Muslim Abolitionists On Islam, Carceral Systems, And The Surveillance State
"Freedom from surveillance allows for self-determination within our own communities and our people."
📝 Monthly Round-Up
The Ghost In The Machine, Stephen Kearse — This review of Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology is a brilliant place to start if you’re still confused about tech’s relationship with anti-Blackness. Also, this part: ‘If deep learning is a theory of the mind, as Mark Zuckerberg claims, Benjamin asks, ‘Whose mind is it modeled on?’”
Facial Recognition Has Always Troubled People of Color. Everyone Should Listen, Alfred Ng — Recently, IBM announced its decision to stop selling facial recognition, and Amazon said it would place a one-year ban on its facial recognition tools for police. In their statements, neither companies are acknowledging the communities of color who have warned everyone about facial recognition from the start.
Data Healing: Digital Doulas Take Restorative Justice To Cyberspace, Yaa Addae — Data healing. Data trauma. If you’re wondering what the fuck either of those terms mean, get familiar with Addae’s article on cyber doulas like Olivia McKayla Ross, who helps people form a positive relationship with technology.
Across the United States, protesters aren’t fucking with the weak-ass reforms championed by Activists™ or Campaign Zero’s 8 Can’t Wait. Instead, a series of uprisings and on-the-ground demands to defund the police — which is not as confusing of a statement as many white liberals would have you believe — prompted more and more people to begin discussing abolition.
There are a number of sources to learn about abolition from. Dr. Angela Davis’ “Are Prisons Obsolete?” is a fundamental text, Mariame Kaba has been putting in work for a good minute, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore Girls is everything I never knew I needed. However, my interest with this newsletter is to tap into abolition from an Islamic perspective, one that is driven by an understanding of liberation theology and the roles that we, as Muslims, must play for both the oppressed and the oppressor.
We often hear about abolition within the contexts of abolishing prisons or police. Doing away with prisons and police would abolish a good chunk of the surveillance state but it wouldn’t necessarily off surveillance in its entirety. As Aisha Monet points out in her testimonial, “A lot of people who hold positions of privilege in our society are not content with our police state so they go about policing their families, friends, neighbors, and communities on their personal time. This is also part of the surveillance state.”
Now, I understand that abolitionists account for the problems for which we pose prisons — or police — as solutions. Still, you gotta be specific about surveillance in your analysis. It cannot be hinted at or mentioned as something lurking in the background of prisons or policing. Surveillance needs to be addressed as its own separate entity and explicitly considered moving forward. And given that Muslims are highly surveilled, who better to talk about surveillance within an abolitionist context?
Queen-Cheyenne Wade, Greater Boston
Freedom from surveillance allows for self-determination within our own communities and our people.
My work and interest center around frameworks of restorative justice, youth/community advocacy, Islamic Liberation theology and Marxist theory. As co-lead organizer and co-founder of the Greater Boston Marxist Association, a lead organizer in Boston Mutual Aid Fund and a member of the FTPBoston Collective, I dedicate my efforts to organizing in solidarity and community care.
We understand abolition as the complete dismantling of the carceral and policing system that is built on the backs of enslaved African/Indigenous people. While politicians and public officials push reformist policies that lead to imprisonment, hyper-surveillance and terrorizing Black, Brown and low-income communities, these programs only continue these systems under different names and administration. The 8 Can'tWait Campaign that many law enforcement officials and mayors across the country are implementing is an example of this. Although the creators of 8 Can’t Wait publicly apologized and rescinded their campaign to adopt more abolitionist frameworks and language — in understanding the need for complete abolition of the U.S. policing system and the dismantling of white supremacist systems to which they originate —, public officials and law enforcement continue to deny the serious need for complete abolition.
Islam influences our understanding of abolition in the larger sense of justice and oppression. The Quran contains countless surahs recounting those who are greedy and sustain that greed by oppressing others as an ultimate betrayal to our understanding of divine unity under Allah such as Surah Al-Masad (one of my personal favorite Surahs). When we see these same atrocities being enacted today to people around the world, we as Muslims must seek pathways towards justice. That my freedom is intrinsically tied to yours and hers and theirs. That’s how I see Islam affecting my understanding of abolition.
