In war, various tactics—from bribery to insults, ridicule and mockery, hostile propaganda, threats of force to physical violence and expulsion—are used to weaken and ultimately defeat the enemy. A traditional weapon used even today is that of isolation and dehumanisation through a process of complete social boycott. The objective is to transform the enemy in the eyes of the public from everyday human beings into the untouchables of society.
We typically think that all people have some basic human rights that should not be violated. Even those accused of the most heinous crimes deserve to be treated fairly and with dignity and respect. They should receive a fair trial, and should not be subjected to any cruel or degrading punishment. Dehumanisation is a psychological process whereby the opponent is viewed as less than human and thus not deserving of moral consideration; any harm that befalls the enemy or any individuals associated with it is considered to be warranted and even morally justifiable.
Those familiar with the Seerah would know that such a policy was also used against the Prophet Muhammad (saws) and the early Muslims in Makkah after other tactics of persecution did not bear fruit. The aim of the strategy was to isolate the Prophet (saws) from his protectors, such as his uncle Abu Talib, in order to kill him. Until then, Abu Talib had resisted the pressure of the Quraysh and rather than capitulate to their demands, he had rallied the entire clan of Banu Hashim behind the Muslims.
Eventually the Quraysh agreed that the only logical next step would be to ostracise both Muhammad (saws) and his protectors through a complete social and economic boycott. At the beginning of the seventh year of prophethood, a decree was drawn up against both the Banu Hashim and Banu ‘Abdul Muttalib clans. It stipulated that nobody should buy or sell anything to these clans; no caravan coming from outside was permitted to deal with them; there was to be no intermarrying nor allowed giving them gifts, bring food, or enter their homes. Ultimately, there was to be no socialising with the Muslims or their protectors – nobody was permitted to talk to them, sit with them or visit them. The agreement was posted inside the wall of the Ka‘ba in order to give it religious sanction, thereby making it mandatory for all.
The objective of the sanctions was to starve the clans into submission thereby forcing them to surrender the Prophet (saws). With their supply of food and water cut off, it was not long before severe starvation began. The Quraysh used to buy whatever food entered Makkah lest it should leak to these clans, who were so strained that they had to eat tree leaves and chew on animal skins.
There were two objectives of the social boycott: first, to dehumanise the clans. Social activities such as visiting their homes would allow other clans to see the horrifying effects of economic sanctions – to hear the cries of starving babies, to see the anguish of helpless mothers and to feel the pain of an embattled community. For if their misery was witnessed, natural human emotions would be aroused to alleviate their suffering and end the boycott. The conscience of other clans would be at peace only if they were kept ignorant of the plight of the Banu Hashim and Banu ‘Abdul Muttalib clans. Second, it would serve as a warning to non-Muslim sympathisers and protectors, such as Abu Talib, that they too would be punished and suffer due to their association with and assistance to Muhammad (saws) and the “untouchables”. In other words, they too were “contaminated”.
Amazingly, even at that time there were some Muslims in Makkah who were not affected by the sanctions but who did not have the courage to defy the Quraysh. They maintained, for three years, a discreet detachment and an unconvincing silence. Their deeds, apparently, were governed by prudence. Therefore, all they did was to watch the drift of events, like disinterested observers. We must be careful not to be critical of these Muslims who were the best of generations but it is important to note that their silence allowed the sanctions to continue unhindered for three years.
A similar dehumanisation is taking place in the UK today against the Muslim community as part of the “War on Terror”. On a general level, the entire Muslim community has become synonymous with terrorism and symbolic of a menacing fifth column within British society. This has resulted in Muslims of various persuasions being subjected to systematic social discrimination and harassment. On a more particular level, those Muslims officially suspected by the authorities of involvement in the political aspects of Islam, and their families, have been persecuted and punished to an extent that no other individuals within society would suffer.
Some of these Muslims have never been charged with any offence but have nevertheless been deprived of their liberty, freedom and human rights. Even when released from prison, they have been placed under restrictive control orders and subjected to a savage campaign of dehumanisation in an attempt to disgrace them as Britain’s Untouchables. Banned from receiving visitors, possessing mobile phones or computers together with lengthy curfews are only some of the measures that have been imposed. To associate with or assist such individuals is a crime now; to even mention their names risks “contamination”. Those who may know them are regularly harassed by the security services to either spy on them or risk becoming dehumanised themselves.
