. The Long Walk: Talha Ahsan and the Politics of Racialisation | Ceasefire Magazine

The Long Walk: Talha Ahsan and the Politics of Racialisation Analysis

Today, Talha Ahsan, a British poet with Asperger's, marks his 34th Birthday in solitary confinement at a US Supermax prison, after 7 years of detention without trial. The contrast between the handling of Ahsan's extradition request and Gary McKinnon's highlights an ongoing process of racialisation in the name of the War on Terror that legitimises police violence and contributes to the immunity of political authorities.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Saturday, September 21, 2013 16:19 - 6 Comments



Here lies the extradition squad
And we should all now pray to God
That as they go about their job
They make not one mistake,
For I fear as I walk the streets
That one day I just may meet
Officials who may tie my feet
And how would I escape.
Excerpt from Benjamin Zephaniah’s poem “The death of Joy Gardner” (1996)

With this poem, author Benjamin Zephaniah responded to the death of 40-year old mother Joy Gardner, who died due to a lack of oxygen to the brain four days after five police officers and an immigration officer violently restrained and gagged her on 28 July 1993. The Extradition Squad Benjamin Zephaniah refers to was a special unit in the Metropolitan Police deployed for deportation cases since the 1980s. After Joy Gardner’s death, this unit was temporarily suspended. Three police officers were tried for manslaughter in 1995, but were acquitted.

Twenty years later, Zephaniah’s powerful words are remarkably relevant as the House of Commons is currently reviewing the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill which will, amongst other restrictions on our civil liberties, remove the automatic right of appeal against an extradition order. In addition, it requires stricter tests for individuals’ compensation for miscarriages of justice, and it “narrows the availability of protection for persons involved in criminal investigations and proceedings, such as witnesses”. In effect, the bill ascribes greater powers to existing authorities to decide on individuals’ lives and complicates or removes individuals’ rights to challenge these decisions.

This article will look at the ways in which the political elite have dealt with the US requests for the extradition of Talha Ahsan and Gary McKinnon. Posited against a socio-historical background of colonialism and Orientalism, this article will argue that the contradicting ways in which the perceived identities of Ahsan and McKinnon were deployed as essential markers of their rights to civil liberties, result from the ongoing process of racialisation in the name of the War on Terror (WoT). Moreover, it highlights how this racialisation both legitimises police violence and contributes to the immunity of political authorities.

That fighting for justice is a long struggle was emphasized by the stories of the speakers at the Long Walk, Hamja Ahsan’s recent event to mark his brother Talha Ahsan’s 7th year of detention without trial. The stories of Sheila Coleman, spokesperson for the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, Saqib Deshmukh, campaigner at Justice 4 PapsJanet Alder, sister of Christopher Alder who died in police custody in 1998 who was scheduled but could not make it and of course Hamja Ahsan himself, highlighted their suffering, the questions that remain unanswered and the endurance that is needed to bring about thorough inquests into the loss of loved ones.

Today, the Metropolitan Police Extradition Squad solely focuses on arresting those requested for extradition, the transfer of a person suspected or convicted for a crime allegedly committed in the requesting country. Extradition Treaties outline the rules under which extradition can take place. It was under the UK-US Extradition Treaty that Talha Ahsan was extradited to the US. Unlike hacker Gary McKinnon, Home Secretary Theresa May did not prevent his extradition on the basis of the human right to not be subjected to torture or inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment. On the contrary, in her speech only four days after Talha Ahsan was taken to be locked up for 23 hours a day in a solitary confinement cell in Connecticut’s supermax prison, she congratulated her colleagues at the Conservative Party as she opened with: “Wasn’t it great to say goodbye – at long last – to Abu Hamza and those four other terror suspects on Friday?”

Various articles have pointed to the similarities and differences that exist in the legal battles of Ahsan and McKinnon, and recounting them stresses the discrepancies. Both were accused of committing cyber-crimes against the US. Whereas the systems administrator was charged by the superpower of hacking into its military networks, Ahsan’s indictment was woven into existing WoT discourses as he was alleged to be involved with Azzam Publications, a publishing house scrutinised under claims of terrorism-related offences. As one of the servers hosting an Azzam website was based in Connecticut, the US government requested the extradition of both Talha Ahsan and alleged site administrator Babar Ahmad on the basis of terrorism-related offences.

