A scholar criticizes Western society’s pressure on all Muslims to take collective responsibility for terror
By Sharmin Sadequee
Following every international or domestic terrorism act committed by a Muslim, the American-Muslim community divides under pressure on the issue of whether or not Muslims should take collective responsibility to communally condemn and apologize for the acts of a few individuals. On one hand is a group of Muslim activists and organizations who accept collective responsibility by condemning such acts. They are therefore viewed by the dominant Euro-American society as patriotic, “good” Muslims. On the other hand is a group of activists and organizations who reject collective responsibility and may be viewed as unpatriotic, “bad” terrorist sympathizers.
Critics of collective responsibility claim that it aligns one with the oppressors of Muslims, thus the supporters are viewed as “bad” Muslims. From their perspective, “good” Muslims don’t take collective responsibility but stand up against the state and its violence against Muslims in general.
As an American Muslim who has been working with and advocating for families of Muslims imprisoned preemptively in the United States, I have observed and experienced the impact of the divisions and debates around collective responsibility and collective condemnation for the last fifteen years and I want to disrupt it. This binary is imposed on Muslims by the state, but Muslim’s engagement with it is a result of internalized orientalist stereotypes, which paint Islam and Muslims as inherently violent and further perpetuate dehumanization and state violence.
To understand this process, one must ask: does criticizing responsibility and condemnation erase and hurt some community members and perpetuate state violence? Does rejection of collective responsibility absolve Muslims from condemning certain harmful individuals? Does standing up against oppression itself become a form of oppression in the face of multiple oppressions? Is that too, a form of violence?
Lets examine collective responsibility. Collective responsibility is the idea that a group is liable for the wrongful acts of a few. It communicates the idea of a collective mind; all are connected to perpetrators without ever having contact with them. Historically, marginalized groups in the United States have been forced to be accountable for the actions of one person. This action is a part and process of racialization of marginalized communities of color and central to racism and Euro-American dominance in this country. Muslims subjected to such racializing politics have been forced to self-contaminate themselves with “guilt by association” with individuals who cause harm and share the same faith. But the limits of that responsibility must be interrogated.
Connected to holding Muslims collectively responsible for the wrongful act of a criminal individual is the state demand for collective condemnation. The Muslim community is under tremendous pressure from government officials, media platforms and the dominant Euro-American society to loudly declare and visibly perform its position against terrorism. The implication is that if Muslims don’t condemn, they secretly support terrorism and are therefore a potential threat, warranting suspicion, surveillance and retribution. In the absence of outward condemnation, all Muslims are guilty until proven innocent and the entire community should be punished and held responsible for any atrocity committed by the culprit. Although condemnation can operate independently, Muslims have been compelled to engage in collective condemnation of “terrorism” as a form of collective responsibility. A similar demand and response from Euro-American Christian populations in retrospect is missing when a white Christian engages in violence.
When officials in a liberal, secular, modern nation-state demand collective responsibility from Muslims, religion is mixed with the state in a ritualized way. The fusion of religion and state
formation was established in ancient times, when religion was the law that guided the conducts of people’s lives, and punished those who sinned against God or gods. Evolving from ancient state systems, modern nation-states such as the United States although claim to be secular, yet were bounded by religious symbols and ritual practices from their very inception. Politics and the legal and penal systems have always blended with Christianity. Among dominant groups, “sinners” have been replaced by criminals who are individually held responsible and punished in modern state systems.
Demands for collective responsibility and punishment are also not based on modern liberal principles. In a modern normative morality, only individuals are responsible for wrongful actions. When the dominant Euro-American society calls for collective responsibility, the Muslim community is compelled to engage in anti-American ethical conduct and forced to go against modern Western values. This position undermines the very concept and practice treasured in modern notions of accountability and justice. This stance also serves to legitimize the dominant discourse that Islam and Muslims are violent. Further, acknowledging association with wrongdoers also permits the US government to continue sending informants to mosques and Muslim communities. Supporting this position perpetuates unintended state surveillance, violations of civil liberties and human rights and increased civilian hate attacks on Muslims. Consequently, Muslims solicit more expansive counter-terror measures and affirm the use of governmental authority to cause harm to groups and individuals. In turn, they allow states to achieve certain implicit or explicit goals to maintain state power and control over the population—in other words, state violence.
