Dr Kamran Khan from the University of Lleida, in Catalonia, Spain and visitor at King’s College, London tells us about his most recent work on citizenship, ESOL policy and (Islamophobic) suspicion in the UK.
Constance Mbassi Manga, doctoral researcher at Lancaster University, talks about migratory issues faced by Cameroonian ex-pats in the UK, France and US and how identity is made sense of through the use of Camfranglais.
Host: Dr Ann Wand (Oxford University)
Episode 5: The use of Camfranglais amongst the diaspora
Call for Papers: Special issue for Ethnoscripts on ‘Tradition, performance and identity politics in European festivals’
Guest editor: Dr Ann Wand, Oxford University
When examining classical anthropological literature on ritual, tradition and performance, most of the material tends to address African or Amerindian studies (see van Gennep’s The rites of passage, 1960; Victor Turner’s The ritual process: structure and anti-structure, 1969; and Huntington and Metcalf’sCelebrations of death: the anthropology of mortuary ritual 1979). As the Anthropology of Europe attempts to works its way into anthropological study, there is as an uneasy divide between classical literature and the study of Europe today. While anthropologists such as Cesare Poppi have tried to apply Hobsbawm’s study of the ‘invention of tradition’ into his work on the Ladin-speaking community of northern Italy (see Revitalizing Europe rituals, 1992), limited resources suggest the need to bridge the gap between classical themes and comparisons with non-European material with the Anthropology of Europe in order to avoid the Occidentalising ‘west versus the rest’ dilemma, which can be found in some aspects of the discipline. In order to fill this lacuna, this issue sets out to focus on two main themes: the (re)invention of tradition, as expressed by Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983), and its relationship with identity politics. As liminality plays a central role in the construction of European festivals, performers’ interpretations of supposedly historically ‘accurate’ carnivalesque practices lead to questions over whether certain traditions performed today are reflexive of societal concerns and political issues. In addition, performers’ identities are also brought to the fore as some masked and unmasked performances provide vehicles to express larger concerns regarding immigration, nationalist identity, economic issues and the diaspora. This focus on the performer, alongside festival participants, also functions as a means to fully recognise and account for the complex and ambiguous ways in which performers are made sense of in certain political settings, while also allowing the authors to move beyond the confines of Hobsbawm and Ranger’s work in order to add to the growing body of literature in the Anthropology of Europe. Through gathering articles around the issues of the (re)invention of tradition and identity politics in Europe, we seek to open a lively discussion concerning the merging of European ethnography with classic literature in the anthropology of ritual, tradition and performance in order that we may contribute towards a truly comparative anthropology.
While the selected papers for this issue thus far derive from a conference hosted at the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography at the University of Oxford in March 2017 on ‘Winter festivals and traditions’, this issue plans to look at seasonal festivals in Europe throughout the year. Each of the papers will represent a variety of interpretations of performers’ ideologies as expressed through European traditions.
Selected papers thus far:
Time-honoured tradition or tartan travesty? Diasporic Scottishness and the custom of piping in the haggis
Joy Fraser, George Mason University
‘Wild and beautiful’: The Krampus in Salzburg
Matthäus Rest and Gertraud Seiser, University of Munich and University of Vienna
Once they were shepherds. Górale ethnic identity in celebrations revived and reinterpreted
Pawel Sendyka, Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, Jagiellonian University, Poland
‘Keep your bloody fingers of our Black Pete!’ A contesting, controversial and changing cultural performance in contemporay Netherlands
Reinhilde Sotiria König, University of Amsterdam
Following the Bear: the revival of Plough Monday traditions and the performance of rural identity in the East Anglian fenlands
Richard D.G. Irvine, Open University
The guest editor is currently looking for 3-4 more papers for the April/ May 2018 Ethnoscripts special issue through the University of Hamburg. If interested, please send an abstract of no more than 300 words, along with a brief personal bio, to Dr Ann Wand at ann.wand(at)anthro.ox.ac.uk
Abstracts are due October 25th and a decision will be made by October 30th. Those who are selected will need to submit an 8,000 word paper for peer review by no later than December 10th.
Note: Selected contributors will also have the opportunity to present their research findings on the Early Career Researcher podcast ‘Coffee & Cocktails’.
We look forward to reading your contributions!
The Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology (ISCA) at Oxford University has published their ‘Winter Festivals and Traditions’ conference on ETE Education’s YouTube Channel. More information on the speakers and their abstracts can be found here. Otherwise the presenters’ videos can be accessed here.
An earlier version of this essay was posted on www.anthronow.com on July 19, 2016 at http://anthronow.com/online-articles/when-state-replaces-god
June 6, 2016 – Vigilers gather outside of the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York, NY in support of A Post 9-11 Domestic Human Rights Campaign put on by the organization, No Separate Justice. . Photo courtesy of No Separate Justice.
