Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Detained Without Casue, Irum Sheik (2011), Palgrave MacMillan, 244 pages

Detained Without Cause is a collection of the narrative histories of six New York based Muslim immigrants that were incarcerated in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. None of these men had any connection to terrorism, and yet as their stories reveal, they were presumed guilty by the arresting officers, the FBI, the court system, the media and their communities. The consequences of this were that they were held without trial for periods up to three years, often in conditions of solitary confinement, in maximum security facilities where their human rights were systematically violated before being deported on trumped up immigration charges. Based on extensive personal interviews conducted by the author Irum Shiek, the book aims to dismantle the fabricated link between these detainees and terrorism in order to show that government was using detentions to placate a fearful public. In doing so she not only outlines the wide ranging consequences for the victims of the abuse of state power, but also demonstrates how futile such abuses are in advancing national security. This then is what might be termed “activist history” as Shiek gives voice to those who had none. The powerful and tragic accounts that emerge should serve as valuable counterfoils to calls for greater state powers in fighting the war on terror.

The six narratives are diverse in their details and contexts, but they are remarkable also in their similarity. Each man tells of their time in the USA prior to detention as one of opportunity and freedom, and how they fully subscribed to the system of rights they had not been able to enjoy in their home countries. That system of rights was totally suspended for them after 9/11. Having been detained, Mohammed Azmath was not permitted to see a lawyer until he had already been in prison for 92 days. He was left in solitary confinement for over a year when the average human being becomes suicidal after only 30 days in such conditions. All men report that a spectacle was made of their arrest; presumably to assuage, or play up to, fears in the local communities. There was consistent abuse of procedure: searches without warrants, a failure to advise of rights, fabrication of evidence. In one particularly disturbing case US officials explicitly contravened the law in disclosing details of Mohammed E’s asylum application to Egyptian authorities upon his return, in full knowledge that the application contained false information about a non-existent link between him and a terror network called Al-Jihad. This lead to Mohammed being subjected to extreme physical torture at the hands of the Egyptian secret police.

The picture that emerges is one of an out of control state. 1,182 “Special Interest Cases” were rounded up in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The vast majority of them were Muslims from the New York area. Given that the 9/11 hijackers had planned the attack from the West Coast, and were from Saudi Arabia, the fact that the majority of men arrested were Pakistanis based in New York points to the inevitable conclusion that these arrests were made pursuant to racial profiling rather than genuine threat. The narratives show that every level of state from police, FBI, judges, guards and even the media, were complicit in assuming guilt based on nothing more than the origin of these men. None of the cases in question resulted in prosecution under terrorism charges.

The book is not without its faults. The introductory chapter in which Shiek attempts to place the detentions within a broader historical pattern of US scapegoating of immigrants is rather light in detail. Further examination of the history of Muslim immigration to the US would have both strengthened her case, and also provided the reader with a more nuanced background to the issue at hand. Additionally some may take issue with the way the narratives are presented: rather than edited transcriptions, the interviews and diverse other sources are amalgamated into a single first person narrative.  Thus there is no attempt at impartiality, this decision having been taken directly in order to allow the reader to “empathize with the detainees”. Stylistically this makes the book an extremely compelling read, but this is so at the expense of a sense that this is orthodox historical research. On the other hand this method is used explicitly to place the work within the discipline of oral history. Perhaps the most important justification for the approach is that when presenting the stories of these defenseless detainees, any reference to “national security”, no matter how patently ill-conceived, would prejudice the power of the narratives simply through the vast power imbalance that exists between the detainees and the state.

This is an important book that shows the human cost of the detention policies that occurred post-9/11. The important implications it makes for policy are relevant far beyond the borders of the US. In a post-catastrophe environment, it is perhaps natural that those left behind seek people to blame. In order to prevent that tendency from translating into widespread abuse of the individual, a strong and inviolable system of rights is needed to prevent the different levels of state from colluding to restrict liberties. In the UK context we should be asking what exactly David Cameron means when he tells the European Court of Human Rights that it should only be prosecuting the most important cases? Would the men in this book have constituted such cases? Whilst this book may not persuade everyone that state power needs to be reined in, or subjected to the canon of individual rights, it will at least confront national security hawks with the full consequences of the policies pursued.