The expectation of collective responsibility is a state mechanism for continuously scapegoating innocent Muslims and Islam as “threats.” Scapegoats emerge during times of crisis and moral panic when individuals or groups resembling perpetrators get classified as a threat to societal values and wellbeing. An increased level of hostility towards the group collectively designated as the enemy is exhibited. Through these processes of scapegoating and panic, Muslims or people perceived to be Muslims are socially constructed as “terrorists.” Scapegoating promotes social and political exclusion and othering of unwanted individuals or groups, empowering dominant groups to exercise power and discipline over both the scapegoated population and society in general. Muslims have been collectively scapegoated in the aftermath of 9/11; innocent people have been detained, deported, arrested and tortured both domestically and globally in notorious camps such as Communications Management Units and Guantanamo Bay. Muslim Americans have been subject to a separate system of justice where human rights violations through the judicial and penal system are accepted as legal and legitimate. When Muslims accept collective responsibility, they acknowledge the acceptance of abuse of Muslims as scapegoats for atrocities. Muslim Americans in particular, must rethink whether this position is helpful in the political struggle to secure collective dignity and self-determination.
Muslims critics of collective responsibility are usually also the ones denouncing collective condemnation in this debate. Public performances of rejecting collective responsibility and collective condemnation might be viewed by some as revolutionary, standing against oppressors and state violence. However, the outward dismissal of one’s responsibility and collective condemnation does not liberate Muslims from the implicit condemnation of individuals. Muslims’ abstention from condemnation vicariously affirms their support for condemnation by the state. Whether or not some Muslims reject responsibility and condemnation the perpetrator is subjected to the law and the state punishes the criminal. Rejecters of this position in effect support retributive justice, the idea that violence deserves to be repaid with violence. This is not a novel position for Americans, but retribution is a morally acceptable American value and daily law enforcement practice which garners strong public support for harsh criminal penalties.
Retributive violence is also connected to the way the state uses military force in global conflicts. Vicariously endorsing this norm tacitly supports the use of torture for terrorism suspects and the use of military force abroad. This stance supports the violent prison-military-industrial complex, which include the practices of government surveillance, use of informants and the predatory prosecution of Muslims. Critics of collective responsibility and collective condemnation inadvertently uphold the principles and practices of oppressive systems.
Furthermore, critics are much aligned with American and Western values and support modern, liberal, democratic normative principles of individual accountability when they indirectly condemn the culprit. The modern liberal morality assumes that there is individual autonomy in committing a crime and affirms the validity of criminal law. Therefore, this position does not absolve critics from condemning the wrongdoer; instead, it raises questions about whether or not and how this public performance leads to ending US imperial violence both domestically and globally. Not only do critics condemn few wrongdoers in this way, they actually also denounce another group of Muslims who have committed no act of violence— individuals the state selects as scapegoats for predatory prosecution.
The fissure between critics and supporters in the mainstream debates around collective responsibility and collective condemnation is based on the experiences of these two sides which homogenizes Muslim American experiences within this binary. Each position does not distinguish between criminal and non-criminal acts, that is, acts of atrocity and the criminalization of Muslims which involve no actions. When this position flourishes in public spaces, when an act of terrorism violence does occur, it encourages the Muslim mass to internalize the public debate and reject collective responsibility whenever one is accused of “terrorism,” even when there is no violence or intent of violence.
More than 500 innocent American Muslims have been targeted, imprisoned and condemned by the state in government-manufactured, “terrorism”-related cases through entrapment or violation of constitutional and human rights in the domestic “war on terror.” These Muslims are victims of predatory prosecution by the federal criminal justice system. These Muslims and their families have also been expunged and silenced by government institutions, dominant American society and the larger Muslim community.
