Asia Art Tours was honored to be joined by Dr. Atiya Husain for a long-form conversation on her recent Boston Review Article: Terror & Abolition
Below please find what I hope is a thoughtful conversation on Abolition, Policing, Terrorism & The Racial Violence of the State. You can find more articles on Abolition on Asia Art Tours & the Arts of Travel Podcast.
Asia Art Tours: You begin your Boston Review essay with the framework of Abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore: Prisons have become the catch-all solution to any political problem: political dissent, interpersonal violence, the people and land rendered surplus by capitalism—all these and more are “solved” through building and filling cages. Therefore, to abolish prisons and policing, Gilmore and others argue, we must create a culture with a robust set of solutions to crises of housing, safety, health care, education, and joblessness.
Something I find enormously valuable for people, is learning how individuals arrived at their foundations of belief. Could you outline how you arrived at Abolition as a major foundation of your philosophy?
Atiya Husain: I always find it useful to learn about the intellectual genealogy informing arguments, too. Generally, my work is guided by questions about how “race” constitutes a material reality, an organizing principle in a European colonial structure of thought, and a contested idiom that is claimed and deployed in multiple and often contradictory ways. With that, I work specifically on Islam/Muslims in the US, and on the FBI and terrorism. As far as abolition is concerned, my position is that abolition breathes life into the areas I work on, specifically “terrorism,” in a very generative way – not in a new way, as I am not the first to make this argument, but in a generative way. That is the basic argument of my article.
(Abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore. Photo Credit – Wikipedia)
I arrived at this position through the places I have had to go in doing my research on the FBI most wanted program over the past few years. The FBI’s program has terrorism-specific crime lists of fugitives that the bureau is hunting for. The people on these lists are white, Black, East Asian, South Asian, Arab, Puerto Rican, Muslim, men, women, Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab members, Christian Identity Movement members, Black Liberation Army members, ELF/ALF (Earth Liberation Front / Animal Liberation Front) members, May 19th Communist Organization members, anti-war protesters from the 1970s, and more. Leftist politics and non-white people are certainly overrepresented. I find it useful to take the white and right-wing presence on terrorism lists seriously to gain a better understanding of “terrorism” beyond documenting the already familiar pattern (Muslims are associated with terrorism).
Many liberal critiques of counterterrorism take issue with terrorism being associated with Muslims. The implied (and sometimes stated) solution is that counterterrorism should simply target other groups as well, such as white nationalists. This is faulty for reasons discussed in my article, but also because it starts from a false premise: just a quick look at publicly available terrorism lists in the FBI’s most wanted program shows that others are targeted as terrorists. So now what? Abolitionist thought has rejected diversification as a solution to the state’s production of criminality. For example, putting more of X or Y kind of people in prison does not change the violent ways that prison organizes our society.
Abolition is a beautiful and generous philosophy, yes, and it does call for individual transformation as well, and I think it is simultaneously informed by what we might call cold, hard evidence. The research of abolitionist thinkers like Ruth Wilson Gilmore shows a mountain of evidence documenting the mechanisms and material design of cycles of violence at the heart of the prison in our society that suggest abolition is a practical approach to breaking cycles of violence. Particularly after the post-9/11 state restructuring and creation of new agencies, counterterrorism concerns are embedded in these cycles and have spun off other sorts of cycles as well. How do you stop cycles of violence? How do you identify and move past “solutions” that actually end up feeding a cycle? The answers to these questions in the work of Ruth Wilson Gilmore and others are convincing and generative.
Abolitionist thought has rejected diversification as a solution to the state’s production of criminality. For example, putting more of X or Y kind of people in prison does not change the violent ways that prison organizes our society.
