ASIMCan you give me an idea about CAGE and the kind of work you do?

(Asim) I star­ted my mas­ters in Octo­ber 2003 and on the first day of enrol­ment; I knew what I wanted to do my dis­ser­ta­tion on which was Guantanamo. It’s a thing that changed my world view. I was gonna go into cor­por­ate law and I changed all my sub­ject to human rights and inter­na­tion­al law because of these orange jump­suits. I was doing my research and a link for CAGE Pris­on­ers came up and I thought these guys are think­ing about it from a Muslim/Islamic per­spect­ive, what does it mean to have pow’s in Islam. I emailed them and became a volun­teer. I helped by upload­ing pdf’s and journ­al art­icles or dif­fer­ent things that I can access because of my uni­ver­sity account. When I fin­ished my mas­ters, I went to the founders and said let’s turn this into and NGO. Ini­tially we were focused on research and reports. It was about ana­lys­ing sec­ond­ary source data and shift­ing pat­terns. At that time mostly speak­ing to fam­il­ies. With­in a year people like Moas­sam Begg had been released and so we had data com­ing from Guantanamo from this early group of released indi­vidu­als. In 2005 we did our first report which was about the des­s­ic­a­tion of Qur’an inside Guantanamo, which had all this primary source material.

 What kind of things were happening? 

(Asim) They were flush­ing the Qur’an down the toi­let, stamp­ing on it, using it to coerce the detain­ees. We were the first people to pub­lic­ally talk about it. The key con­tri­bu­tions in that first year were, because our team was able to read Arab­ic, Urdu and Eng­lish, we were able to access lots of dif­fer­ent sources in rela­tion to the names of people who were being sent to Guantanamo, some­thing that a lot of west­ern out­lets and NGO’s weren’t able to do. They ended up tak­ing our list of detain­ees and mak­ing it their own. The Wash­ing­ton Post actu­ally cited their own list to us. We knew the list wasn’t per­fect but at that time it was the most defin­it­ive list out there. The major role that we played was telling human stor­ies about who these people actu­ally are and maybe provid­ing an altern­at­ive nar­rat­ive. Early on I would make field trips to Pakistan and meet with fam­il­ies and talk to them about their fam­ily mem­ber. We heard stor­ies about loc­al rival­ries with oth­er fam­il­ies being used as a way of selling these people to the Amer­ic­ans because they were pay­ing five thou­sand dol­lars a head. This then became an easy way to get rid of cer­tain pat­ri­arch­al struc­tures that exis­ted with­in that soci­ety. Two thirds of those in Guantanamo weren’t even picked up in Afgh­anistan; they were picked up in Pakistan; not even in the bat­tle­field, which is often forgotten.

Ini­tially we were really focused no Guantanamo and secret deten­tion. Then we increased our remit to any­thing that related to the war on ter­ror, cam­paign­ing about indi­vidu­als held here. After 7/7 Pre­vent came in our focus shif­ted in order to expand our remit.

What kind of chal­lenges you face when doing what you do?

(Dr. Lay­la) Even some­thing as simple as set­ting up an event, ven­ues end up can­cel­ling on us because they’ve been intim­id­ated or coached by pre­vent or even police officers, telling them that they’re host­ing extrem­ists. There’s that kind of intimidation.

(Asim) Last year I wrote an aca­dem­ic paper for a journ­al based on a mod­el by a cul­tur­al the­or­ist who stud­ied the black civil rights move­ment, in par­tic­u­lar the Black Pan­ther party were polit­ic­ally repressed in Amer­ica. He built a mod­el on state repres­sion and what the dif­fer­ent tac­tics on state repres­sion are in rela­tion to civil rights move­ments. I ana­lysed our his­tory and engage­ment with the states based on his mod­el. I found that cage has been through every single aspect of the state’s repres­sion except one; none of our mem­bers have been killed by the state yet.

When they shot Jean Charles de Menezez in the back of the head, they thought they were shoot­ing a Muslim. People for­get that. They had an assump­tion built in based on his look; they thought he was a guy named Hamza and they shot him twelve times in the back of the head because they thought they were shoot­ing a Muslim. That’s Islamo­pho­bia even if the vic­tim isn’t Muslim. In a Black Lives Mat­ter world, where the police have been known to extra-judi­cially kill people on the streets of Lon­don, it’s not out­side of the realm of possibility.