In each case, appeals against their respective extradition cases to the UK High Court, the European Court of Human Rights and numerous pleas to successive Home Secretaries in power during the course of their defence were exhausted. However, McKinnon having been arrested in 2002 spent the better part of a decade without jail time and only incurred bail conditions while Ahsan, formally arrested in 2006, spent the next 6 years of his life being shuffled from one prison to the next. Even with the Extradition Act 2003 coming into effect in 2005, McKinnon continued to live at home while Ahsan stayed behind bars until his extradition to the US in October 2012. In addition, both Gary McKinnon and Talha Ahsan were diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism. The National Autistic Society (NAS) states that:

[…] once a person with autism is in the criminal justice system, the nature of their difficulties may not be recognised or may be misunderstood. In these circumstances it is possible for miscarriages of justice to occur and it is therefore vital that legal experts are familiar with autism and its complexities.

However, whereas McKinnon’s Asperger syndrome was mentioned in various news outlets, the Daily Mail initiated a campaign against his extradition and the NAS issued various statements of support, Talha Ahsan’s case was given less prominence by the major news outlets such as the BBC and the NAS. In fact, the Daily Mail described Ahsan as one of the “unwanted guests”, which begs the scrutiny of the role of race and its representations in the treatment of disabled suspects of crime.

Despite the ubiquity of the terms racism and race in popular media, they remain concepts that are often misunderstood in public spheres. The difficulty of defining racism became apparent in a recent televised debate with EDL leader Tommy Robinson who, after repeatedly being accused of racism, demanded an explanation on how his hate speech against Islam was racist, which only panel member Akala was able to verbalise as media discourses perpetually racialising crimes committed by non-white groups and the lack of such a practice when the criminals are white. Another example of a disinformed conception of racism can be seen in the increasing emergence of anti-white racism claims which ignore racism’s relation to the history of colonialism (see for example Alana Lentin’s and Gavan Titley’s article).

As race has no biological foundation, racialisation is a useful term to talk about the process in which race is made significant. Naomi Zack discusses in her 1999 thesis Philosophy of Science and Race that the bodies of enslaved and oppressed peoples, as well as the geographic regions they originated from, have been racialised by European colonialism, leading to fixed geographical racialisations of individuals perceived as descending from there into the present-day. This mode of categorisation was largely scientific, springing from early evolutionary anthropological doctrines, and justifying imperial exploitation based on perceived native inferiority. Additionally, there is a long history of scholarly and political Orientalism of the “East”, particularly concerning northern regions of the African continent such as present-day Algeria by the French as well as Egypt, and the Indian subcontinent by the British throughout the 19th century.

More specifically, this era of imperialism in North Africa, the Middle East and Indian subcontinent has culminated in a “West versus East” bisection in which reason found itself firmly situated on western turf definitively out of reach of the oriental other. Artlessly, there emerged the notion that Europe is ‘rational, peaceful, liberal, logical’ while the ‘Oriental’ region embodies none of these characteristics, as illustrated by Edward W. Said in his seminal work Orientalism. As these abstract notions came to be entrenched in the material world of colonial exploitation, they found their reified fulcrums in the physical markers of colonised bodies i.e. a ‘racial epidermal schema’, as Frantz Fanon put it most incisively, emerged. Skin colour, hair texture, body shapes etc became hermeneutically loaded signifiers of inferiority as gazed and perceived by the West.

Even as in the 20th century a series of anti-colonial counter-moves were set in motion by colonized peoples, such as armed struggles for independence and movements that sought to raise political consciousness by utilising religious, philosophical and ideological mechanisms, orientalising thought and racialising practices in one form or another continue to persist in European metropoles well into the present. As a result, these aforementioned struggles were never afforded legitimacy with regards to their chosen method towards achieving autonomy, but rather were nearly always subsumed into orientalist narratives of terror themselves; religions outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition became the source of unreason, non-European culture the basest expressions of immorality, and any use of violence a reason to label anticolonial movements as innately barbaric, generating catchphrase epithets such as the ‘yellow peril’ in the past, and sloganeering stunts such as the ‘war on terror’ in the present.

With the genealogy of racialising and orientalism in mind, it becomes rather easy pickings to contextualise the WoT with its neo-imperial practices of the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, legislating inhumane anti-terrorism laws and pushing forward measures such as control orders. Despite the gradual admissions being voiced in current discourses that render the invasion of Iraq illegitimate and as the premises on which it was launched having been proven false, resistance against the invaders remains framed in a language of terrorism initiated by the “Other”.