Below are just a few examples of the hundreds of cases of Muslims whose lives have been destroyed by these sanctions. Due to legal restrictions, which themselves form part of the dehumanisation process, some of these men remain nameless, only known by random letters assigned to them by the authorities.
Take the example of “U”, as the authorities would have the public know him. Following his release from HMP Long Lartin earlier in the summer (following seven years of imprisonment without charge), U was placed under strict bail conditions. Refused permission to settle anywhere close to the Muslim community, it proved immensely difficult to find him an address to which he could be bailed. Finally, an elderly Englishman, a non-Muslim, agreed to allow U to stay in a room in his house. Due to this noble action, he too, like Abu Talib, became “contaminated”.
Both he and other students, also renting rooms in his house, have had to go through stringent vetting procedures and inspections, and even had to have their laptops locked away in specially built cabinets within locked rooms. Those students have now gone and other would-be tenants balk at the very idea of having to go through these rigorous procedures. There have been regular visits by teams of 8 to 10 police officers who have virtually forensically searched the house, all of which has naturally distressed the homeowner. All of U’s visitors have to go through a personal vetting procedure, which for many acts as a serious deterrent to see him.
As a form of moral support to U, British journalist Yvonne Ridley would breach the sanctions by regularly ordering pizza deliveries from Dominos Pizzas to U which she would pay for by her credit card. The delivery policy towards this house suddenly changed and the delivery must now be paid for directly by the recipient, i.e. U. Even a tiny gesture of solidarity such as this has now been made impossible.
All this coupled with the fact that U is under 24-hour curfew and is not allowed out of his house at all, not even on the doorstep, is indicative of the sinister steps that have been taken by the authorities to dehumanise and ostracise a man who, to date, has not been charged with any offence.
Another example is that of Shaykh Abu Qatada. Released after six years detention without charge, his bail conditions include stipulations that he has two set hours (one hour at a time) in which he is allowed to leave his home, provided he remains within a strict boundary. To make these two hours even more intolerable, a freelance photographer and journalist have planted themselves outside his home during these appointed hours. In the early days after his release, a whole posse of media used to loiter outside at these times and subject him and his children to taunts, abuse and humiliation.
Despite a number of legal interventions by his solicitor, this unprecedented stalking and harassment by the media continues unabated with no escape for Abu Qatada. As a result, these two little windows of freedom from the house have become a nightmare and are now an ordeal rather than an escape.
Y is an Algerian who was arrested and charged in 2003 as part of the alleged ricin plot. Following a lengthy trial, it emerged that there was never any ricin nor any plot. Although acquitted and released in 2005, Y was arrested again following the 7/7 attacks and imprisoned without charge until very recently. He has now been released on strict bail conditions and is more lonely and isolated than ever before. He lives on his own in an area known for its racism; there are no stores, coffee shops or anywhere for him to go during his hours of release. For almost three months, Y was forced to wash his clothes by hand as he was not given a washing machine and there was no launderette within his bail boundary.
Like other detainees, his visitors are vetted. Since his release, he has not met a single Muslim and remains isolated from the community. Throughout the month of Ramadan, he was unable to attend a mosque. On the day of Eid, his sole visitor was a courageous non-Muslim woman who has dedicated her time to assisting the Untouchables. This lady spent six hours traveling to ensure that Y was not alone on Eid.
These are just three examples of the human face behind the threatening mask of terror painted by the government; tales of human suffering which are deliberately being kept hidden from us lest we empathise with these men. But this is only the tip of the iceberg – the lives of hundreds of others have similarly been affected. There are several cases where the families of suspects have had their bank accounts frozen and are forced to send a budget to the Home Office to do their weekly shopping, itemising for each and every penny they intend to spend. By effectively subjecting these men, their families and supporters to a complete social and economic boycott, the authorities intend to make an example of them for other Muslims who may dare to dip their fingers in political Islam. By harassing and persecuting non-Muslims who may offer moral support, the status of these men as ‘Untouchables’ is assured.
Many of us live in the blissful illusion that we are unable to do anything due to our few numbers in face of the all-powerful state. This is not true. A brief examination of how the sanctions on the Muslims in Makkah ended provides clear evidence of this.