(Kathleen Cleaver of the Black Panther Party. Photo Credit – Wikipedia)
Asia Art Tours: For U.S. Black Revolutionaries you write the following: For much of its history in the twentieth century, abolition was terrorism in the eyes of the state . . The Black Panthers were called terrorists in the late 1960s and ’70s, and many continue to be political prisoners even in today’s global pandemic. In 1985 the local police in Philadelphia used the term terrorist for the black organization MOVE before the police bombed its residential headquarters, killing five children. And since 2013, Black Liberation Army and Black Panther member Assata Shakur has been on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists.
With the incoming Biden presidency looking to ‘heal divides’ between Liberals, a white supremacist Republican party & the capitalists who back them, is it safe to assume that Abolition will again be viewed as ‘terrorism in the eyes of the state? And if so, how do we keep fighting for Abolition, as it becomes increasingly criminalized?
Atiya Husain: The FBI’s most wanted program, and specifically its most wanted terrorist list, points straight to the contemporary criminalization of abolition with Assata Shakur’s addition to the list in 2013. Her addition is a product of terrorism discourse and infrastructure sedimented over time. She and the organizations she was part of were on the minds of the FBI and other state agencies in the 1970s when developing the concept of terrorism as we know it today. She is still on this list today.
(The autobiography of Assata Shakur is essential reading for the struggles of today. Photo Credit – Wikipedia)
As for safe assumptions about the future, I am slightly allergic to them on principle even though it is tempting to make predictions every now and again. On the one hand, we can observe that the conditions that make abolition a matter of terrorism to the state have not changed, and we know counterterrorism has historically had enthusiastic bipartisan support. If this continues, it would suggest that abolition will continue to be criminalized as terrorism. However, there is a counterweight that is indicative of a shift and it could grow into something more substantial if we make it so. A few weeks ago, 157 civil rights organizations signed a letter opposing new domestic terrorism laws. Mainstream outlets like the Washington Post are publishing pieces making this argument as well. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib and members of the squad wrote a letter against the creation of new domestic terrorism laws.
These mark a shift – just two decades ago, the passage of the PATRIOT Act proceeded with almost no pushback from legislators. It destroyed lives, and some legislators looked back on their vote with regret, later admitting that they felt they had no choice but to move forward with it. No matter how they felt, the point is that there was far less room for critique of counterterrorism, and now there is more room. Obviously this increased room is not itself a fix. It is an opening to put to good use and should be treated as such. It is an opening at the highest levels of state governance thanks to movements and organizing. Movements shape the questions we ask and often demand that we ask different ones. They make it possible to think about alternatives that are unthinkable in the current terms of engagement by opening up other possible terms of engagement.
(The Abolitionist Gloria Richardson standing up to National Guard Troops. Photo Credit – National Museum of African American History and Culture)
Asia Art Tours: Continuing with your article, you posit the following: “Counterterrorism is an organizing principle for delineating and managing problematic populations domestically and internationally. This is not an inadvertently racist label that can be peeled off of brown men and stuck onto white men. Rather, the racial history and significance of the concept is constitutive of terrorism. The terrorist is a racial, epistemic, ideological, and material other.”
The one figure that comes to mind for me, not as a rebuttal, but one I would like to explore how your argument applies to, would be that of John Brown. How do you see ‘race traitors’ like John Brown within the framework of your argument on counterterrorism? And as an abolitionist, what modern lessons does John Brown hold for those who wish to abolish Whiteness?
Atiya Husain: A good faith rebuttal would be welcome, but this is an interesting question as it stands. The terrorist is an other in the sense of being an external or outside – going back to George W. Bush’s binary framework after 9/11 that you are either with us or against us. It is an overly simple binary, but the way that Bush and others arrive at that binary is not as straightforward as he makes it appear. A lot of work is put into producing it. It is not a given, nor a reflection of some truly natural difference. Some on the outside remain rather consistently on the outside, but sometimes insiders are made outsiders, and vice versa. This goes for individuals and organizations, but also for entire countries. For example, the US adds and removes countries from its list of state sponsors of terror as the examples of Cuba and Sudan show, based on how much the US perceives them to be supporting or compromising US interests.
