Recently, I have been messaged privately by a number of activists in the US, who are concerned about the ways in which prominent Muslim institutions in America engage with various forms of law enforcement, whether it might be the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the FBI, or even with programmes within the rubric of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). Although based in the UK, I have had the privilege of being involved in the legal and political defence of those detained in the US as victims of the global War on Terror. This has led to a journey of understanding the role that is played by law enforcement agencies in the construction of these cases, but also within a wider security industrial complex.
I write this letter because I want us to think about the ethics of engagement with law enforcement. When it comes to the policies and practices of the global War on Terror, the extent of cross-fertilisation between the UK and US is profound, making their pathology of securitisation one that requires us to learn lessons in resistance collectively.
In the US, even more than the UK, there exists a violence within policing that is almost unparalleled. This violence does not uniquely impact Muslims, but has a long history that is tied to the ways those outside of the white majority in society are deemed ‘Other’, and is most manifestly apparent in its anti-Black racism. If we start from the premise that the law itself, and the administrators of the law, the police, prosecution services, judges and indeed juries, all play a role within the structure of racism and discrimination, then to what extent can we actually seek to engage with that system?
As Muslims, what is our own positionality in relation to the work that we do? For those of us who claim to be involved in the work of defending Muslims and Islam, we must recognise that we are not doing anyone any favours by doing this work. This is a unique opportunity and blessing that we have been privileged with, one that any number of other people could have been invited to do. Furthermore, we do not own this work or our institutions, the collective body does, and so we are answerable for all that we do, at all times. Expectations of trust without scrutiny are unwarranted, as we cannot claim to represent the interests of our communities, without first holding ourselves open to being held to account. Whether it is money, engagements, positions, or whatever the matter might be, we have an obligation to answer the concerns of the community when they are being raised because we cannot claim to represent them while there are doubts over us. We do not own this work, we are responsible to it.
There are arguments that are often made by those who seek to build relationships with law enforcement, that ultimately without engaging, there won’t be any chance for changing the system. Thus, they claim that meetings with the FBI and DHS serve the purpose of correcting the flaws within the system. I want to think through the efficacy of these interactions, because ultimately, I think this is where many disagreements may exist. I hope to capture the usual arguments that are made, and to provide brief responses that I pray can help us think more acutely about the problem, and the solution.
“The police are necessary; they keep us safe.”
Before we take on any other subject, we need to think about policing, and the claim that it is a necessity, that it keeps us safe from those who might wish us harm. Largely, police do not stop crime from taking place, as much as they are part of a process of criminalisation after crimes have been committed. Keeping society safe requires addressing the root causes of crime, a prospect that goes well beyond the notion of policing – in fact, particularly within the context of the US, it could be argued that the structurally racist system of policing and punishment has only served to increase levels of disenfranchisement. Saying that we need the police to keep us safe, is akin to passing the buck, it means that we are less interested in doing the hard work that needs to be done for the whole of society to become safer. Resorting to the police, only serves to solidify its structure as a necessity. My own organisation CAGE has been attempting to provide some leadership in this regard, and our work has shown that there can be ways of reducing the threats to society as a whole, that exist beyond surveillance policing.
“Some law enforcement institutions are safe to work with, while others are dangerous.”
When thinking of the institutions that are responsible for policing, we need to consider their functions, and the way in which they fundamentally approach communities. The FBI, as just one example, has spent incredible resources in undermining what it deems to be subversive activities since the inception of COINTELPRO. Coming into the War on Terror, that programme found its way into every aspect of policing Muslim communities, but particularly through the use of entrapment. For those who make a favourable distinction between the way the FBI operates as opposed to other institutions like the CIA, then they only need to speak to my colleague Moazzam Begg and many others who have related the ways that the FBI have been entirely complicit in programmes of arbitrary detention and torture.
The above only begins to touch on the functions that other institutions serve, particularly in the post 9/11 period. Perhaps the most galling example of an institution created for the purpose of securitising Muslims is the DHS, which in its conception, inception and practise, has legally discriminated against Muslims whether citizens or not. It is important to remind ourselves, despite our own normalisation of the harm, that nearly every single profiling stop whether coming into or leaving the US or UK, is an act of racism – even if they provide you with a sandwich or prayer rug to ‘soften’ the experience. Yes, the system is the way that it is, but we suffer a daily collective amnesia that results in us normalising the systemic discrimination we are forced to endure.
“A more diverse or culturally aware police force that includes Muslims will improve the system.”
As in the UK, we’re told feel-good stories about the non-Muslim community police officer who is willing to fast a day in Ramadan and even to break fast with the community at Iftar time. The thing about this token police officer, is that he really has no ability to overturn the structure that he is a paid up member of. Three roads away, his colleagues are profiling young black men on the streets, but equally worrying, his colleagues are placing pressure on some of those same black men and other congregants in the mosque to spy on the community in order to extract information. The point is, that attempting to normalise relations with institutions that fundamentally not only mistrust us, but are actively involved in harming us is not engagement, it can only be seen, at its most generous, as pacification. Yes, maybe that individual officer you engage with might think twice before brutalising a member of the community, but think of what we give up in that moment too…we hand them the excuse that they (institutionally) have met with us, and heard our concerns.
“CVE exists to tackle all forms of extremism!”
With increasing calls for the defunding of policing taking root, this opportunity should not fall short of pushing towards abolition of the security, military and prison industrial complexes. These structures reinforce one another in the way that they understand the communities they primarily focus on. In that sense, we have already seen a shift towards the marketing of Countering-Violent Extremism (CVE). This is a programme that is rooted to a DHS narrative of securitisation – in both its conception and practise, it is about Muslims. There is a stark difference, between those who are structurally racialised and marginalised feeling aggrieved, as opposed to those, within the majority of society, whose disenfranchisement is supported as a narrative within all the institutions of power. The source of White supremacy is mainstream.