A noble of the Quraysh, Hisham ibn Amr, felt aggrieved by the sanctions and used to secretly breach them whenever he could. One day, he privately approached another Quraysh noble, Zuhayr ibn Abi Umayyah, about openly breaking the sanctions. Zuhayr responded that he was only one man. The two approached another man, Mut‘im ibn ‘Adiy, and pressed him to join them. Mut‘im gave the same reply as Zuhayr and demanded a fourth man. So Hisham went to Abu’l Bukhtari ibn Hisham who asked for a fifth man, who was Zama‘a ibn Al-Aswad. At a secret meeting held just outside Makkah, the five men bound themselves to take up the question of sanctions until they had secured their annulment.
The following day, Zuhayr, after circumambulating the Ka‘ba, approached the throngs of people there and rebuked them for indulging in the amenities of life whereas their kith and kin of the Banu Hashim were perishing on account of starvation due to the economic boycott. Zuhayr swore he would never relent until the parchment of boycott was torn to pieces and the pact broken at once. Abu Jahl retorted that it would never be torn. On hearing this, Zama‘a was incensed and accused Abu Jahl of telling lies, adding that the pact was established and the document drafted without their approval ever having been sought. Abu’l Bukhtari intervened and backed Zama‘a. Mut‘im ibn ‘Adiy and Hisham ibn ‘Amr, who had engineered the entire plan, attested to the truthfulness of their two companions and openly disavowed the document.
With what appeared to be a wave of impulsive popular support for ending the sanctions, Mut‘im marched to the Ka‘ba to tear up the document but discovered that with the exception of the words, “In Thy name, O Allah”, the rest of the parchment had already been eaten up by white ants. Thus ended a period of intense hardship for the Prophet Muhammad (saws), his followers and protectors.
In the end, it had taken the courage and conviction of just five men to break the sanctions. In an age where we justify inaction and lethargy with excuses such as small numbers or lack of unity, we should learn from this story that even if a handful of people stand up for justice, Allah will grant them victory. Notably, these five people were not even Muslims. Even today, the handful of people who do breach the sanctions placed on people like U and Y are non-Muslim sympathisers such as Ann Alexander, Bruce Kent, Lawrence Archer, and the courageous nameless lady who visited Y on Eid. Their bravery is not only to be admired but must also be emulated.
As was the case in Makkah, Muslims in Britain today are too fearful to be contaminated by the Untouchables. Fearful of the consequences to our jobs, our reputations, our families and our comfortable way of life, we have abandoned our brothers and sisters. The persecution today in the UK is nowhere as intense as it was in Makkah yet the courage for which Muslims were renowned is absent today. We have failed to abide by Allah’s commandment to stand up for justice and to live by the Prophetic example of preventing an evil by whatever means we can. Forget our hands and our tongues, so beloved has the world become to us that we do not even hate this evil in our hearts, something described as the weakest of faith. Deaf, dumb and blind, we have become the living embodiment of the hypocrites condemned by Allah.
The Prophet Muhammad (saws) told us that if Allah loves a people, He tests them. He also said that on the Day of Judgment, we will be with those whom we love. The conditions these men are living under suggest that they are facing tests of the severest nature. If Allah loves them, shouldn’t we also love them? These Untouchables of this world will be the envy of people in the Hereafter. On the Day of Judgment, when a mother will push her baby away from her out of fear for her own reckoning, do we not want to be safe with those that Allah loves? But love is more than just words; it requires action with our hearts, our tongues and our limbs. Like Hisham ibn Amr, we must have the courage to speak out and believe in the Power of One.
Below is a list of things everyone can do to help break the sanctions and respect these detainees as human beings.
1. Write to them – let them know that they have not been forgotten. Contact addresses for their solicitors can be obtained from www.cageprisoners.com
2. Telephone them and give them company. Numbers can be obtained following prior approval from Cageprisoners or solicitors for the men.
3. Visit them in their homes and witness firsthand their suffering – this will require undergoing a prior vetting procedure.
4. Inform others about their plight. Give a talk in your local mosque or Islamic circle.
5. Write articles / letters to newspapers to raise awareness about their condition.
6. Donate to and volunteer with organizations such as Hhugs and the Muslim Prisoner Support Group.
7. Never forget these men or their families in your du‘a. It is indeed the weapon of the believer and one which cannot be taken away from us.