A Muslim vision for transformative justice (from a Muslim in the UK)

The “a” in this title cannot be emphasised enough. Over the past month I have been trying to gather my thoughts around both the impetus for re-imagining justice that is inherent to Islam, and the ways that Islam approaches justice and accountability which offer solid and exciting alternatives to today’s criminal justice system. As the demand for abolition is popularised to a wider level of public discussion and imagination in the past few months I have only really seen the conversation around Islam and transformed notions of justice take off in the USA (e.g. through the work of Believers Bailout and others). In Britain the conversation around abolition must be different because our context is different (as the colonial metropole of the empire the USA was born from); likewise, the contribution of Muslims must have its own distinct – whilst also broadly similar – voice. It is to this end that I have been working on the following piece. I share this with the caveat that I am very much on a learning journey and that I am only just beginning to recognise that justice must begin within ourselves: before we have the strength to transform our external worlds, we must consider the transformation of our internal worlds and whether and how we are engaged in oppression of our own souls. Nonetheless, here are some thoughts I hope might spark some conversation by the permission of Allah, they are certainly not intended to be conclusive or prescriptive.

WHY Muslims have a case for seeking new systems of justice and transformation

Islam requires us to question sources of authority other than Allah in order to establish justice above man-made notions of “order”.

As Muslims we have a strong framework and a duty to work for a world where all of creation is healthy, safe and flourishing free from harm, oppression, and injustice. Islam demands the eradication and destruction of injustice and oppression at its root not merely in theory, but practice. We are tasked with building societies which holistically approach justice. That means not relying on distorted, persecuting, punishing, silencing, supremacist, capitalist systems of so-called ‘justice’, but instead justice which entails equitable distribution and sharing of resources, redressing of harm and trauma, re-imagining ecosystems of safety, healing and accountability on local and global scales; and supporting those harmed and/or silenced by the current “justice” system directly and indirectly. Within this there is no need to support, and in fact a need to resist, reliance on or co-operation with systems of ‘law enforcement’ which harm and oppress people.

Of course, re-imagining our societies and systems of justice isn’t easy, but as difficult as it is to imagine, a just world is possible, because Allah is all-powerful. And it is surely our duty as custodians of one another and the earth, to commit to bringing that world into fruition even if we do not see its results in our lifetime. However, to begin to bring that world into fruition we are required to first do the internal work of eradicating our own arrogance, desire to dominate, seek punishment, vengeance and harm. Indeed, we are told, ‘Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.’ – Surah Ar-Ra’ad (13):11. I therefore preface the following by reiterating that justice begins within, justice is consistent – one cannot be just outside their home but unjust within the home, and justice based in Islamic epistemology requires equipping ourselves with knowledge. Under secular modernity it is easy to fall into line with the notion of separate ‘spheres’, but as creatures with souls we know, deep within, that the spiritual is connected to everything.

Be just, for that is closest to piety; and beware of God – Surah Al-Ma’idah (5):8

Justice is central in Islam. We believe our earthly lives are leading to the Day of Recompense when justice will be served and whatever injustices we witnessed or were complicit in on earth will be laid bare. We work from the starting point that we must therefore be people who stand for justice and do not enable injustice of any kind.

The current systems of “justice” in the world are violent and oppressive. They are rooted in histories of colonialism and white supremacy that were set up to deliberately violate the rights, dignity and humanity of Black people, indigenous people and colonised people, migrants, refugees, undocumented people and the majority of the global population in order to benefit the few. These systems of prisons, probation, policing, courts and companies do not protect such people, who are harmed much more than we are helped by them; they do not lead to accountability; and they do not account for the way that most “crime” is the result of harmful contexts that people live in and their resulting traumatic effects. On top of that, people profit off caging, robbing life and brutalising marginalised people. This can never be called justice on Islamic terms.