An example of the conflation of resistance with so-called terrorism is the way in which popular media outlets referred to the Woolwich murder of Lee Rigby as “the day Baghdad style violence came to South London”. Through this racialised lens, Rigby’s murder has been labelled as such, yet the deadly stabbing of 82-year-old Mohamed Saleem in Birmingham, the bombing of three mosques and the violent attack on a 55-year-old Muslim woman in Mayfair have ceased to be described as “Baghdad style violence”, despite the atrocities British and US soldiers committed in Iraq. This neat way of compartmentalising violence casts it in type; violence becomes part of the mores of the Iraqis and Afghans, an unshakeable stigma, whereas white violence is made racially invisible no matter how barbaric. It is also through this lens that “innocent until proven guilty” has been ignored in the case of so-called terrorist suspects, leading to their imprisonment without trial, like in the case of Talha Ahsan.

One securitising instrument favoured by the orchestrators of the War on Terror (WoT) is the surveillance of particular spaces or neighbourhoods in the UK. The racialisation of space and bodies creates categories of those who are considered to be “belonging” and those who are considered to belong somewhere else. The notion of belonging to a certain space consequently carries the idea of deserving and undeserving when questions of the right to a due process of law arise. Spaces, both physical and otherwise can be defined as constructing ‘landscapes’, which according to material anthropologist Christopher Tilley, are ‘contested, worked and reworked according to particular individual, social and political circumstances’.

Built spaces – as artefacts of human activity – tell stories as well as offering expressions of (social) identity. In a documentary, presenter and producer Roshan M. Salih indicates how some urban neighbourhoods or spaces in the UK are viewed as “Islamic” and, therefore, dangerous; which in turn is used to justify putting them under increased surveillance. This has included spies entering family homes and mosques  and infiltrating youth groups under false pretences, where at times they initiate conversations regarding “jihad” to deceive individuals into making inflammatory comments leading to their arrest. Accordingly, Prime Minister David Cameron has made comments about tackling “extremism” revealing there would be increased surveillance of Islamic communities and spaces in search of dangerous individuals, giving the impression that Islam is inherently extremist by singling it out as a hotbed of danger. Physical spaces are no longer the only target for investigation – virtual or cyber spaces have also been constructed as dangerous through their link to certain communities and are thus policed (e.g. azzam.com).

The War on terror has also created new groups of what can be termed deviant citizens such as hackers, young Muslim men or indeed a blending of the two. Citizenship refers to a collection of rights and duties one derives as a member of a state. It is often assumed to be a genderless and raceless category. However, discourses relating to citizenship reveal that this notion is often intertwined with that of ‘authenticity’. In the postcolonial Netherlands for instance, bloodlines are used in defining those who are to be called Allochtonen; those who are from another country and usually from former Dutch colonies. While an Allochtoon might possess Dutch citizenship, the label of Allochtoon acts as a reminder that the person’s origins are somewhere else.

‘Deviant Citizens’

Thus, while citizenship might afford legal rights, it does not override all differences. In the field of sociology, deviance has been approached as a formal property of social situations or social systems. While it has been perceived as a pattern of norm violation, it can also refer to a stigma construct, in which certain classes of behaviour are labelled, devalued, and excluded at certain times. Both aspects refer to deviance as a social “thing” implying that deviance, as such, is not a personal trait.

Based on the short definitions of deviance and citizenship given here, the concept of ‘deviant citizen’ can be defined as a form of citizenship that bears a deviant stigma. While everyone can be defined as a deviant person, the label of deviant citizen, on the other hand, refers to a form of deviant stigma that compromises and/or contradicts one’s rights and duties as a citizen. As deviance is a formal property of social situations or social systems, in the case of deviant citizens it follows that the deviant stigma is derived from a social situation or a social system with the added implication of that stigma influencing how one’s citizenship is perceived by others. As pointed out earlier, citizenship does not override all differences. Factors, such as, perceived ethnicity, gender, age, and social class may affect how one’s citizenship is perceived by others, and how highly it is valued by everyone.

Despite the tireless campaigning of family members and human rights activists, it was Gary McKinnon’s story that won the public’s sympathy and attention. In order to understand how this could be the case, it is important to look at one of the central aspects to a campaign that focused on the diagnoses of both Talha Ahsan and Gary McKinnon as having Asperger’s Syndrome.The constructions of whiteness and disability interacted in the cases of Gary McKinnon and Talha Ahsan. Whiteness is innocence. The innocence of autism also played a big part in the media representation and campaigns to stop McKinnon’s extradition. Autism has, in recent years, become increasingly commodified. This commodification is an element of a wider power structure which is part of the constantly shifting terrain of racialization which places some bodies as acceptable and others as deviant.