A state free of surveillance is inherently and necessary a component to the fight towards abolition. In America, a highly surveilled state for Black and Muslim communities, it is important to understand the role surveillance plays in a white supremacy society. When Black, Brown and other marginalized communities are “othered” in a surveillance state, their abilities to grow and expand beyond that label of “other” becomes extremely limited. This manifests in discrimination, prejudice, and continued cycles of violence and terror which a surveillance state thrives off of.
When I think about what abolition means for a surveillance state it means restoration. Surveillance has led to the destruction of many amazing communities as well as the implementation of extremely harmful programs within those same communities. My home city, Boston, MA, one of the highest surveilled cities in the country and prides itself on being one of the first cities to implement Countering Violent Extremism programs disproportionately targeting Black, Muslim communities. These thinly failed “violence prevention programs” only serve to continue the terror and violence of the carceral system in our very neighborhoods. Freedom from surveillance allows for self-determination within our own communities and our people. For us to put our safety into our own hands, rather than reforming a system that never prioritized our safety in the first place.
One of my favorite texts is Qur'an of the Oppressed: Liberation Theology and Gender Justice in Islam by Shadaab Rahemtulla, a book that was pivotal in my understanding of Islamic Liberation Theology in relation those who are oppressed and marginalized in society. Specifically Farid Esack’s explanation of “tawhid—or the Divine Unity (the absolute Oneness) of God.”
Esack explains that “This liberating idea that the Oneness of a just God must be paralleled by the Oneness of a single humanity, and thus that anything that divides the creation into hierarchies violates the divine unity of the Creator” (Rahemtulla,28). His explanation in the text translates seamlessly to ideas of justice, solidarity and unity towards complete abolition of oppressive systems. The goal towards abolition is a goal towards complete unity.
[Abolition] shifts the culture around groups and communities that are forced into the fringes of society. Who needs to be watched? Who does the watching? Who belongs? Who doesn't?
Frankly, abolition is more Muslim than pork being haram. It's a simple belief that humans are created and born free and are given the divine right by Allah to remain free. But freedom is informed by equitable access to life. Imperialism, the surveillance state, police, prisons, detention centers, pre-trial detention, for-profit prisons, bail, etc are all antithesis to freedom. How can we deny freedom to those who are constantly subjugated to state-sanctioned violence and poverty that funnels them into prisons and not call upon our faith?
There's a really great quote floating around Instagram a few weeks ago by chaplain William Sloane Coffin that reads, "to show compassion for an individual without showing concern for the structures of society that make him an object of compassion is to be sentimental rather than loving." I think the essence of this quote speaks to why abolition is so fundamental to all faiths. We pay zakat and donate to homeless shelters, we pray the voices of the marginalized to be heard and for the pain of the world to be alleviated, we look-out for our brothers and sisters on the street, so why aren't we talking about the systems that create all the ways our faith is being invoked?
Abolition would mean the astronomical rate of Black and Brown people unjustly incarcerated becomes history. How do young men not make it home at night after work? Because they loosely fit the description of an armed robber caught on tape on the other side of town. Which by the way, how is it 2020, and so much is being poured into security-technology and there's still grainy-ass footage? Anyways, the end of the police state means greater accountability by communities to take care of themselves. We've always had everything we needed, and maybe with more funds for community centers and mental health resources, we might be able to help ourselves.
It also shifts the culture around groups and communities that are forced into the fringes of society. Who needs to be watched? Who does the watching? Who belongs? Who doesn't? With all of these questions, there is a clear dichotomy between people. Racialized groups are watched and the white supremacist state does the watching.
For the Afghan diaspora community, our brothers and fathers are predominately watched by the state. I remember my Socials Studies teacher once asked me why so many grown-ass men in their 20s were lying about their age to be in high school. Imagine, you've already fled a literal war zone and knew that your access to upward mobility would come from enrolling in school. And then you're watched by your teacher, your principal, your classmates. You're made into a joke. It's a small example, but we know how pervasive these systems are for racialized communities.