All this suggests that terrorism is a very flexible category applied to many different things over the past 200-some years since its earliest use to describe the French Revolution, but it was not always as powerful a word as it is today. It has not always been met with massive machinery of destruction. Part of what gives it power today is its racial connotations. Those connotations do not mean that all terrorists match the image. That representation is not a mirror image of the material reality, but it helps it along.
Movements shape the questions we ask and often demand that we ask different ones. They make it possible to think about alternatives that are unthinkable in the current terms of engagement by opening up other possible terms of engagement.
(The ‘Tragic Prelude’ Painting featuring John Brown. Photo Credit-Wikipedia)
Now applying all this to John Brown – his war on whiteness makes him an outsider, as the concept of “race traitor” would suggest. To my knowledge, and I could be wrong about this, John Brown has been called a terrorist more recently and not so much during his lifetime. I have definitely encountered the argument that he was a terrorist but not based on evidence that he was called this in his time. If he was not called a terrorist in his time, it might indicate that today’s understanding of terrorism is being projected back onto him. For example, some such arguments think about John Brown as a terrorist not only for his seizure of Harper’s Ferry but also his religious zeal. The archetypal (Muslim) terrorist is supposedly driven by maniacal religious fervor, right? Projections of terrorism are something to be wary of, in my view, not only because projections suggest inaccuracy but also because of the impact in this particular case. It can help give counterterrorism a history that legitimizes it. It can make it appear that what we call “terrorism” has been around for so long that counterterrorism infrastructure simply must exist. Abolitionists raise similar questions about prisons: it is a relatively new institution, and if society has not always had it, why do we believe it simply must exist despite all the violence it does?
Whether or not Brown was considered a terrorist in his day, the connections you are making in your question raise something I find is not taken as seriously as it should be. John Brown was very religious, like the rest of the abolitionist movement against slavery, and like the pro-slavery side as well. Religion still maintains whiteness – not only for white supremacist evangelicals, but also under the rubric of the “secular.” Secular is not the opposite of religious, and its history is critical to whiteness since at least the nineteenth century: instead of an unseen Divine that is sovereign over human activity, God is dead and replaced by man, understood in white, male, property-owning, European terms. This philosophical understanding of what it means to be human forms whiteness. It is no coincidence that John Brown’s objection to slavery came from his theological commitments. If theology continues to be embedded in whiteness, then perhaps lessons from John Brown on abolishing whiteness include taking the theology of whiteness seriously, on the one hand, and also considering the theological aspects of opposition to whiteness, on the other hand, since such aspects are there even if unrecognized.
Abolitionists raise similar questions about prisons: it is a relatively new institution, and if society has not always had it, why do we believe it simply must exist despite all the violence it does?
(Scholar Jodi Melamed, who we’ve interviewed on Asia Art Tours for a two part article)
Asia Art Tours: Conversations with scholars like Jodi Melamed, Long Bui and others have educated me on the ways universities are complicit in imperialism, racism & capitalism. Could I ask if you also believe the modern university has been complicit or even integral to perpetuating the language of the state (such as policing or counterterrorism) and also in suppressing the logic or knowledge of abolition?
Atiya Husain: Yes, and I’ll focus on the logic and branding of diversity and inclusion, because there is a straight line from that framework to counterterrorism as mentioned earlier.
Diversity and inclusion permeate the university and organize many of its efforts. At universities, this framework is meant to teach students middle-class managerial sensibilities and modes of thinking. Inside and outside the classroom, students are taught how to formulate identity difference and how to engage across it. Jodi Melamed’s book, as well as the work of Roderick Ferguson, so effectively demonstrate the material history of how this approach develops to temper and absorb radicalism. The imagination becomes limited in such an environment, but while being told that this is what critical thinking looks like. Diversity and inclusion are offered up as a solution, a solution that we just never quite seem to reach, but a worthy endeavor nonetheless. The futurity of it makes it seductive, and it appears to be the optimistic way forward from ambiguously defined problems. Cynicism about the promise of diversity and inclusion derives from similar limits of the imagination: in either case, it’s the only approach worth considering.
