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Why Muslims Need to Become Abolitionists

by in World on 3rd May, 2024

Abolitionists are people who believe in dismantling systems of oppression instead of reforming them from within. Abolition as a practice is a radical act of reimagining life outside of the current system. Prison abolitionists work to abolish prisons and the criminal justice system while border abolitionists work to abolish borders and nation states – both movements are intricately and intrinsically linked. Prison abolition is impossible without the abolition of borders and borders are made violent due to the carceral system adopted by nation states.

The origins of modern abolitionist movements can be traced back to the slave revolt that led to the Haitian revolution in the late 18th century. Formerly enslaved people in the then French colony fought against their colonisers for freedom and liberation and won their independence, marking the Haitian Revolution as one of the most effective slave uprisings in history. The French colonial period lasted almost 200 years, while the revolution lasted 13. It involved the torching of plantations, the freeing of slaves, and more crucially, a violent uprising that led to a liberated Haiti. 

Today, while abolitionist movements have evolved, the key principles of working towards freedom and liberation inspired by the Haitian struggle remain. This article will explore the concepts of border and police abolition, examining how these systems impact British Muslims, while drawing on learnings from the organising efforts of the Black American community.

From Abolition of Slavery to Police Abolition

The abolition of slavery in the US was a much more complicated process and the results aren’t as clear as they were in Haiti, which is now a sovereign state. After emancipation, Black Americans faced a long battle with the state to secure the basic human rights that were not afforded to them. Additionally, the US worked to put systems and laws in place that allowed them to continue oppressing Black Americans, such as Jim Crow laws. Jim Crow practices were often informal laws that segregated Black communities from White communities, which included denying Black Americans the right to vote as well as segregating public spaces such as shops, toilets, hospitals, schools, and pools. Despite the abolition of slavery, the state maintained the benefits of the labour they received from enslaved people, while ensuring they still exerted control over marginalised communities through oppressive systems and policies.

As a result of the US’s commitment to subjugating Black and Indigenous communities, organising efforts born out of abolition of slavery evolved to encompass movements that also advocated for police and border abolition, which were often used as tools to enforce oppression. 

The origins of policing in America can be traced back to slave patrols that served in the southern United States as a way to prevent slave uprisings. After the American Civil War, these slave patrols were abolished and integrated into the emerging police forces. With the knowledge of the origins of policing, it therefore comes as no surprise that viral incidents of racist policing in the US are often met with calls for police abolition rather than calls for the removal of a single officer from duty. The intricate ways policing and the criminal justice system are tied up with the history of slavery in America, reveals how ingrained systemic racism is within American society and the urgent need to dismantle it. 

With students setting up encampments on campuses across North America in solidarity with Gaza, the role of policing is becoming increasingly clear for those who aren’t traditionally impacted by the criminal justice system. While Black and Brown communities have always sounded the alarm about violent policing, white Americans have now seemingly been radicalised by witnessing this violence directed at Ivy League students and faculty. These encampments are a striking example of international solidarity against oppressive forces, as well as the international unison of oppression, with NYPD officers receiving training and borrowing tactics from the IOF. Similarly, the fight against Cop City, a scheme that militarises police and trains them in urban warfare mainly targeting predominantly Black areas in the US, has been a fight to protect communities while standing in solidarity with communities globally that already face this violence. The concept of a Cop City mirrors the militarised policing seen in occupied Palestine, and recognition of the global struggle against oppression is at the heart of both causes.

Advocating For Migrant Justice Through Border Abolition

The border abolition movement is one born out of the migrant justice movement and the fight for human rights for all. In an increasingly globalised world, borders and nation states pose the dilemma of who (and what) is afforded the right of crossing borders. Border abolitionists seek to dismantle physical borders (walls, fences, and checkpoints) as well as the laws related to borders. In practice, this would afford everyone freedom of movement that is not tied to nationality and dictated by nation states. Borders pose a major risk to life for some, a health risk to others, and a risk of detainment (losing human rights) for most people from marginalised communities. It is not uncommon to hear news of shipwrecks of small boats off the coast of Britain, Italy, and Greece. Images of Alan Kurdi, a two year old Syrian boy who tragically lost his life off the coast of Turkey were widely circulated; but despite outrage at the case, borders have become more hostile and dangerous. Transient and traveller communities that are unrooted and not belonging to a nation, offer a unique example of the challenges posed by borders. In our current world, permission is required from a nation state to move from place to place. Increasingly, we are seeing the power of the state increased and weaponised to oppress communities and individuals globally.

