A Virtue of Disobedience: An interview with Asim Qureshi

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CAGE Research Director Asim Qureshi selling signed copies of his book “A Virtue of Disobedience” at a launch in Manchester, UK. (Credit: Dr Rizwaan Sabir)

What is the right response to despotism? Asim Qureshi’s new book attempts to tackle this question and the complex issues of justice, oppression and faith based resistance by drawing on his 15 years of experience working with people detained at Guantanamo Bay.

As the director of research at CAGE, a Britain-based advocacy organization, Qureshi and his NGO work with “communities affected by the war on terror” and “highlights and campaigns against repressive state policies, developed as part of increasing securitization”.

His thoughts on the issue don’t come from a man brooding over abstract ideas in a quarantined ivory tower sealed off from the world. But as a practitioner and advocate for Guantanamo Bay detainees, Qureshi holds the important distinction of having devoted much of his adult life to ensuring justice is served for victims of the War on Terror which is why this book is important.

A very difficult job following 9/11 as spaces for dissent became scarce, his work has required him to take stands on sensitive issues related to national security. From the impact of repressive counter-terror legislation on vulnerable communities and individuals, to the illegal detention and torture of people suspected of terrorism his line of work isn’t for the faint hearted. But Qureshi still interestingly describes himself as a “lover of the law”.

In a world where due process, rule of law, and fair trials have been undermined by a toxic post-9/11 environment, questions of justice, faith, oppression and civil disobedience need to be front and center again. These are the central themes that Qureshi’s book explores.

In his recently published book titled “A Virtue of Disobedience”, Qureshi uses history, religion and literature to thread together a powerful argument about why faith and ethics should be at the center of modern civic activity. Even at the most difficult times.

Qureshi, 36, talks to Faisal Ali about his latest book.

Faisal Ali: How did you end up as the director of an organization that advocates for the rights of Guantanamo Bay detainees at a time when there was very little sympathy for anyone who opposed then-US president George Bush’s ‘War on Terror’?

Asim Qureshi: I didn’t actually start CAGE; I just happened to come across them as I was completing my masters in December 2003.

I actually wanted to be a corporate lawyer, and everything I had previously studied was geared towards that.

But seeing the images coming out of Guantanamo made me feel very strongly about the abuse of the law. At the time, we didn’t have a lot of money, but we had a lot of passion and like a lot of projects, it just took a small group of extremely dedicated people to get it off the ground.

FA: What was it about Guantanamo Bay that bothered you so much that you ended up dedicating a good portion of your life to exposing the crimes happening in the prison?

AQ: It was the images of Muslims on their knees, with their heads bent low — almost prostrating — with American soldiers holding guns to their heads.

The images were powerful, and they moved me because they sent a worldwide message: that we can detain you without charge or trial, and we can make you submit to us, regardless of whether or not you’ve done anything right or wrong.

And of course, the final nail in the coffin was when the same year [2003] my childhood friend Babar Ahmed was arrested [from London] and placed on an extradition warrant to the United States.

FA: Why did you choose to begin the book with Suhaiymah’s Manzoor-Khan’s poem?

AQ: It was a couple of days after I finished the first manuscript of my book, that I saw Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan’s poem ‘This is not a humanizing poem’ go viral, which for me completely captured the ethic I was trying to write about in the book. In a three and a half minute poem, she encapsulated what it had taken me 50,000 words to write. After entering into a relationship with my publishers, ByLine Books, one of the first things I suggested was to commission Suhaiymah to synthesize the ideas of my book, almost as if it were a follow up to her previous poem. For me it was so important that this young British Muslimah’s thinking was so far advanced beyond activists who have decades of experience, and I wanted to make sure her thinking was included in the book.

FA: You’ve called it A Virtue of Disobedience, which is a clever play on words because disobedience isn’t always considered virtuous. Why?

