My fight to end discrimination
Muhammad Rabbani - CAGE's International Director
Who are you and what do you do at CAGE?
My name is Muhammad Rabbani, and I am the International Director at CAGE.
My role involves growing the organisation globally. We have an employee in South Africa, and a team of volunteers in Finland and Sweden, and a small team in the New Zealand/Australia region. We have extensive contacts but not necessarily personnel in the US, in France, in Denmark and in the Middle East. My role is to develop that work.
I also handle critical relationships with other NGOS, donors and with survivors and clients. I also work on special investigations of a sensitive nature.
So why were you arrested?
I was stopped at Heathrow airport on my way back from the Middle East where I had secured instructions from a client of ours to take legal action in a case involving torture. CAGE has been working on this case for about two years. This action will potentially implicate senior officials in torture, and I was in possession of the client’s testimony as well as other material to prove it.
This is not the first time I’ve been stopped. It’s actually about the 20th time.
So this was nothing out of the ordinary then?
This time, after some questioning they decided to detain me.
They then asked me to hand over my passwords to all the devices.
To protect my client, I refused.
On previous occasions that I had been stopped, I had also refused to hand over my passwords, and I had been returned the devices and allowed to proceed. But this time they handed me a leaflet, which said that it was now compulsory to surrender passwords. This was something new.
I told the supervisor my predicament regarding client confidentiality. He told me that it was their job to implement the law, as he understood it, and so I said I had no other option and they proceeded to arrest me.
Any details on this current case?
I can’t go into specifics, but we have been entrusted with a very important responsibility. Someone who has been subjected to many years of torture, seeking accountability for the abuse that he has faced, asking CAGE to seek justice and accountability – this is a huge responsibility.
I am finding a real burden, what can you do? This new client survived over a decade of hardship and torture, and he survived it still intact, still dignified, still with honour – what can you do to help?
When survivors of torture ask you for assistance, it places on you a burden of trust to do your absolute best to ensure their rights are granted to them. In that context some of my visits abroad have been in relation to collecting evidence, collecting testimony, working with my colleagues on related cases.
What about your past before CAGE?
I have always been involved in conflict mediation and negotiation. At the age of 17 I started volunteering with a community organization on a gang conflict mediation project. There was a growing concern around young men fighting on the streets and the organization’s focus was on mediation, primarily in the area of Tower Hamlets.
What exactly did you do at this organisation?
I subscribed to join as a volunteer and I joined as part of their outreach team. So essentially what that meant was that I was out in the community say 4-5 nights a week between say 6-9pm or later sometimes, and we would just be a presence in the community, with the goal of mediating conflicts that arose.
Later on, I became a manager there and designed my own interventions. That idea of dialogue and mediation as a means to ending conflict, has been present in my life ever since then.
What other work did you do?
There were a few roles. One was with an organization that was creating training and capacity building programmes for community groups. So I did that for a couple of years. Then I had a finance role, which involved lots of project management at a youth development charity.
I was contributing to projects which I felt made a difference to ordinary people’s lives directly, particularly my local community. I think that is part of what community is about. We must care for others, we must contribute to where we live.
Any particular memories from mentoring young people?
I loved Outward Bound courses, I attended many. You go out into the woods or the mountains or into the country. We would always create a program of activities for young people and then ensure that at the end there is something challenging - enjoyable but challenging.
I remember an occasion when we took a group to the Royal Marine Commando Training Center for seven days. I’ve never heard that much foul language before or since, that is one thing I remember! The swearing smh. Besides that, again for young people it’s incredible, the nighttime orienteering, all those exercises - taking them to the forest at night, giving them a map, having them find their way around, obstacle courses. It is all about challenging people and helping them grow. If you are afraid of water, for example, there are bits of the course where you have to go in through a tunnel under water and you have to go through it. Otherwise you can’t do it. So you have to go under.
The whole point of all of this is giving young people opportunities to experience different things so they just change their outlook and by that they become better personalities and they become stronger. They don’t feel helpless. You can inspire people in different ways.
In your role at the gang conflict mediation organisation, what were the issues that came up?
My primary focus as a manager was: how do you get these young people, who need a bit of guidance and who need a bit of a steer, to avoid those paths which would mean they end up either in trouble with the law, or being denied opportunities that other people have?
As you get older you start educating yourself, and you realize the necessity of political awareness and educating others about social justice, of trying to make a change - not just on an individual level - but bringing some change which can be felt by communities who are being deprived.
I mentioned that mediation took place in the mosque. One of the inspirations right from the beginning, was around ‘how were these people able to change?’ How are they then able to come and bring warring factions together?
And how did you?
One of the strengths was that they underpinned their interventions using Islam since Islam was a moral guide in the lives of Muslim youth regardless of how little their connection may be to it. They believed that as Muslims, you have a duty and obligation to intervene when people are fighting and if they are in conflict, to resolve the conflict and that is literally what they told us and that is the example they set for us. So Islam was a really powerful force of good in the minds of those people who were in conflict. It offered a solution and way out of the mindless violence.
Did you ever come into contact with PREVENT?
In that same period, I became aware that the government had an agenda under stopping terrorism, preventing terrorism and the Prevent program was been launched. Money was allocated to local authorities and pressure was applied on local groups to take the money.