For Muslim texts that shape my understanding of abolition, not Islamic theology specifically but, "as-salaam alaykum, no oink for me" captures it pretty well. Thank you to sister Onika for that.
But, no seriously, I think growing up Shia has shaped my belief system around social justice and freedom. Muharram is such an intense time of the year and learning about the rampant corruption of Yazid's army and the ensuing Battle of Karbala has shaped my understanding that you should be doing what is right even if it is not the norm. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) stood for justice and his family died for the sake of justice and what is right. Islam at its core is about justice and peace, and it's not lost one me that we're in the streets scream, "no justice, no peace, no racist police."
Just knowing that history, and knowing that liberation by any means necessary is not un-Islamic or wrong. The Prophet literally said, "feed the hungry, visit the sick, and free the prisoner" Sahih al-Bukhari 5649.
Aisha Monet, Washington State
At this point it seems imperative to remove the cop from our minds, our hearts, and spirits as we work to abolish both police and surveillance states.
I work at a women’s nonprofit, and I am currently majoring in History. I use she/her pronouns and I am a bi-racial Black girl.
For me, abolition is a process — not a destination — of clearing away systems that don’t serve us as a community. I say process because I think as a community or society continues to shift/grow, it will grow out of things that may have served it in the past. So, it’s necessary to think of abolishing systems as a continual process. My faith as a Muslim is deeply connected to this because throughout the religion you see calls for justice and the need for equity. I would not be an abolitionist if I was not first a Muslim.
I think there are a lot of really specific demands that folks have when it comes to abolishing the surveillance state, especially in regards to privacy and digital safety, but the peace I want to touch on is the psychological piece. A lot of people who hold positions of privilege in our society are not content with our police state so they go about policing their families, friends, neighbors, and communities on their personal time. This is also part of the surveillance state. My white mother watching our Black neighbors come and go from the house because they were “up to no good” is part of the surveillance state and it’s not only an invasion of privacy, it is also dangerous and harmful to believe that we have the right to spy on or gossip about marginalized communities. This practice is common place in white communities and it’s absolutely unacceptable. At this point it seems imperative to remove the cop from our minds, our hearts, and spirits as we work to abolish both police and surveillance states.
Something I return to constantly as an organizer is the Hadith which is related in Sahih Bukhari where the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) said “Help your brother whether he is an oppressor or the oppressed one”. And when his companions asked him about the first piece of that transmission he explained that the way we help the oppressors is by stopping them from oppressing people. It is against our religion, and I believe against innate human nature, to be oppressive and brutalizing to other human beings. This context of stopping people from going against their humanity by marginalizing other people is the backbone of my work. This work is love. To stop folks, by any means necessary, from being a tyrant against marginalized communities is an act of love to them.
Reina Sultan, Washington, D.C.
Putting people in bondage and injustice being done against marginalized people are firmly against Islamic beliefs.
For me, abolition is not only the end of policing and prisons, but also the end of capitalism, imperialism, and settler-colonialism. I think being a Muslim informs the way I approach abolition because abolition is Islamic. Putting people in bondage and injustice being done against marginalized people are firmly against Islamic beliefs. It is integral as Muslims that we fight against injustice.
We would have to abolish the surveillance state. This would of course mean the end of government agencies like the FBI and CIA, but it would also mean the end of private-public partnerships between companies selling surveillance tech to the government. In putting together the 8 To Abolition platform, we made sure to include ending surveillance efforts wherever necessary (including teacher and school participation in CVE and Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention).
I think it goes without saying that Malcolm X embodied Islamic liberation theology. He truly understood what it meant to be called as a Muslim to fight against injustice, knowing we could not have peace while people remained in bondage and abused by the state. Mariame Kaba is also Muslim. Her writings have really informed my understanding of abolition and I’d like to think her being a Muslim is important to her pursuit of abolition. I literally say one of her quotes as a duaa. “Let this radicalize you rather than lead you to despair.” I think of it so often, especially now. We’re in a moment where I actually think we could have abolition in our lifetime, and we need people to take this pain and anger and channel it into abolishing these oppressive systems.
Abdifatah Ali, Minneapolis
You can’t fix something that ain’t broke. Just get rid of it.