Following every international or domestic terrorism act committed by a Muslim, the American-Muslim community divides under political pressure on the issue of whether or not Muslims should take collective responsibility and communally condemn and apologize for the acts of a few individuals. On the one hand is a group of Muslim activists and organizations who accept collective responsibility by condemning such acts; they are therefore viewed by the dominant Euro-American society as patriotic, “good” Muslims. On the other hand is a group of activists and organizations who reject collective responsibility and may be viewed as unpatriotic, “bad” terrorist sympathizers. Critics of the former view claim collective responsibility aligns one with the oppressors of Muslims, thus the supporters are viewed as “bad” Muslims. From this perspective, “good” Muslims don’t take collective responsibility but stand up against the state and its violence against Muslims in general.
Although the schism over this debate reverses the “good” and “bad” binary within the community in relationship to Muslims’ experiences of state violence and structural oppression, the dichotomous construct is a result of the historical encounter of colonized people with European colonialization which is perpetuated by the state’s rationalization of the “war on terror.” George W. Bush deployed this binary to advance foreign and domestic policies using Islam and Muslims for the expansion of US imperialism. Through this logic European colonizers were able to divide and conquer through violence, where “good” Muslims collaborated with colonial masters and accepted the values of the dominant power. “Bad” Muslims resisted colonial power and domination and were also systematically dismissed as “dangerous.” The binary that has emerged around Muslims engagement with collective responsibility and collective condemnation since 9/11 reproduces these colonial politics and practices between Muslim Americans and their relationship with the state in the “war on terror.”
As an American Muslim who has been working with and advocating for families of Muslims imprisoned pre-emptively in the United States, I want to disrupt the binary around collective responsibility and collective condemnation. I contend that Muslims’ engagement or disengagement in this divisive issue is a result of internalizing Orientalist stereotypes about Islam and Muslims, who are stigmatized as inherently violent. Involvement with the issue further perpetuates dehumanization and state violence by Muslims. To understand this process I would like to explore whether criticizing collective responsibility and condemnation erases and hurts some community members and perpetuates state violence. Does rejection of collective responsibility absolve Muslims from condemning certain harmful individuals? Does standing up against oppression itself become a form of oppression in the face of multiple oppressions, and is that too, a form of violence?
Collective Responsibility and Collective Condemnation
Collective responsibility suggests that a group is liable for the wrongful acts of a few. The assertion communicates the idea of a collective mind; all are connected to perpetrators without ever having contact with them. Historically, marginalized groups in the United States have been forced to be accountable for the actions of one person through the principle of collective responsibility and the practice of collective punishment, which is part of the process of the racialization of marginalized communities of color and is central to racism and Euro-American dominance in this country. Muslims subjected to such racializing politics at this current moment have been forced to self-contaminate themselves with “guilt by association” with individuals who cause harm and share the same faith. But the limits of that responsibility must be interrogated.
Connected to holding Muslims collectively responsible for the wrongful act of a criminal individual is the state demand for collective condemnation. Muslims are under tremendous pressure from government officials, media platforms and dominant Euro-American society to loudly declare and visibly perform their position against terrorism. The implication is that if Muslims don’t condemn, they secretly support terrorism and are therefore a potential threat, warranting suspicion, surveillance and retribution. In the absence of outward condemnation, all Muslims are guilty until proven innocent and the entire community should be punished and held collectively responsible for any atrocity committed by a Muslim culprit. Although condemnation can operate independently, when individuals desire to condemn wrongful acts out of their own volition without force, Muslims have been compelled to engage in collective condemnation of “terrorism” as a form of collective responsibility. A similar demand and response from Euro-American Christian populations is missing when a white Christian engages in violence.
The root of collective responsibility and punishment can be traced to religious scriptures of the Bible and Quran where whole nations were held responsible for the bad actions of a few individuals and punished by God. This can be found in many stories of prophets, including the story of Isa (Jesus). Isa cried over Jerusalem because he realized God’s punishment would descend on the entire city for the actions of a few. When officials in a liberal, secular, modern nation-state demand collective responsibility from Muslims, religion is mixed with the state in a ritualized way. The fusion of religion and state formation was established in ancient times, when religion was the law that guided the conducts of people’s lives, and punished those who sinned against God or the gods. Evolving from ancient state systems, modern nation-states such as the United States claim to be secular yet were bounded by religious symbols and ritual practices from their very inception, where politics and the legal and penal systems have always blended with Christianity. Among dominant groups, “sinners” have been replaced by criminals who are individually held responsible and punished in modern state systems.
