A Virtue Of Disobedience

By Asim Qureshi

A meditation on oppression & authoritarianism, reflecting how faith & virtue can lead to liberation

Throughout history, there are numerous examples of how the divide-and-conquer tactic has been used as a precursor to total destruction. We know that much of the science of anthropology was born in genocide[i] – to meet the need of their empires to understand a people, and ultimately to destroy them.

Perhaps the most sophisticated version of this process was Operation Dalet, as described by the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, which was carried out by the Zionists after years of mapping Palestinian villages and communities – the result was the Nakba (the Catastrophe) that would establish the state of Israel and displace hundreds of thousands Palestinians in 1948.[ii] I think this is perhaps the most surprising of all cases, as the Jewish people are perfectly familiar with all the abuses that were perpetrated against them in the past, and yet somehow some of them who went on to be involved in political Zionism, perpetrated similar abuses against others.

But this type of intergenerational trauma - which underlines the notion developed in the previous chapter that time does not heal trauma, but rather can further it – brings with it its own complexities that need to be better understood. History is complicated, and the way it intersects with contemporary life is often difficult to discern, however, there were moments where others should have stepped up to assist the Jewish people.

During the late–1400s, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had forcefully converted the Jews of Spain to Christianity, known thereafter as the Conversos. The Conversos were systematically discriminated against based on their previous religious practices as recorded by Matthew Carr in his book ‘Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain’.[iii] However, up until the point of the forceful Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492, what was the role played by Muslims in defending their Jewish counterparts? To what extent did they predict that the forceful conversions and discrimination being perpetrated against Jewish communities would come to haunt them over the next 120 years? I wonder how Allāh viewed any action they took, or indeed inaction, as something that was blameworthy in His eyes? Was this a Muslim moment of the bystander effect?

It is heartening to know that Sultan Bayezid II as ruler of the Ottomon Empire at the time, famously sent his naval Admiral Kemal Reis to help save the Jewish people from their fate of expulsion and provide many sanctuary.[iv] He famously called Ferdinand a fool for impoverishing the Spanish nation only to enrich his own lands.

In this, and throughout history, there are important lessons about witnessing oppression against others, and then standing by as a witness who does not act. I hope to examine this notion of witnessing oppression and what it means to be a witness in the next chapter.

In colonial India, the Muslims, and those from the ulema (scholars) in particular, were deprecated. The British invested substantial effort in translating the classical Hanafi texts like Hidayah and Fataawa a-Hindiyya into English in a way that suited them. By codifying Islamic law into “Anglo-Muhammadan” law the British were able to sever it from the Islamic juristic milieu. In doing so, it posited the British authority above all in matters relating the shari’a (corpus of Islamic practice) converting the substantive, dynamic and flexible fiqh (jurisprudence) into rigid, positive law.

Ironically, this did what reformist Muslims often accuse orthodox or traditional Islamic intellectuals of doing: closing the door of ijtihad (juristic exertion). Pertinently, it served the purpose of regulating and ultimately disposing aspects of shari’a. In the context of homicide, the governor Cornwallis complained that Islamic law was “founded on the most lenient principles and on an abhorrence of bloodshed”.[v] In other words, shari’a was not ‘barbaric’ enough for the civilising British. Unsurprisingly, this concern was tied to capitalist considerations. Nicolas Dirks observes that: 

British justice turned out to be far more draconian – in practice as well as in principle – than Islamic justice had been, resorting much more frequently to capital punishment… [The East India Company] was far more concerned with public order, and with the specific use of the law to protect its own trade and commerce as well as authority, than was the old regime.[vi]

For the British in India, division was not just about formally splitting the society into atomised pieces (although they were masters of this tactic), but also redefining the boundaries of culture and religion in order to establish a sense of their own capitalist imperialist attitudes. The social engineering of cultural practices was crucial to the programme of repression.

The Pharaonic model, which I would say is the Iblis model of division before destruction, or divide and rule, is a narrative that has repeated itself over and again throughout history. It is also a story that is repeatedly told through fables and parables.

I want to think more carefully about the role that our own communities play in perpetuating harm against our own selves, but it is worth thinking about Apartheid as one of the example of how divide and rule worked to destabilise resistance.

