Following every international or domestic terrorism act committed by a Muslim, the American-Muslim community divides under political pressure on the issue of whether or not Muslims should take collective responsibility and communally condemn the acts of a few individuals. On one hand is a group of Muslim activists and organizations who condemn and account for such acts and accept collective responsibility; they are therefore viewed by the dominant Euro-American society as patriotic, “good” Muslims. On the other hand is a group of activists and organizations who reject collective responsibility and may be viewed as unpatriotic, “bad” terrorist sympathizers. Critics of the former view claim collective responsibility aligns one with the oppressors of Muslims, thus the supporters are viewed as “bad” Muslims. From this perspective, “good” Muslims don’t take collective responsibility but stand up against the state and its violence against Muslims in general.
Although the schism over this debate reverses the “good” and “bad” binary within the community in relationship to Muslims’ experiences of state violence and structural oppression, the dichotomous construct is a result of the historical encounter of colonized people with European colonialization which is perpetuated in the logics of the state’s “war on terror.” Through this logic European colonizers were able to divide and conquer through violence, where “good” Muslims collaborated with colonial masters and accepted the values of the dominant power. “Bad” Muslims resisted colonial power and domination and were also systematically dismissed as the “dangerous.” The binary that has emerged around Muslims engagement with collective responsibility and collective condemnation since 9/11 reproduces these colonial politics and practices between Muslim Americans and their relationship with the state in the “war on terror.” George W. Bush deployed this binary to advance foreign and domestic policies using Islam and Muslims for the expansion of US imperialism.
As an American Muslim who has been working with and advocating for families of Muslims imprisoned preemptively in the United States, I want to disrupt the binary around collective responsibility and collective condemnation. I contend that Muslims’ engagement or disengagement in this divisive issue is a result of internalizing Orientalist stereotypes about Islam and Muslims which is constructed as inherently violent. Involvement with the issue further perpetuates dehumanization and state violence. To understand this process I would like to explore whether criticizing condemnation erases and hurts some community members and perpetuates state violence. Does rejection of collective responsibility absolve Muslims from condemning certain harmful individuals? Does standing up against oppression itself become a form of oppression in the face of multiple oppressions, and is that a form of violence?
Collective Responsibility and Collective Condemnation
Collective responsibility suggests that a group is liable for the wrongful acts of a few. The assertion communicates the idea of a collective mind; all are connected to perpetrators without ever having contact with them. Historically, marginalized groups in the United States have been forced to be accountable for the actions of one person through the principle of collective responsibility and the practice of collective punishment, part and process of racialization of marginalized communities of color and central to racism and Euro-American dominance in this country. Muslims subjected to such racializing politics at this current moment have been forced to self-contaminate themselves with “guilt by association” with individuals who cause harm and share the same faith. But the limits of that responsibility must be interrogated.
Connected to holding Muslims collectively responsible for the wrongful act of a criminal individual is the state demand for collective condemnation. Muslims are under tremendous pressure from government officials, media platforms and dominant Euro-American society to loudly declare and visibly perform their position against terrorism. The implication is that if Muslims don’t condemn, they secretly support terrorism and are therefore a potential threat, warranting suspicion, surveillance and retribution. In the absence of outward condemnation, all Muslims are guilty until proven innocent and the entire community should be punished and held collectively responsible for any atrocity committed by a Muslim culprit. Although condemnation can operate independently, when individuals desire to condemn wrongful acts out of their own volition without force, Muslims have been compelled to engage in collective condemnation of “terrorism” as a form of collective responsibility. A similar demand and response from Euro-American Christian populations is missing when a white Christian engages in violence.
The root of collective responsibility and punishment can be traced to religious scriptures of the Bible and Quran where whole nations were held responsible for the bad actions of a few individuals and punished by God. This can be found in many stories of prophets, including the story of Isa (Jesus). Isa cried over Jerusalem because he realized God’s punishment would descend on the entire city for the actions of a few. When officials in a liberal, secular, modern nation-state demand collective responsibility from Muslims, religion is mixed with the state in a ritualized way. The fusion of religion and state formation was established in ancient times, when religion was the law that guided the conducts of people’s lives, and punished those who sinned against God or gods. Evolving from ancient state systems, modern nation-states such as the United States claim to be secular, yet were bounded by religious symbols and ritual practices from their very inception, where politics and the legal and penal systems have always blended with Christianity. Among dominant groups, “sinners” have been replaced by criminals who are individually held responsible and punished in modern state systems.