Muslim Supporters of Collective Responsibility
Demands for collective responsibility and punishment are not based on modern liberal principles. In a modern normative morality, only individuals are responsible for wrongful actions. When the dominant Euro-American society calls for collective responsibility, the Muslim community is compelled to engage in anti-American ethical conduct and forced to go against modern Western values, that is, they are forced to waive or decline individual accountability. Accepting collective responsibility undermines the very concept and practice treasured in modern notions of individual accountability and justice. This stance also serves to legitimize the dominant discourse that Islam and Muslims are violent. Furthermore, acknowledging Muslims’ association with wrongdoers also permits the US government to continue sending informants to mosques and Muslim communities. Supporting this position perpetuates unintended state surveillance, violations of civil liberties and human rights and increased civilian hate attacks on Muslims. Defending this stance affirms Muslims’ connections to terrorism violence, and as a consequence, Muslims solicit more expansive counter-terror measures. This results in more governmental authority which causes harm to groups and individuals. In turn, defending this position allows states to achieve certain implicit or explicit goals to maintain state power and control over the population, which promotes state violence.
The expectation of collective responsibility is also a state mechanism for continuously scapegoating innocent Muslims as threats to society. Scapegoats emerge during times of crisis and moral panic when individuals or groups resembling perpetrators get classified as a threat to societal values and wellbeing. An increased level of hostility towards the group, which is collectively designated as the enemy, is exhibited. Through these processes of scapegoating and panic, Muslims or people perceived to be Muslims are socially constructed and racialized as “terrorists.” Scapegoating promotes exclusion and othering of unwanted individuals or groups, empowering dominant groups to exercise power and discipline toward the scapegoated population and the rest of the society. Muslims have been collectively used as scapegoats in the aftermath of 9/11; innocent people have been detained, deported, arrested and tortured both domestically and globally in notorious camps such as the Communications Management Units and Guantanamo Bay. Muslim Americans have been subject to a separate system of justice where human rights violations through the judicial and penal system are accepted as legal and legitimate. When Muslims accept collective responsibility, they acknowledge the acceptance of abuse of Muslims as scapegoats for atrocities. Therefore, Muslim Americans need to rethink whether this position is helpful in the political struggle to secure collective dignity and self-determination.
Muslim Critics of Collective Responsibility and Collective Condemnation
Muslims who reject collective responsibility are usually also the ones denouncing collective condemnation in this debate. Public performances of rejecting collective responsibility and collective condemnation might be viewed by some as revolutionary, by standing against oppressors and state violence. However, the outward dismissal of one’s responsibility and collective condemnation does not liberate Muslims from the transference of implicit condemnation of individuals. Muslims’ abstention from condemnation vicariously affirms their support for condemnation by the state. Whether or not some Muslims reject responsibility and condemnation, the perpetrator faces the law and the state punishes the criminal. Thus, rejecters of collective responsibility and condemnation support retributive justice, the idea that violence deserves to be repaid with violence. While this is not a novel position for Americans, however; retribution is a morally acceptable American value and daily law enforcement practice. There is strong public support for harsh criminal penalties based on retributive justice.
When Muslim Americans invoke the law of the state for retribution against a culprit individual, they condemn the wrongdoer to the violence of the state. As a consequence, rejecters of collective responsibility and condemnation support and maintain state violence on individuals as long as the collective is not subjected to this violence. This norm of permitting retributive violence is connected to the way the state uses military force in global conflicts. Vicariously endorsing this norm tacitly supports the use of torture for terrorism suspects and the use of military force abroad. This stance supports the violent prison-military-industrial complex, which includes the practice of government surveillance, and the use of informants and the predatory prosecution of Muslims. Thus the critics of collective responsibility and collective condemnation uphold oppressive systems. This paradox raises questions about rejecters who claim to be resisting state violence in the “war on terror” and whether or not they are working toward dismantling or maintaining oppressive systems.
Further critics of collective condemnation are very much aligned with American and Western values and support modern, liberal, democratic, normative principles of individual accountability when they indirectly condemn the culprit. The modern liberal morality assumes that there is individual autonomy in committing a crime and affirms the validity of criminal law. Therefore, this position does not absolve criticizers from condemning the wrongdoer; instead, it raises questions about whether or not and how this public performance leads to ending US imperial violence both domestically and globally. Thus, critics not only condemn few wrongdoers, they also denounce another group of Muslims who have committed no acts of violence— individuals the state selects as scapegoats for predatory prosecution.
The fissure between critics and supporters in the mainstream debates around collective responsibility and collective condemnation is based on the experiences of these two sides which homogenizes Muslim American experiences within this binary. Each position does not distinguish between criminal and non-criminal acts, that is, acts of atrocity and the criminalization of Muslims which involve no actions. When this position flourishes in public spaces and a supposed act of terrorism violence does occur, it encourages the Muslim mass to internalize the public debate and reject collective responsibility whenever one is accused of “terrorism,” even when there is no violence or intent of violence.
The State, the Muslim Scapegoat and Collective Condemnation
More than 500 innocent American Muslims have been targeted, imprisoned and condemned by the state in government-manufactured, “terrorism”-related cases through entrapment or violation of constitutional and human rights in the domestic “war on terror.” According to the Human Rights Watch report, these Muslims are victims of predatory prosecution, used as scapegoats in the federal criminal justice system. These Muslims and their families have been expunged and silenced by government institutions, dominant American society and the larger Muslim community.
