By Dr. Abdul Wahid
One of the things in the Islamic world that fuels a call for an Islamic system is the fact that it holds impartial justice to the highest standard—from the highest member of government to the ordinary citizen—for everyone regardless of gender or religion.
The Prophet Muhammad [peace and blessings be upon him] once warned that “nations were destroyed when they used to apply the law upon the weak, but not on the strong”. His successors amongst the early Caliphs upheld this standard, even ruling against themselves in some circumstances.
Umayr bin Saad was a governor in the city of Homs in Syria—a city that has tasted horrendous oppression in recent months—during the caliphate of the Caliph Umar. He understood this aspect of Islam, arguing “Islam will remain strong as long as the authority is strong. And the strength of the authority does not come by the killing by the sword and lashing by the whip, but by judging with the Truth and the upholding of justice.”
This high level of justice has been noticeably absent under the dictatorships, oligarchies, and corrupt democracies in Muslim countries for the past few decades, but its status in Islam is well known amongst the population.
But things are far from healthy in those parts of the world that claim not to be under dictatorship, oligarchy, or corruption—such as in Britain and America.
In these places, over the past ten years, justice has not been as blind as it has been two-faced. A parallel system has emerged where laws exist that are applied selectively, or where the punishments or custodial regulations are applied with differing degrees of rigour based on the background of the defendant.
More than that, the majority of commentators in these countries—who can be moved to speak out or express disquiet about injustice and human rights abuses on any number of issues—practice a consenting silence; they don’t try to defend the indefensible.
The Stock-Exchange plot and the Haditha massacre
There are a series of cases that can illustrate this point and here are a few:
In February 2012, nine men were sentence for a total of 21 years of imprisonment. They had been charged with various offences ranging from preparing to undertake acts of murder to complicity in the acts. Fortunately, no one died as a result of their actions.
In January 2012, one man was “sentenced” to having a demotion and pay cut. He was one of eight US marines who had been charged in relation to a massacre in 2005 where 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians—men, women, children and elderly—were killed by a group of US Marines; some were shot multiple times at close range while unarmed. The initial charges were dropped one by one, until the final suspect, Sergeant Frank Wuterich, pleaded guilty to a dereliction of duty after charges of assault and manslaughter against him were dropped. During the trial, one of the initial accused, Sergeant Sanick Dela Cruz, admitted that he urinated on the skull of one of the dead Iraqis, and that Sergeant Wuterich had shot the passengers of the car himself from close range while telling him, “if anyone asks, the Iraqis were running away from the car and the Iraqi army shot them”.
Neither of these cases are isolated matters. There have been several other cases prosecuted under terrorism laws in the UK and US in the past ten years—the overwhelming majority of them unrelated to Muslims. There have also been numerous massacres by Western forces in Afghanistan and Iraq leading to the deaths of civilians.
However, a consistent pattern emerges. The cases concerning Muslims lead to more arrests targeting innocent “suspects” with the transfer of the burden of proof on the defendants—to prove that the planted evidence was NOT meant to carry out terrorism—and harsh sentences to set an example. The cases brought against US or British troops who committed murder, as part of sovereign armed forces representing a state, result in limited numbers of people being investigated or charged, charges being diluted or dropped, and the shamefully few convictions (usually of low ranking officers) resulting in not even token sentences. The cases of Baha Moussa (and others) and abuses in Abu Ghraib are such examples, whilst deaths at Bagram and Guantanamo, and the aerial bombardment of civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq over the past 10 years either go unpunished or may even be completely unknown to the outside world.
State crime versus individual crime
Mass killing caused by powerful states is governed by various aspects of international law and domestic laws. Yet, the chances of prosecution are low since the law is deeply politicised in these societies.
Decisions by the International Criminal Court [which the United States does not even endorse] over whether to prosecute invariably lead to selective prosecutions. The decision for the ICC to call for a prosecution of Muammar Gaddafi, once he was past his expiry date for usefulness in terms of western interests, lies in stark contrast to their silence over his massacres over decades when he enjoyed the blanket of political protection.
Furthermore, when it comes to prosecution, the US government goes as far as seeking immunity from prosecution for their own troops who commit abuses. In August 2010, Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the US was seeking an immunity deal to be passed by the Iraqi parliament—a request that was not granted.
But, the most striking is the silence of these international bodies over the US extrajudicial targeted assassinations in Yemen and Pakistan by unmanned drones in contrast to the United States’ hype surrounding their accusations of an Iranian assassination plot against Saudi diplomats.
