I have been wanting to write for some time, but have been unsure exactly what it is I need to say. The words I noted down on the piece of paper on my desk seem to have derived from particular moments and feelings. They say ‘isolation’, ‘alienation of violence’ and there’s a drawing of circles around a dot.
Something that I know all those things relate to was a feeling I wanted to write about around a month or more ago. One of the interesting outcomes of withdrawing from the Bradford Literature Festival was the way I, and the others who withdrew, came to be positioned. As throughout the whole of history, critiquing violence often ironically ends up leaving you framed as the outlier. In critiquing the counter-extremism apparatus we became, by default, rather ‘extreme’: could I not just have spoken about how I felt on the platform itself? Could I not just have raised less fuss? Did I have to make such a thing of it? What I found interesting in all of this was how it echoed the dynamics of an emotionally manipulative relationship (I am not the first to think of this, this is widely written about). Persistent emotional manipulation in a relationship is gaslighting, gaslighting is essentially someone telling you that how you experience the world and reality is not real (I didn’t lock you out, I never lied to you, you’re the one who came home late, this is your fault, why are you causing such a scene?). Gaslighting works through repetition of exaggerations, false narratives and denial of truth in order to control, dominate and keep the other in a state of fear and doubt.
I’ve been thinking a lot about gaslighting on a structural scale; about how isolating it is to be told repeatedly how incorrect your knowledge of reality is. In my head during the post-Bradford Literature Festival fallout I imagined it as concentric circles inside one another with a tiny dot, me, in the middle, trapped. First the dot (me) says ‘hey guys, this counter extremism stuff is actually pretty violent, let me show you why – it rests on the assumption that all Muslims are prone to violence so we all need to be treated as criminal, let’s not accept that, that would be pretty self-defeating!’ But then the institution (the first surrounding circle) says, ‘no that’s completely false, counter extremism is exactly what it sounds to be: countering extremism, surely no one could oppose that?’ So you say, ‘no, seriously guys, I know it sounds common-sensical but actually it’s not got any evidence to back it up, the science is flawed and hundreds of academics have pointed out how it’s just racial profiling’. But the media will say, ‘but the government has evidence that this works, people are reported to them, people need it, you can’t oppose countering extremism’. And then suddenly there’s two big circles around you repeating a narrative that dominates the conversation and makes your version of reality look like the lie simply because of what it stands against… and then a new circle pops up inside the others and it’s your peers and friends and family just looking at you and before they even say anything you say, ‘seriously guys, this stuff is bad, they’re literally profiling us and saying we can only ever be seen as subjects to be deradicalised!’, but they say, ‘don’t be silly, you’re paranoid, what’s this victim mentality? Not everything is Islamophobic!’
Gaslighting is manipulation. You repeatedly tell someone that the reality they’re experiencing (abuse, domestic violence, etc), is not what they think it is. In a societal and structural way, everybody who exposes racism, racial profiling, structural islamophobia, etc, is gaslit. We’re told we’ve misunderstood, we’re remembering wrong, we’re exaggerating. At every level of society from education, to healthcare, to media, to government, to foreign policy, to private corporations, to television and films we are told a narrative about terrorism and countering terrorism that means whenever anyone speaks against it to reveal how it actually functions, we’re made out to be insane at best and radical at worst.
A few weeks after the Bradford Literature Festival fallout I was invited to perform my poetry at a venue in Leicester. A few days before getting there I was informed that the Imam there is the Channel officer for Leicester. That means he is directly employed by the Home Office to ‘deradicalise’ people. My issue with this is my issue with everything I have ever put out on the matter to date; that ‘deradicalisation’ is not a premise we can accept because it rests on the idea that ‘radicalisation’ is a legitimate process rather than a flimsy theory that links violence to ideology and divorces it from material circumstances and context. The radicalisation theory suggests there is something innate in Muslims that could be sparked at anytime to make us violent and so it becomes one of the only frames we’re seen through, and a reason all of us must be treated as suspect.
I emailed the venue immediately and then got a call from them. They explained to me they were against Prevent and would never take Prevent money and applauded my stance on the Bradford Literature Festival. I said this was all very well but their Imam was Prevent himself as Channel is an integral part of the Prevent machinery… at this, another concentric circle flew up around me. I was told, ‘you don’t understand, the Imam is actually doing very good work, helping people, you’ve misunderstood’. I said, ‘he’s being employed by an institution that’s logic depends on seeing Muslims as criminal; even suggesting an Imam should be employed by the Home Office tells you how Muslims are thought about; if he cares so much about violence why doesn’t he hold the government accountable for racism, austerity, homelessness, foreign policy, etc? You can’t distance his job and his money from police raiding people’s homes, men stopped for hours under schedule 7, deportations, detentions, citizenship removals, child separations, the list goes on’. I was told, simply, that my understanding of the fact was incorrect.
