Asim Qureshi, A Virtue of Disobedience, Byline Books, April 2018, 212 pp., £15.99 (hardback), ISBN 9781912395033.
Asim Qureshi has a law degree and a masters degree in Human Rights and Islamic Law. He is the Research Director of the advocacy organisation CAGE, and since 2004 has specialized in investigating the impact of the global War on Terror. He is the author of the 2009 book Rules of the Game: Detention, Deportation, Disappearance and the recently released book A Virtue of Disobedience. He co-founded the book review website The Bookslamist and is currently completing a PhD in International Conflict Analysis.
Milestones (M): Please introduce us to your recently released book. What motivated you to write it?
Asim Qureshi (AQ): It was in May 2017 that I was first convinced of the need to at least write my own thoughts down as a form of self-reflection. I had attended jumu‘ah (Friday prayer) at my local masjid, and taken my two older sons with me. The imam had been speaking of Muslims' duty to the state, and in particular was decrying what he called baghy or rebellion. To be honest, I didn’t have much of a problem with some of what he was saying, until he said that it was wrong to protest against the police. After leaving the masjid, I found myself sitting with my boys with the car off, having to explain to them that Islamic scholars do not always get everything right, that sometimes they make mistakes. I told them that regardless of whatever the imam said, it was important that they understood that they should never permit anyone to oppress them, and that they should always seek justice.
At the start of Ramadan in 2017, I found myself writing between the hours of qiyām-ul-layl and fajr – really in a conversation with myself about what I saw as a desperate need for virtuous disobedience. The stillness of the night provided me some space to really think about what I wanted to say, and at times it felt like that was the only time I could really dwell on the relationship between my religion and my politics.
M: While A Virtue of Disobedience clearly draws from your personal history as a legal consultant and CAGE research director, it also draws from texts as diverse as Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like, and Ovamir Anjum’s monograph on Ibn Taymiyyah and medieval Islamic thought. How you would classify A Virtue of Disobediencein terms of genre?
AQ: I wouldn’t want to lay claim to AVOD being an Islamic text, due to my own discomfort with placing it within that category. I would perhaps say this is a book on social justice, which draws deeply from the many routes that I’ve travelled, whether it is directly through fifteen years of my fieldwork, or the books that I have read to help me understand the world I live in. A key aspect of that journey, for me, is the Qur’an itself, a tool that is replete with emancipatory tones.
M: Does A Virtue of Disobedience represent an intervention (e.g. in relation to existing political discourse in Britain, or related literature on the War on Terror, etc.)? What would you describe as the text’s main point of departure?
AQ: I guess it is hard to know exactly where this book will fit, especially as I didn’t know where it was going myself. Inshallah I pray that it will help to press the reset button for Muslims about the ways in which they construct themselves in the context of the War on Terror. So much resistance literature has emerged out of conditions of structural violence; I hope that this book will add to that conversation. Where I hope it makes a particular intervention, is in the idea that the Qur’an itself provides a vernacular that can be relied on.
M: The book references a number of cases – sometimes to highlight the trauma of war or detention, and at other times to emphasize the steadfastness of political prisoners. Do you mind revisiting one such anecdote in the book and explaining how it fits into the text’s broader aims?
AQ: There was an ethic of resistance that was practiced by many of the men in Guantanamo Bay. Ahmed Errachidi writes of the tactics they used where they would rip up their own clothes in order to induce the guards to stop punishing them individually. In his mind, if all the detainees ripped up their clothes, it would cost the administration more to clothe them, but also it would be embarrassing when legal or ICRC visits would take place. These detainees had incredible ways of thinking outside of the box in order to resist their torturous conditions of confinement, and nearly always that was linked to a sense of strength and dignity that they found in their faith.
The trauma expert Judith Herman writes in her Trauma and Recovery about how political prisoners in particular are able to withstand their conditions or torture through everyday acts of resistance, which become crucial to their survival. The key to this often, is their own sense of righteousness. In the Qur’an we are presented with the story of the Prophet Yusuf, who prefers to go to prison rather than succumb to those in authority seeking him to betray his own values. When he is finally granted exit from prison in order to advise the Aziz, he refuses to leave, instead requiring the case against him be cleared first. I have seen this approach used by political prisoners all over the world, who often refuse to leave from prison, unless it is on their terms of vindication, or at least refusal to sign something false about themselves – hence why Muslim detainees the world over refer to Surat Yusuf.
M: In contrast to accounts that take for granted (or perhaps crystallize) secularism’s casting of Islam as private “belief” – as opposed to a form of social organization, or world-making project (a process Salman Sayyid and others have aptly called the “religionization” of Islam) – you seem to reframe political dedication and Muslims efforts to grasp contemporary social concerns as a practice of piety. Can you expand on this?
