We speak to Asim Qureshi, who argues in his recently-released book that faith and ethics can play a crucial role in civil disobedience and no one should be apologetic about it.
What is the right response to modern-day state oppression or injustice? Asim Qureshi’s new book attempts to tackle this question and the complex issues of justice, oppression and resistance based on ethics by drawing from his 15 years of experience working with people detained at Guantanamo Bay.
As the director of research at CAGE, a Britain-based advocacy organisation that works with “communities affected by the war on terror” and “highlights and campaigns against repressive state policies, developed as part of increasing securitisation,” Qureshi is no stranger to controversy.
His work has required him to take stands on sensitive issues related to national security, most often a consequence of the War on Terror.
CAGE and Qureshi came under fire for arguing that harassment by Britain’s secret service MI5 could have contributed to the transformation of young Londoner Mohammed Emwazi into the prolific and infamous Daesh executioner Jihadi John.
However, some human rights advocates such as Reprieve founder Clive Stafford Smith continue to advocate for the “vital” work CAGE does.
In his book "A virtue of disobedience", Qureshi uses history, religion and literature to thread together an argument about why faith and ethics should be at the centre of modern civic activity.
Qureshi, 36, talks to TRT World about his latest book.
How did you end up as the director of an organisation that advocates for the rights of Guantanamo Bay detainees at a time when there was very little sympathy for anyone who opposed then-US president George Bush’s 'War on Terror'?
Asim Qureshi: I didn’t actually start CAGE; I just happened to come across them as I was completing my masters in December 2003.
I actually wanted to be a corporate lawyer, and everything I had previously studied was geared towards that.
But seeing the images coming out of Guantanamo made me feel very strongly about the abuse of the law. At the time we didn’t have a lot of money, but we had a lot of passion and like a lot of projects, it just took a small group of extremely dedicated people to get it off the ground.
What was it about Guantanamo Bay that bothered you so much that you ended up dedicating a good portion of your life to exposing the crimes happening in the prison?
AQ: It was the images of Muslims on their knees, with their heads bent low — almost prostrating — with American soldiers holding guns to their heads.
The images were powerful, and they moved me because they sent a worldwide message: that we can detain you without charge or trial, and we can make you submit to us, regardless of whether or not you’ve done anything right or wrong.
And of course, the final nail in the coffin was when the same year  my childhood friend Babar Ahmed was arrested [from London] and placed on an extradition warrant to the United States.
Why did you choose to begin the book with the young British writer and slam poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan’s poem?
AQ: A couple of days after I finished the first manuscript of my book, I saw Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan’s ‘This is not a humanising poem’ go viral, which for me completely captured the ethic I was trying to write about in the book.
In a three-and-a-half minute poem, she encapsulated what it had taken me 50,000 words to write.
After entering into a relationship with my publishers, one of the first things I suggested was to commission Suhaiymah to synthesize the ideas of my book, almost as if it were a follow up to her previous poem. For me, it was so important that this young British Muslimah’s thinking was so far advanced beyond activists who have decades of experience, and I wanted to make sure her thinking was included in the book.
Your book is titled "A Virtue of Disobedience", which is a clever play on words because disobedience isn’t always considered virtuous. Why?
AQ: The name of the book is very much a nod to Henry David Thoreau whose book is on the duty of civil disobedience.
He felt that not only do we have a right, but at times it is a duty to [take on] civil disobedience. And I wanted to explore this more from a faith-based perspective which Thoreau does, but his referencing of anything divine isn’t specific.
Also within the Islamic tradition, there hasn’t been a great deal that’s been written on this subject, except by people who approach it from the perspective of forbidding subversive activities against a ruler.
What upset me was that I was sitting with my children in the mosque when an imam said even if the police abuse you – and this was in the context of a lot of police brutality happening in America – you shouldn’t protest against them because this is a path to disobedience and revolt.
So even if a state is oppressive, if there are conditions of general peace you shouldn’t stand up against [the oppressor]. And I didn’t think that was a message I wanted to give to my children. The idea that standing up for yourself is something blameworthy.
Having read the Quran from beginning to end, I also wondered if this was a message that I felt the Quran was giving me. And of course it wasn’t. Where there’s despotism or injustice, the righteous person — even if they’re alone — will stand up against these things.
Faith generally, and Islam, in particular, are important themes in your book when it comes to activism and resisting oppression. Can you talk about that?
AQ: As far as I understand it, my worship of Allah is not limited to the mosque, it’s not limited to fasting or giving charity. But if I understand my faith as holistic, my activism should be encompassed by my faith as well.
For me, I don’t see how I can act towards something without it being linked to my faith in order for it to realise its full value.
What makes you continue to call the UK home despite feeling disappointed about political and social changes over the last two decades?
AQ: The UK is home, there are just no two ways about it. I can’t just leave being British, it’s a part of my culture, a part of my identity. There are so many parts of my character and identity that will be quintessentially British because this is the culture that I’ve predominantly grown up with.
And like so many British Muslims we all feel the same sense of missing home when we’re abroad.
When British Muslim expats [leave England], they all talk about what they miss about home; and when they talk about home, they aren’t talking about some imaginary Caliphate – they’re talking about the UK.
Just because the UK has gone down a path that I dislike and that I’m trying to resist it doesn’t mean it’s no longer home.
It just means the UK has lost sense of what and who it is, but I actually feel I have enough agency in this conversation to change that. I don’t want to run away from the UK, I want the UK to be better than what it is. And that’s why I remain here and resist.
What kind of an impact do you hope the book will have?
AQ: I want people to engage with it, critique it and I would like for a conversation to come out of this about how we deal with and confront despotism.
But there’s also a more fundamental question I want to explore. There are many perspectives on how Muslims should engage in civic life and what we should do.
We’ve had many people suggesting we take this approach or that approach, but the question I want to ask is: how should our values and ethics inform our civic activity? That’s what I want people to think about after reading this.