[thread] Seems we need to assess the claim that Prevent (counter-radicalisation) is not the same as Channel (deradicalization), and that both equally apply to far-right and Muslims. This is used to deflect criticism (“don’t like Prevent but Channel is impt”) and charge of racism pic.twitter.com/DLbpIgrr8u
— Tarek Younis (@Tarek_Younis_) July 11, 2019
Even amidst the support and love of many mentors and friends who recognise the reality of the world I am talking about (and ardently defend me, stand up for me, bolster me and inspire me to continue this work), it sometimes feels jarringly lonely to get on a train and imagine the extent of convincing you’d have to do with each passenger just to get them to believe what is happening.
I remember my brother told me some of his friends couldn’t understand why I would oppose ‘counter terror’. It struck me that in trying to expose violence and structural oppression we are always already on the back-foot. The government has a word: “counter-terror”, that sounds so common-sensical, so logical, so morally right, that to oppose it means you’re already on the defense. Moreover your opposition cannot be summed up in a word. You can’t simply say back, ‘racism!’, because no one believes in racism the way they believe in terrorism. So sometimes it feels that whilst they have a word to perform their point for them, we need three-hour one-on-one workshops to make our point.
I’ve been thinking recently about how this positioning affects many of us physiologically. It’s well known that trauma has physiological repercussions – it shapes our bodily responses and then the normative functioning of them. I’ve noticed how often when I speak I am immediately defensive and will speak very quickly. It’s almost as if I’m convinced someone is about to cut me off or stop me and rebut me. Being recently in a space where people were really willing to listen and engage with me made me aware of this status-quo that seems to have settled upon me where, due to the concentric circles of gaslighting I’ve described, my mind assumes as default that I am on the defense and have to make a very quick argument to explain and convince my interlocutor of structural racism as a reality.
However, saying all of this, I am only reflecting, I don’t actually feel too disheartened deep down. People have always been doing this work, and efforts to point out the reality of oppression will always leave you framed as the problem for refusing to allow it to be passed over; efforts to expose injustice will always position you as a killjoy. To quote Sara Ahmed, ‘To be willing to go against a social order, which is protected as a moral order, a happiness order is to be willing to cause unhappiness, even if unhappiness is not your cause… [but] We can recognise not only that we are not the cause of the unhappiness that has been attributed to us, but also the effects of being attributed as the cause… There can be joy in killing joy. Kill joy, we can and we do. Be willful, we will and we are.’ Denaturalising norms and showing how they’re actually violent will always make you eye-roll worthy. Being positioned as a snowflake, victim-card, ‘here she goes again’, etc, are all great silencing techniques. Gaslighting us and isolating us are ingenious structural ways of suffocating us and ‘putting us in our place’. Revealing injustice is dis-incentivised in every way – but only if you believe you have something to lose.
My favourite thing about being Muslim is that you have nothing to lose. I don’t mean that you don’t care about anything or that you don’t desire respect, dignity and appreciation. I mean that as a Muslim this life is not the be all and end all. And because it’s not the be all and end all, you don’t have to measure your value, or the value of what you do by how it is received here. There is another frame of reference and it means that no matter how much exposing the truth, standing up for justice and revealing oppression is dis-incentivised by the state, government, media, society, people in authority, even your own communities, colleagues, friends, everyone of those concentric circles; you’re not actually diverted away from doing it anyway, because your incentive isn’t in this world.
Sometimes it blows my mind how revolutionary it is to believe in another reality after this one. I understand how threatening that must be to states and governments – no wonder there are such concerted efforts and funding that go towards scholars to interpret and narrate Islamic theology in ways that depoliticise the world and tell you to wait for justice in the hereafter, or which tell you to obey the rules of the world as a form of religiosity itself. Because for someone to truly feel and know that revealing injustice, resisting oppression and opposing the status quo is inherently valuable no matter what the concentric circles say and try to get you to bow to, is awe-inspiringly radical. That itself is the revolution.
Recently when people have asked me what the point is, or why I’m ‘rabble rousing’, or why I kick up a fuss, or condemned me for caring, or called me an idealist I have found the easiest way to win the argument is by being earnest. I have said that even if I am not sure that the world can be transformed in all the ways I believe it should be, or that justice can be served, or that oppression can be upended, or that the complex web of violence that we’re stuck in can be unpicked; I believe it is worth struggling for those things anyway. I believe that unpicking, revealing, exposing, shouting, resisting again and again has inherent value. The value is not in the ends, it is in the means.
To believe that resisting is worth it regardless of the outcome, simply because it must be done – because you are using a standard of measurement that exceeds this world, because you believe you are accountable for what you witness – smashes the concentric circles around the dot. It adds a new dimension to the picture: above and below. Whilst you may be surrounded, gaslit and worn down; in this other picture, from this other dimension, you are never alone. It is this that feeds the resistance, and this that makes isolation never lonely.