Ever since I watched Denzel Washington’s depiction of Bantu Steve Biko in the 1987 film ‘Cry Freedom’ as a child, I was horrified and obsessed with Apartheid – although I was young and could not understand the layers of oppression within the movie, I could clearly see and understand something horrible was taking place. Steve Biko is one of those voices that until this day moves me to action. Perhaps it was due to his young age when he began his activism, or the young age of 31 when his life was ended through a brutal attack by the Apartheid regime police in 1977. Biko was critical of the black tribal communities, who eventually collaborated with the Apartheid regime in order to establish their own fiefdoms within the structure of oppression:

Xhosas want their Transkei, the Zulus their Zululand etc. Coloured people harbour secret hopes of being classified as "brown Afrikaners" and therefore meriting admittance into the white laager while Indian people might be given a vote to swell the buffer zone between whites and Africans. Of course these promises will never be fulfilled---at least not in a hurry – and in the meantime the enemy bestrides South Africa like a colossus laughing aloud at the fragmented attempts by the powerless masses making appeals to his deaf ears.[vii]

Biko’s description reminds me of a story in the Arab world, a story that is told of three bulls who are approached by a lion that desires to eat them. The lion is aware that on his own he cannot take these three bulls while they are together, but notices that they are coloured differently, one is black, one is white, and one is red. The lion devises a strategy that will allow him to eat at least one of them, and so he approaches the red and white bull, saying that the black bull is different from them, and that if they permit him to eat the black bull, he will leave them alone. On conferring, the red and white bull acquiesce, saying that they will still be strong enough to take on the lion, should they need to, and this way the lion will be fed and leave them alone. The lion has his fill, however, this is a situation that does not last. Our lion is hungry again. So this time he approaches the white bull, and explains that actually, while the black bull was tasty, he wasn’t large enough to satiate his need, and so if he were also to eat the red bull, there would be no need to approach the white bull at all. On consideration (or lack thereof) the white bull acquiesces to this, and so the lion ate the red bull too. After a while, as the white bull sees the lion’s steady approach, he sees everything clearly from the moment he was first approached. With a regretful sigh, he cries to the lion, “You killed me, the day you killed the black bull.”

That is the thing about oppression. When we divide ourselves to allow a law that treats one portion of society unequally, those laws will still be in effect after that group is gone. Those laws will still be required; as such oppressive systems require fuel to keep their fires going. Without an enemy, without an outsider to feed those flames, those in power will lose their position of control.

When moving between historic and contemporary understanding of oppression, repression and violence, it’s important to highlight that the method of repression today is historically unprecedented, thanks to a state which has made integral to its inception and its subsistence both structural and overt violence.

In other words, efficiency is unparalleled, thanks to the number of police, the militarisation of the police, and of course the unique feature of the modern state – the technological tour de force that is the surveillance apparatus. Systemic surveillance brings about a more effective oppression machine. Thus, all forms of modern warfare ultimately become tools of terror, as described by Gregoire Chamayou:

In making combat impossible and transforming armed combat into execution, the aim is to annihilate the very willpower of those opposing them. As Charles Dunlap, a major general in the U.S. Air Force, explains, “Death per se does not extinguish the will to fight in such opponents; rather, it is the hopelessness that arises from the inevitability of death from a source they cannot fight.”[viii]

There are times, when the response to oppression can be oppressive itself, when it can go beyond not only what the law allows, but what the ethics of decency and morality permit. Not decency and morality as established by coloniser/occupier/oppressor, but from what is intrinsic to our own traditions – as the celebrated Libyan resistance fighter Omar al-Mukhtar once famously said, “They are not our teachers.” For me, this has given rise to key questions of our time. How do we understand non-state violence, in a world filled with state-sanctioned violence? How do we perceive these non-state actors, and to what extent can we understand or condemn them for the actions they have taken? These are pressing issues, and ones we need to confront. How do we differentiate between those engaged in political violence and the state that engages in its own versions of political violence – how do we try and bring understanding into these cycles of violence and so end them?

Let me turn back to our example of the converted Muslims living in Spain (Moriscos) during the 1500s. Between 1511 to 1526, Ferdinand and Isabella had heightened the activities of the Spanish Inquisition, leading to a multitude of abuses against the Morisco people. ‘Old Christian’ priests would often take advantage of the authority they had been given and climb into the rooms of young Morisca women to rape them. Due to the impunity these priests had, there was nothing the town could do to ward off the advances and often people simply had to accept the situation. The continued general environment resulted in Farex Aben Farex leading a group of 100 Morisco men to carry out a massacre in the Alpujarras on Christmas Eve in 1568 where the clergy class were targeted and killed for their abuse.[ix] Writing of this incident, the Christian chronicler Diego Hurtado de Mendoza wrote:

These crimes were committed partly by people whom we had persecuted for vengeance, partly by the monftes whose way of life had so conditioned them to cruelty that cruelty had become part of their natures.[x] 

European history is littered with examples of how when repression is the tactic of power asserting itself, it often results in new forms of violence that are further repressed. This is the cycle of violence and trauma that as a theme, recurs throughout this book. In the post-French Revolution period, the European monarchies were fearful of the ideology of the Enlightenment and sought to repress it as best they could – resulting in a Europe-wide security apparatus resplendent with informants, spies, security agencies and abuses. During the period, the British Minister to Florence, Lord Burghersh expressed caution of these responses, and predicted how the actions of the state would not lead to increased security: 