Muslim Supporters of Collective Responsibility
Demands for collective responsibility and punishment are not based on modern liberal principles. In a modern normative morality, only individuals are responsible for wrongful actions. When the dominant Euro-American society calls for collective responsibility, the Muslim community is compelled to engage in anti-American ethical conduct and forced to go against modern Western values. This position undermines the very concept and practice treasured in modern notions of accountability and justice. This stance also serves to legitimize the dominant discourse that Islam and Muslims are violent. Further, acknowledging association with wrongdoers also permits the US government to continue sending informants to mosques and communities. Supporting this position perpetuates unintended state surveillance, violations of civil liberties and human rights and increased civilian hate attacks on Muslims. As a consequence, Muslims solicit more expansive counter-terror measures and affirm the use of governmental authority to cause harm to groups, individuals and states to achieve certain implicit or explicit goals to maintain state power and control over the population—in other words, state violence. The most common forms of state violence are human rights violations, crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, torture, prisoner abuse and the systemic and structural oppression of racial, ethnic, gender, religious or marginalized political groups.
The expectation of collective responsibility is also a state mechanism for continuously scapegoating innocent Muslims and Islam as threats and dangers. Scapegoats emerge during times of crisis and moral panic when individuals or groups resembling perpetrators get classified as a threat to societal values and wellbeing. An increased level of hostility towards the group collectively designated as the enemy is exhibited. Through these processes of scapegoating and panic, Muslims or people perceived to be Muslims are socially constructed and racialized as “terrorist.” Scapegoating promotes exclusion and otherization of unwanted individuals or groups, empowering dominant groups to exercise power and discipline both the scapegoated population and the rest of the society. Muslims have been collectively used as scapegoats in the aftermath of 9/11; innocent people have been detained, deported, arrested and tortured both domestically and globally in notorious camps such as Communications Management Units and Guantanamo Bay. Muslim Americans have been subject to a separate system of justice where human rights violations through the judicial and penal system are accepted as legal and legitimate. When Muslims accept collective responsibility, they acknowledge the acceptance of abuse of Muslims as scapegoats for atrocities. Therefore, Muslim Americans need to rethink whether this position is helpful in the political struggle to secure collective dignity and self-determination.
Muslim Critics of Collective Responsibility and Collective Condemnation
Muslims who reject collective responsibility are usually also the ones denouncing collective condemnation in this debate. Public performances of rejecting collective responsibility and collective condemnation might be viewed by some as revolutionary, standing against oppressors and state violence. However, the outward dismissal of one’s responsibility and collective condemnation does not liberate us from the transference of implicit condemnation of individuals. Muslims’ abstention from condemnation vicariously affirms their support for condemnation by the state. Whether or not some Muslims reject responsibility and condemnation they deliver the perpetrator to the law and expect the state to punish the criminal. Thus, rejecters of this position support retributive justice, the idea that violence deserves to be repaid with violence. This is not a novel position for Americans, however; retribution is a morally acceptable American value and daily law enforcement practice. There is strong public support for harsh criminal penalties based on retributive justice.
When Muslim Americans invoke the law of the state for retribution against a culprit individual, they condemn the wrongdoer to the violence of the state. As a consequence, rejecters support and maintain state violence on individuals as long as the collective is not subjected to this violence. This norm of permitting retributive violence is connected to the way the state uses military force in global conflicts. Vicariously endorsing this norm tacitly supports the use of torture for terrorism suspects and the use of military force abroad. This stance supports the violent prison-military-industrial complex, which include the practices of government surveillance, and the use of informants and the predatory prosecution of Muslims. Thus the critics of collective responsibility and collective condemnation uphold oppressive systems. This paradox raises questions about rejecters who claim to be resisting state violence in the “war on terror” and whether or not they are working toward dismantling or maintaining oppressive systems.