Claims that CVE is there to tackle all forms of ‘extremism’ are simply a marketing tool, otherwise every single racist statement that was ever uttered by a conservative or liberal would be covered. When it comes to white supremacy, the bar for what is considered to be unacceptable, is effectively at the point of violence. With Muslims, the structure of CVE operates at the point of belief or overt markers of ‘Muslimness’. This is important, because the idea that CVE funding can be flipped so that Muslims can do good with it is nonsense and should never be opened for discussion by any Muslim individual or organisation that claims to represent the rights of Muslims.
“Muslim cooperation with law enforcement is about harm reduction.”
Ultimately, engagement is a calculus of risk that is being made by those who are engaging. The claim that they are working with law enforcement suggests that the specific and limited needs they are hoping to raise or change, are worth the normalising of relations with these violent structures. This is often presented as a benefit over harm calculation, that in the minds of those engaging, there will be a tangible benefit that emerges from the interaction. The question is, however, for who? From my working life and many studies that have been conducted on law enforcement, there has never been any reversal of policy that has been so significant as to justify such a relationship – the system largely remains the same, and in fact it is normalised and built upon further with the next piece of legislation or policy.
“Are you suggesting engagement is always wrong?”
The point of this call is not to claim that there is never any point in engagement, but rather that any engagement should take into account the structural violence that is taking place, and so the calculus of risk should be based on discernible change, rather than limited to brokering understanding and good feeling. Increasing understanding might help to make a single law enforcement officer, or a few others potentially less hostile in their interactions, but they are still part of the system.
Recommendations on transparent engagement:
- What I would propose in terms of interacting with the state, is that any interaction should only ever take place with those who have the ability to actually implement a structural change at a policy level, if it is to ever happen at all.
This should only ever take place with policymakers and legislators, and my suggestion is not with anyone within law enforcement itself while the structures remain as they are. The reason I say this, is because the greatest harm is in the structure of legislation and policymaking, not within the carrying out of the duties that have been imposed. At the very best, working with law enforcement might ameliorate the conditions of a small minority, but it is the structure that turns us all into second class citizens. So ultimately, this is a call for a radical approach of total non-engagement with law enforcement officials, and a call to unite towards more meaningful approaches of change.
- Communications should be made in writing to accompany any meeting, and the response should also be given in writing – this is to ensure that the communities we claim to represent are aware of our interactions, and the interactions that are being made are transparent.
The process of transparency with the community is crucial, because it will inevitably keep us honest in our approach and hold us up to the scrutiny and ethics of our entire communities. It will also provide a necessary barrier with any representative of the state if they should ever try and use divisive colonial tactics of preferential treatment of one group over another, as they attempt to maintain their hold of power over us. Furthermore, for those who are most harmed by the violence of the state, they will understand better why an individual or organisation has chosen to interact with a structure that harmed them, and so will be able to make a better informed judgement on whether any engagement might normalise the harm they previously or continue to suffer.
- While transparency is important, it is crucial that before any engagement takes place, that those with expertise in these areas are consulted. Communities have a wealth intellectual resources and well-informed critical voices – these voices should be consulted by any community leader, imam or organisation prior to any communication with authorities. As mentioned in point B, victims and survivors bring their own lived experience of being impacted by these institutions, and so consulting them too will always be crucial to providing a human insight into how policies and laws are harmful. Without consulting those who have been impacted most heavily, we risk losing the nuance of the ways in which harm can occur.
- A final recommendation for those who claim to represent the interests of Muslims, but have a background that was part of the system of violence against us: they must make their current position in relation to their previous work clear, and do it publicly themselves. This is integral to their claim to transparency, and therefore to their credibility. While forgiveness and growth are important in the work we do, trust and confidence are both far more important. Without being able to trust those who represent us fully, the community will always feel undermined by the system, and those involved in its defence. It is possible for someone to have worked in projects that were harmful and then to change their mind or opinion, but they must also make clear what they were involved in, and publicly state its wrongfulness. Expectations of trust without clarity, are unreasonable.
Ultimately these points can be summarised into: transparency, consultation and accountability.
As discussed throughout this letter, the first premise that we need to challenge, is one that thinks of policing (in particular) as existing in a benevolent or neutral space. We need to appreciate that in its identity and creation, the very function of surveillance policing is not to keep society safe, but rather the function of policing is as a form of disciplining society, through arrest and ultimately prosecution. Considered at its most fundamental level, our relationship to policing should start from a position of questioning the practise and ideology it is built on.
As Muslim individuals and organisations seeking to assist the oppressed, there is a duty that comes from being in this space that means any claims of representation cannot take place in the absence of understanding how our decisions have an impact in the complete structure of oppression. Small wins for one town or local community are meaningless while people continue to be arbitrarily detained, tortured and even killed. The oppression that is taking place is a structure, and without centring our responses to the entire edifice, we will continually risk normalising this system by reaching for small changes that only serve to temporarily make us feel less hostility from the state in the course of its violence.
Finally, I pray that these words are taken in the spirit they have been written, from a brother who has benefited a great deal from the long history of activism and radical thinking that has emerged from the US. Inshallah I hope that we can all advise one another towards what is better based on our knowledge and experience, but chiefly, that we can work with one another in order to protect all those who are oppressed, ameen.
Source: Muslim Matters