AQ: Central to my concern in writing this book was this pressure by politicians, the media, think tanks and even senior Muslim activists in the UK to constantly secularize my political concerns. I still struggle to understand how any Muslim who believes in Allah, and has a sense of submission to Him can reduce their faith to the space of the masjid – it seems contradictory to the message of the Qur’an. As a Muslim, I live in the world, and therefore must be concerned with the political, whether that has to do with the economic system, neoliberalism, social inequality, food banks, or more international issues such as Palestine or Guantanamo Bay.
In that sense I find it ironic that Muslims who regularly decry ‘Islamists’ are willing to engage in politics only when it comes to reinforcing the narrative of the state. Thus in the UK you will have Muslim ‘scholars’ who will suggest that there is no contradiction between an individual’s faith and killing as part of the British army, not realizing that by making such statements, they have intruded into the political.
The Qur’an is resplendent with story after story of those who come up against authority, often with nothing other than their truth against a system of injustice. Think of the response of the people of Shuayb (peace be upon him), who tell him that prayer has nothing to do with the marketplace; their condemnation by Allah is directly linked to their attempt to decouple ritualistic worship from their worldly transactions – they saw these two worlds as distinct from one another. Even with the Pharaoh, he attempts to distract from Musa’s (peace be upon him) demand for the Children of Israel to be released, by reminding Musa of the worldly favors he gave him, by bringing him up in his own house.
M: Can you place your book in conversation with you and your colleague Muhammad Rabbani’s recent uncovering of FBI torture against Ali al-Marri? How might the book provide a unique framework through which to read troubling cases like these?
AQ: One of the quotes I use in the book – one that at the time of writing I did not attribute, due to us not having gone live with his full case yet – is that of Ali al-Marri. In the quote, he describes being choked by having a sock placed in his mouth during interrogation. Al-Marri’s wider story is incredible, and one that I have personally drawn a great deal of strength from. He is a man who spent thirteen years in isolated solitary confinement and relied on Islam in order to keep his mind and his soul intact. This does not mean that he did not suffer during that period, but rather, that his connection to Allah during that period allowed him to see himself as someone actively engaged in a process of resistance. Throughout his time in detention, he would refuse to comply while he was not provided any form of real legal process, choosing instead to enter into a combative relationship with his captors until they capitulated to his demands of a baseline of human decency.
I take a great deal of courage and strength from clients such as Ali al-Marri, who practiced disobedience in a way that can only be described as miraculous. These are human beings who have gone through something that is unimaginable, and yet they have shown us all what a heart full of faith and courage can achieve.
M: Is there anything else you would like for Milestones readers to know about A Virtue of Disobedience?
AQ: This book was written in a style that I hope will be read as a conversation, one in which I really look forward to engaging. I hope what people will take from it, is that I am positing some general ethics regarding the ways in which Muslims engage with the world through our faith and politics, and that it is really the subsequent discussions that will help to provide flesh on the bones of my thinking. So please, do write to me, and let me know what you think of what I have written, and if I have written something wrong, then hopefully we can refine these ideas until we have something that will look more like a manual for emancipation, bi idhni ta‘ala.
Excerpt from A Virtue of Disobedience (pp. 127-128)
The system requires collaborators to rewrite history, and also to rewrite the future. Part of the strategy of oppression, is to sell the dream of a future world in which one day there will be salvation, and part of that is the salvation of the afterlife. The words of Jesse Williams are pertinent here:
“Now, freedom is always coming in the hereafter, but you know what, though, the hereafter is a hustle. We want it now.”
Jessie Williams’s anxiety over the use of the ‘hereafter’ to symbolize an other worldly emancipation was previously picked up by W.E.B. du Bois, who criticized the quietist strand of activism that a certain reading of Christianity brought. I have the same concerns about quietist readings of Islam, that effectively they are acquiescing of the status quo of injustice, and not only preach patience in the face of injustice but justify the oppression by providing it religious cover. The ‘hereafter’ is supposed to be a matter of worldly emancipation, giving us confidence in our righteousness, that worldly efforts will have a final justice, but that our effort will be part of the judgement process. In ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ du Bois wrote:
“Children, we all shall be free
When the Lord shall appear!”
This deep religious fatalism, painted so beautifully in “Uncle Tom,” came soon to breed, as all fatalistic faiths will, the sensualist side by side with the martyr. Under the lax moral life of the plantation, where marriage was a farce, laziness a virtue, and property a theft, a religion of resignation and submission degenerated easily, in less strenuous minds, into a philosophy of indulgence and crime. Many of the worst characteristics of the Negro masses of today had their seed in this period of the slave’s ethical growth. Here it was that the Home was ruined under the very shadow of the Church, white and black; here habits of shiftlessness took root, and sullen hopelessness replaced hopeful strife”
International Committee of the Red Cross