We have our bank accounts closed, we have our events shut down. There’s media cam­paigns against us and roll out politi­cians to speak against us. Every single action mode of repres­sion, which is what he calls it, we’ve been sub­ject to.

They don’t see struc­tur­al racism. They don’t believe and they don’t under­stand how judges, law­yers, pro­sec­utors, police officers, jury mem­bers can be big­oted and racist because that would mean admit­ting that soci­ety is even more messed up than it already is. For your bog-stand­ard lib­er­al, they wanna believe that actu­ally most people are just decent people, and they’re will­ing to do decent things and yeah, that’s true to a large extent, but if you remove race and racism from the equa­tion that you’ll nev­er under­stand how cer­tain com­munit­ies are so sys­tem­at­ic­ally dis­en­fran­chised. And that’s why it’s so import­ant that we con­nect what’s hap­pen­ing in cer­tain move­ments, like what’s hap­pen­ing to black people in Amer­ica with what’s hap­pen­ing here.

Again, as I write about in the book, the fact that George Zim­mer­man based his assump­tion about killing Trayvon Mar­tin on a Power­Point present­a­tion that he was giv­en about the signs of dan­ger­ous people to look out for; I mean the real­ity is that they were basic­ally describ­ing black people. So he was already prepped to find these threats; and so when Pre­vent does exactly the same thing where it says here are all the things to look out for, and in an envir­on­ment where the media is con­stantly Islamo­phobic, you are primed to find Muslims as poten­tial sus­pects. That’s how struc­tur­al racism works, it requires every­one to get involved. So when we talk about what chal­lenges we face, there’s ones we face spe­cific­ally as an organ­isa­tion but those chal­lenges are with­in an envir­on­ment of struc­tur­al racism where your aver­age per­son doesn’t under­stand that they don’t live in the same world that we do; they don’t live in the same world that black people do. These are dif­fer­ent worlds that we inhab­it, and because we inhab­it dif­fer­ent worlds, our start­ing point in rela­tion to our rela­tion­ship, not only to the state but to state insti­tu­tions, is com­pletely different.

 What are some of the object­ives of CAGE?

(Dr. Lay­la) I think it comes back down to the strap-line; Wit­ness. Empower. Justice. Wit­ness; to actu­ally provide some sort of doc­u­ment­a­tion for the future, we’re hop­ing that this will become a part of his­tory and people will look back and real­ise. To empower the com­munity because it doesn’t help when people are going through some of these things, but aren’t able to speak up or are shunned by their own com­munity. And to seek justice; there are aven­ues they can pur­sue to gain justice.

(Asim) This is about prin­ciples. Some of our cli­ents aren’t par­tic­u­larly nice people; they can be people I spent time arguing with because I don’t agree with their belief sys­tem. The idea of Justice is to take the most des­pised per­son in soci­ety and ask “what do rights look like for this per­son?” and the prob­lem with the Muslim com­munity is that we think very short term so “we don’t like x, and we’re will­ing for the law to come in and deal with that per­son so we can sep­ar­ate ourselves.” But once the law is entrenched, the per­son is gone, but the law is still there and it can be used against oth­er com­munit­ies. Nobody thought the extrac­tion act would be used against bankers. It’s much harder to repeal a piece of legis­la­tion than to stop it from becom­ing law in the first place. But once it’s law; every­one just plays their part and fol­lows the law.

(With Pre­vent) When we’re talk­ing about people hav­ing their kids removed, you’re aver­age social work­er knows this goes against the eth­ics of their pro­fes­sion. So you see this cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance emerge where they know some­thing is uneth­ic­al but they are required by law to do some­thing they wouldn’t oth­er­wise do. That’s part of what we cam­paign against; it’s about the prin­ciple, not just we want inno­cent people to get off; we want a bet­ter soci­ety a more just soci­ety and that idea’s tran­scend­ent­al. It’s not about bring­ing in Islam­ic law sys­tem, we want Brit­ish soci­ety to be the most eth­ic­al and just soci­ety that it can be. It’s not about gov­ern­ment it’s about governance.

