The Long Walk: Talha Ahsan and the Politics of Racialisation

On 21 September 2013, Talha Ahsan, a British poet with Asperger’s, marked his 34th Birthday in solitary confinement at a US Supermax prison, after 7 years of detention without trial. The contrast between the handling of Ahsan’s extradition request and Gary McKinnon’s highlights an ongoing process of racialisation in the name of the War on Terror that legitimises police violence and contributes to the immunity of political authorities.

Photos by: Riffy Ahmed

Here lies the extradition squad
And we should all now pray to God
That as they go about their job
They make not one mistake,
For I fear as I walk the streets
That one day I just may meet
Officials who may tie my feet
And how would I escape.

Excerpt from Benjamin Zephaniah’s poem “The death of Joy Gardner” (1996)

With this poem, author Benjamin Zephaniah responded to the death of 40-year old mother Joy Gardner, who died due to a lack of oxygen to the brain four days after five police officers and an immigration officer violently restrained and gagged her on 28 July 1993. The Extradition Squad Benjamin Zephaniah refers to was a special unit in the Metropolitan Police deployed for deportation cases since the 1980s. After Joy Gardner’s death, this unit was temporarily suspended. Three police officers were tried for manslaughter in 1995, but were acquitted.

Twenty years later, Zephaniah’s powerful words are remarkably relevant as the House of Commons is currently reviewing the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill which will, amongst other restrictions on our civil liberties, remove the automatic right of appeal against an extradition order. In addition, it requires stricter tests for individuals’ compensation for miscarriages of justice, and it “narrows the availability of protection for persons involved in criminal investigations and proceedings, such as witnesses”. In effect, the bill ascribes greater powers to existing authorities to decide on individuals’ lives and complicates or removes individuals’ rights to challenge these decisions.

This article will look at the ways in which the political elite have dealt with the US requests for the extradition of Talha Ahsan and Gary McKinnon. Posited against a socio-historical background of colonialism and Orientalism, this article will argue that the contradicting ways in which the perceived identities of Ahsan and McKinnon were deployed as essential markers of their rights to civil liberties, result from the ongoing process of racialisation in the name of the War on Terror (WoT). Moreover, it highlights how this racialisation both legitimises police violence and contributes to the immunity of political authorities.

That fighting for justice is a long struggle was emphasized by the stories of the speakers at the Long Walk, Hamja Ahsan’s recent event to mark his brother Talha Ahsan’s 7th year of detention without trial. The stories of Sheila Coleman, spokesperson for the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, Saqib Deshmukh, campaigner at Justice 4 PapsJanet Alder, sister of Christopher Alder who died in police custody in 1998 who was scheduled but could not make it and of course Hamja Ahsan himself, highlighted their suffering, the questions that remain unanswered and the endurance that is needed to bring about thorough inquests into the loss of loved ones.

Today, the Metropolitan Police Extradition Squad solely focuses on arresting those requested for extradition, the transfer of a person suspected or convicted for a crime allegedly committed in the requesting country. Extradition Treaties outline the rules under which extradition can take place. It was under the UK-US Extradition Treaty that Talha Ahsan was extradited to the US. Unlike hacker Gary McKinnon, Home Secretary Theresa May did not prevent his extradition on the basis of the human right to not be subjected to torture or inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment. On the contrary, in her speech only four days after Talha Ahsan was taken to be locked up for 23 hours a day in a solitary confinement cell in Connecticut’s supermax prison, she congratulated her colleagues at the Conservative Party as she opened with: “Wasn’t it great to say goodbye – at long last – to Abu Hamza and those four other terror suspects on Friday?”

Various articles have pointed to the similarities and differences that exist in the legal battles of Ahsan and McKinnon, and recounting them stresses the discrepancies. Both were accused of committing cyber-crimes against the US. Whereas the systems administrator was charged by the superpower of hacking into its military networks, Ahsan’s indictment was woven into existing WoT discourses as he was alleged to be involved with Azzam Publications, a publishing house scrutinised under claims of terrorism-related offences. As one of the servers hosting an Azzam website was based in Connecticut, the US government requested the extradition of both Talha Ahsan and alleged site administrator Babar Ahmad on the basis of terrorism-related offences.

In each case, appeals against their respective extradition cases to the UK High Court, the European Court of Human Rights and numerous pleas to successive Home Secretaries in power during the course of their defence were exhausted. However, McKinnon having been arrested in 2002 spent the better part of a decade without jail time and only incurred bail conditions while Ahsan, formally arrested in 2006, spent the next 6 years of his life being shuffled from one prison to the next. Even with the Extradition Act 2003 coming into effect in 2005, McKinnon continued to live at home while Ahsan stayed behind bars until his extradition to the US in October 2012. In addition, both Gary McKinnon and Talha Ahsan were diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism. The National Autistic Society (NAS) states that:

[…] once a person with autism is in the criminal justice system, the nature of their difficulties may not be recognised or may be misunderstood. In these circumstances it is possible for miscarriages of justice to occur and it is therefore vital that legal experts are familiar with autism and its complexities.