In order to understand how scapegoating and predatory prosecution occur, it might be helpful to examine how law and religion were intertwined within ancient state systems. In Teotihuacan, for example, ritual sacrifices were made to the state or gods to control communal violence. It was believed that group competition for resources and power would lead to violence and destruction, and, in order to manage such violence, human or animal sacrifices were needed to maintain social order and stability. Violence in ritual and sacrifice was required to prevent greater violence in human society. Those sacrificed became the scapegoats, who were viewed and treated as outsiders or blamed for social evil. They operated as vessels through which the community relieved itself from harm and achieved collective social cohesion.
In modern nation-states, this punishment and sacrifice based on religious ritual is a foundation of the formation of a criminal justice and penal system influenced by Christian ideals, where scapegoats from marginalized groups are identified and punished. The dominant racial group maintains power by punishing and banishing marginalized groups as evidenced by America’s mass imprisonment of people of color. In the “war on terror,” the criminal justice system is an integral component for the construction and racialization of innocent Muslims as “terrorists.” Predatory prosecutions are scapegoat cases of “imagined” terrorists, where innocent people have been chosen by the state, ensnared in manufactured charges and processed through the criminal justice system. These prosecutions are part of America’s pre-emptive imperial wars overseas and exemplified by the torture of Muslims in Guantanamo Bay.
Pre- emptive prosecutions that target Muslim sociality and religious and political expressions of bodily markers are used domestically to repress and regulate Muslims as part of the state’s racial management process. It is through the labelling of a targeted population as “monster” and “terrorist” in the penal system that the state maintains moral panic about the spectre of terrorism as something “real” in the public’s space; it also extends state-sponsored violence against the same population. By merging race and religion with terrorism and violence, the state socially and legally constructs Muslims for expulsion as criminals, by preserving whiteness as a hegemonic political power while at the same time sustaining the culture of fear and hatred in America. Media sources further bolster the hype around predatory cases and assault Americans with relentless reports of terror. Living in constant fear of terrorist attacks, such reports can induce subjective beliefs and psychological responses which can make it difficult for the American public to disentangle the real from the unreal—When Americans are forced to internalize moral panic regarding the imaginary of Muslims as “terrorists” (to the point where people are unable to distinguish reality from falsehood), it becomes a situation for serious public concern.
Targeted Muslims, primarily men, have been convenient scapegoats that society at large has come to blame and indict for everything from social disorder to the economic and political crises of a declining empire. While ancient and modern state systems treat these individuals as “other,” stories in Scriptures expose the innocence of scapegoated individuals and reveal their special connection to God. However, the mainstream dispute around collective responsibility and condemnation erases such individuals from the conversation. Moreover, the violence against imprisoned Muslims, who are mostly men, extends beyond the accused and has tangible consequences for women and families as well.
The Rejecters of Responsibility and Condemnation and the Women and Families of the Accused
Apart from having a brother accused and imprisoned on manufactured charges, I have had the opportunity to work with many families and relatives of accused Muslims during my ethnographic research and advocacy work. Coupled with state surveillance and demonization from the Euro-American dominant society, some of these women and families are traumatized, isolated, stigmatized and alienated in their local communities and expunged from public debates about Muslim Americans. Moreover, these women and families experience withdrawal of collective aid and solidarity and are treated as “other” within the Muslim community. Like other forms of repression, the assault by arrest, prison and courts have adverse effects on the women and families, their relationships with others, and the community in general. To have a loved one accused, arrested and disappear on accusations of “terrorism”, while being imprisoned in pre-trial solitary confinement for years, or in special prisons such as the Communications Management Unit, become a dangerous stigma, adding to their pain and suffering. Laila Yaghi has shared with me the pain experienced with her son’s case which left her in depression:
“Injustice is different. It just hurts. Oppression really, really hurts. It’s like somebody lost a family member due to a car accident – it’s going to hurt a lot but eventually that person is going to accept that it’s an act from God, and you’re going to accept, and everyone at some point is going to die, our life is going to end sooner or later, that is an act of God. We are going to accept it, and it does hurt, but it doesn’t hurt down to the core. However, injustice and oppression has a whole different meaning. The pain is so different, and it’s so harsh and so strong. It emanates even from your face, from your whole body, your whole body language and your soul, and speaks volumes that you are being oppressed, and it has to stop. This is not an act of God. This is from a human being oppressing other humans because they can do it, because they are allowed to do it, because they think they are better in some way than other human beings, because they are superior. Muslims need to work together and help all these families.”