I am neither a Radical, nor that I have so far forgotten the principles which I have been brought up in, not to view with disgust the spirit of subversion and Jacobinism which is abroad; but I must at the same time declare that the system pursued by the Austrians in Italy, the ungenerous treatment of the Italians subjected to their government, will, as long as it is persisted in…not add one jot to their security![xi]

What such contexts give us, is an instruction from history, that repression and exceptional security measures do not lead to a reduction in violence – quite the opposite in fact – they could lead to increases in violence. The US-led global War on Terror has been raging across the world since 12 September 2001, and in that time, international peace and stability has not increased one bit. Rather, all the countries that were invaded by the US and her allies are worse off than they were before, and new fronts of political violence have opened up where previously there were none.

Scholars such as the former CIA psychiatrist Marc Sageman question the entire basis on which Muslims are considered to be a threat, and so advocates a strong pull back on the measures that have been installed in western secular democracies:

However, the new trend in political violence has halted this march to liberalism, and Western states have partially rolled back some of these freedoms. In Britain, freedom of expression has been limited to prevent the "glorification of terrorism." In France, laws against "participation in an association of malefactors whose goals is to prepare a terrorist act" erode freedom of association. In the United States, where freedom of speech and association are enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution, the government prosecutes suspected terrorists using laws against vaguely defined crimes such as conspiracies and material support for terrorism. The scope of these laws has been dramatically expanded over the past two decades and allows entrapment of naive Muslim militants into committing crimes that would never have occurred absent FBI inducement. As a result, most Western liberal democracies have watered down individual civil rights and locked up people they label terrorists in what amounts to preventive detention.[xii]

Living as a Muslim within my own suspect community in the UK, the presentation of my own brothers and sisters as a threat is out of congruence with what I know about them. We all attend mosques and know our communities well enough to know that we have far greater problems than our young being attracted by political violence – this is not their primary concern at all. As Sageman expresses so well, the response to the potential threat is not only overkill but will eventually make matters worse.

There is of course, an elephant in the room; the fact that Muslims have been involved in political violence. How do I, as a Muslim, understand my response to this? I can claim as much as I like that the terrorist threat is minimal compared to other types of harm, but then one person could take multiple lives through a simple and unsophisticated act of violence. It is not just me, this is a voice I hear in our communities, and those outside of our communities, as the fear sets in. Should this fear confuse us though? Should it permit us to change our values, our way of life, our protections? Is the response of the last sixteen years justified by the threat? I do not think so. I’m reminded of the Bene Gesserit litany in Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’: 

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration – a fitting description for worldwide counterterrorism policy post 9/11. I am inclined towards another route entirely. I do not want people to fear Muslims. I do not want Muslims to fear overreaching repercussions. I do not want my country, the UK, to sacrifice its own notions of justice, chasing phantoms that might never emerge, and even if they do emerge, to not lose ourselves in the response. What I am sure of, is that more understanding is needed so everything that can be placed in its correct context and responses can be effective.


[i] Schafft G.E. (2007) From Racism to Genocide: Anthropology in the Third Reich. University of Illinois Press

[ii] Pappe I. (2007) The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Oneworld Publications

[iii] Carr M. (2010) Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain. Hurst & Co Publishers

[iv] Avraham R. (2014) Ottoman Empire: A Safe Haven for Jewish Refugees. Jerusalem Online

[v] Hallaq B. (2009) Shari’a – Theory, Practice, Transformations. Cambridge University Press. pp.377–78

[vi] Hallaq W. (2009) Shari’a – Theory, Practice, Transformations. Cambridge University Press. pp.377–78

[vii] Biko S. (1987) I Write What I Like. Heinemann. p.36

[viii] Chamayou G. (2015) Drone Theory. Penguin

[ix] Carr M. (2010) Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain. Hurst & Co Publishers

[x] Carr M. (2010) Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain. Hurst & Co Publishers

[xi] Zamoyski A. (2015) Phantom Terror: The Threat of Revolution and the Repression of Liberty 1789–1848. William Collins

[xii] Sageman M. (2016) Misunderstanding Terrorism. University of Pennsylvania Press, p.56

Content composed with the free online HTML editor toolkit. Please subscribe for a membership to stop adding links to the edited documents.

Quick select rewards

17 pledges


eBook edition (DRM free, 3 formats: PDF, .mobi and .epub) and your name in the back of the book
Buy now
£15  + shipping
7 pledges

Paperback Patron

1st edition paperback


  • Digital Edition (DRM free, 3 formats)
Buy now