Instead, justice is a sacred right that every creature on earth is deserved. The Prophet Mohammed SAW was sent as a mercy to all creation. That means that our sense of justice applies to Muslims and non-Muslim, the earth itself, natural resources, land, etc. Islam provides a framework to address injustice at its root – rather than its symptoms – and provides approaches to protect the vulnerable, redress harm, resolve conflict and end tyranny that takes the full context of our lives into account (for example we know that during famine under the Caliphate of Umar RA, the punishment for theft was suspended). There is also ample space in Islam for forgiveness, repentance and transformation, with Allah constantly reminding us that true transformation is the essence of repentance and a way to redress harm. The principles of Islamic law aim to found societies that are so holistic, interdependent and safe that transgressions do not occur, and if they do, are immediately redressed. As Muslims we believe humans are fallible, this life is a test of our imperfection, and we recognise that Allah is the one who brings true justice, we must simply do our best. This is the start-point we work from.

So establish weight with justice, and do not violate the balanceSurah Rahman (55):9

Allah has placed a responsibility upon us to make sure every created being is given its due – a right that cannot be transgressed, a right that encompasses everybody and anybody irrespective of religion, no-religion, temperament, kinship ties to us, etc. A right that demands we eradicate systems that do not produce justice. A right that demands we transform, not merely “reform”.

When Allah sent the Prophet Moses AS to Pharaoh, he was not sent to ask Pharaoh to reform his administration, or to ask for more Israelites to be represented in Pharaoh’s tyrannical regime, or for better-training of the establishment. He was sent simply and clearly to end Pharaoh’s tyrannical, arrogant and oppressive persecution. He was sent to liberate and rebuild social relationships. Likewise, when Allah sent the Prophet Mohammad SAW to the Makkans, he was not sent to ask them to refine the way they killed female babies but to bring an end to female infanticide entirely. He was not sent to replace the system of idolatry with an alternative but to eradicate it entirely. Violence and oppression can never be refined. So, today, we should equally root our commitment to justice in Islam’s holistic and Divine approach. This demands us to seek not just the “improvement” of a system of violence and oppression, nor negotiation with it, but commitment to build a new system which we already have the principles for in our religion.

More than anything though, those Prophets mentioned above were sent with one message: there is only One God, the creator of the heavens and the earth to whom we should turn in humble submission. In order to implement the socio-economic and political justice that these Prophets so often did, they first required sincerity of submission, purity of intention and an internal spiritual revolution and awakening. There is no socio-political revolution without first the rectification of the soul. We must be careful then, not to secularise our religious tradition by stripping the Divine message from earthly revolution. Islam makes justice incumbent of us because Islam is submission to Allah. We must be continuously attempting to rectify and purify our souls and our selves in order to be able to implement this larger vision. To implement Islamic justice, we first need to be actively Muslim (I say this first and foremost to myself as the tendency to take the worldly revolution without committing to the spiritual one is so easy – desecularising our minds and hearts is perhaps the most important first step).

Why Muslims in Britain should be seeking new systems of justice and transformation

  1. Our being based in Britain is itself a reminder of the global nature of injustice.

We live in the heart of one of the largest and most violent modern Empires in the world. Whilst focus on the violence of the criminal “justice” system often centres the USA – the USA was a British colony in its formation. It is in Britain that the USA’s logic of occupation, genocide, racism, white supremacy and chattel slavery were rooted. Such logics remain the bedrock of British governance and society, affecting not only those of us who experience the racialised colonial surveillance methods, exclusion of access to resources, and policing domestically; but those who experience Britain’s imperialist foreign policy, economic stranglehold through debt, occupation and destruction through war, arms sales and the “natural disasters” caused by histories of colonial devastation.

Similar to the way Moses growing up in the house of Pharaoh did not prevent him holding Pharaoh to account, our loyalty should not lie with the oppressive and violent nation-state in which we find ourselves, but with the oppressed masses of the world who suffer and are harmed by the trauma inflicted by Britain’s historical and contemporary resource hoarding, punitive power and military strength.

