when we think of concentration camps. But injustices take place at micro-levels too, in the language we use..."
Complicity in injustice is not necessarily noticed as much as when we think of concentration camps. But injustices take place at micro-levels too, in the language we use and the jokes we tell. This is something to which liberals continue to be tone deaf.
In January 2018, Prince Philip according to the Guardian’s reporting joked and was accused of ‘making a gaffe’, by referring to a man in a beard standing close by him as a ‘terrorist’. Apparently the bystander found the joke hilarious. Now imagine if the man had been Muslim, there is a chance that the ‘quip’ might have been viewed more seriously, that the individual himself would have felt a great deal more discomfort, even a degree of dehumanisation.
The issue here is not so much Prince Philip, but the Guardian’s reporting of it, trivialising an attitude that has had and continues to have a very real impact on individuals and organisations – just ask the academic Dr Rizwaan Sabir, who was arrested for reading terrorism publications while reading for his PhD.
It is precisely because the media has such an impact on how we react to the systems of injustice around us, that journalists and editors have a responsibility at this point in history to apply extraordinary levels of empathy, self-reflection and critical thinking in relation to structures of injustice. The extent to which they have and are able to employ these skills is a key factor in determining whether individuals – and indeed they themselves – are blinded to complicity in injustice, or whether they are woken up to change.
We must beware of the liberal saviour
Returning to the world of human rights, I am reminded of a telephone call I received from a senior officer at one of the large international NGOs. She was complaining that CAGE had penned a satirical piece about an imaginary assassination of President Obama, in order to draw parallels to the unlawful ways in which the US military operated in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Her line, repeated ad nauseam throughout the conversation was: Obama is on our side, he is making gains for us.
However, as Naomi Klein reminds of his legacy:
“It’s worth remembering that a large portion of Barack Obama’s base was quite happy to embrace the carefully crafted symbols his administration created – the White House lit up like a rainbow to celebrate gay marriage; the shift to civil, erudite tone; the spectacle of an incredibly appealing first family free of major scandals for eight years. And these were all good things. But, too often, these same supporters looked the other way when it came to the drone warfare that killed countless civilians, or the deportations of roughly 2.5 million immigrants without documents during Obama’s term, or his broken promises to close Guantanamo or shut down George W. Bush’s mass-surveillance architecture. Obama positioned himself as a climate hero, but at one point bragged that his administration had “added enough new oil and gas pipelines to encircle the Earth and then some.”” [Klein – No Is Not Enough]
"Ad nauseam, I kept on repeating to this liberal NGO worker: tell your gains to the children being eviscerated by drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen."
Ad nauseam, I kept on repeating to this liberal NGO worker: tell your gains to the children being eviscerated by drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen.
Some time later, without any sense of irony, I saw this same person posting her solidarity with Charlie Hebdo after the attacks against them. It was not that she was extending her sympathy to victims of violence, but she was posting about how we needed to have satirical freedom of expression. I reflected on our earlier conversation and it seemed to me for this particular liberal, certain so-calledsatire is more equal than others.
As Martin Luther King Jr most famously wrote:
“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling lock in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstand from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” [King Jr – The Autobiography]
"Sometimes our liberal complicity is internalised, as the issues intersect with ‘making gains’ and being represented and being seen to contribute."
Sometimes our liberal complicity is internalised, as the issues intersect with ‘making gains’ and being represented and being seen to contribute. Michelle Alexander describes how even before Rosa Parks refused to stand on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, there were two cases before her, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith. One had a teenage pregnancy with an older man and the other’s father was thought to be an alcoholic – and for these reasons, the black civil rights movement refused to take up their case, despite the righteousness of their actions.
I have been told this is the reality within the context of the ‘War on Terror’. How many times have I been sat down by liberal lawyers, who say the judicial review angle is right and just on x, y or z issue, but could we find someone who is preferably more sympathetic? Could we find a young non-hijab wearing woman as a claimant for example? That would really help them.
"...justice is not blind, it is very much attuned to, and indeed supportive of, the differences we have in race and class, and so they attempt to game the system by having the ‘perfect candidate’."
They don’t realise it, but these liberals have just told themselves that justice is not blind, it is very much attuned to, and indeed supportive of, the differences we have in race and class, and so they attempt to game the system by having the ‘perfect candidate’.
Perhaps for me, the most disappointing experience I have had in this regard is through my involvement with a CAGE report that broke down the UK government’s ‘pre-crime’ science that informed PREVENT, and highlighted its flaws in the way it was constructed and utilised. The night before the launch, we called a community meeting where we briefed the major Muslim organisations about the findings of our research. A representative from one of the major Muslim organisations, in fact the one with the largest reach, after hearing of all the work we had done and praising the importance of the report, said words that I still cannot shake to this day. He said: “Why can’t you get a white person to front the report as the author, don’t you think it will be better?
"All the gains we had made in terms of pushing our agenda of equal rights had been completely destroyed in that moment. How can we tell our children that they can grow up as equal and engaged members of our society, when we have not even internalised this ourselves, yet?"
Those words devastated me. This man had reduced our community to nothing. All the gains we had made in terms of pushing our agenda of equal rights had been completely destroyed in that moment. How can we tell our children that they can grow up as equal and engaged members of our society, when we have not even internalised this ourselves, yet?
This incident convinced me that as a Muslim community we are still desperately seeking that liberal saviour, the one that will save us in the eyes of wider society. This is not just a moment of weakness, it is a grave mistake. It means we have given ourselves over to complicity with the prevailing power system, which is unjust, instead of summoning and employing the means we have within us to challenge it.
As for me, I will not wait. I will take my status as an equal, for I know it is mine to take, without the need for an interlocutor to save me.