In order to understand how scapegoating and predatory prosecution occur, it might be helpful to examine how law and religion were intertwined within ancient state systems. In Teotihuacan, ritual sacrifices were made to the state or gods to control communal violence. It was believed that group competition for resources and power would lead to violence and destruction. In order to manage such violence, human or animal sacrifices took place to maintain social order and stability. Violence in ritual and sacrifice was required to prevent greater violence in human society. Those sacrificed became the scapegoats, viewed and treated as outsiders or blamed for social evil. They operated as vessels through which the community relieved itself from harm and achieved collective social cohesion and redemption.
In modern nation-states, this punishment and sacrifice based on religious ritual is the foundation of criminal justice and penal system influenced by Christian ideals, where scapegoats from marginalized groups are identified and punished. The dominant racial group maintains power by punishing and banishing marginalized groups witnessed in America’s mass imprisonment of black and brown people. In the “war on terror,” the criminal justice system is an integral part of counterterrorism for the construction and racialization of innocent Muslims as “terrorists.” Predatory prosecutions are scapegoat cases of “imagined” terrorists, where innocent people have been chosen by the state, ensnared in manufactured charges and processed through the criminal justice system. These prosecutions are part of America’s preemptive imperial wars overseas exemplified by the torture and abuse of Muslims in Guantanamo Bay and other “black sites.”
Preemptive prosecutions that target Muslim sociality and religious and political expressions and bodily markers are used domestically to repress and regulate Muslims as a part of the state’s racial management program. It is through the labeling of a targeted population as “monster” and “terrorist” in the penal system that the state maintains moral panic about the specter of terrorism as “real” in public space. It also extends state-sponsored violence against the same population. The goal of instilling moral panic is to exert moral and social reform, to maintain social and political inequality and to sanction racial and religious regulation. By merging race and religion with terrorist violence, the state socially and legally constructs Muslims for expulsion as deviant and criminals thereby preserving whiteness as hegemonic political power and sustaining the culture of fear and hatred. Media sources further bolster the hype around predatory cases and assault Americans with relentless reports of terror.
Take for example the government entrapment of the Duka brothers, Mohamed Shnewer and Shahawar Matin Siraj, where government funded informants forced these young men to speak about violence and imaginary plots. Cases like these are entirely choreographed by government federal agents and often times initiated during election year to help politicians win official positions. In such cases, government selects the target and trains them through agent provocateurs over time to foil their own plot and assault Americans with terror.
Living in constant fear of terrorist attack, such reports can induce subjective beliefs and psychological responses which can make it difficult for the American public to disentangle the real from the unreal—the “terrorists” and the scapegoats who are racialized as “terrorist.” When Americans are forced to internalize moral panic about imaginary Muslim “terrorists” to the point where people are unable to distinguish reality from falsehood, it becomes a situation for serious public health concern.
Targeted Muslims, primarily men, have been convenient scapegoats that society at large has come to blame and indict for everything from social disorder to the economic and political crises of a declining empire. While ancient and modern state systems treat these individuals as “other,” stories in scriptures expose the innocence of scapegoated individuals and reveal their special connection to God. However, the mainstream dispute around collective responsibility and condemnation erases such individuals from the conversation. Moreover, the violence against imprisoned Muslims, who are mostly men, extends beyond the accused and has tangible consequences for women and families as well.