  1. As Muslims in Britain we have first-hand insight into the fact that the current system cannot be reformed, only abolished and imagined anew.The majority of Muslims in the UK are working-class people of colour, migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented people. Our lives are shaped from cradle to grave by structural exclusion from access to resources and damage to our health, wellbeing, and opportunities for education, housing, employment and access to redress of harm. We experience the highest poverty levels in the UK and are disproportionately behind bars in prisons (15% of prisoners) and immigration detention. For this reason we also see that the narrative of deserving/undeserving victims of injustice has no reasonable basis, and we can see beyond the focus on innocence/guilt, to the wider context in which “good”/ “bad” (or “moderate”/ “radical”) Muslims/immigrants/people of colour are not a real construct but a basis on which to decontextualize the fact that all of us experience harm. These experiences provide us with a strong foundation to advocate for wholesale change and provide useful insight to the wider movement of people demanding transformation, because

1) We have insight into the way reform of violent structures only further embeds structural violence. We seek liberation, not “equalised” oppression.
Through experiencing the brunt of the harm of Counter Terror legislation that fails on its own terms (to stop “terrorist attacks”) and fails on our terms (violates our right to safety, free speech, free expression); we have seen that “reforms” to the system – such as rebranding Counter Terrorism as “safeguarding”, or “also” tackling far-right violence – have only further embedded the logics that treat us with suspicion and spy on us. Reform has led to us now being not only racially profiled, repressed and dehumanised by the police but by our teachers, doctors, social workers, immigration officers, letting agents, banks, Universities, our computers and our phones, theatre and even arts organisations, too.

2) We have insight into how “community alternatives” to policing do not keep us safe unless they are de-linked from police and security systems entirely, otherwise they just create new ways to police us.
The unique experience of Muslims in Britain becoming the target for “community cohesion”, “integration”, and “teaching British Values” efforts have shown us that when policing is replaced with “community alternatives”, it does not actually reduce the harm we face. Instead, Counter Extremism has just remoulded policing in the guise of “community safety” in a way that has not lessened policing but meant public space, sports, our family life, and even arts and literature are now seen as sites where “security” is the central concern, justifying us being policed and spied on everywhere (see the Building a Stronger Britain Together Fund).

We therefore urge those calling for demands to defund police, to also call for the urgent decoupling of policing and security logics from public, professional and community services as well as their funding sources. Austerity has decimated public services, but their restoration relies on transparent public funding streams, not money from e.g. the Home Office which criminalises all Muslims, migrants, undocumented people and especially the most vulnerable of them who experience the nexus of its Islamophobia, anti-Black racism, misogynoir and xenophobia.

What we could demand

To reiterate for a third time, before demanding anything we need to listen, learn, rejuvenate ourselves in submission to Allah and consider what our intentions really are in the work of justice building – to be seen to be on the side of justice, or to truly be on it? (I ask this first and foremost to myself). We also need to implement transformed systems of justice and accountability within Muslim organisations, mosques and other Muslim spaces where the logics of policing, anti-Blackness and criminalisation are rife despite Islamic teachings, and where lack of transparency, silencing mechanisms and the absence of processes of accountability leave vulnerable members of our communities not only at risk of harm but doubly harmed when we experience violations and injustices particularly pertaining to sexual assault, sexual abuse and sexual violence. This is where the focus for many of us needs to be right now, there are immediate avenues of rectification which must be pursued. We need to demand Islamic systems of accountability and Islamic standards for Muslims, and we need to have the knowledge and space to have complicated conversations.

In terms of the bigger picture, we can consider the language of “non-reformist reforms” which reduce the scale, scope, power, authority and legitimacy of criminalising apparatus.

A few (incomplete) ideas of what we could demand are below:

1— Repeal of every piece of Counter Terror legislation in the UK and the dismantling of the global CVE industry as well as the use of CVE in aid deals, and all laws that are rooted in a logic of racial profiling such as Prevent, SUS laws and Schedule 7.