Whereas on the one hand I was knocking on all the doors I possibly could - police, all these charities, social services, local authority - to try and get their attention to deal with the everyday major problems destroying young people’s lives and families, like drug abuse and so on and I was getting no response.
On the other hand, the government was pressuring us, saying no you have to do this, ‘’We think the biggest problem is terrorism’’.
But terrorism had absolutely no relevance in the lives of ordinary people going about their daily lives. It was a political problem that the government was facing and challenging, and it had no relevance in the community. Yet the government was pumping money and forcing community groups to co-opt them into their agenda.
So luckily in the end our organization was able resist this program.
Any run-ins with the police?
I got to deal with the police. I got to see how the criminal justice system deals with young people. My experience with many young offenders was that they are just young people making some poor choices often. They don’t need to be treated like criminals. You don’t need the full force of the law applied on them when a much more productive approach would solve the problem.
What motivated you to join CAGE?
I don’t want to make generalizations but in my experience working with at risk young people, they were often either breaking the law or on the verge of breaking the law. What I was seeing in the War on Terror however was that Muslim families, members of the Muslim community, were being criminalized when they were not criminals; they were absolutely perfectly normal, positive members of the society.
I saw the parallels. ‘Be afraid of gang members’ and ‘Be afraid of hoodies’ was now replaced by ‘be afraid of Muslims’. Discrimination against black and Asian youth was now replaced by discrimination against Muslims. Stop and search profiling by police of young black and Asian youth has been replaced by profiling of Muslims at airports and via PREVENT. An institutionally racist police system has been replaced by the two tier justice system that Muslims are subjected to now under terrorism legislation. Otherising some young people and treating them as suspect and a threat to public order has been replaced by the notion of Muslims as the suspect community of our times.
I felt it was a natural step for me to get involved with CAGE and contribute what I could.
In your previous roles, was your contact with police general or personal?
No. In my time in that period, I had extensive relationships with police officers. I knew the borough commander directly and we used to discuss and try and find ways to build trust and confidence. That wasn’t a problem for me. I sat on ward panels, I attended local area partnership meetings, I was nominated to a special advisory board that works on community safety.
But one day I had a strange encounter with MI5. They turned up and started to try and question me, I found it very strange. I asked them: “Why are you trying to interrogate me? What is it that you are after?” First they started presenting to me pictures of people, saying “we think you know this person”. My response was: “I don’t understand who you are, what you want, why are you doing this to me – let’s talk properly in a formal way.”
These strange encounters began to happen more often.
Why were they contacting you?
Over a few encounters the picture emerged that they wanted me to ultimately work with them and provide them with information. I think the reason they targeted me was because they identified that I was someone in their mind who had a level of influence in the community, who had access to lots of young people, who would be privy to information that in their mind would probably be useful.
I obviously didn’t agree to work with them. As I said earlier, I worked with the police on various projects - tackling prostitution, tackling drug abuse, tackling gang conflict violence - so I did all of that, and I don’t have a problem with that. But I do have a problem with a process, which is an unaccountable, hidden, coercive process where you don’t really have a choice, a process where you are expected to share information without the consent of the people who the information is about. So I clearly didn’t agree to any of that.
What makes CAGE so special?
CAGE has a lot of heart, and when I say that, I mean courage and compassion both. You need a heart to do that. Without a heart you cannot be courageous. You can’t be rationally courageous, you need a strong heart. Also, you cannot have compassion unless you have a heart that feels, understands and empathises. We want to make sure that our work does not become removed or distant or abstract. It has to be something that has values, and those are the two things that are so important to giving something life – compassion and courage.
It’s also about the survivors, those accused of “terrorism” and now “extremism”. I have had the privilege of serving the survivors of torture. I could never comprehend that I would be able to be in a position to assist in their plight. I see such individuals as examples of the great potential of the human spirit. To undergo such a traumatic experience with their sanity and their humanity intact, with a sense of dignity...I think it is incredible to meet and interact with these people.
So what’s your plan now that you’ve been arrested?
In this case, we’re dealing with the complicity of the US government and potentially Western intelligence agencies – even named individuals – in torture. We’re talking about litigation being planned in more than one jurisdiction in relation to this case. I was and remain concerned that whatever happens to me, does not negatively impact our client and this case.
It’s about principle. In Britain, Schedule 7 has been in operation since 2000, which means 15 years’ worth of information has been collected from hundreds and thousands of mainly British nationals. Around 50,000 are stopped each year. And we are simply going along with it. It’s shocking that nobody has taken a stand.
It is simply unquestionable that CAGE and I would not protect such information. Nobody wants to go to prison and I’m the father of two kids. I’ve lived here and grown up here. I’ve sat down with my family. We’ve talked about this. I’ve had lengthy chats with my colleagues. The rule of law should be applied equally to all people and when it’s not applied, we need to take adequate action to draw attention to it. That’s what good citizenship is about.
I’m not a hero. I don’t believe I’m cut out for it. But I do believe the right thing to do, is to continue with this, and even if it means I go to jail, then I will take that step.
If you agree with the stance I have taken, please join our campaign #PassWithPrivacy, or send us your Schedule 7 story. Don’t forget to download our guide on how to protect your information and how to handle Schedule 7 stops.