Apart from having a brother accused and imprisoned on manufactured charges, I have had the opportunity to work with many families and relatives of accused Muslims during my ethnographic research and advocacy work. Coupled with state surveillance and demonization from the dominant Euro-American society, some of these women and families are traumatized, isolated, stigmatized and alienated in their local communities and expunged from public debates about Muslim Americans. Moreover, these women and families experience withdrawal of collective aid and solidarity and are treated as “other” within the Muslim community. Like other forms of repression, the assault by arrest, prison and courts has adverse effects on the women and families, their relationships with others, and the community in general. To have a loved one accused, arrested and disappeared on accusations of “terrorism” and imprisoned in pre-trial solitary confinement for years or in special prisons such as the Communications Management Unit become a dangerous stigma, adding to the pain and suffering. Laila Yaghi shared with me the pain and depression she experienced during her son’s case:
“Injustice is different. It just hurts. Oppression really, really hurts. It’s like somebody lost a family member due to a car accident – it’s going to hurt a lot but eventually that person is going to accept that it’s an act from God, and you’re going to accept, and everyone at some point is going to die, our life is going end sooner or later, that is an act of God. We are going to accept it, and it does hurt, but it doesn’t hurt down to the core. However, injustice and oppression has a whole different meaning. The pain is so different, and it’s so harsh and so strong. It emanates even from your face, from your whole body, your whole body language and your souls, and speaks volumes that you are being oppressed, and it has to stop. This is not an act of God. This is from a human being oppressing other humans because they can do it, because they are allowed to do it, because they think they are better in some way than other human beings, because they are superior. Muslims need to work together and help all these families.”
Laila also shared her experiences of interacting with her community during the time of her sons arrest:
“When I first went to my community for support, they told me that there’s nothing they could do, and they didn’t want media’s attention. I felt that everybody was so worried about themselves. I heard people from the community worried about how they were going to be looked because of us, instead of saying we know these kids, we know they did nothing wrong and stand by us. But people were just quiet and scared. Everyone worried this is going to happen to them.”
Other families shared that usually, no one helped them throughout their entire ordeal. Some families worked on these issues individually by going to mosques, trying to talk to community leaders and activists, attempting to raise funds for legal representation. Some women and families felt dehumanized when trying to raise funds for legal defense, as people ignored them out of fear of surveillance or treated them insensitively. Shahina Parveen communicated her experiences of trying to seek assistance from her community when her son was imprisoned on entrapment case:
“I was in a lot of trouble and I went to several places for help because I needed money for a lawyer. It was very difficult to find a lawyer as they ask for millions of dollars. It was like we became beggars so we put out an advertisement in the newspaper for help. I went to several organizations but they were not able to assist. I went to [organizations], but I didn’t get any help or support from them or from anywhere, but I still went. I went to mosque leaders for help but no help from anywhere. They didn’t help because they didn’t want the same thing happening to them. They probably thought if they help us they will be targeted too as terrorists. This is the environment that we are in. It’s all injustice. They are afraid of injustice happening to them.”
Additionally Mariam Abu Ali, sister of Ahmed Abu Ali writes, that the Muslim community has tried to bury them under the rug, afraid that stories of families like hers will be a hindrance to Muslims’ assimilation and acceptance as “good Americans.” These women and families want the larger Muslim American community to stand up for them and work collectively for a solution to change the oppressive system. Reem Jayyousi, whose father was also pre-emptively imprisoned, shares:
There is no justice; it doesn’t exist anymore. The [Muslim] community is broken and no one understands. If we come together we can save the future, like white, African Americans, Asians. We can save ourselves and our future generations; we can get together and create a movement..
The Muslim mainstream engaged in the collective responsibility debate also dismisses the scapegoated population. For instance, when the Muslim mainstream erupted on social media rejecting collective responsibility for violence committed by others in 2014 with hashtag #MuslimApologies, none tweeted about Muslim men unjustly imprisoned in the federal system or about their families – the people punished and chosen by the state to take collective blame for the Muslims who were tweeting. The #MuslimApologies campaign involved people from privileged backgrounds who usually distanced themselves from supporting or standing in solidarity with the accused and their families which raises questions about the extent to which people have come to believe imaginary plots as “real.”
American-Muslims have been engaging with this divisive performance since the atrocity of 9-11, yet there has been little or no support from the larger community and national Muslim organizations for campaigns by scapegoated families to free their accused loved ones. As I have written elsewhere, some of these families have developed their own support groups. These families with some Muslims and a handful of Euro-American activists established the No Separate Justice educational campaign to address rights violations in the domestic judicial system, but there has been no sign of the rejecters or supporters of this discussion in support of this national campaign focused on scapegoated Muslims.