Scholars Snyder and Mitchell (2010) suggest that disabled bodies are often placed outside of the paradigm of citizenship and are not even deemed as deviant citizens as their corporeal existence is not socially constructed but purely biological. Referring to Puar’s (2007) theory of exceptionality, they argue that this placing outside has shifted in recent years towards allowing specific types of disabled bodies to be constructed as acceptable. This specified acceptability permits nations like Britain and the US to be seen as states of exception i.e. tolerant and inclusive states; states which value human rights. To some extent this may work. May’s use of the Human Rights Act and her emphasis on how seriously ill Gary McKinnon was, underlines the desire to be seen as a humane Home Secretary. In this case it is the combination of the construction of Asperger’s Syndrome and the construction of whiteness which allows McKinnon to be used as an exception and exempts him from his place as a deviant citizen. This is why the specificity of the impairment needs to be examined in context and in combination with other factors such as race and religion in the case of the WoT. Because of the increase in criminalisation of the Muslim community in this case, it is impossible to apply the innocence of Autism to the case of Ahsan as it is not combined with the innocence of whiteness.

The Long Walk

The Long Walk event brought together various campaigns that strived towards justice for those who have lost loved ones. It highlighted the difficulties that individuals face when trying to address the accountability of those responsible for the injustices they had and still are suffering from. In the Hillsborough tragedy, it took more than 20 years to confirm that the 96 Liverpool FC supporters who died during the football match on 15 April 1989 were not “accidental deaths” or, as various media outlets suggested, the victims of their own hooliganism, but a consequence of “multiple failures” of emergency services and the police which authorities had actively concealed.

For her part, Janet Alder has been fighting for over 14 years to find answers to questions surrounding her brother dying on a police station floor, while officers stood by and did nothing, only to find out, 11 years after his funeral, that they buried a female pensioner due to a mix up at the morgue. The campaign Justice4Paps demands answers in the death of Habib Ullah, who died during a stop and search in 2008. Hamja Ahsan has been campaigning to raise awareness about the UK government’s complicity in the torture of his brother.

What all these stories of human suffering have in common, is the dehumanisation of the ones that are victimized. As Sheila Coleman highlighted how Liverpool supporters were portrayed as hooligans, recounting how she, when entering the House of Commons for an adjournment debate on the death of Kevin Daniel Williams, a 15-year old boy who died during the Hillsborough disaster, offered her bag to security and was greeted with: “Watch out there’s a scouser in the house; hide the silver”.

The dehumanization of black and brown people becomes apparent from the disproportionate targeting of them in anti-terrorist legislation, stop and search practices and deaths in custody. Yet, racialisation as a process of “othering” does more than dehumanizing black and brown people. With every black or brown body that gets beaten, imprisoned or killed and their treatment subsequently treated as “lawful” or at best “a tragic incident” with no consequences for those responsible, strengthens and legitimises the powers of authorities to remain immune against any allegations of abuse or wilful neglect.

Get involved and support:
FreeTalha campaign on Facebook.
StopWatch, a coalition to offer legal support to challenge stop and search.
Official Hillsborough Campaign.
4wardeveruk petition website.

All authors are part of TColl, a London-based research collective which aims to bridge academia and activism.

Bel Parnell-Berry is a researcher and cultural critic from the UK, currently based in the Netherlands. Her doctoral thesis focused on local authority caravan-site policy in England. Bel has also been an active researcher and supporter of the anti-Zwarte Piet movement in the Netherlands, as well as campaigning against racist imagery across Europe. Bel plans to continue researching policy and media, contributing to the growing body of literature on (minority) identity construction within both fields.

Lani Parker finished her masters and culture ethnicity and diaspora at Birkbeck College last year. Her research interests are around the intersection of disability, racialization, gender and sexuality with a particular focus on the interaction between structural marginalization and power within identity formation.

Mez Ghide studied English at the University of Asmara and Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Hull. His research interests lie in the cultural politics of transnational intellectuals, postcoloniality, popular aesthetics and neoliberalism.

Katja Jonsas, born in Finland, studied anthropology at the University of Helsinki, and finished with a Master's degree in Social Research from the VU University Amsterdam. She is currently placed at the University of Roehampton, Business School and is about to start her PhD project about academic leadership and gender.

Kaya Völke is a researcher from the Netherlands, currently living in the UK. She studied Social Cultural Anthropology at the VU University Amsterdam and worked on various research projects. Her research interests focus on citizenship, race and the decolonization of knowledge.


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Sep 21, 2013 17:14

Obviously the difference between the treatment of Talha Ahsan and Gary McKinnon is racialised. I’d also suggest that the Blairites would probably have deported both. The Tories made a rare exception to their authoritarian approach to deviance because of a media campaign, part of the subtext of which was the familiar theme of the loss of British sovereignty to foreigners (cases involving European Arrest Warrants have also raised the ire of the Daily Mail and its ilk).