Britain, Borders, and Police

One form of oppression we have less vocabulary for in the UK is the criminal justice system, despite Muslims making up less than 5% of the general population but over 18% of the prison population. The overrepresentation of Muslims in British prisons is aggravated by the further marginalisation of Muslim prisoners. In prisons, Muslims face discrimination and are treated with suspicion for practising their faith (wearing hijab, praying, etc).

Despite this discrimination, research carried out by Crest reveals that Muslims outside of prisons have trust in the police and the criminal justice system. What’s more, British Muslims are more likely to refer someone to the controversial counter-terrorism Prevent program than the general population.

Prevent has been  adopted by the British government to “tackle the ideological causes of terrorism” by forcing public servants to monitor and report on the people in their care. It has been widely criticised for its criminalisation of Muslims, leading to a culture of fear when it comes to practising faith openly. The fact that some British Muslims comply with the program illustrates a lack of solidarity between individuals and a staggering lack of solidarity with those criminalised by the state.

During election seasons, British media and the political class become obsessed with securing the borders, reducing crime, and national identity such as ‘British values’. This year we have seen the Conservative government double down on their “stop the boats” messaging, while the Labour opposition have also adopted a “tough on migration” stance. The Nationality and Borders Bill already criminalised crossing borders but the passing of the Rwanda Bill, a scheme in which “illegal migrants” will be deported to Rwanda, has exacerbated the issue. Ibrahima was a young Senegalese boy who was sentenced to 9 and a half years in prison for the crime of crossing the channel and surviving shipwreck. Despite having no other choice and losing his best friend to the shipwreck, the government’s courts used Ibrahima as an example of being ‘tough on migration’, thus allowing the government to then usher in the Rwanda Bill. His heartbreaking story is a reminder of how ‘every border implies the violence of its maintenance.’ Ibrahima isn’t the only one; on the day the Rwanda Bill passed, at least five people including children lost their lives to the water as they attempted to cross the Channel. British media have focused on the survivors who have now been detained and will likely face charges for surviving. In the last decade, over 200 people have died trying to cross the Channel, however, crossing is becoming increasingly criminalised and therefore more dangerous.

What can we do as Muslims?

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how dark it may seem to be. There are numerous Abolitionist Groups working round the clock to counter the injustices carried out against the vulnerable of society thanks to oppressive systems and policies put in place by the government to maintain the white supremacist status quo. A few of these are: 

  • Muslim Abolitionist Futures is a network of organisations, collectives, and communities across the US which can provide crucial learnings for organising.
  • Believer Bail Out and Nejma Collective support Muslim prisoners in the US and UK, respectively. Donating to these organisations will help address the needs of Muslim prisoners as well as contributing to bail funds.
  • Books Against Borders is a collective learning project exploring decolonial, abolitionist and anti-capitalist work. They believe that organising and political education are inseparable – they have resources for learning about abolition and lessons from past organising.
  • Captain Support UK offers financial and pastoral support to those criminalised for crossing the English Channel, they are part of a larger network called Captain Support that aims to tackle the criminalisation of steering boats in Europe (Pylos 9).
  • Anti Raids Network and CopWatch Network are two direct action networks you can join to resist the presence of immigration and police officers in local communities.

The only way to counter the growing powers of nation states is to dismantle the systems of oppression, including borders and the carceral justice system. For Muslims in the UK, extending solidarity to those criminalised for crossing the channel, regardless of the reason, is one place to start. Solidarity with incarcerated people is also key in moving forward abolitionist movements. Nation states will always mobilise to gain more power, our collective resistance and true liberation lies in building solidarity between groups, particularly those who face the violence enacted by the state.

Allah (SWT) says in the Quran:

“O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allāh, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allāh is more worthy of both.” (Surah An-Nisa 4:135)

Whilst we may be used to working within the system, we have seen more so in recent months that both the international system is built to work against us as Black and Brown communities. It is time to start collectively resisting it and actively dismantling the systems of oppression within it.

Amaliah Team

Amaliah Team

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