My conversations with affected women also reveal that they expect the Muslim community to stand in solidarity with their cause and the entire community to claim collective responsibility for the innocence of their loved ones. They want the Muslim community to work collectively for a solution to release their innocent loved ones. To these women, collective responsibility is an act of social justice that is positive and worthy of commitment. That the loved ones of these women were imprisoned on manufactured offenses and have not committed any acts of violence, does not help these families to secure support and remove the stigma manifest within the Muslim community.
No revolutionary collective solidarity and support exists for them to this day. This situation raises questions not so much about the supporters of collective responsibility, who align themselves with the state, but about the denouncers. When critics promote dissociation from collective responsibility, this position cultivates a certain kind of connotation and meaning about this issue that trickles down and educate the Muslim mass to reject collective responsibility for people in predatory prosecution by withdrawing support from the accused families as well. Moreover, when some Muslims and groups who maintain their position as rejecters of collective responsibility they demonstrate their defense of oppressive systems and raises questions about their sustaining state violence through retribution. Their support for dissociation from collective responsibility also raises questions about their social justice work.
Criticizing collective responsibility does not translate to or generate collective support for the families of the accused. Critics are not liberating these families from the accusation of “terrorism”. Instead they perpetuate the “guilty until proven innocent” myth evidenced in the withdrawal of support by the larger society and the Muslim mainstream. The denouncers of apologetic statements are not illuminating or relieving the distressful experiences of these members but exercising domination and protecting the status quo by engaging in schismatic performances around collective responsibility. Through their public proclamation critics maintain and perpetuate their relative positions of power and privileges as mainstream Muslim voices, marginalizing the vulnerable population within the community. Dissociating from responsibility has not helped women and families much with accountability structures or obtaining justice. As a result, these families occupy a precarious position in the “war on terror.”
The withdrawal of support from this population and their existence as the imagined “monster” exposes moral disorder and the guilt of protecting one own self from a similar fate. Like the Euro-American dominant society, Muslims seem to have internalized the myths about these accused people and feel justified in their actions against collective support. They believe that their troubles will be eradicated if these individuals are punished or if they simply vanish. As a result, Muslims obliterate the voices and experiences of this population and deny them their position as the innocent oppressed. Their existence as scapegoats, taking on the burden of America’s collective guilt, seems to function to unify American society, the Muslim American community and the ummah (Muslim unity and brotherhood) in this current historical moment. It is through the existence of this accused population that Americans in general, and Muslim Americans in particular, seem to feel a sense of security, order, stability and purification.
Will the Muslim not condemning, please stand up?
The simplified distinction between rejecting and supporting collective responsibility raises questions about the extent to which both sides of this debacle have internalized Islamophobia.
Have Muslims co-opted the dominant and Orientalist discourse about Islam and their own identities? Have they come to believe and accept that Islam is inherently problematic and violent?
Willful or unwitting denial of collective solidarity and collective aid as a form of collective responsibility functions as an act of erasure and condemnation. The narratives of Shahin Parveen and other affected family members show that critiquing collective responsibility has not generated collective support for these families, but instead maintained their guilt, dehumanized them and exposed them to further violence.
Renouncing responsibility for violent crimes may not result in recognition of support for non-violence when state-inflicted guilt and stigma continue to expand and operate on a scapegoated population. State-perpetrated demands calling for the outward expression of collective responsibility and condemnation reproduce colonial practices and experiences and allow the state to maintain its hegemonic power and violence over Muslims and other marginalized communities both at home and abroad.
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Sharmin Sadequee is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Michigan State University. She also works as an adjunct professor in the CUNY system. Her research interests include Muslims and Islam at the intersections of national security laws, the modern state, religion and social justice movements. Also an artist, she incorporates visual art and photography in her academic and organizing work.
*Images courtesy the writer