(Writer and deceased freedom fighter George Jackson, whose work is rarely included on college syllabi, despite his clarity of sight on the relations between prisons & white supremacy. Photo Credit – Wikipedia)
Diversity and inclusion were precisely the defense against criticism of CVE (countering violent extremism). CVE is a soft-policing approach to counterterrorism that began under Obama’s presidency. One of its mechanisms is distributing funding to university-based researchers, community organizations, health care providers, religious organizations, non-profits, and so on, for them to work on community-based approaches to fighting terrorism. An example comes from University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill in 2017, when researchers were awarded $900,000 in CVE funding for a project that would have university students designing video games for Muslim youth who were viewed as vulnerable to being radicalized. The video games would presumably teach them to not radicalize. To see if this intervention worked, one of the performance measures of the study involved monitoring young Muslims’ social media accounts after they played the video games.
The study participants would not have prior knowledge that they were being monitored. Notably, the study did not have to undergo the university’s Institutional Review Board process, which is ostensibly in place to maintain ethics in research using human subjects. Because this study did not technically count as “research” according to the IRB’s definition, it did not need to get approval. In effect, it would have proceeded unregulated and with obvious problems that could really endanger Muslim youth. On top of these issues, however, this very same research project claimed that it was also concerned about white supremacists; this point was presented as a defense to suggest that their project was not targeting Muslims only (and thus not a problem). This is diversity and inclusion logic and an example of university-counterterrorism collaboration. In the end, this project never actually received the funding because the Trump administration briefly discontinued CVE. Trump wanted to change the name and focus to CIE “countering Islamic extremism” but received pushback for this. CVE funding was on hold for a time until it came back recently as “Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention” (TVTP) – focused again on Muslims and white supremacists, and any number of others.
Diversity and inclusion are offered up as a solution, a solution that we just never quite seem to reach, but a worthy endeavor nonetheless. The futurity of it makes it seductive, and it appears to be the optimistic way forward from ambiguously defined problems.
(Mural of Malcolm X in Northern Ireland)
Asia Art Tours: And if the university will always be a tool of the state, how can we ‘loot’ from it what we need and continue to educate ourselves, and each other, on the world we want to build beyond this one?
Atiya Husain: Your question evokes what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney call the undercommons, in which an ethical relationship to the university involves funneling resources out. The specific answer to your question depends on the situation, I think, but the ethical imperative remains. Thinking about the university materially, in its form and not only its content (particular kinds of education), it becomes clear that they are corporations and control a lot of resources. In some small company towns, for example, the only jobs to be had are at the university. The university is the company. Funding and contracts, then, are a site of struggle, like the CVE example earlier shows, along with student divestment campaigns from South African apartheid as well as from Israel through BDS.
Your point about education disaggregated from the university is an important one. I teach a course on Malcolm X and Black internationalism, and in the class we spend a lot of time talking about reading and studying, both of which transformed Malcolm X. He was self-taught while imprisoned. He did not go to the university as a student, but as an invited speaker years later. In the class we read about Black Power, specifically, as a movement that drew a lot of inspiration from Malcolm X. We talk about what they read and studied as well, and how you simply could not be part of some things if you did not do the required readings. And then we talk about what all that means when it is possible for many college students to get a degree without reading or studying much at all! There are many reasons for this, but it is simply a reality. My point is that the university does not have a monopoly on education, and certainly not on curiosity and critical thinking, but it is a place that can foster that in pockets that draw on university resources but, importantly, do not remain confined to campus physically or epistemologically.