Further critics are very much aligned with American and Western values and support modern, liberal, democratic normative principles of individual accountability when they indirectly condemn the culprit. The modern liberal morality assumes that there is individual autonomy in committing a crime and affirms the validity of criminal law. Therefore, this position does not absolve criticizers from condemning the wrongdoer; instead, it raises questions about whether or not and how this public performance leads to ending US imperial violence both domestically and globally. Not only do critics condemn few wrongdoers in this way, they actually also denounce another group of Muslims who have committed no act of violence— individuals the state selects as scapegoats for predatory prosecution.
The fissure between critics and supporters in the mainstream debates around collective responsibility and collective condemnation is based on the experiences of these two sides which homogenizes Muslim American experiences within this binary. Each position does not distinguish between criminal and non-criminal acts, that is, acts of atrocity and criminalization of Muslims and Islam which involve no actions. When this position flourishes in public spaces, when an act of terrorism violence does occur, it encourages the Muslim mass to internalize the public debate and reject collective responsibility whenever one is accused of “terrorism,” even when there is no violence or intent of violence.
The State, the Muslim Scapegoat and Collective Condemnation
More than 500 innocent American Muslims have been targeted, imprisoned and condemned by the state in government-manufactured, “terrorism”-related cases through entrapment or violation of constitutional and human rights in the domestic “war on terror.” According to the Human Rights Watch report, these Muslims are victims of predatory prosecution used as scapegoats in the federal criminal justice system. These Muslims and their families have been expunged and silenced by government institutions, dominant American society and the larger Muslim community.
In order to understand how scapegoating and predatory prosecution occur, it might be helpful to examine how law and religion were intertwined within ancient state systems. In Teotihuacan, for example, ritual sacrifices were made to the state or gods to control communal violence. It was believed that group competition for resources and power would lead to violence and destruction, and, in order to manage such violence, human or animal sacrifices were needed to maintain social order and stability. Violence in ritual and sacrifice was required to prevent greater violence in human society. Those sacrificed became the scapegoats, viewed and treated as outsiders or blamed for social evil. They operated as vessels through which the community relieved itself from harm and achieved collective social cohesion.
In modern nation-states, this punishment and sacrifice based on religious ritual is a foundation of the formation of a criminal justice and penal system influenced by Christian ideals, where scapegoats from marginalized groups are identified and punished. The dominant racial group maintains power by punishing and banishing marginalized groups as evidenced by America’s mass imprisonment of black and brown people. In the “war on terror,” the criminal justice system is an integral component for the construction and racialization of innocent Muslims as “terrorists.” Predatory prosecutions are scapegoat cases of “imagined” terrorists, where innocent people have been chosen by the state, ensnared in manufactured charges and processed through the criminal justice system. These prosecutions are part of America’s preemptive imperial wars overseas and exemplified by the torture of Muslims in Guantanamo Bay.
Preemptive prosecutions that target Muslim sociality and religious and political expressions are used domestically to repress and regulate Muslims as a part of the state’s racial management process. It is through the labeling of a targeted population as “monster” and “terrorist” in the penal system that the state maintains moral panic about the specter of terrorism as “real” in public space; it also extends state-sponsored violence against the same population. By merging race and religion with terrorism violence, the state socially and legally constructs Muslims for expulsion as criminals, preserves whiteness as hegemonic political power and sustains the culture of fear and hatred. Media sources further bolster the hype around predatory cases and assault Americans with relentless reports of terror. Living in constant fear of terrorist attack, such reports can induce subjective beliefs and psychological responses which can make it difficult for the American public to disentangle the real from the unreal—the “terrorists” and the scapegoats who are racialized as “terrorist.” When Americans are forced to internalize moral panic about imaginary Muslim “terrorists” to the point where people are unable to distinguish reality from falsehood, it becomes a situation for serious public concern.
Targeted Muslims, primarily men, have been convenient scapegoats that society at large has come to blame and indict for everything from social disorder to the economic and political crises of a declining empire. While ancient and modern state systems treat these individuals as “other,” stories in Scriptures expose the innocence of scapegoated individuals and reveal their special connection to God. However, the mainstream dispute around collective responsibility and condemnation erases such individuals from the conversation. Moreover, the violence against imprisoned Muslims, who are mostly men, extends beyond the accused and has tangible consequences for women and families as well.