What can we as a Muslim soci­ety do? And where are we going wrong?

(Dr. Lay­la) I think Fear is a power­ful tool. I think it’s dif­fi­cult when you’re the sus­pect com­munity. One thing that CAGE has done well is to see things at the very early stages and warn against it. In 2015, Asim said “I read this (Pre­vent) as chil­dren will be able to be removed from their fam­il­ies.” and there was sev­er­al quotes of people say­ing we scare­mon­ger­ing etc. and a few years down the line today we’re launch­ing a report with evid­ence of that hap­pen­ing. I think some­times see­ing and being able to come out of the bubble and hav­ing long-term think­ing as a community.

(Asim) I com­pletely agree. A lot of muslims just want to get on with their lives and just be a part of soci­ety, prob­lem is part of what soci­ety? If you have a nar­row per­cep­tion of what it is to be included in soci­ety then your ver­sion of inclu­sion means being a neo-lib­er­al cap­it­al­ist who does everything in a halal way, so your food becomes halal and your cloth­ing, hol­i­days and events. If that means hav­ing made it then you have a nar­row per­cep­tion of society.

It’s about being aware of where we are at any giv­en moment, and our com­munit­ies often have a very nar­row per­spect­ive of what inclu­sion means. So they say if we apo­lo­gise for ter­ror­ism and con­demn it, then they’ll just leave us alone. But in the say­ing of that they fun­da­ment­ally shif­ted their own place with­in soci­ety as being out­siders. You’re human­ity is derived simply from your exist­ence and pres­ence; it’s not some­thing you get invited into.

I don’t think the com­munity is spir­itu­ally and intel­lec­tu­ally able to deal with the chal­lenge of the war on ter­ror because of the fear that it brings.

I noticed how many dif­fer­ent cul­tur­al ref­er­ences you used in the book as well as Muslim perspective.

(Asim) My entire early polit­ic­al upbring­ing was very much rooted in hiphop, wheth­er it was NWA, Tupac, Wu Tang Clan, the whole of the west coast rap genre was some­thing that was very import­ant to me.

For me, know­ledge is know­ledge. There’s good know­ledge and bad know­ledge, but any­thing for me that makes a con­tri­bu­tion is some­thing I can take from. I’m not gonna reject some­thing Tupac is say­ing just because it’s Tupac say­ing it, I gonna ask “what does this mean to me in my life?” is there some­thing I can take away?

Hip hop was very present in my under­stand­ing of race. With hiphop we under­stood the pos­i­tion of race and gives us an idea of how we can assert ourselves in a way that’s mean­ing­ful. It’s quite upset­ting at times to see Muslims not giv­ing black cul­ture it’s due in terms of what it gave to a gen­er­a­tion of young Muslims such as myself who weren’t polit­ic­ally con­scious and who needed some­thing to help them under­stand the world in a way that made sense; like Tupac’s song “Brenda’s Baby”, which many young people were moved by.

They say police officers are being killed because of NWA and Ice T and Tupac. Their argu­ment is black people are killing police officers because of this music. But white people listen to the music aswell, why aren’t white people who listen to this music killing police officers too?

Cer­tain types of white people who are caged in racism may see it as a nat­ur­al part of the bar­bar­ism of people of col­our because of their ideas around eugen­ics and phren­o­logy and so on. We’re say­ing no… the reas­on why people have high­er levels of anxi­ety inter-gen­er­a­tion­ally in rela­tion to their rela­tion­ship to the state etc is because of this trans­mis­sion of trauma through­out these gen­er­a­tions, which are all based on envir­on­ment­al factors based on slavery, colo­ni­al­ism, police bru­tal­ity and socio-eco­nom­ic factors which are all envir­on­ment­al factors which lead us to this place where we have this antagonism.

For me the most fas­cin­at­ing group in rela­tion to this trauma that we cur­rently face with the war on ter­ror is the group that weren’t polit­ic­ally con­scious when 911 took place, maybe they were nine or ten years old when 911 happened. They weren’t able to dis­cern what the world was before then, so when they start becom­ing aware of what’s going on in media rhet­or­ic and being con­stantly sub­ject to these nar­rat­ives about how prob­lem­at­ic Muslims are or how prob­lem­at­ic people of col­our are; they don’t have anoth­er peri­od to reflect that against, for them Muslims have always been a prob­lem since they’ve been aware. I can remem­ber the 80’s and being chased around by skin-heads and nazi’s and get­ting into fights with them. I also remem­ber the 90’s and racism hadn’t ended but it had become impol­ite to be racist in soci­ety, it became very out of vogue to be pub­lic­ally racist.