For the last few weeks I’ve been on the ground here in Minneapolis protesting, keeping people hydrated and fed, passing out supplies to the community, trying not to get injured by the police, all while helping raise money online to support bail funds around the nation. It’s been rough.
A lot has happened since the murder of George Floyd. Since the initial protests and riots, the city has seemed to calm down but a lot of people are wondering what happens now moving forward. The discourse in the last week or so has been about police abolition, specifically getting rid of the Minneapolis police department.
As a young Black Muslim my focus personally has been on the abolition of the prison industrial complex. I tend to think about the differences in our justice system and restorative justice processes compared to that of Sharia law. When someone commits a crime in Islam, we factor in heavily the circumstances that led to that crime. What kind of family situation are they in? Are they in a good mental state? Are they poor and hungry? We ask questions that help us understand why the crime was committed. In the United States, only the crime itself is looked at. We have a system that doesn’t care if you were a poor person stealing food because you were hungry, it only recognizes that the crime of theft was committed and a punishment is needed. As a Muslim, I understand that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) has guided us to avoid punishment as much as possible, but the system we have in America is the exact opposite. Unfortunately this system isn’t broken, it’s working exactly the way it was designed too. My belief that the system was created to work this way is the main thing that makes me an abolitionist. You can’t fix something that ain’t broke. Just get rid of it.
Sheikh Azhar Nasser talks about Surah Quraysh and the meaning of its verses. Allah (SWT) tells the people of Quraysh to submit to him because he provided them with security, and food. He is asking them to submit because he has provided them with the necessities they need to live and be comfortable with. Allah (SWT) who is the lord of everything and could wipe all of them out, still gives the people of Quraysh two VERY good reasons as to why they should submit to him. Let’s look at the system we have right now. The government is not able to provide citizens with basic rights like healthcare, housing, and education. This has led to a growing homelessness problem, and a predatory education and healthcare system. Throughout all this though, the people suffering the worst are still expected to obey all the laws the government comes up with. That just doesn’t sit right with me.
Laila Ayub, South Texas
If abolition is conscious of rebuilding something NEW, it will have to do away with the surveillance state.
Abolition is both a goal and a constant practice. It is something I have learned from Black Muslim women but personally, its a goal to destroy the entire prison/military industrial complex and with it the systems of white supremacist capitalist oppression, but more importantly, to win collective liberation and rebuild something better.
Being a Muslim drives me to take an active role in abolition work. We are called to be, "witnesses" against injustice, we follow prophetic examples of giving money, speaking up, and being revolutionaries. So, as a Muslim, I not only recognize abolition as a means for justice, but I understand that I must embrace abolition as a practice in my everyday life.
I think if we look at prisons and the police as part of this capitalist white supremacist structure, it becomes clear that surveillance enables the police and the prisons. Prisons use surveillance to stifle action from people who are incarcerated, intimidate them, and retaliate against them, and there's people making money off of the technology used to do that. The police also use the tools of surveillance and they're already making use of them for arrests at protests. So to me, if abolition is conscious of rebuilding something NEW, it will have to do away with the surveillance state.
Mariame Kaba has informed so much of what I know about abolition. Believers Bail Out and the Justice for Muslims Collective. While Angela Davis is not Muslim as far as I know, her work draws the connection between the prison industrial complex, military industrial complex, and global capitalism. Capitalism is something that I easily see as antithetical to Islam, and the fact that the police and prisons sprout out of it makes it obvious that abolition fits in with Islamic justice. Your writing frequently reminds me about the history of surveillance of Black Muslims in the US, which serves as a constant reminder that Islamic liberation is inextricably connected to the fight for abolition.
These interviews have been lightly edited.
8 To Abolition — Can’t have an entire newsletter about abolition without pointing people to some more resources on the topic. Of course, there’s more than eight steps to abolition. But launched in response to Campaign Zero’s lackluster 8 Can’t Wait, 8 To Abolition is a great primer for those new to the concept.
Believers Bail Out — I profiled Believers Bail Out, a community-led effort using zakat to bail Muslims from pretrial and immigration incarceration, before. If you’re Muslim and want to learn more about abolition from an Islamic perspective, this is where you should look.