Guilty by association: Stripping Britain's Muslims of their rights

Guilty by association: Stripping Britain's Muslims of their rights
Comment: With its decision to strip another British citizen - Tauqir Sharif - of his citizenship, the British government emphasises all are not equal under the law, writes CJ Werleman.
6 min read
13 Mar, 2019
'Nearly all citizenship deprivation cases have been used against Muslims' [Getty]
"Yesterday, rebels shot down a Russian helicopter. When it was down, people ran towards the crash site, but when they got close, Russia started cluster bombing the place.

"One 12-year-old, and he's downstairs right now [in the hospital], had shrapnel hit his genitals. These are life-changing injuries. We perform amputations with minimal anesthesia, if any at all… and we routinely send people home with mangled bodies," Tauqir Sharif, a British Muslim aid worker in Aleppo, Syria, told me.

That conversation was three years ago, and life for the 31-year-old father of five has now taken another dramatic turn, as he finds himself at the centre of Britain's immigration debate, through no fault of his own.

On Monday, I spoke with Sharif for the first time since 2016, and just days after he received a letter from the UK Home Office informing him his British nationality had been revoked, accusing him of travelling to Syria and being "aligned with a group that's aligned with al-Qaeda."

"What on earth does that even mean?" asked Sharif. "Guilty by association with a degree of separation?"

The revocation of Sharif's citizenship was made under "closed evidence" rules, which means he has not even been informed of what it is the government is actually accusing him of, with his lawyers even perplexed as to their client's predicament.

In the eyes of the UK government, however, an aid worker Sharif is not

"By their own admission, what in fact they're saying in accusing me of being aligned with a group aligned with al-Qaeda, is they don't believe I'm part of Islamic State [IS]. They don't believe I'm part of al-Qaeda. They don't even believe I'm part of an aligned group, which would be HTS, I'm assuming.

"They're saying I'm aligned to an aligned group, and they're also saying I'm not aligned to terrorism, so it's quite unfair that they can't even give evidence of what that means."

In reality, the UK government is stripping a bona fide aid worker of his nationality because he provides medical care and assistance to refugees in an area that so happens to be controlled by a group (HTS) that was, at one time, aligned with al-Qaeda.

This is precisely a case of being charged "guilty by association with a degree of separation," as claimed by Sharif.

I mean, it's impossible to imagine a registered aid worker being stripped of his or her citizenship for helping to distribute aid to refugees in Gaza based only on the fact the besieged Palestinian enclave is controlled by Hamas.

Moreover, Sharif has established a proven track record of providing medical assistance to those in desperate need in Muslim majority countries, describing it as his "religious duty".

He traveled to Pakistan in 2010 to help victims of the catastrophic floods which left 1,700 dead, and the year before that he was aboard the 
Mavi Marmara, a Turkish registered ship attempting to bring humanitarian aid to Palestinians that was stormed by Israeli soldiers as it made its way towards Gaza.

"I grew up in East London. What I learned while in the UK was what shaped me - universal values of compassion, courage and doing good," Sharif wrote in a recent opinion piece for TRT World.

"I first saw the heart-wrenching images of Syrian civilians being forced to prostrate to pictures of Bashar al-Assad in 2012. Civilians being buried alive by Syrian soldiers while being asked to proclaim that there was 'No God except for Bashar,' shook me to my core."

It was these images that motivated him to travel to Syria with his wife to "help in any way we could," which included "teaching English within the refugee camps, delivering primary aid, building tents and even distributing bread".

In the eyes of the UK government, however, an aid worker Sharif is not. He's a Muslim in a land of many armed extremists, including IS, so he must be a terrorist, or so the logic goes.

"Is it because I'm from a certain heritage? Is it because I'm from a certain background?" Sharif asks, rhetorically, adding that white British aid workers and fighters who traveled to Syria to fight IS have been afforded a starkly different treatment.

The decision to revoke Sharif's nationality has nothing do with national security, and everything to do with racism and Islamophobia

This, he points out, includes Macer Gifford, who quit his job as a London currency trader to pick up a weapon for the People's Protection Unit (YPG) in Syria - a group closely aligned with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) that the UK considers a terrorist organisation, and whose mission Macer has defended.

Clearly, then the decision to revoke Sharif's nationality has nothing do with national security, and everything to do with racism and Islamophobia. Gifford has been deemed something of a hero in the eyes of the British media, presumably because he's white, and fighting IS. While Sharif, a bona fide aid worker, is deemed a security threat, one worthy of expulsion. The government's blatant hypocrisy couldn't be more stark.

Read more: Even 'terrorists' have the right to citizenship

Nisha Kapoor, author of Deport, Deprive, Extradite, suggests that cases like Sharif and Shamima Begum - the British IS bride who was groomed as a teenager and now wants to return home, but has had her citizenship revoked - are more evidence of the "criminalisation of Muslims in the name of fighting terrorism," and observes that nearly all citizenship deprivation cases have been used against Muslims.

"To say that powers to deprive citizenship are deeply racialised ought to be evident. Legally, the very fact that there has to be at least the prospect of acquiring another citizenship means it will always be used selectively.

"Substantively, these powers materially consolidate the possibility for repatriating brown and black subjects, an aspiration that has remained a recurring undercurrent of the British nationalist project in the postcolonial era and, as the Windrush scandal revealed, is being realised through other avenues of the immigration system as well," writes Kapoor.

Ultimately, the government is signaling that the rule-of-law and human rights norms and conventions no longer apply to Muslims

Moreover, stripping Sharif of his citizenship, and particularly without due process, constitutes a violation of international law, with Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stating in unambiguous terms, "Everyone has the right to a nationality" and "no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality."

Denying a citizen freedom of movement, presumed innocence, and the right to a fair trial not only weakens democracy, but also, in this case, hands a giant propaganda win to extremist groups like IS, a group that has tried to kill Sharif on a number of occasions, including unsuccessfully planting a bomb on his car.

"It's because of policies like this [arbitrarily stripping citizenship] that ostracise people… [and] this is alienating and ostracising the Muslim community even more, which is one of the things the British government fails to understand," says Sharif.

Ultimately, the government is signaling that the rule-of-law and human rights norms and conventions no longer apply to Muslims, and that rather than being granted equality, due process and justice; which are meant to be civil rights afforded to all British citizens, Britain's four million Muslims are to be presumed guilty, no matter how tenuous or absent the evidence might be, with their "trial" held only in the spotlight of the country's tabloid media.

CJ Werleman is the author of 'Crucifying America', 'God Hates You, Hate Him Back' and 'Koran Curious', and is the host of Foreign Object.

Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.