The Rejecters of Responsibility and Condemnation and the Women and Families of the Accused
I have had the opportunity to work with many families and relatives of accused Muslims during my ethnographic research and advocacy work. Coupled with state surveillance and demonization from the Euro-American dominant society, some of these women and families are traumatized, isolated, stigmatized and alienated in their local communities and expunged from public debates about Muslim Americans. Moreover, these women and families experience withdrawal of collective aid and solidarity and are treated as “other” within the Muslim community. Like other forms of repression, the assault by arrest, prison and courts has adverse effects on the women and families, their relationships with others, and the community in general. To have a loved one accused, arrested and disappeared on accusations of “terrorism” and imprisoned in pre-trial solitary confinement for years or in special prisons such as the Communications Management Unit become a dangerous stigma, adding to their pain and suffering. Laila Yaghi has shared with me the pain experienced with her son’s case which left her in depression:
“Injustice is different. It just hurts. Oppression really, really hurts. It’s like somebody lost a family member due to a car accident – it’s going to hurt a lot but eventually that person is going to accept that it’s an act from God, and you’re going to accept, and everyone at some point is going to die, our life is going end sooner or later, that is an act of God. We are going to accept it, and it does hurt, but it doesn’t hurt down to the core. However, injustice and oppression has a whole different meaning. The pain is so different, and it’s so harsh and so strong. It emanates even from your face, from your whole body, your whole body language and your souls, and speaks volumes that you are being oppressed, and it has to stop. This is not an act of God. This is from a human being oppressing other humans because they can do it, because they are allowed to do it, because they think they are better in some way than other human beings, because they are superior. Muslims need to work together and help all these families.”
Some families shared that no one usually helped them throughout their entire ordeal. Some of the families worked on these issues individually on their own by going to mosques, trying to talk with community leaders and activists, attempting to raise funds for legal representation. Some of the women and families felt dehumanized when trying to raise funds for legal defense, as people ignored them out of fear of surveillance or treated them badly. Shahina Parveen shared her experiences of trying to seek assistance from her community when her son was imprisoned on entrapment case:
“I was in a lot of trouble and I went to several places for help because I needed money for a lawyer. It was very difficult to find a lawyer as they ask for millions of dollars. It was like we became beggars so we put out an advertisement in the newspaper for help. I went to several organizations but they were not able to assist. I went to [organizations], but I didn’t get any help or support from them or from anywhere, but I still went. I went to mosque leaders for help but no help from anywhere. They didn’t help because they didn’t want the same thing happening to them. They probably thought if they help us they will be targeted too as terrorists. This is the environment that we are in. It’s all injustice. They are afraid of injustice happening to them.”
Trying to seek assistance from the community has been a difficult process for many families. Major nonprofit local and national civil rights and human rights organizations sometimes condemn them and others have denied support to families of the accused.
Moreover, the Muslim mainstream engaged in the collective responsibility debate also dismisses the scapegoated population. For example, when the Muslim mainstream erupted on social media rejecting collective responsibility for violence committed by others in 2014 with hashtag #MuslimApologies, no one tweeted about Muslim men unjustly imprisoned in the federal system or about their families, the people punished and chosen by the state to take collective blame for the Muslims who were tweeting. The #MuslimApologies campaign involved people from privileged backgrounds who have usually distanced themselves from supporting or standing in solidarity with the accused and their families.