Some families stated that no one usually helped them throughout their entire ordeal. Some of the families worked on these issues individually on their own by going to mosques, trying to talk with community leaders and activists, attempting to raise funds for legal representation, etc. Some of the women and families felt dehumanized when trying to raise funds for legal defense, as people ignored them out of fear of surveillance or treated them badly. Shahina Parveen shared her experiences of trying to seek assistance from her community when her son was imprisoned on an entrapment case:
“I was in a lot of trouble and I went to several places for help because I needed money for a lawyer. It was very difficult to find a lawyer as they ask for millions of dollars. It was like we became beggars so we put out an advertisement in the newspaper for help. I went to several organizations but they were not able to assist. I went to [organizations], but I didn’t get any help or support from them or from anywhere, but I still went. I went to mosque leaders for help but no help came from anywhere. They didn’t help because they didn’t want the same thing happening to them. They probably thought if they help us they will be targeted too as terrorists. This is the environment that we are in. It’s all injustice. They are afraid of injustice happening to them.”
Trying to seek assistance from the community has been a difficult process for many families. Major non-profit local and national civil rights and human rights organizations sometimes condemn the families and others have denied support to families of the accused.
Moreover, the Muslim mainstream engaged in the collective responsibility debate also dismisses the scapegoated population. For example, when the Muslim mainstream erupted on social media rejecting collective responsibility for violence committed by others in 2014 with the hashtag #MuslimApologies, no one tweeted about Muslim men unjustly imprisoned in the federal system or about their families, the people punished and chosen by the state to take collective blame for the Muslims who were tweeting. The #MuslimApologies campaign involved people from privileged backgrounds who have usually distanced themselves from supporting or standing in solidarity with the accused and their families, resulting from their inability to determine falsehood from reality.
American-Muslims have been engaging with this divisive performance since the atrocity of 9/11, yet there has been little or no support from the community for campaigns by scapegoated families to free their accused loved ones. These families and a handful of Euro-American activists established the No Separate Justice educational campaign to address rights violations in the domestic judicial system, but there has been no sign of the rejecters or supporters of this discussion in support of this national campaign focused on scapegoated Muslims. Moreover, my conversations with women reveal that they expect the Muslim community to stand in solidarity with their cause and the entire community to claim collective responsibility for the innocence of their loved ones. To these women, collective responsibility is an act of social justice that is positive and worthy of commitment. However, communal assistance has not been forthcoming from the Muslim community, including its activist and social justice groups. That the loved ones of these women were imprisoned on manufactured offenses and have not committed any acts of violence, does not help these families to secure support and remove the stigma manifest within the Muslim community. No revolutionary collective solidarity and support exists for them to this day. This situation raises questions, not so much about the supporters of collective responsibility, who align themselves with the state, but about the denouncers. When critics promote dissociation from collective responsibility, this position cultivates a certain kind of connotation and meaning about this issue that educates the Muslim mass to reject collective responsibility for people in predatory prosecution by withdrawing support from the accused families as well.
Moreover, when some Muslims and groups new to assisting affected families claim to support this population but maintain their position as rejecters of collective responsibility, this demonstrates their support for the state and defense of oppressive systems, which raises questions about their social justice work and support of state violence through retribution. Criticizing collective responsibility does not translate to, or generate, collective support for the families of the accused. Critics are not liberating these women from the accusation of “terrorism,” but instead perpetuate the “guilty until proven innocent” myth as evidenced by the withdrawal of support by the larger society and the Muslim mainstream. The denouncers of apologetic statements are not illuminating or relieving the distressful experiences of these members but exercising domination and protecting the status quo by engaging in schismatic performances around collective responsibility; through their public proclamation critics maintain and perpetuate their relative positions of power and privileges as mainstream Muslim voices, marginalizing the vulnerable population within the community. Dissociating from responsibility has not helped women and families much with accountability structures or obtaining justice. As a result, these families occupy a precarious position in the “war on terror.”
The withdrawal of support from this population and their existence as the imagined “monster” exposes moral disorder and the guilt of protecting oneself from becoming scapegoats. Like the Euro-American dominant society, Muslims seem to have internalized the myths about these accused people and feel justified in their actions against collective support. Muslims believe that their troubles will be eradicated if these individuals are punished or simply vanished. As a result, Muslims obliterate the voices and experiences of this population and deny them their position as the innocent oppressed whose status is elevated in the Scriptures, revealing their special connection to sacred cosmology. Their existence as scapegoats, taking on the burden of America’s collective guilt, seems to function to unify American society, the Muslim American community and the ummah in this current historical moment. It is through the existence of this accused population that Americans in general, and Muslim Americans in particular, seem to feel a sense of security, order, stability and purification.
Will the Muslim not condemning, please stand up?