AQ: The name of the book is very much a nod to Henry David Thoreau whose book is on the duty of Civil Disobedience. So, he felt that not only do we have a right, but a duty at times to be civilly disobedient. And I wanted to explore this more from a faith based perspective which Thoreau does, but his referencing of anything divine isn’t specific. Also within the Islamic tradition, there hasn’t been a great deal that’s been written on this subject, except by people who approach it from the perspective of forbidding subversive activities against a ruler.

What upset me up was that I was sitting with my children in the mosque, when an imam was talking about this, and he said even if the police abuse you — and this was in the context of a lot of police brutality happening in America — you shouldn’t protest against them because this is a path to disobedience and revolt. So even if a state is oppressive, if there are conditions of general peace you shouldn’t stand up against it. And I didn’t think that was a message I wanted to give to my children. The idea that standing up for yourself is something blameworthy.

Having read the Quran from beginning to end, I also wondered if this was a message that I felt the Quran was giving to me. And of course, it wasn’t. Where there’s despotism or injustice, the righteous person, even if they’re alone will stand up against these things.

FA: You mention the Arab Spring in your book. What was it about the Arab Spring that resonated with you?

AQ: Well in terms of the Arab Spring, there was a perspective that it led to all this evil in the world as so many people had lost their lives as a result. And there was a secular element to that perspective; that the loss of those lives was just a waste. For me that’s not true, it’s not a message that I’d recognized as the message of the Quran. For me the people who died in Egypt and Syria and other places are martyrs. They’re heroes. They died standing up to dictators and so to simply dismiss their struggle as stupid or foolish I felt was disrespectful.

FA: Faith generally, and Islam particularly are important themes in your book when it comes to activism and resisting oppression. Tell me a bit about why you think that.

AQ: So, I mention early in the book, that I am attempting to de-secularize the idea that my activism should be separate from my faith. As far as I understand it, my worship of Allah is not limited to the mosque, it’s not limited to fasting or giving charity but if I understand my faith as holistic, my activism should be encompassed by my faith as well. For me, I don’t see how I can act towards something without it being linked to my faith in order for it to realize its full value.

FA: You spoke highly about Mohammad Rabbani’s decision to place principle over his own liberty when he was asked to give his passwords to British authorities. Why is that important in your work and this book?

AQ: It’s important because putting principle above all else when confronting despotism is central to the Quranic narrative. So much of what we admire in the heroes of the past, the Martin Luther King’s, the Malcolm X’s, Holocaust survivors and all of these people are great because they came up against something much greater than themselves and yet where still willing to place their ethics and values at the center of who they are. And Rabbani for me, in many ways epitomized that ethic.

Note: Mohammed Rabbani is the international director of CAGE and was detained by British authorities for refusing to give the passwords to his devices. They contained sensitive information about a man who was tortured by American authorities.

FA: You continue to call the UK home despite feeling disappointed about political and social changes over the last two decades. Tell me a bit about that?

AQ: The UK is home, there’s just no two ways about it. I can’t just leave being British, it’s a part of my culture, a part of my identity. There are so many parts of my character and identity that will be quintessentially British because this is the culture that I’ve predominately grown up around. And like so many British Muslims we all feel the same sense of missing home when we’re abroad. When British ex-pat Muslims go away, they all talk about what they miss about home, and when they talk about home they aren’t talking about some imaginary Caliphate, they’re talking about the UK. So, there’s no issue with that.

Just because the UK has gone down a path that I dislike, and that I’m trying to resist it doesn’t mean it’s no longer home. It just means its lost its sense of what and who it is, but I actually feel I have enough agency in this conversation to change that. I don’t want to run away from the UK, I want the UK to be better than what it is. And that’s why I remain here, and resist.

FA: What kind of an impact do you hope the book will have?

AQ: I want people to engage with it, critique it and I would like for a conversation to come out of this about how we deal with and confront despotism. But there’s also a more fundamental question I want to explore. There are many perspectives on how Muslims should engage in civic life and what we should do. We’ve had many people suggesting we take this approach or that, but the question I want to ask is how should our values and ethics inform our civic activity? That’s what I want people to think about after reading this.

Originally published at projectvanguard.org.

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