2— Defund the Home Office (prisons, police, border detention, counter terrorism and counter extremism) and redirect the money to public services decimated by austerity in order that people are supported, financially secure, safe, housed, protected from surveillance and institutional racism and thus less likely to perpetrate harm that the systems that fall under the Home Office purport to prevent.

3— End all deportations immediately, shut down all immigration centres, fast-track citizenship claims for all asylum seeking and undocumented people, stop weaponizing citizenship in criminal cases (stripping citizenship), and provide social housing, health and wellbeing services, a universal basic income and free trauma counselling with trained psychotherapists to all who have experienced the immigration system and hostile environment, and their families/dependents.

4— Sever the connection between state security, counter extremism and child safeguarding, health, mental health, wellbeing and social services as well as the arts and sports sector.

5— Sever the connection between Counter Extremism and “the far-right” and hold the state accountable for creating the conditions in which far-right politics and violence flourish.

6— End the War on Terror abroad as well as domestically by ending all foreign policy implicated in war, demilitarising the state and ending the production and sale of arms and weapons to others engaged in war, colonial occupation and/or support of settler regimes.

7— Immediate release of all people in prison for non-violent offenses as well as release of all statistics regarding the prison population. Safe social housing upon release and universal basic income as well as free and immediate access to health, mental health, social care and other wellbeing services. At the same time work on methods of rehabilitating violent offenders, restoring harms perpetrated and keeping victims safe.

8— Stop prison expansion and close down all prisons, provide social housing, health and wellbeing services, a universal basic income and free trauma counselling with trained psychotherapists to all who have experienced the criminal justice system and their families/dependents. Remove police from schools.

9— Urgent re-investigation into every life lost in or after police custody in the UK and accountability for all families whose loved ones have been killed.

10– End the use of secret courts, secret trials and secret evidence.

11– Provide free legal aid to everybody.

12– Provide no-strings-attached funding to women’s centres and refuges and invest massively into implementation of systems of accountability and safety for sexual violence, abuse and assault.

13– Democratise access to resources, introduce a wealth tax and rather than arrest the power abusers strip them of their assets e.g. their authority and position.

14– Cancel all debt and interest owed by formerly colonised countries immediately and demand the IMF, World Bank and private sector cancel debt too. Subsequently calculate how much wealth was created through colonisation and slavery and begin to distribute this money and resources to formerly colonised nations with no strings attached and through consent and in discussion.

15– The immediate end to exploiting natural resources – forests, topsoil, water, fish and game, minerals, coal, oil and natural gas until a process of sustainable extraction with consent of indigenous and/or local communities can be agreed upon.

16– Develop approaches to violence that focus on the contexts of people’s lives and restoring harm using mediators (in the ways that many Imams already do in local mosques). Develop wider approaches which address poverty, structural racism, defunding of wellbeing services and centring community consent in new approaches to violence.

17– De-securitise Mosques and Muslim-led institutions, organisations and bodies and immediately create systems of accountability and engage local community on how to keep people safe from harm.

Plenty more people with much more first-hand experience, information, on-the-ground connections and broader imaginations have thought of many more insightful things than this, but these are just some initial thoughts to prompt myself and others in a similar position who may read this. I hope this post is of some use to somebody, but I also hope it is a reminder to myself first and foremost that if we are to demand these goals, we must be ready for complicated and personal journeys to rectify and humble ourselves, too.

Further, alongside the need for us to mobilise for transformed systems of justice as created beings with responsibility to Allah, we must also do so on the basis that our experience gives us an important insight that we should contribute to the wider abolition movement – the surveillance and policing of Muslims in Britain can provide a ‘message from the future’ to warn of the co-option of the language of “harm reduction” and “community alternatives” in the aid of state surveillance. More than merely “defunding” violent apparatus we must de-link it from our notions of safety full-stop. We must pre-empt the co-option of our goals and the attempts to further embed policing despite our demands. We must prepare for a long term struggle, the fruits of which we may never live to see. May Allah aid us and forgive me for all fault and arrogance in this post.




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