The simplified distinction between rejecter and supporter of collective responsibility raises questions about the extent to which both sides of this debacle have internalized Islamophobia. Internalization of Islamophobia means Muslims have assumed or co-opted the dominant and Orientalist discourse about Islam and their identities; they have come to believe and accept that Islam is inherently problematic and violent. The deliberate or inadvertent inability to distinguish an accusation as mythical or real is a symptom of internalized Islamophobia. When we believe myths over reality, as intended by the state, we have condemned our own community members as “monsters.” The willful or unwitting denial of collective solidarity and collective aid as a form of collective responsibility is an act of erasure and condemnation as well. Critiquing collective responsibility has not generated collective support for these families, but instead maintains their guilt. Thus critics become collective condemners, and the pressure on the accused functions as a form of dehumanization and violence. Renouncement of responsibility for violent crimes does not result in recognition of support for non-violence when state-perpetrated guilt and stigma continue to expand and operate on a scapegoated population. This position also supports state retribution against culprit individuals. Thus the state-perpetrated demand that calls for the outward expression of collective responsibility and condemnation in which Muslim Americans engage reproduces colonial practices and experiences. Through this binary the state maintains its hegemonic power over, and violence against, Muslims and other marginalized communities at home and abroad.
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Sharmin Sadequee is a PhD student at Michigan State University. Her research interests include Muslims and Islam at the intersections of national security laws, modern state, religion and social justice movements. As an artist, she incorporates visual art and photography in her academic and organising work.
The following photo essay was written by Sharmin Sadequee for the digital media start-up, Ummah Wide. This article has been updated and published at ETE with her permission. A copy of her original article can be found here.
Since the inception of the US “war on terror,” the US government has collectively traumatized Muslim Americans by targeting them with terrorism-related charges, and uprooting many of their loved ones from their families and communities. Many of these political prisoners entrapped by the FBI, have been confined in torturous conditions in various federal prisons across the country. Left behind are the families of these prisoners, mostly women and children, who languish in communities and are often stigmatized for their relationship with someone accused of supporting “terrorism.” I’ve come to know these families of prisoners through my organizing work in relation to the rights violation of my own family member — my brother Ehsanul “Shifa” Sadequee. Through my ethnographic fieldwork, my advocacy work, and my conversations with these women, it became evident that all the women and families have undergone deeply agonizing experiences.
The state’s persecution of Muslims in America through the criminal justice system in the post-9/11 political climate is not a new tactic. Various marginalized communities of color have also endured and continue to suffer from such violence from the state, both at the hands of local police departments and through programs like the FBI’s COINTELPRO program. What is different in the context of the “war on terror,” is the persecution of a religious minority both at home and abroad, and the targeting of their religious and political views, in order to coercively assimilate this group into what both the government and mainstream society want the image of Muslims to be. Certain judicial practices have been put in place by which innocent Muslim men are being “processed” with the accusation of “terrorism” in the criminal justice system, thus facilitating a social and legal construction of the collective image of Muslims as “terrorists.”
These practices are influenced by the political conflation of Islam with “terrorism” by the state in the broader American culture and in government. The construction of homegrown terrorism and the politics of radicalization theories that are promoted by the media and government officials drive the justice system to treat American Muslims as different and “other” and to subject them to greater punishment through intrusive surveillance, informants in communities, and restriction of religious practices in prisons. Within the post-9/11 national security political regime, the government has used the criminal justice system to collectively punish the Muslim American community and target well over 500 Muslims. In these cases, criminal laws such as material support for terrorism and/or conspiracy are used as a pretext to criminalize speech and First Amendment-protected activities to instill the fear of Muslims in broader society. Federal authorities employ various tactics, such as the use of agent provocateurs, to instigate ideologies of violence and entrap innocent Muslim men in government-funded and -manufactured imaginary “plots.”
A legal analysis of the government’s prosecutions in the recent studies Inventing Terrorists and Illusion of Justice has identified various ways that the justice system has violated the human rights of Muslims through the federal courts and the prison system, from the start of the investigations to sentencing and post-conviction conditions of confinement. Some egregious practices mentioned in the reports include the use of material support charges to punish activities that have no intent of terrorism; introduction of prejudicial evidence; abusive conditions of confinement in special prisons made for Muslims, called Communication Management Units; prolonged solitary confinement and severe restrictions on communication with the outside world both pre-trial and post-conviction; restricted contact with families; and restrained observance of religious rituals.
While Muslim men are directly subjected to the violence of the state’s criminal justice system for non-violent activities, their families at home are also adversely affected. With the political incarceration of their loved ones, the lives of the women and their families change forever—confined by courts, law enforcement agents, lawyers, media, prison walls, and constant surveillance. These instruments of control place additional burden on women who are already tasked with the responsibility of maintaining their families. These tools of punishment also inflict fear and silence and prevent families from sharing the pain and suffering that they have been subjected to by our government.
From the time of arrest of their loved ones and throughout their experience with the criminal justice, court, and prison systems, the lives of these women and families are devastated. The families feel that their loved ones have been abruptly “snatched away” from them, ripping apart their deeply-rooted kinship and familial ties.