American-Muslims have been engaging with this divisive performance since the atrocity of 9-11, yet there has been little or no support from the community for campaigns by scapegoated families to free their accused loved ones. These families and a handful of Euro-American activists established the No Separate Justice educational campaign to address rights violations in the domestic judicial system, but there has been no sign of the rejecters or supporters of this discussion in support of this national campaign focused on scapegoated Muslims. Moreover, my conversations with women reveal that they expect the Muslim community to stand in solidarity with their cause and the entire community to claim collective responsibility for the innocence of their loved ones. To these women, collective responsibility is an act of social justice that is positive and worthy of commitment. However, communal assistance has not been forthcoming from the Muslim community, including its activist and social justice groups. That the loved ones of these women were imprisoned on manufactured offenses and have not committed any acts of violence, does not help these families to secure support and remove the stigma manifest within the Muslim community. No revolutionary collective solidarity and support exists for them to this day. This situation raises questions not so much about the supporters of collective responsibility, who align themselves with the state, but about the denouncers. When critics promote dissociation from collective responsibility, this position cultivates a certain kind of connotation and meaning about this issue that educates the Muslim mass to reject collective responsibility for people in predatory prosecution by withdrawing support from the accused families as well.
Moreover, when some Muslims claim to support this population but maintain their position as rejecters of collective responsibility, this demonstrates their defense of oppressive systems and raises questions about their social justice work and support of state violence through retribution. Criticizing collective responsibility does not translate to or generate collective support for the families of the accused. Critics are not liberating these women from the accusation of “terrorism,” but instead perpetuate the “guilty until proven innocent” myth as evidenced by the withdrawal of support by the larger society and the Muslim mainstream. The denouncers of apologetic statements are not illuminating or relieving the distressful experiences of these members but exercising domination and protecting the status quo by engaging in schismatic performances around collective responsibility; through their public proclamation critics maintain and perpetuate their relative positions of power and privileges as mainstream Muslim voices, marginalizing the vulnerable population within the community. Dissociating from responsibility has not helped women and families much with accountability structures or obtaining justice. As a result, these families occupy a precarious position in the “war on terror.”
The withdrawal of support from this population and their existence as the imagined “monster” exposes moral disorder and the guilt of protecting oneself from becoming scapegoats. Like the Euro-American dominant society, Muslims seem to have internalized the myths about these accused people and feel justified in their actions against collective support. Muslims believe that their troubles will be eradicated if these individuals are punished or simply vanished. As a result, Muslims obliterate the voices and experiences of this population and deny them their position as the innocent oppressed whose status is elevated in the Scriptures, revealing their special connection to sacred cosmology. Their existence as scapegoats, taking on the burden of America’s collective guilt, seems to function to unify American society, the Muslim American community and the ummah in this current historical moment. It is through the existence of this accused population that Americans in general, and Muslim Americans in particular, seem to feel a sense of security, order, stability and purification.
Will the Muslim not condemning, please stand up?
The simplified distinction between rejecter and supporter of collective responsibility raises questions about the extent to which both sides of this debacle have internalized Islamophobia. Internalization of Islamophobia means Muslims have assumed or co-opted the dominant and Orientalist discourse about Islam and their identities; they have come to believe and accept that Islam is inherently problematic and violent. The deliberate or inadvertent inability to distinguish an accusation as mythical or real is a symptom of internalized Islamophobia. When we believe myth over real, as intended by the state, we have condemned our own community members as “monsters.” The willful or unwitting denial of collective solidarity and collective aid as a form of collective responsibility is an act of erasure and condemnation as well. Critiquing collective responsibility has not generated collective support for these families, but instead maintains their guilt. Thus critics become collective condemners, and the pressure on the accused functions as a form of dehumanization and violence. Renouncement of responsibility for violent crimes does not result in recognition of support for non-violence when state-perpetrated guilt and stigma continue to expand and operate on a scapegoated population. This position also supports state retribution against culprit individuals. Thus the state-perpetrated demand that calls for the outward expression of collective responsibility and condemnation in which Muslim Americans engage reproduces colonial practices and experiences. Through this binary the state maintains its hegemonic power over and violence against Muslims and other marginalized communities at home and abroad.
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Sharmin Sadequee is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Michigan State University. She also works as an adjunct professor in the CUNY system. Her research interests include Muslims and Islam at the intersections of national security laws, the modern state, religion and social justice movements. She is an organizer with No Separate Justice and a member of Critical Resistance. Her brother, Shifa Sadequee, was targeted and imprisoned on what she believes are unjust charges, and she is actively campaigning for his release. Also an artist, she incorporates visual art and photography in her academic and organizing work.
Excellent article, Sharmin.