But I’m not sure the innocence of (white) autism is generally established, I think the McKinnon case is unusual, we’ve seen a string of cases in Britain where autistic people have been jailed for a range of trivial deviance arising from the condition, varying from trolling (Sean Duffy), to “ethical hacking” (Glenn Mangham) to involvement in Anonymous (Ryan Cleary), to various cases under the fascistic “anti-social behaviour” regime which basically makes it a crime to be autistic (since an autistic person by the very nature of the condition might distress neurotypical people) – for instance, an autistic boy banned from staring over walls. BIBIC found that two-thirds of people given Asbo’s had some kind of psychological condition. And as you’ve mentioned there is a tendency for miscarriages of justice to occur (Amanda Knox is a typical case here – a lot of the evidence of “guilt” was based on typically autistic traits; Billy Cottrell is another example – his defence account was undermined because of lack of knowledge of autism). I’ve seen statistics that 8% of the prison population are autistic, compared to 1-2% of the general population, despite self-report studies suggesting that autistic people break fewer laws – and this isn’t counting people who end up in mental hospitals and other institutions. Also look at cases like Darius McCollum, Neli Latson, Arie Smith, Colin Revell, and the unnamed individual who was traumatised by the Met at a swimming pool (some of these cases complicated by racism, others not). Some of these are UK cases, some abroad, but the pattern is very clear – on the one hand zero tolerance for eccentricities deemed a nuisance, and on the other, extremely violent police reactions to autistic meltdowns or “noncompliance”.

There’s a lot of other aspects to this, but basically, securitisation and normative tightening are bad for autism inclusion. For example, the corrosion of welfare provision and special needs support, and the increase in security presence, makes it likely that first responders to any problems will be violent. The growing prevalence of stop-and-search, and the regime at airports, create huge problems for anyone who is touch-sensitive or can’t interact with strangers. Career areas which used to be relatively autism-friendly – programming, academia and so on – are increasingly exclusionary too, because increasingly, socially conventional “performances” are required. A lot of people are being cut off benefits because of the new system and the ATOS assessments, which are heavily loaded against psychological disabilities (and I think the requirement to attend interviews is itself designed to make people with high anxiety withdraw their claims voluntarily). I’ve heard of one case of an autistic person getting a late-night police visit in retaliation for calling for protests on Facebook.

I think it’s a systematic pattern of criminalisation of difference which basically makes it a crime to be autistic in contemporary Britain (and America), and which in turn is having the effect of forcing autistic people out of public space, including increasingly the Internet (which was largely created by autistic people). This pattern is occasionally mitigated slightly by high-sympathy cases and a lot of publicity given to formal attempts to create equality duties, formal inclusion measures and so on. But the surface appearance of inclusion is undermined by a lack of resources for special needs support, normative tightness and zero tolerance for even minor deviance, aggressive demands for compliance with sensorily intrusive and concretely unjust demands, and a climate in which people don’t feel the need to make allowances for difference. The stance is basically, “autistic people are equal, so long as they don’t act autistic” – at which point autism is “no excuse” and the pretence to equality goes out the window.

Talha Ahsan’s case is one of the worst I’ve come across. It staggers belief that judges could feel that it is humane to keep an autistic person in an environment which has been judged sensorily inhumane even for people with typical sensory processing. We can’t afford to let disability rights be sidelined by “terror” hysteria. Ultimately, each act of cruelty and injustice must feed into a counter-narrative of oppression which raises consciousness against the dominant system. The autism movement today is hopelessly short of consciousness of the current modalities of persecution and exclusion. It needs to rise to the task – and quickly.

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Aladdin _1978
Sep 25, 2013 12:37

I have on the autistic spectrum, I have borderline asperger syndrome.

I am dyspraxic.

I could not handle, the conditions, what state, will Talha Ahsan be in , when the trial (plead bargain) occurs.

I predict, global anger.

No autistic person, could handle the conditions, Talha is enduring.

The country, should , be ashamed of the treatment of Talha Ahsan & Babar Ahmad. I think, it is likely Theresa May will be in trouble or Talha gets a big payment.

It is shameful David Cameron, panders to the Daily Mail, the N.A.S supported Gary McKinnon, but not Talha Ahsan.

The decision, on Gary McKinnon was coorect but it was carried out to satisfy the Daily Mail; & the Tory Party (who are still the nasty party).

The decision demonstrates Islamaphopbia and racism which are both problematic in British society.

Gary’s behaviour and maybe Talha’s behaviour may have resulted in extradition requests.

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