Each woman feels the pain of forced separation from her loved ones at the individual level, but the pain also comes from the attitude of community members who tend to “otherize” these families further, as a result of their own fear of coming under target for associating with families of the accused.
Being turned away by their own community whom the women have come to trust for support only adds to their sense of betrayal, suffering and isolation. The stigma and guilt by association connected with the criminal justice system worsens the situation for these Muslim families. The women relatives of prisoners are disenfranchised by their own Muslim communities as well as by dominant society, which limits their opportunities to improve their social and economic situation.
Khadija Hossain holds a picture of her family taken at the prison with her father, Mohammad Hossain. Her father was entrapped by the FBI when she was 9 years old.
“I was 9 years old when my father got entrapped. He owned a pizzeria and we’d all go there to help and worked together as a family. But after he was arrested, we couldn’t maintain it. I worry about my mother, though, she is very lonely. He was her companion.” Khadija is a Bangladeshi American college student and works part time to support her family which includes her 5 siblings and mother in Albany, NY. Khadija’s father, Mohammad Hossain, was taken in an FBI sting operation and is currently located in a Federal Prison in Alabama.
Samina Ahmed looks at photos of her son, Farooque Ahmed, who was entrapped by an FBI informant in Washington D.C.
“We moved to this country from Pakistan for a better life and education for my children. Now that my son is in prison, what can I do? What can a mother do? I have nothing left there and lost everything here. What can I say or do? My son is here, and my wish is to see him only for as long as I can breathe and have life in me. Other than that, I have nothing else to say.”
Samina is from Pakistan and is the mother of Farooque Ahmed. Her son was entrapped by an FBI informant and accused of plotting to attack DC subways and is currently held at the Communication Management Unit in Indiana. Farooque also has a wife and a son who miss him very much.
Majida Salem is a school teacher and activist in Dallas, TX. Her husband, Ghassan Elashi, is one of the founders of the Holy Land Foundation who is currently incarcerated in the Communication Management Unit in Marion, IL. The US government recently collected writ of garnishment from her salary to pay fees to the federal court, causing a severe financial burden on her to support her family.
Zurata Duka reading a letter from one of her three sons, Eljvir Duka, entrapped by the FBI
“After they arrested my 3 sons on an entrapment case, it was very hard for me because who is going to help me with five grandchildren? I stopped my youngest son, who was 16 at the time, from going to school and this has hurt me a lot, because I wanted to give him a good education. I wanted to send him to college. He is working like he is forty years old, supporting the kids and our family and helping his father.”
Zurata is an Albanian American and her 3 sons were entrapped and accused of attacking the Fort Dix Base in New Jersey. They are in federal prisons located in 3 different states far away from each other and from the family, exerting tremendous financial burden on the family when they visit them.
Shahina Parveen is going through post cards her son made for her in prison.
“When we saw my son got arrested on TV, my daughter, Saniya’s body froze in shock and she became bedridden and could not move for weeks. She was traumatized to see her brother that way. We didn’t know what was going on. It was the informant who enticed my son to say and do things. But people still look at us differently. The government snatched my son away from me. I breathe, eat, and sleep but my life feels empty. Dead. We don’t have any friends anymore. No one visits or calls us.”
Shahina Parveen is from Pakistan and her son, Shahawar Matin Siraj, was entrapped by an FBI NYPD informant and accused of talking about attacking the Harold Square Subway in New York. He is located at a federal prison in New York.
Marlene Jenkin with a photo of her son, Tarik, who was entrapped by an FBI informant and pled guilty so he could receive a reduced sentence
“My son is a professional cellist and played at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. I worry about his children growing up without the presence of their father. He was the best father to them and my best friend as well. He used to help me out financially after my husband past away, but now I have to work sometimes.”
Marlene worked with Malcolm X and accepted Islam in the 1960s. She is in her 70’s and lives by herself in Albany, NY but often drives to Virginia federal prison to see her son, Tarik Shah.
Despite the measures taken to silence the families, as women relatives of political prisoners they remain resilient in the face of growing Islamophobia and domestic human rights abuses. Subjected to the abuses from government over-reach and egregious law-enforcement practices, they are, however, learning to use their victim-hood productively. They are organizing themselves for social justice actions to give voices to their absent loved ones and those oppressed in our society. By engaging with the cases of their loved ones, families are already leading campaigns to expose the rights violation in federal courts and prisons. Through their brave campaigning, they call for everyone’s right to justice while simultaneously navigating the cultural shame of being targeted and the stigma of prison in their day-to-day lives under the “war on terror.”
Finding limited or no support from their local communities, families have established their own support committees and organizations, like the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms (NCPCF), which was founded by the family of a political prisoner. They organize gatherings and conferences to support each other and to build the capacity for collective social justice action by mapping the legacy of trauma on their lives as immigrants, Muslims, and people of color in the context of political repression in the United States. These gatherings provide a collective space for the families to network, heal, and build power as families affected by government abuse of power so they can address the injustice of the criminal justice system and growing Islamophobia.