However, whereas McKinnon’s Asperger syndrome was mentioned in various news outlets, the Daily Mail initiated a campaign against his extradition and the NAS issued various statements of support, Talha Ahsan’s case was given less prominence by the major news outlets such as the BBC and the NAS. In fact, the Daily Mail described Ahsan as one of the “unwanted guests”, which begs the scrutiny of the role of race and its representations in the treatment of disabled suspects of crime.

Despite the ubiquity of the terms racism and race in popular media, they remain concepts that are often misunderstood in public spheres. The difficulty of defining racism became apparent in a recent televised debate with EDL leader Tommy Robinson who, after repeatedly being accused of racism, demanded an explanation on how his hate speech against Islam was racist, which only panel member Akala was able to verbalise as media discourses perpetually racialising crimes committed by non-white groups and the lack of such a practice when the criminals are white. Another example of a disinformed conception of racism can be seen in the increasing emergence of anti-white racism claims which ignore racism’s relation to the history of colonialism (see for example Alana Lentin’s and Gavan Titley’s article).

As race has no biological foundation, racialisation is a useful term to talk about the process in which race is made significant. Naomi Zack discusses in her 1999 thesis Philosophy of Science and Race that the bodies of enslaved and oppressed peoples, as well as the geographic regions they originated from, have been racialised by European colonialism, leading to fixed geographical racialisations of individuals perceived as descending from there into the present-day. This mode of categorisation was largely scientific, springing from early evolutionary anthropological doctrines, and justifying imperial exploitation based on perceived native inferiority. Additionally, there is a long history of scholarly and political Orientalism of the “East”, particularly concerning northern regions of the African continent such as present-day Algeria by the French as well as Egypt, and the Indian subcontinent by the British throughout the 19th century.

More specifically, this era of imperialism in North Africa, the Middle East and Indian subcontinent has culminated in a “West versus East” bisection in which reason found itself firmly situated on western turf definitively out of reach of the oriental other. Artlessly, there emerged the notion that Europe is ‘rational, peaceful, liberal, logical’ while the ‘Oriental’ region embodies none of these characteristics, as illustrated by Edward W. Said in his seminal work Orientalism. As these abstract notions came to be entrenched in the material world of colonial exploitation, they found their reified fulcrums in the physical markers of colonised bodies i.e. a ‘racial epidermal schema’, as Frantz Fanon put it most incisively, emerged. Skin colour, hair texture, body shapes etc became hermeneutically loaded signifiers of inferiority as gazed and perceived by the West.

Even as in the 20th century a series of anti-colonial counter-moves were set in motion by colonized peoples, such as armed struggles for independence and movements that sought to raise political consciousness by utilising religious, philosophical and ideological mechanisms, orientalising thought and racialising practices in one form or another continue to persist in European metropoles well into the present. As a result, these aforementioned struggles were never afforded legitimacy with regards to their chosen method towards achieving autonomy, but rather were nearly always subsumed into orientalist narratives of terror themselves; religions outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition became the source of unreason, non-European culture the basest expressions of immorality, and any use of violence a reason to label anticolonial movements as innately barbaric, generating catchphrase epithets such as the ‘yellow peril’ in the past, and sloganeering stunts such as the ‘war on terror’ in the present.

With the genealogy of racialising and orientalism in mind, it becomes rather easy pickings to contextualise the WoT with its neo-imperial practices of the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, legislating inhumane anti-terrorism laws and pushing forward measures such as control orders. Despite the gradual admissions being voiced in current discourses that render the invasion of Iraq illegitimate and as the premises on which it was launched having been proven false, resistance against the invaders remains framed in a language of terrorism initiated by the “Other”.

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Sheila Coleman and Hamja Ahsan, photo taken by Riffy Ahmed

An example of the conflation of resistance with so-called terrorism is the way in which popular media outlets referred to the Woolwich murder of Lee Rigby as “the day Baghdad style violence came to South London”. Through this racialised lens, Rigby’s murder has been labelled as such, yet the deadly stabbing of 82-year-old Mohamed Saleem in Birmingham, the bombing of three mosques and the violent attack on a 55-year-old Muslim woman in Mayfair have ceased to be described as “Baghdad style violence”, despite the atrocities British and US soldiers committed in Iraq. This neat way of compartmentalising violence casts it in type; violence becomes part of the mores of the Iraqis and Afghans, an unshakeable stigma, whereas white violence is made racially invisible no matter how barbaric. It is also through this lens that “innocent until proven guilty” has been ignored in the case of so-called terrorist suspects, leading to their imprisonment without trial, like in the case of Talha Ahsan.