Then 911 hap­pens and the war on ter­ror comes in and it’s like open sea­son on Muslims. For me, I can see the dif­fer­ent shifts and pat­terns and I under­stand that there are cer­tain ele­ments that are race based, cer­tain ele­ments to do with sec­u­lar­ism, ele­ments to do with Islam both hap­pen­ing with­in Islam and from the out­side against Islam. But for a young Muslim grow­ing up in this envir­on­ment, they only know that they have been secur­it­ised from day one of their con­scious­ness. That’s the group I worry about most; I don’t worry about my gen­er­a­tion because we knew some­thing dif­fer­ent. Even in terms of our ideas around jihad; we saw Bos­nia, Kosovo, Chechnya, we saw Afgh­anistan; we had a ref­er­ence point for what vir­tu­ous jihad looks like even with­in a mod­ern con­text. As opposed to young people who only see it caged in terms of ISIS and Al-Qaeda. When we were young the media we telling us about Muja­hedeen, it wasn’t talk­ing to us about jihadists. Even in Bos­nia they pub­lic­ally used the word Muja­hedeen in the media.

 Do you feel like there is a col­lect­ive-trauma that needs to be addressed and dealt with?

(Asim) Without a doubt. All of our com­munit­ies suf­fer from this col­lect­ive trauma because we all con­fig­ure ourselves in rela­tion to the war on ter­ror now, even in our own private lives. Even in our jok­ing with one anoth­er we inter­n­al­ise the nar­rat­ive of the war on ter­ror about who we are or who we should be. We’re con­stantly nav­ig­at­ing around a box that relates to the war on ter­ror and the state’s view on who we are and how we should be. The way we use lan­guage is extremely important.

We con­struct Islam­a­pho­bia ourselves, we con­struct our own inter­n­al­ised trauma about the war on ter­ror, but it’s in dir­ect rela­tion­ship to how it’s extern­ally con­struc­ted for us. We see the dom­in­ant fram­ing and we adopt that fram­ing because we can’t do any­thing about it and work with­in it’s para­met­ers in order to change the world except that’s not chan­ging the world, that’s try­ing to squeeze into it; to find a space where you are not seen as a threat with­in a dom­in­ant dis­course of how you should be.

What does it mean to be part of the Ummah, to be part of a com­munity that’s striv­ing for justice in the world that we live in today? Is it pos­sible for us to talk about a just soci­ety in the UK by just push­ing for an end to Islamo­pho­bia? I don’t think so, that’s a very nar­row view of what’s important.

Had Muslims been smart enough to under­stand this before they would’ve put all their effort in deal­ing with racism and not even thought about Islamo­pho­bia. Pre 911 they would’ve just said racism exists, we all need to tackle racism in our soci­ety. Racism is the plat­form on which every oth­er form of insti­tu­tion­al racism then exists. So if you didn’t under­stand that black people in par­tic­u­lar were being dis­crim­in­ated against, then what you did was allow for a plat­form to exist on which the build­ing blocks of Islamo­pho­bia are formed. The two can’t be sep­ar­ated from one anoth­er. If we say let’s end Islamo­pho­bia, but then will that end racism too? The two are inex­tric­ably linked to one another.

What is the con­ver­sa­tion around bring­ing all forms of oppres­sion under the same banner?

(Asim) One of the things I was very aware of was that I was writ­ing it as a man. The book went through mul­tiple rounds of scru­tiny by Islam­ic schol­ars from dif­fer­ent tra­di­tions, polit­ic­al act­iv­ists from dif­fer­ent tra­di­tions, because I need to know if for all of our tra­di­tions this is some­thing that has some worth as an intro­duc­tion to this type of polit­ics. So part of that pro­cess was giv­ing it to lots of very smart Muslim women who either aca­dem­ics on race, or aca­dem­ics on Islam from vari­ous tra­di­tions. I say to them “if you read this as a woman, do you feel that it still speaks to you in a way that’s true, or do you feel it under­mines you in some way that I have a blind spot towards?” There were some changes that I made in terms of how Muslim women are some­times oth­er­ised, how they’re not brought into the debates and dis­cus­sions we have. But for the most part they all said the same thing which is they felt that it spoke to them as well.

