They came for me
In the corridor of the University of Nottingham’s Sociology department, where I am currently doing my doctorate, there are a number of interesting and thought-provoking photographs and artworks displayed. Prominent among them is a poem by Martin Niemoller:
First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me
These words always send a chill down my spine when I walk past. For a majority of people these words serve as a poignant reminder of human atrocities committed in the past in a bid to avoid repeating history, but for some they also reverberate uncomfortably with current events. The existence of Guantanamo Bay and reports of extrajudicial killings, rendition and torture of suspected terrorists in a post-9/11 global political climate, keep these prophetic words rooted in contemporary debates on the meaning of human rights in a world obsessed with “security”.
For those who are cynical about the prospects of any real threat to human rights from the highly securitised form of modern governance, there are more concrete cases closer to home, which provide a focal point for growing concerns over what is viewed as a gradual erosion of civil liberties in Britain. Last year the British government won a legal battle to extradite five Muslim men to the USA under a special arrangement with the Americans. The Extradition Act of 2003 is highly controversial because it was allegedly pushed through parliament very quickly in a move which critics claim was not given adequate consideration or scrutiny by the lawmakers.
Under this extradition arrangement British authorities are obliged to fast track extradition requests from the US without any form of prima facia evidence. This means British citizens can be extradited without a British court ever hearing any evidence to support the extradition request. Two British Muslims who have felt the full force of this Act are Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan. Campaigners for 38-year-old Babar Ahmad claim that he is the longest detained-without-charge British detainee held as part of the global “war on terror”.
He was first arrested in 2003 by counter terrorism police but was released without charge. During his arrest he claims he was brutalised by officers, for which he was later compensated with £60,000,although nobody was convicted over the injuries he sustained. He was then re-arrested in 2004 on the request of the US government which wanted him for internet related terrorism charges.
Talha Ahsan was arrested in 2006 under the same Act for allegedly providing “material support” to terrorism through involvement in a website which was based on a US server. When he was extradited in October 2012 along with Babar Ahmad and three others he’d been in detention for six years in a high security British prison.
The case of both these men is even more disturbing when you consider that a few weeks after their extradition the Home Secretary Theresa May blocked the extradition to the US of a computer hacker named Gary McKinnon on grounds that doing so may be a breach of his human rights due to his diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome which posed a risk of him committing suicide. Talha Ahsan, who is now 34-years-old, has also been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome but his human rights were not taken into account in the decision to go ahead with his extradition. This obvious discrepancy between the two cases has understandably led to allegations that Islamophobia and racism are the only explanation for the differential treatment.
These are the bare facts of a very complex story which I have tried to simplify for readers who may not have heard of these two men. I am not a legal expert and nor is there space here to outline the finer points of law to demonstrate how these cases constitute a tangible weakening in civil liberties in Britain.
What I can say is that contrary to popular belief, facts never speak for themselves, they always require interpretation. For the mainstream British public, the extradition cases represent a successful government strategy to deal decisively and firmly with the persistent threat of terror since 9/11. What gives weight to this reading of the situation is the fact that Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan were extradited along with three others including the much vilified and condemned Islamic cleric Abu Hamza.
I have no intention of speaking up for Abu Hamza since I am not in possession of all the facts nor is his guilt or innocence relevant to the predicament of Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan. What is relevant is the way that the latter two have been associated with someone who has been convicted and jailed for soliciting murder and inciting racial hatred in Britain. Abu Hamza, a 54-year-old former imam of Finsbury Park mosque in north London, has been a regular hate figure for the tabloid press because of his “sermons of hatred” and alleged support for Osama Bin Laden.
To rid Britain of this despised man came as a huge relief to the government for whom he had become a great embarrassment. By association, Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan have come to be seen as enemies of the state for their “suspected” involvement in terrorist related activity. As numerous British journalists, academics writers and human rights activists have pointed out, extraditing these men together in one case of “terrorism” has erased the significant differences between them.
However, there is another interpretation of what has happened to these two British Muslim citizens but this is a less vaunted version. Families, friends and supporters of both Babar Ahmad and Talha Ashan have, since their respective arrests, been campaigning tirelessly to get justice for them. They are working not only to clear their names but also to demand that they be tried in Britain. The civil liberties group Liberty is one of many campaigners who claim it is a violation of their human rights to be sent to high security prisons in the US where they are being held in solitary confinement, without access to their families and friends.
The pervasive and surreptitious means that have often been employed to fight terrorism in Britain have taken their toll on Muslim citizens in more ways than one. Not only are they under constant surveillance by security forces, they are also under fire from media, public and political opinion for being the “suspect community” and the “enemy within”. Under such pressure it is not surprising that many ordinary Muslims are reluctant to fan the flames of prejudice any further by appearing in any way sympathetic to what the state considers to be”terror suspects”.
Countless scholars, human rights activists and civil liberties campaigners have been warning that the unprecedented powers granted to security forces under a number of new terrorism acts since 2001 have been less effective in identifying terrorists and more successful in creating a mass moral panic over security. Spying on Muslims in general, rather than terror suspects in particular, has also generated more resentment among Muslim citizens who feel persecuted and even more excluded from British life.
It is with these examples in mind that I read the words in the Sociology corridor with a sense of deep pessimism. For the present is a safe place from which to reflect wisely on the mistakes of a regrettable past but it is much harder to apply the same wisdoms to horrors that are happening in the world right now.
The writer is a doctoral researcher in Sociology based at the University of Nottingham