Political lobbying & legal opinion versus ‘preaching hate’ & inciting murder
One striking contradiction in the realm of state actor versus individual actors is in the acceptability for political lobbying or arguing in favour of attacks upon other states—whether for example against Iraq or Iran—and the accompanying of legal justifications for these arguments in contrast to the labelling of Muslims who argue political for military action as “extremists” “glorifying terrorism” or “preaching hate”.
There are people in Britain who consider former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and members of his cabinet, war criminals who ought to be indicted in the Hague. There are others—politicians and commentators—who actively encouraged war in Iraq, just as Mr Blair seems to be actively encouraging war in Iran today. These people are seen as voicing political opinions and not as inciting the British state to commit acts of violence towards other sovereign states which easily lead to civilian loss of life. Similarly, when Lord Goldsmith, the former attorney general, offered a legal opinion about the war in Iraq, he was criticised for the weakness of his legal argument and whether or not he was leant upon to change his view, but never accuse of “preaching hate”!
This is in stark contrast to Omar Othman, also known as Abu Qatadah, who has been vilified in the British media as a “preacher of hate” “inciting violence”—a “very dangerous man”. Othman, who has not been charged with any crime, has spent the best part of the last 10 years in prison. Despite the lack of charge, it is widely understood that the threat that comes from Abu Qatadah relates to accusations that he has encouraged acts of violence—just as British commentators and politicians encouraged acts of violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and now Iran—and that he has offered legal opinions [fatawa] that endorse military struggle in some Muslim countries—not dissimilar to Lord Goldsmith insofar as other jurists disagree with his views.
Here, British justice has produced spectacularly different results. The powerful have got away scot-free. The easily vilified asylum seeker has been imprisoned in breach of Europe’s own laws and not simply denied justice, but the victim of great injustice. And whilst a few sincere voices on the margins seem genuinely deeply troubled by the attitudes displayed in mainstream comments, there can be little doubt that some people who would claim to believe in fundamental human rights do not believe that Abu Qatadah and other Muslims meet a threshold that they consider “human”. It is extremely likely that the vilification of Abu Qatadah’s will escalate after his release, as will the sensational reporting and political posturing.
Abu Qatadah’s is not the only case of incarceration that should concern objective observers. Babar Ahmad has never been convicted of any criminal offence, but has been incarcerated for 7 years fighting extradition to the United States alleged to have run websites supporting Chechen and Afghan insurgents.
By contrast Gary McKinnon, who is similarly fighting extradition to the USA—accused of the “biggest military computer hack of all time” by allegedly hacking into 97 United States military and NASA computers—was at liberty for three years and subsequently allowed to remain free, but subject to bail conditions of staying in his home at night, and signing in to a police station on a daily basis. I would not wish incarceration or control-order type conditions on McKinnon, only that Muslims in similar situations be treated with similar appropriate proportionality.
Public opinion that creates an extra judicial hurdle
Gary McKinnon is fortunate enough to enjoy the sympathy and support of a host of celebrities and politically influential voices troubled by the nature of the US extradition process as well as his diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, including Sting, Bob Geldof, David Cameron, Boris Johnson (Mayor of London), Stephen Fry, Jonathan Ross, Terry Waite, Tony Benn, and others. Babar Ahmad enjoys no such influential support. Indeed, a Muslim facing a jury in Britain or America does not simply have counter evidential and legal arguments. He or she has to face the prejudices consistently nurtured by the political and media establishment.
Unsurprisingly, few people want to be seen endorsing someone who is accused of being a “terrorist suspect”—more emphasis on the word “terrorist” than the fact of it merely being an accusation. Few people remember that all of us want to be seen as innocent until proven guilty.
A parallel system of justice and rights
Recently, a prominent politician in Tunisia argued that Islam encouraged a high system of justice (which it does), but proposed it should be like that in Britain. If this is the system of justice that politicians in the Muslim world wish to see, then God help anyone who comes from a weak or minority community for they would not get justice; rather, they would get selective applications of laws, politically dictated verdicts and sentences, and mob opinion incited against them by the political and media establishment.
There is not, for Muslims in Britain and America, a rule of law in any traditional sense. There is instead the rule of two laws, one for the majority and one for the minority, or in the case of international law, one that protects the troops of world powers and at the same time abandons their helpless victims.
Whilst there are sincere voices in the legal establishment who do fight for everyone, no matter who they are, and whilst they do have occasional victories, the sad truth of the matter is that tinkering around the edges of a system that is so open to being manipulated will not establish justice. Since this is the case, indeed the prophecy of the Prophet Muhammad [peace and blessings be upon him]—that nations are so destroyed—is an ominous warning.
Dr. Abdul Wahid is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. He has been published in The Times Higher Educational Supplement and on the websites of Foreign Affairs, Open Democracy and Prospect magazine. He can be followed on Twitter @abdulwahidht or emailed at [email protected]