I did an inter­faith dis­cus­sion about my book and it was incred­ible to have a group of Jews and Chris­ti­ans; every­body in the room already took God as a giv­en so that was nice to be in that space. For them to reflect on the book from their own tra­di­tions; they were sur­prised to see so much writ­ten about the Holo­caust for example. So even with MLK, who is a great polit­ic­al fig­ure, but people often for­get about the reli­gious aspects of the argu­ments he would make, and those were fas­cin­at­ing for me. MLK is mak­ing reli­gious argu­ments for me in the book, not just polit­ic­al ones.

 Is there a con­ver­sa­tion around stop­ping his­tory from repeat­ing itself?

(Asim) That’s part of the book; to present his­tory as being cyc­lic­al. Akala says “Time is a cycle, not a line.” That’s exactly what I’m try­ing to present, but what I do is I present it as modes of action so that’s why I use this term “mod­al­it­ies of oppres­sion” because it’s the same mode of oppres­sion again and again. Don’t look at the per­son, look at the action that they’re tak­ing; people con­cen­trate too much on what the per­son looks like. You’re look­ing at the super­fi­cial aspect of it, look at the policy. What does the policy look like? If the policy looks repress­ive then more than likely it’s gonna go down the same liz­ard hole. And you don’t wanna fol­low them down that liz­ard hole, you wanna cut it off straight away and say “No, we’ve seen this before, we recog­nize what it is and we’re not gonna fall for that trick.” But you have to under­stand that oppres­sion fol­lows in cycles and if you don’t get that, you will nev­er see the world for what it is because you’re too focused on the super­fi­cial and that will always dis­tract you from what lies under­neath; the system.

You only have to read “The Open Veins of Lat­in Amer­ica” by Eduardo Galeano to see how you move over his­tory from one peri­od of pure col­on­isa­tion and the rape of a soci­ety in terms of its eco­nom­ics and actu­ally even phys­ic­ally, through to the inven­tion of the IMF and how that sys­tem­at­ic­ally des­troys soci­et­ies and com­munit­ies but you don’t have any cri­tique of that because for you it’s just like well, this is the world we live in. There’s no tak­ing on one form of oppres­sion without tak­ing on anoth­er form, and we know the eco­nom­ic sys­tem of the world is oppress­ive; it oppresses people every single day.

Once you accept that the world is a bad place and you have respons­ib­il­it­ies to the world that you live in then that just brings all sorts of drama and trauma in your life that you really don’t want to engage in.

On what levels do you think we as a Muslim com­munity are exper­i­en­cing trauma right now?

 (Asim) For me, I think trauma is endem­ic to everything that’s going on; I don’t think we can escape it. I think it’s some­thing that we should be think­ing about more reg­u­larly but we don’t because of the way the war on ter­ror con­stricts us and con­structs us both. It’s hard to gauge because there’s not been any empir­ic­al stud­ies, even then it’s not easy to meas­ure. These things are usu­ally found out a long time after they’ve happened, but I’ll give you one example, my col­league Mohammad Rab­bani was charged by the police for refus­ing to hand over his pass­words. What was inter­est­ing was that when we got back to the office, we had lit­er­ally hun­dreds of people call­ing the office line or email­ing the office to say we’ve been through that pro­cess at the air­port and what was inter­est­ing was the lan­guage that they used; they said it felt like a viol­a­tion. I felt like my per­son­al life had been viol­ated in some way. All of the lan­guage they were using of abuse, of trauma of viol­a­tion all reminded me of all of the works I’ve ever read of sexu­al viol­ence. It was so fas­cin­at­ing for me.

