When calling out human rights abuses is ‘extremist’ then we’re in trouble
Now that the red carpets have been rolled up and all the empty bottles of expensive mineral water thrown away, it’s worth reflecting on some of the drama around the Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (Brics) 10th summit, especially in terms of its implications for broader society and human rights.
On the eve of the summit, the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) enjoyed some rare spotlight in the Daily Maverick, a publication not known for representing the Muslim voice.
The article, entitled “Muslim Judicial Council makes bid to save gathering of world leaders from derailment”, painted the MJC in a surprising light. The writer cast the MJC as a hero character that had swooped in at the last minute to hustle up Muslim support after a disastrous stand-off had emerged.
The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) had agreed to investigate Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on allegations of a range of abuses. This fell in line with South Africa’s responsibilities under the Rome Statute.
The NPA’s decision had been prompted by a request made by the Muslim Lawyers Association (MLA) and supported by the Kashmiri Action Group and Cage Africa, to investigate Modi on allegations of human rights abuses against Muslims in India, in particular in the areas of Kashmir and Jumma (one of the most highly militarised zones in the world).
The MLA application consisted of 30 pages detailing atrocities committed by Indian security forces against Muslims in Kashmir and India under the Modi government, which rose to power on the back of inciting religious hatred.
These atrocities, which are also detailed in a United Nations report published this year, include detention without trial, forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings (including possible responsibility for mass graves) and the rape and imprisonment of minors. Those affected are mostly Muslim.
Aside from the actions of his security forces, Modi has failed to halt the killing of Muslims by Hindu mobs in Indian cities, the destruction of mosques and the indiscriminate firing by police at peaceful protestors with shotguns by police and has resulted in more than 6 000 people, including children, being scarred and blinded for life.
The NPA said it would focus its investigation on allegations made in the UN report, the first-ever report into human rights violations in Kashmir after seven decades of conflict. These violations are widely attributed to have led to the rise of armed “terrorist” groups in the region.
Modi is an example of a man who has risen to prominence in a toxic global climate that has facilitated the rise of right-wing populism on the back of religious hatred, from the anti-Muslim leaders of the United States to France and Australia.
But it is in Asia that these narratives have manifested with the most brutality. India and Pakistan have co-opted the language and legislation of the “war on terror” to criminalise social justice movements and organisations that seek independence in Kashmir, using claims of “radicalisation”, “terrorism” and “extremism” as a cover for conducting forced disappearances, killings, mass detention and torture.
When the NPA agreed to investigate Modi on his arrival, it was an unprecedented move.
But then it declined to do so: “After evaluating the evidential material, information received and the applicable law, the NPA decided there was inadequate evidence to sustain a successful prosecution and to support an application for a warrant of arrest,” said the authority’s spokesperson, Luvuyo Mfaku.
“The allegations speak for themselves and South Africa must take the step that no other investigating body in the world has had the courage to do. It simply must fulfil its obligations under the Rome Statute and arrest him so that he can be appropriately brought to justice,” said a statement by Cage Africa.
Modi and his ilk are victories for the global Islamophobic lobby, which includes counterextremism “experts” such as Janice Opperman, a regular contributor to the Daily Maverick, so much so that the website is considered something of a mouthpiece for these views.
Which is why the sudden appearance of the MJC in the publication was a great surprise.
Around the world after the tragedy and shock of 9/11, countries were compelled to adopt counterterrorism legislation. The UN made this compulsory to all its members and in a climate of fear and panic, fanned by a hysterical mainstream media and a new breed of public relations and government lobby organisation known deceptively as the “think tank”, they did so.
What is troubling, but perhaps not surprising given the haste and fear in which such legislation was adopted, is the number of abuses that have taken place under this legislation in a number of countries around the world, not least of all in Africa and Asia.
These abuses are well documented by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International as well as by smaller Muslim groups such as Cage. They target Muslims who are far from guilty of “terrorism” and are often social justice activists or working for aid organisations.
They include detention without trial, torture and abuses of the rule of law that turn terrorism trials into kangaroo courts. When the so-called counter-terrorism experts are presented with these cases, they have nothing to say.
These violations fuel what mainstream media labels as “terrorist” movements. Although the killing of civilians by state or non-state actors is deplorable and must be stopped, we must tackle the root of violence if we are to find solutions.
But the powers that be ignore this simple fact. Moreover, they precipitate an environment in which the groups and individuals that call out the counterproductive nature of this dynamic and who continue to highlight the abuses of more and more right-wing governments are labelled “extremist” and marginalised and, in some cases, in some countries, criminalised.
South Africa’s past means state representatives understand deeply the subjectivity of the notion of “terrorism” and the way in which the designation can be manipulated to serve foreign power interests, especially those of the US and Britain.
Because of this, South Africa’s counterterrorism legislation carries a rare caveat: it stipulates clearly that the law “recognises acts committed in accordance with … international law during a struggle waged by peoples, including any action during an armed struggle, in the exercise or furtherance of their legitimate right to national liberation, self-determination and independence against colonialism, or occupation or aggression or domination by alien or foreign forces, as being excluded from terrorist activities”.
This means, essentially, that there is less room for the “terrorism” and “extremism” narrative to catch on here in South Africa, especially in our courts. This narrative links so-called extremist beliefs, which have not yet been adequately defined, even in the view of the UN, to “terrorism”.
This is a ridiculous and dangerous notion that hopefully will not find traction in South Africa, not least of all because we are cynical about such vague and easily politicised definitions of each other.
But in the Daily Maverick article, the MJC is quoted as having said something startling and unprecedented. A representative is quoted, anonymously (no doubt the individual was somewhat reticent to be named, being fully aware of the implications of what he was doing), as saying the MLA and its supporters are “extremist”.
This turning of one Muslim against another, in the absence of strong counterterrorism legislation to criminalise Muslim organisations, is a victory for the right-wing Islamophobes. Hence the publication and hero casting done by the Daily Maverick.
To have a major Muslim representative group parroting its “extremism” discourse, particularly when it means marginalising groups that call to account individuals with a documented history of human rights abuses against Muslims themselves, is an astounding coup.
Not only this, it is also useful to those peddling the “war on terror” Islamophobic narrative to divide Muslims.
It introduces a dynamic that allows those who choose to fulfil their Islamic duty of speaking up against and calling tyrants to account, especially when those tyrants are wilfully and flagrantly desecrating Muslim communities, are sidelined, to be marginalised and even criminalised.
This can easily feed into a broader programme of criminalising dissent. The label of “extremism” in Britain includes in its net not only Muslim social justice movements but also pro-Palestinian groups, anti-fracking groups, animal rights activists and socialist, left-wing organisations.
Any person who has studied history knows where this state of affairs is leading us: the criminalisation of effective dissent. We must keep our eyes wide open and work against these efforts.
Most of all, we should take comfort in the fact that most people who called for and brought change in society were also labelled as “extremists”. We must not be afraid of such designations but we must challenge the narrow-mindedness, racism and fear that feeds them.
Those who are truly invested in stopping the cycles of violence that characterise the seemingly unending “war on terror”, now more than ever, understand implicitly that it is time to listen to the “extremists”.
With the US military presence in 133 countries, with only 17 to go, the “extremists” may be our strongest hope to halt our slow, slumbering march towards a global, right-wing police state.
Karen Jayes is a spokesperson for Cage Africa, an advocacy organisation campaigning to highlight abuses of the rule of law that take place under the banner of the “war on terror”