Reem Jayyousi at the families’ conference organized by NCPCF. Her father, Kifah Jayyousi, is in a federal prison in Wisconsin.
“I was this lost girl who lost all hope, faith in myself, the situation, and those around me…From the moment when I walked off the plane I felt like the weekend was going to change me and it was going to be a positive one, and I haven’t had a reason to smile for a while but that weekend I did. When I started getting to know other people I saw that I was not alone and I was no longer forgotten. I felt that others were in the same position as I was in. In a way, we all saved one another when we showed up. We all impacted each other in multiple ways. I felt like the broken family I had at home found its missing link.” — Reem Jayyousi shares her sentiments on the families’ conference organized by NCPCF
From left: Tameema Ahmed (sister of Haris Ahmed), Asma Elashi and Nida Baker (daughters of Ghassan Elashi and Shukri Abu Baker) are young leaders empowering families.
The gathering of families is a space for collective healing and support. As families of prisoners, they know that complete healing can happen only when their loved ones return. However, through individual and collective conversations, these women work to transform and build collective power to support each other.
Inas Shnewer, sister of Mohamad Shnewer, signing post cards for prisoners at the NCPCF Families Conference. Brianna Jackson (right)- her grandfather is also at the federal prison with Mohamad Shnewer at the Communication Management Unit in Marion, IL
Families learn to contextualize their complicated experiences with the criminal justice system through participatory, healing centered activities and learn to channel their layered experiences towards community empowerment.
Families paint what’s on their mind at the Art Therapy session at the Families Conference organized by the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms. Above- Ayat Shnewer and her cousin, Noran
Sonali Sadequee, a healing justice organizer and sister of Shifa Sadequee, leading discussions at the Families’ Conference
Mothers sharing pictures and memories of their sons with each other at the families of Muslim prisoners conference in DC organized by the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms
In the midst of their struggles, these families have also organized campaigns to free their loved ones and raise public awareness of prison conditions and rights violations in the federal judicial system. These campaigns, often headed by women, are initiated in their own communities, often with the aid of community activists and civil rights groups. Campaigns such as Free Sami Al-Arian, Free Fahad, Justice for Shifa, Free Tarek Mehanna, Free Ziyad Yaghi, Freedom to Give, and No Separate Justice Campaign are examples of collective action that families of Muslim prisoners have begun and participated in across the country. Through these initiatives families speak about their loved ones who have been targeted by the FBI and buried alive in the federal prison system. By engaging in these public actions, families work to build a cross-cultural, interfaith, and intersectional justice movement. Collectively, the families have been working fiercely to break the silence and shed the truth about what is really happening to Muslims in America.
Little Fatima (on the right) is a 7 year old Palestinian-Albanian American. Her mother was pregnant with her when her father, Eljvir, and 2 uncles, Shane and Dritan Duka, were entrapped by an FBI informant and accused of attacking the Fort Dix Base in New Jersey. She is standing with her cousin Loujain (left) and holding a demonstration poster.
Laila Yaghi, mother of Ziyad Yaghi, incarcerated in a federal prison in Florida
A demonstration at the Department of Justice organized by the women and their families of Muslim prisoners with the help of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms to bring attention to the rights violations and injustice their loved ones endured and to stop the violence of the war on terror in their communities.
Hedaya is a Palestinian American and lives in Detroit, MI with 5 young adult children. After spending many years in the Communication Management Unit in Marion, IL, her husband, Kifah Jayyousi, is at a federal prison in Wisconsin. Hedaya is holding posters at a demonstration of families of prisoners at the US Department of Justice.
The No Separate Justice Campaign initiated by human rights activists and allies of families, Jeanne Theoharis and Sally Eberhardt, in New York City aims to shed light on and end a pattern of human rights and civil liberties abuses in “War on Terror” cases in the U.S. criminal justice system. A focal point of this campaign is monthly vigils held outside the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in lower Manhattan, a federal prison where people accused of terrorism-related offenses have been held in solitary confinement for years, even before they have been tried.
Shahina Parveen and her daughter, Saniya Siraj, mother and sister of Shahawar Matin Siraj at the interfaith vigil organized by No Separate Justice
Rabbi Michael E. Feinberg, a prominent New York City interfaith leader at the No Separate Justice Vigil
The author of this story, Sharmin Sadequee, is an Anthropology student; her research concerns national security laws, subjectivity, and political repression, and how Muslim Americans address and challenge these laws and policies through collective actions and social movements. As an activist and artist, she incorporates visual art in her academic and organizing work. She is also the Director of Prisoners and Families Committee of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms. This writing is influenced by the works of scholars Michel Foucault, Erving Goffman, Mahmud Mamdani, Veena Das and Megan Comfort.