I quote Judith Herman’s book “Trauma & Recov­ery”; what she does really amaz­ingly well in her book is that she charts how the logic of sexu­al viol­ence is no dif­fer­ent than that of polit­ic­al viol­ence, of tor­ture, of coer­cion, this is all about con­trol. It’s a fas­cin­at­ing book and it reminded me; what is it about Muslims and our trauma with the war on ter­ror? It’s about the fact that we’re con­stantly being con­trolled, that we’re con­stantly being con­struc­ted, and there­fore of course we feel trauma in rela­tion to it because it’s always an act of coer­cion in this rela­tion­ship to the media, in rela­tion­ship to the state, in rela­tion­ship to the estab­lish­ment. There’s always this coer­cive ele­ment where you have to self-reg­u­late your life in order to meet an expect­a­tion of how you should be. I’m hop­ing someone does an actu­al study into it and actu­ally looks into the psy­cho­logy of these things because I think there is a degree of viol­a­tion that the war on ter­ror brings that is deeply problematic.

Young women have all sorts of lay­ers of trauma that they have to deal with bey­ond just simply being prob­lem­at­ized as being Muslim, as women, as women of col­our; there are just lay­ers that they have to think about and deal with on a daily basis. A Muslim woman in hijaab is a very vis­ible tar­get in a way that a Muslim man with a beard just isn’t; we’re hip­sters now, even if we walk around with rolled up trousers we’re cool. But for women there’s no hid­ing, there’s no hid­ing in a hijaab. You are out­ing your­self pub­lic­ally as a Muslim when you do that.

Regard­ing Jesse Wil­li­ams BET speech which you quote in the book, with him talk­ing about the here­after being a hustle, what do you think is the idea around that as a Muslim?

(Asim) I listened to that speech on repeat just because of how per­fectly it cap­tures so much in such a short space of time. It was just brilliant.

The first time I heard him say the here­after is a hustle, your instinct as a per­son of reli­gion is to say hold on a second, but then I was like no, I need to listen to this again; I need to under­stand what he’s say­ing. For me, he wasn’t say­ing that the here­after doesn’t exist, what he’s say­ing is the selling of the here­after is a hustle. We will sell you the here­after, for­get about this world that exists. Now I believe this world isn’t a real world, I believe this world is tran­si­ent, but I also believe that everything I do in this world impacts on my after-life.

So you talk about the here­after being a hustle, I agree with him that it’s sold as a hustle to paci­fy us, where­as actu­ally the here­after should be some­thing that’s sold as a prom­ise if we live in the real world and fight for justice in this world. So that’s why when I thought hard about what he was say­ing, I really came to appre­ci­ate it. I knew it might cause some con­tro­versy with people who are a bit unthink­ing by quot­ing that. I’m with him one hun­dred per­cent, that when our imams tell us that be patient, wait for the here­after, I agree; be patient but act with patience. That’s the dif­fer­ence; no one is say­ing be pass­ive with patience; act with patience. There’s no example in the Qur’an that I could find any­where where Allah says stay in your home and wait out the oppres­sion until the oppres­sion has ended. There is not a single story in the whole of the Qur’an that gives that view, that simply just ignore this thing exists.

So what do you think is the next step?

(Asim) That’s a dif­fi­cult one for me because as I write in the book; the book didn’t start off as a book, it was thoughts to myself that I was writ­ing as I was in a sab­bat­ic­al year from my work at CAGE. It was more of a con­ver­sa­tion to myself, maybe to my chil­dren, to think about where we were right now. For me, before we can talk about solu­tions we need to get our eth­ics right. Like how can we talk about the solu­tion if even from an eth­ic­al per­spect­ive, we haven’t under­stood where we stand with the state against oppres­sion, against injustice. That core belief sys­tem hasn’t emerged yet, so that for me needs chan­ging first.

For me, it’s like an edu­ca­tion pro­cess that this is like a con­ver­sa­tion starter. I want people to cri­ti­cize the book; I want it to be part of the con­ver­sa­tion. That for me is more import­ant than us com­ing away and say­ing this is how we’re gonna achieve uto­pia. I don’t believe in uto­pia but I do believe in fight­ing for justice because ulti­mately justice is with God. I believe that everything will be squared in the after-life. What I want is for people to engage with the book, think about what their place is in rela­tion to the book.



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About Aisha

Aisha is a Writer and Researcher based in London. She Thanks you for reading.