One securitising instrument favoured by the orchestrators of the War on Terror (WoT) is the surveillance of particular spaces or neighbourhoods in the UK. The racialisation of space and bodies creates categories of those who are considered to be “belonging” and those who are considered to belong somewhere else. The notion of belonging to a certain space consequently carries the idea of deserving and undeserving when questions of the right to a due process of law arise. Spaces, both physical and otherwise can be defined as constructing ‘landscapes’, which according to material anthropologist Christopher Tilley, are ‘contested, worked and reworked according to particular individual, social and political circumstances’.

Built spaces – as artefacts of human activity – tell stories as well as offering expressions of (social) identity. In a documentary, presenter and producer Roshan M. Salih indicates how some urban neighbourhoods or spaces in the UK are viewed as “Islamic” and, therefore, dangerous; which in turn is used to justify putting them under increased surveillance. This has included spies entering family homes and mosques  and infiltrating youth groups under false pretences, where at times they initiate conversations regarding “jihad” to deceive individuals into making inflammatory comments leading to their arrest. Accordingly, Prime Minister David Cameron has made comments about tackling “extremism” revealing there would be increased surveillance of Islamic communities and spaces in search of dangerous individuals, giving the impression that Islam is inherently extremist by singling it out as a hotbed of danger. Physical spaces are no longer the only target for investigation – virtual or cyber spaces have also been constructed as dangerous through their link to certain communities and are thus policed (e.g. azzam.com).

The War on terror has also created new groups of what can be termed deviant citizens such as hackers, young Muslim men or indeed a blending of the two. Citizenship refers to a collection of rights and duties one derives as a member of a state. It is often assumed to be a genderless and raceless category. However, discourses relating to citizenship reveal that this notion is often intertwined with that of ‘authenticity’. In the postcolonial Netherlands for instance, bloodlines are used in defining those who are to be called Allochtonen; those who are from another country and usually from former Dutch colonies. While an Allochtoon might possess Dutch citizenship, the label of Allochtoon acts as a reminder that the person’s origins are somewhere else.

‘Deviant Citizens’

Thus, while citizenship might afford legal rights, it does not override all differences. In the field of sociology, deviance has been approached as a formal property of social situations or social systems. While it has been perceived as a pattern of norm violation, it can also refer to a stigma construct, in which certain classes of behaviour are labelled, devalued, and excluded at certain times. Both aspects refer to deviance as a social “thing” implying that deviance, as such, is not a personal trait.

Based on the short definitions of deviance and citizenship given here, the concept of ‘deviant citizen’ can be defined as a form of citizenship that bears a deviant stigma. While everyone can be defined as a deviant person, the label of deviant citizen, on the other hand, refers to a form of deviant stigma that compromises and/or contradicts one’s rights and duties as a citizen. As deviance is a formal property of social situations or social systems, in the case of deviant citizens it follows that the deviant stigma is derived from a social situation or a social system with the added implication of that stigma influencing how one’s citizenship is perceived by others. As pointed out earlier, citizenship does not override all differences. Factors, such as, perceived ethnicity, gender, age, and social class may affect how one’s citizenship is perceived by others, and how highly it is valued by everyone.

Despite the tireless campaigning of family members and human rights activists, it was Gary McKinnon’s story that won the public’s sympathy and attention. In order to understand how this could be the case, it is important to look at one of the central aspects to a campaign that focused on the diagnoses of both Talha Ahsan and Gary McKinnon as having Asperger’s Syndrome.The constructions of whiteness and disability interacted in the cases of Gary McKinnon and Talha Ahsan. Whiteness is innocence. The innocence of autism also played a big part in the media representation and campaigns to stop McKinnon’s extradition. Autism has, in recent years, become increasingly commodified. This commodification is an element of a wider power structure which is part of the constantly shifting terrain of racialization which places some bodies as acceptable and others as deviant.

Scholars Snyder and Mitchell (2010) suggest that disabled bodies are often placed outside of the paradigm of citizenship and are not even deemed as deviant citizens as their corporeal existence is not socially constructed but purely biological. Referring to Puar’s (2007) theory of exceptionality, they argue that this placing outside has shifted in recent years towards allowing specific types of disabled bodies to be constructed as acceptable. This specified acceptability permits nations like Britain and the US to be seen as states of exception i.e. tolerant and inclusive states; states which value human rights. To some extent this may work. May’s use of the Human Rights Act and her emphasis on how seriously ill Gary McKinnon was, underlines the desire to be seen as a humane Home Secretary. In this case it is the combination of the construction of Asperger’s Syndrome and the construction of whiteness which allows McKinnon to be used as an exception and exempts him from his place as a deviant citizen. This is why the specificity of the impairment needs to be examined in context and in combination with other factors such as race and religion in the case of the WoT. Because of the increase in criminalisation of the Muslim community in this case, it is impossible to apply the innocence of Autism to the case of Ahsan as it is not combined with the innocence of whiteness.

