Your silence will not protect you

Your silence will not protect you
Comment: The urgency for speaking truth to power has never been more pressing, writes Malia Bouattia.
7 min read
01 Feb, 2018
Dissent is being targeted, writes Malia Bouattia [NurPhoto]
It feels like we are constantly met with stories about individuals being targeted for expressing pro-Palestine views, from Moshé Machover's expulsion from the Labour party to the uproar over Gary Lineker or singer Rihanna's tweets.

We have also been witness to high-profile resignations by the director of Queens Museum in New York, Laura Raicovich, over her support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctioning of Israel, and Amena Khan - the first hijab-wearing model on a L'Oréal haircare campaign who expressed her opposition to Israel's actions back in 2014.

Undoubtedly there have been concerted efforts put towards silencing any views in opposition to the occupation of Palestine, not just on the part of right-wing lobby groups, but even our own government here in the UK. 

On the ground, its seems that when political efforts relate to racialised communities, like fighting white supremacy and solidarity with Gaza, the supposed War on Terror is used as a tool to repress that activity.

You are suspected of having "really meant" something else, something more sinister. You are charged with undermining freedom of speech, community cohesion, or inter-faith initiatives. In a word, you are charged with being guilty of the very thing you are a victim of and trying to vocalise.

Dissent, within schools and universities, healthcare or even our homes, is being targeted - with victims and their families experiencing violent and psychologically debilitating character assassinations. 

The current political reality for progressive movements more generally is also incredibly hostile. Under the guise of "security" and "fighting terrorism", civil servants are legally obliged to take part in the policing of people as young as toddlers, for the government's Prevent agenda.

Left-wing events including conferences on Islamophobia, or those organised by university Islamic societies are cancelled, heavy security and monitoring are normalised across society, while individuals are being interrogated by state forces in airports, schools and colleges with the most basic rights denied. 

So in many ways, one could say that we have reached the worst of times, and given these givens, what is there left for us to lose?

Throughout my term as president of the National Union of Students, and in the aftermath, individuals and organisations have often asked me whether I look back and regret my radicalism, however right my political initiatives were. Branded an anti-Semite for standing with the people of Palestine. Denounced as an Islamic State group sympathizer for challenging Islamophobia. Accused of trying to subvert the union for wanting to fight back against the state-led dismantling of public education.

One could wonder if it was really worth it.
The harder the press, politicians, and right-wing think tanks came after me, the more I understood that the struggle I was involved in was important

I am spoken to by some elders within my own community, and told that I shouldn't have been so honest about my support for Palestinian liberation, or taken strong actions against Prevent. Granted, my time in the public eye wasn't exactly smooth sailing, but that's because the reality for all those I fought alongside, from migrants detained and abused, to black people killed in police custody and Palestinians living under colonialism, is hard, violent, and structural.
The sea will always be turbulent,
even if you don't rock the boat [Getty]

Push back, raise your voice, fight back and the might of the system is brought down upon you.

But then, what use would my position have been if I had done what all presidents of the NUS had done before me? Used it to prepare my career, made a name on the backs of students, and avoided rocking the boat so as not to anger those in power?

It was the urgent need to have a fighting, left-wing, liberation-centred union that got me into the post to begin with, and it was trying to make that promise a reality that got me through the darkest moments of the past few years.

The harder the press, politicians, and right-wing think tanks came after me, the more I understood that the struggle I was involved in was important. 

I often wonder whether organisations that claim to fight for the plight of the oppressed are conscious of the price of their compromises when they enter spaces of power. 

Following the 7/7 bombings in London, representative Muslim groups and so-called anti-racism organisations worked alongside the Blair government on the then-optional Prevent programme. The justification for this was that if they didn't engage, the result would be far worse.

In opposition to what countless activists on the ground - not to mention the victims of the strategy - warned, this relationship continued until the worse possible scenario: the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, in other words the legal duty to racially profile and spy on the most vulnerable in society. 

Groups like Quilliam aside, it took such disastrous outcomes for some Prevent collaborators to finally admit they were at fault to get involved at all, because the very foundations of the project were clearly seeped with Islamophobia. It is not without consequences to attempt to "reason" with your oppressor. It is not in fact the safe, better, or more reasonable root to sit at the table with those planning your downfall.

History, faith, and experience teaches us that it is those that say no, that fight back, that organise and put forward a different vision of society - while often at a significant personal cost - that open the door for a different kind of tomorrow. Those that compromise on our basic rights are swept away and forgotten - or worse, remembered for having traded the safety of those they claim to represent for personal gain, comfort, or an always-elusive respectability.
Continue to speak truth to power when it hurts, when it costs you, when it seems impossible, and you will inspire thousands more to be a little bit more bold in the streets, in schools, colleges and universities, and in their workplaces

Oppression continues because it is sustained by a capitalist system that profits from the exploitation of our people, and has the weight of powerful institutions to maintain it. Challenging, disturbing and dismantling this cycle was never going to be legitimised or celebrated by the elites whose privilege depends on the continued existence of hierarchy. 

It doesn't matter whether you are an outspoken political activist, in a position of influence in a union or a political party, the spokesperson for a social movement or even a L'Oreal Model - as the latest controversy with Amena Khan's resignation demonstrated. Step out of line and you will be punished.

But continue to speak truth to power when it hurts, when it costs you, when it seems impossible, and you will inspire thousands more to be a little bit more bold in the streets, in schools, colleges and universities, and in their workplaces. You'll make others around you more confident, less isolated, more prepared to stare down the barrel of the institutionalised gun of racism and exploitation, and refuse to bow down again. 

Look away from their approved scripts and roads because they lead nowhere expect more of the same. Go off script. Be angry. Be loud. Fight back. 

It is understandably difficult to take on any fight for justice as an individual; it is also nowhere near as effective as when it is built on collective action and becomes a movement. This is the very reason why we cannot continue to accept that those organisations speaking in our name, those who continue to pander to the most powerful at our expense in exchange for a seat at the table of power, for an invite to the next gala dinner.  

Watering down our words and depoliticising our struggle only weakens us further and abandons the very people experiencing attack after attack for articulating the institutional and structural nature of oppression. While Amena Khan is being thrown under the bus for speaking truth to power about the actions of the Israeli state, the silence of some organisations and public figures is deafening.

This is not only abandoning her in her time of need. It also sends the message to the thousands upon thousands of families dealing with Prevent officers, Schedule Seven stops, racist employers and xenophobic landlords that speaking out gets you nowhere - in fact it makes it worse.

It teaches another generation of parents the lie that silence is better - safer - in the face of injustice. It tells an entire community to fear and not speak out. It is our generation's task to break the cycle and demand what we are owed. 

The world is harsh and doubly so when you are a person of colour, when you're a Muslim and when you are working class. But silence and submission got us here. Struggle and vocalised anger will lead us out of the current dead-end in which we are stuck.

In the words of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, "the truth is always revolutionary", and - as the Bible tells us, one day, it will set us free.  

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.