The need for grassroots Muslim activism

Waris Ali

Waris Ali, who was cleared of terror charges in a high-profile trial in 2008, reflects on his experiences conducting grassroots activism with the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign and the Free Munir Farooqi Campaign. He encourages us all to choose a campaign and get involved with grassroots activism today

I’ve been involved with the Save Shaker Aamer campaign for over three and a half years. It aimed to lobby for the release of the last remaining British prisoner held in Guantanamo Bay.

The movement struck a chord with me when I read a post about Shaker Aamer online, where a parliamentary petition had been created by Shaker’s family and the mission to get 100,000 signatures had begun.

From then on I made a commitment that I would see it through until he was freed.

Needless to say, I wasn’t to know where this journey would take me or how heavily I would become involved in the struggle to free him. The months of lobbying and helping to build volunteer working groups in different parts of the country began. All of us petitioned outside mosques, held stalls at local events and campaigned door-to-door and on social media.

Shaker Aamer
Shaker Aamer

It has been an incredible experience that has taught me many invaluable lessons. It no longer became Shaker’s struggle alone, I saw it as one undertaking part of a wider picture of the so-called “War on Terror” which has and continues to affect many others.

Despite having never met the family myself, my commitment stemmed from my attachment to them.

On the 25th of September 2015, it was announced that Shaker would be coming back home to his family. On October 30 he arrived home and was reunited with them. The long struggle to free him is now over, Alhamdulillah! The long road to recovery for Shaker has just begun.

I’m grateful to everyone who’s worked tirelessly for his release and contributed to the campaign over the years. I was empowered by so many individuals from different ages and backgrounds who came together to fight this injustice, at a time when it was uncommon to do so.

Free Munir Farooqi Campaign

Another movement which I have heavily invested my time in is the “Free Munir Farooqi” campaign which was brought to my attention over a year ago, on social media.

Munir supposedly radicalised two men who turned out to be undercover police officers, who then – many believe – entrapped and framed him. They were the only people who happened to be “radicalised” by Munir in his decade of community work.

He is now suffering a major miscarriage of justice, currently serving his sixth year in prison on terrorism offences.

I attended protests outside HMP Wakefield due to the ongoing mistreatment and neglect of Munir and talked to the family members who were present, and from then on I became more involved with the campaign which is based in Manchester.

A significant amount of the time is spent talking about campaign-related issues. We would give updates on Munir’s health, discuss strategy, lobbying, how to gain a wider audience locally and nationally to raise awareness of Munir’s case so the public are engaged with the campaign.

Munir Farooqi is serving four life terms for terrorism
Munir Farooqi is serving four life terms for terrorism

I would encourage those interested to find out more about Munir’s case at www.freemunir.org and follow the Facebook  and Twitter pages.

Amongst other major issues with the original case, the Head of the North West counter terrorism unit, Tony Porter said to the BBC “this was an extremely challenging case, both to investigate and successfully prosecute at court, because we did not recover any blueprint, attack plan or endgame for these men. However, what we were able to prove was their ideology…”

So there was no plot, no bombs (or attempt to make any) and no mass murder of innocents which was prevented. It was basically a “thought crime.” That his ideology and beliefs are now a crime and that he has to be locked away for life.

I know a little of what Munir has gone through, because before the undercover officers were deployed, I had already been exonerated by the same policies that targeted me back in 2007, when I was labelled a terrorist.

Rather than the police seeing an immature teenager who cared about injustice, they saw a “Muslim who was a Terrorist.” Yet, if I had been a blonde, white man, you can bet I wouldn’t have been targeted in such a manner. Such is the reality of the institutionalised racism and Islamophobia in our society.

Media focus

After being involved in general activism and specific campaigns for four years, I’ve learned that knowledge really is power. To research your areas of interest, to understand the arguments, to use evidence-based arguments to convey your points, is more powerful than anything else.

It’s a cliché, but they say if you repeat a lie enough times, it becomes a fact. However, if you have truth on your side and you speak it, in enough numbers, then despite the weight of the right-wing media and government, the lies can be exposed.

But we must be willing to unshackle ourselves from the chains of mental slavery. To stop compliance to what is considered “mainstream” and acceptable in the public discourse, even when it is wrong and immoral.

The PREVENT strategy, which is part of the Government’s overall Counter Terrorism strategy, (known as CONTEST) seeks to control thought and expression, running on an extremely flawed, empirically-unsound basis. It is an ideologically-driven policy agenda.

CAGE demonstration outside the Home Office in 2014
CAGE demonstration outside the Home Office in 2014

This started under the previous Labour Government and has carried on since. The situation has been getting progressively worse as more draconian laws have been passed and PREVENT is now running on a statutory footing.

What does this mean in practice? Well, when Muslim children are targeted because they feel a sense of grievance, want to involve themselves in political change and explore their identity, they become a target. According to the government, such “indicators” mean you’re an extremist).

How does the government expect people to engage with the mainstream political system when it closes down, limits or dictates what can and can’t be said in mosques and universities?

How can we encourage young people to engage in the system, air their views and be listened to, when the reality is that if they do and then get targeted, they will be put through a “de-radicalisation” programme?

Already we’ve seen cases where primary school children have been referred to counter-terrorism officers because they requested a prayer room and a secondary school child was pulled aside for mentioning “eco-warriors.”

Imagine a world where young people can be put through these secretive “programmes” because they were raised to be a compassionate human being who care about injustice and want to make a positive change through the legitimate means available to them? Now imagine that as a reality for thousands of Muslim children and adults. If you don’t accept this, you will be targeted. Your children could potentially be taken away from you.

The right questions

Why is it okay for Muslims to be treated like this? Why do we constantly keep repeating history by allowing such terrible injustice and persecution to take place on our doorstep? Are we now so dehumanised that our ability to think, to express ourselves, to be critical is no longer worthy unless it is government approved?

These are the questions we collectively have to be asking of ourselves and realising that these draconian policies are there to target us. If we do not stand up for ourselves, who will?

What we need is a consistent foreign policy from our government and a commitment to stop supporting dictatorships. Allow Muslims to engage in open and honest discussion, within our diverse communities and mosques.

We need to roll back some of the draconian terror laws that have been passed which criminalise mainstream beliefs and our ability to challenge our governments and foreign policies that have alienated Muslims, making them feel like the “other.” To present an alternative narrative to the government gets you labelled as a terrorist sympathiser or apologist.

It has taken us decades to get into the mess we’re in. It’s going to take a decade or two of proper grassroots development and empowerment of our people, with properly-funded organisations to change things.

Create and positive change

A great way to start would be to support organisations like CAGE and MEND. I would encourage people to attend a MEND event in their locality, or university.

Join a MEND working group or just attend a meeting and see how it goes; they may already have one in your city/locality. If they don’t, then you can help create one.

I have seen first-hand the work they do. They have a strategy, a focus and a direction, this doesn’t mean you agree with everything an organisation does, but for me they are the leading organisation in grassroots development, working at all levels, seeking to empower our communities to take the lead and make the change that we want.

The time is now to take an active stake in our communities and combat the rising tide of anti-Muslim prejudice and hate, or to sit back and be left by the wayside as the hatred and prejudice against us grows in society. As terrible laws continue to be passed and target the next generation of Muslims, as well as wider society.

If we do not stand up for our brothers and sisters in faith and humanity who are suffering right here on our doorstep and help when it is asked of us, then we cannot complain when they come for us and our loved ones.

It really is as simple as that. We cannot help everyone individually, but we can help someone. So pick a cause and sign up.

You can follow Waris on Twitter @WarisAli90

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