Caring for the invisible victims of the 'War on Terror'

Caring for the invisible victims of the 'War on Terror'
Comment: State-led racism is fragmenting UK Muslim communities, but one group providing support for the families of alleged extremists, is proof of a strengthened 'community of struggle', writes Malia Bouattia.
5 min read
01 Dec, 2017
The 'counter-terrorism' Prevent programme fosters frustration, isolation, and despair [Getty]
Last Saturday, I had the honour addressing the national fundraiser for HHUGS, or Helping Households Under Great Stress, the only charity in the UK that offers practical, emotional and material help to the families of the victims of the so-called "War on Terror".

Our attention is often focused on the obvious victims: Those unjustly sent to Guantanamo Bay or held in Belmarsh without ever being found guilty, those held under Schedule 7 of Prevent who are not suspected of having committed a crime at all, or those facing police violence, discrimination in the workplace, or physical violence in the streets.

Meanwhile little is said about the families in the background, struggling to make ends meet, dealing with the aftermath of trauma, and trying as best they can to offer the appropriate support to their loved one. This is where HHUGS steps in.

From legal advice, facilitating visits and offering childcare services, to creating collective spaces of support and covering emergency expenses, HUGGS takes care of the invisible victims of the War on Terror, those who never make the headlines, and whose daily struggle is considered - at best - collateral damage.

As I stood up to speak, I looked onto a room of dozens of women and children who face the impossible. I was overwhelmed by stories of children unable to sleep or struggling at school after their Dad was suddenly taken away, stories of men who were arrested, beaten (or worse), and released without further charges but who continued to feel unable to take on their previous role as the sole breadwinner.

Under Prevent, patients, students and service users become possible indicators of what is going on within the potentially dangerous, probably criminal, Muslim family

I was standing in front of a room of women who carried their families through daily hardship, pain and fear, and who were able to do so because of the help they received from HUGGS and its volunteers.

It struck me at that moment, that I was confronted, in a way I don't think I ever truly was before, with the collective violence and destruction caused by the War on Terror.

While it may now be 'normal' to hear from individuals and family members demanding their liberation from the state, the everyday collective pain of the community remains a silent backdrop that never reaches the public eye.

These are family members often too scared to extend support because they might be found guilty by association, or community organisations who stay away because Prevent officers might start raising questions. They are teachers, nurses and doctors who might not have the know-how, the time, or the insight to look beyond the headlines, and are trained to police rather than to support children with targeted parents.

The isolation, silence and often poverty of the families already found guilty before the possibility of a trial is even raised, is shocking. 

What these women face, and what lies at the heart of the War on Terror, is a process of state-led fragmentation of a community. Once the Muslim community is identified as suspect, and the family unit is constructed as the source for radicalisation, extremism and violence, the tools that the state wields are used to break the back of the problem.

Under Prevent, patients, students and service users become possible indicators of what is going on within the potentially dangerous, probably criminal, Muslim family.

They stop being people with problems, with challenges, dreams and hopes. Instead, they become clues in solving a charade whose answer has already been determined: The Muslim family, and by extension community, is the site of terrorist radicalisation and needs to be broken up.

Not only does this logic break up the existing solidarity networks that have always kept communities alive; offering alternative roots to survival in the face of state oppression, it also fosters frustration, isolation, and despair - a dangerous cocktail.

With this in mind, the recent decision by Ofsted to target young hijab-wearing Muslim school girls and make them sit through and interrogation on the reasons they choose to cover their hair, takes on new significance.

It is not only a further intrusion of the state into the religious life of (some of) its citizens, and a victimisation of one of the most vulnerable groups of people (young Muslim, often racialised, girls), it is also a further attempt to drive a wedge between teachers and students, children and parents, and the Muslim community and society as a whole.

Read more: Quizzing schoolgirls in hijab highlights Ofsted's false morality

This process of humiliation and fragmentation is perhaps the most violent and pernicious element of the so-called War on Terror, which has become not only a war on Muslims, but also a war on the institutions of solidarity that make up civil society.

Last weekend, as I stood up to address the HHUGS fundraiser, I looked the victims of this war straight in the eye, but what I saw was neither isolation nor despair.

I looked the victims of this war straight in the eye, but what I saw was neither isolation nor despair

Instead, I saw the ways in which state-led racism, led to a community of struggle. I saw women who were unwilling to accept their fate, and instead formed a new collective network of help, support and resistance.

In that moment, I felt sure of something that had in the past been just a hunch: Whatever they push into the shadows, we will illuminate. Whatever they try to silence, we will amplify. Whatever they destroy, we will rebuild. I was reminded of the words Arundhati Roy, which resonated in me like never before:

"To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget." 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, the former President of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

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.