Thinking about the university materially, in its form and not only its content (particular kinds of education), it becomes clear that they are corporations and control a lot of resources. In some small company towns, for example, the only jobs to be had are at the university. The university is the company.
(Arun Kundnani’s seminal book on State surveillance – The Muslims are Coming!)
Asia Art Tours: One of the most important voices, I’ve read on counter-terrorism’s brutality, is writer Arun Kundnani. Here is a quote from his book: The Muslim’s are Coming:
In this context, leaders of targeted Muslim communities have become intimidated by the general mood and aligned themselves with the government, offering themselves as allies willing to oppose and expose dissent within the community. Everyone who rejects the game of fake patriotism falls under suspicion, as opposition to extremism becomes the only legitimate discourse. Finally, the spectacle of the Muslim extremist renders invisible the violence of the US empire. Opposition to such violence from within the imperium has fallen silent, as the universal duty of countering extremism precludes any wider discussion of foreign policy.
Atiya Husain: That’s an important book and his observations here are spot on. Bringing that abolitionist thought to how we think about terrorism can be powerful, as Kundnani and others are doing, but it comes with obvious risks. It does elicit suspicion, especially if you fit the stereotype of what a terrorist looks like. Again, that particular post-9/11 “with us or against us” framework has shifted but never really left. It has defined the terms of engagement for a long time.
Many mainstream Muslim organizations, for example, have felt they must make every effort to prove that we are patriots, not terrorists, by highlighting the contradictions in who is and is not criminalized as a terrorist. They send out press releases stating their condemnation of whichever attack is in the news. Some have gone so far as to invite the FBI into their communities for workshops on the misguided belief that if they invite the FBI in, then entrapment and surveillance will cease and we as Muslims may be safer. Some continue this way. But there are signs of an opening over the past few years that would make another politics possible – one that is not only defensive or reactionary on these matters, and one that does not accept the terms of state counterterrorism.
(The scholar, activist and freedom fighter Angela Davis. Photo Credit- Wikipedia)
Asia Art Tours: To conclude, I often hear this phrase mentioned, by White leftists, in the wake of January 6th coup: “it could happen here!” in regards to fascism in America’. But for Muslims, Black, Brown, Indigenous and poor people, hasn’t fascism always been here?
Atiya Husain: Angela Davis’s discussion of this in her book Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture is haunting but instructive. The book was published in 2005 as the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan were well underway. These wars are clearly on her mind, and counterterrorism generally was on her mind, in thinking about what W.E.B. DuBois called abolition democracy. In a conversation about Guantanamo in the text, she calls the danger of appearing soft on terrorism after 9/11 as the makings of fascism. Specifically, she raises concerns about “official notions of democracy that circulate today” and makes a case for “why activists, public intellectuals, scholars, artists, cultural producers, need to take very seriously what are very clear signs of an impending fascist policies and practices.” The Third Reich may serve as the dictionary definition of fascism, making it a lightning rod of a word when applied to the US, which understands fascism as foreign to it.
However, Germany was inspired by US practices like its citizenship laws and segregation; and further, as James Q. Whitman’s book Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law shows, Nazis sometimes viewed the US as too harsh. So if we take, for example, Stuart Hall’s understanding of fascism as a deformity of capitalism, then we can see the relationship between fascism and the current capitalist democracy that Davis is critiquing in her book. It is worth quoting her at length here to conclude:
“And I use the term fascist advisedly. It is not a term that I have ever just thrown around. But how else can you describe the torture, neglect, and depravity meted out to people in Guantanamo – people who have been arrested for no other reason than that they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Children have been imprisoned for years without any contact with their families and where the highest governing officials argue that they have no right to a lawyer because they are not on the actual soil of the United States. And Guantanamo is just one U.S. controlled hole into which people disappear. There are many. When one takes into consideration the increasing erosions of democratic rights and liberties under the auspices of the USA PATRIOT Act, for example, it ought to be a sign that a new mass movement is needed.”