Read Full Post »

In Defence of Politicians (In Spite of Themselves)

Peter Riddell, Biteback 2011 (paperback) £9.99

 In Defence of Politicians is a punchy and spirited argument in favour not just of politicians, but of British representative politics from the pen of a man who has been observing our governments and parliaments for decades. Journalist turned public intellectual, Peter Ridell served as political commentator for The Times for nearly 20 years and as such has a unique vantage point from which to make his case. Part polemic, part memoir the volume is peppered with anecdotes such as his dealings with Rupert Murdoch (“the Sun King”) and the often “gruesome” press dinners given at party conferences. Additionally there are lengthy yet pertinent asides on, amongst other topics, the role of the media, the judiciary and a look at US style politics which should make this volume appeal to a broad audience. Well thought out, the tone of the text can tend toward argumentative rather than reasoned, yet this adds to the brisk pace of the book.

 Ridell claims that the widespread denigration of and lack of trust in politicians is at best “unhealthy” and at worst, symptomatic of a “democratic crisis”. The fiddling of expenses, sleaze, cash for questions and the controversies surrounding the Iraq war have degraded levels of respect and trust for those elected to represent the public’s interest both in government and in the Commons. The message of the book is that whilst there have been serious personal failings on the part of certain rogue politicians, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater for two key reasons: Firstly the accusations leveled against our politicians are often inaccurate and generally exaggerated. British politics is in fact in a much better state of health than it has been for many years. Secondly, representative government is the best type of government, and politicians are inherent to such a system.

 Ridell argues that MPs, far from being the “supine” self-serving careerists they are made out to be, are in fact more rebellious than ever, and willing to stand up to their party for what they believe to be right for those they represent. Evidence abounds, from the backbench protests over Iraq, and the Royal Mail, to the constant and unreported modifying of Bills to receive broad party consent. Additionally, the system of Select Committees, greatly revised under Blair, now means that government is subject to independent scrutiny on a scale never before seen, and hence the power of the party Whips has been diminished. There does seem to be a compelling force in the argument that recent reform of the Lords and the processes of scrutiny of government have made politicians more accountable to their constituents. There is more to be done, but Ridell argues that not enough credit is given to how well our political system is functioning.

 More importantly however, politicians are central to the system of representative democracy, a system that Ridell argues passionately for maintaining. Whilst he is not of the view that efforts to give the electorate more “voice” in the periods between elections, he worries that attempts to further “de-politicise” decision making through the involvement of independent experts, or to devolve more decision making to community level groups will only lead to issue capture by unrepresentative non-governmental orgainisations, businesses, and the more politically active citizens. Elected representatives remain the best way for all interests to be taken into account in order to reach consensus by compromise. Yet, he argues, it is this mechanism of compromise that is the primary source of distrust in politicians as people have “inflated expectations” as to what can be achieved in the political arena. The electorate expects a social utopia and yet the job of MPs is “to mediate and reconcile our differing interests” meaning that not everyone will be happy all of the time. It is the failure of politicians to communicate their role sufficiently clearly in this regard that leads to distrust and malaise.

 This is a powerful argument, but two things should be borne in mind. Firstly there is a large although strongly contested literature in political science (“a narcissistic world of academics writing for each other”) that moving decisions closer to the people they affect is a good means of ensuring efficiency and accountability. Thus Ridell’s assertions as to issue capture are not supported by conclusive evidence. Secondly, whilst it may be true that politicians are an inherent part of a representative democracy, it is not the case that the UK political style is part of such a system, and it may be that it is this style that breeds discontent in the electorate.

 For example, rather than being ill informed about the nature of democracy, voters may be disillusioned with parties that promise one thing in their manifestos only to do quite another once in power. Blair brought in tuition fees, the Con-Dems raised VAT contrary to noises made in the Tory campaign, and raised tuition fees further contrary to the Democratic manifesto. Cuts have been much deeper than promised. Ridell does recognise this problem but one suspects it is more crucial than he allows for. How can voters have trust politicians that consistently say one thing yet do another? Moreover when government is challenged on such policy it is de rigueur to pass blame to the previous government rather than argue coherently in defence of the policy.  

 Ridell concludes the book with a set of recommendations that although sensible, are aimed at tweaking the processes of government which one suspects will not inspire a huge shift in confidence in the population at large. More difficult would be to propose solutions to the prisoner type dilemma politicians and parties find themselves in whereby they are incentivized to say one thing to get into power, and to do quite another thing once it has been attained. It could be this, rather than inflated expectations, that is the most pertinent basis for the mistrust that exists between the British people and their politicians.

Read Full Post »