The Long Walk

The Long Walk event brought together various campaigns that strived towards justice for those who have lost loved ones. It highlighted the difficulties that individuals face when trying to address the accountability of those responsible for the injustices they had and still are suffering from. In the Hillsborough tragedy, it took more than 20 years to confirm that the 96 Liverpool FC supporters who died during the football match on 15 April 1989 were not “accidental deaths” or, as various media outlets suggested, the victims of their own hooliganism, but a consequence of “multiple failures” of emergency services and the police which authorities had actively concealed.

For her part, Janet Alder has been fighting for over 14 years to find answers to questions surrounding her brother dying on a police station floor, while officers stood by and did nothing, only to find out, 11 years after his funeral, that they buried a female pensioner due to a mix up at the morgue. The campaign Justice4Paps demands answers in the death of Habib Ullah, who died during a stop and search in 2008. Hamja Ahsan has been campaigning to raise awareness about the UK government’s complicity in the torture of his brother.

What all these stories of human suffering have in common, is the dehumanisation of the ones that are victimized. As Sheila Coleman highlighted how Liverpool supporters were portrayed as hooligans, recounting how she, when entering the House of Commons for an adjournment debate on the death of Kevin Daniel Williams, a 15-year old boy who died during the Hillsborough disaster, offered her bag to security and was greeted with: “Watch out there’s a scouser in the house; hide the silver”.

The dehumanization of black and brown people becomes apparent from the disproportionate targeting of them in anti-terrorist legislation, stop and search practices and deaths in custody. Yet, racialisation as a process of “othering” does more than dehumanizing black and brown people. With every black or brown body that gets beaten, imprisoned or killed and their treatment subsequently treated as “lawful” or at best “a tragic incident” with no consequences for those responsible, strengthens and legitimises the powers of authorities to remain immune against any allegations of abuse or wilful neglect.

Get involved and support:
FreeTalha campaign on Facebook.
StopWatch, a coalition to offer legal support to challenge stop and search.
Official Hillsborough Campaign.
4wardeveruk petition website.

This article was published in Ceasefire Magazine on Saturday 21 September 2013. For the published version and comments, see:

http://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/long-walk-talha-ahsan-politics-racialisation/

 

About the authors and contributors:

Bel Parnell Berry

Bel Parnell-Berry is a PhD student at the University of Hull, currently based in the Netherlands. She is interested in public policy and representations of minority groups in the media. She is co-founder and co-director at Mediacate an Amsterdam-based media literacy network and learning centre. In addition, she has been campaigning against racist imagery in the USA and the UK with her friend and colleague Kaya Volke.

Her blogs – Rants and Raves and Invisible Bride – chronicle her everyday observations and provide a commentary on living and working abroad while critically analysing sexist, classist and/or racist representations in media, policy and society from an intersectional point of view.
At TColl, Bel’s main focus is on conducting research and writing articles, both scientific and popular.

Buket Bora

Buket Bora is a freelance tutor based in London. She recently completed Culture Diaspora Ethnicity MA at Birkbeck College. She is interested in political and cultural implications of nationalism, racialisation and identity formations.

Katja Jönsas

Katja Jönsas has studied film, anthropology, and has a MA in Social Research. She is interested in gender studies (masculinities).

Kaya Völke

Kaya Volke is a freelance researcher, copy-editor and translator, based in London. She studied Social Cultural Anthropology at the VU University Amsterdam and worked on various research projects. Together with Bel Parnell-Berry she has been working on a project against racist imagery of the national Sinterklaas celebration in The Netherlands. Her research interests focus on citizenship, race and the decolonization of knowledge.

In October 2012 she started organizing meetings with other researchers who were interested in using their skills and interests to contribute to social change, which became TColl. At TColl, Kaya is currently both organizer and researcher.

Lani Parker

Has recently finished a masters in Culture, Diaspora, Ethnicity at Birkbeck college. Her research interests focus on looking at the interaction between being oppressor and oppressed, particularly how ableism and racism interact with each other. Lani has been a disability activist and is involved in a wide range of community and activist groups. She has a particular passion for working with people collaboratively in spaces which challenge unequal power relations.

Mez Ghide

Mez Ghide studied English at the University of Asmara and Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Hull. His research interests lie in the cultural politics of transnational intellectuals, postcoloniality, popular aesthetics and neoliberalism.

Sachshell Rhoden

Sachshell Rhoden graduated in 2009 with a BA in English Literature & Classical studies from the University of Wales, Lampeter. At Tcoll she is the resident “Task Master” helping with the general administration for the group. Her interests include unemployment in the UK and Jamaican diaspora.