Why Ex-Muslims Should Speak Up About #BlackLivesMatter: Ali Rizvi With Maryam Namazie
On Why Ex-Muslims should support BLM and the Fight against Systematic Racism
Edited and Expanded Conversation between Ali Rizvi and Maryam Namazie on Professional Novice Podcast
Ali Rizvi: Welcome to Professional Novice with Ali Rizvi.
I like bringing people on who I really respect in terms of their ideas and their thoughts. And today’s obviously no exception. We will be speaking with one of my heroes, Maryam Namazie. Maryam is a British-Iranian secularist and human rights activist. She’s often credited for making the ex Muslim movement the global phenomenon that it is today. She launched the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain in 2007. I think the first time I saw you, Maryam, was at a conference in 2008. I don’t know if you remember, but it was a conference here in Toronto and I was in the audience and asked you question. I was completely in awe. There were very few people openly talking critically about Islam. And you were one of them. So you’ve been a hero of mine ever since.
Today, we’re talking about the Black Lives Matter movement. The murder of George Floyd, as everybody knows, triggered a range of protests in the US and worldwide. It’s sparked a lot of passionate conversations, not only amongst the black community but also within other marginalised communities about systems of oppression, how insidious they are, and how we might detect them, especially in this day and age. So Maryam, I think, is the perfect person to talk to about this. There has been a lot of conversations about this in ex-Muslim circles as well. Some are saying systemic racism is real; others are saying it’s not.
We’re going to get into the stats and the data on this a little bit. But one of the things those refuting systematic racism do the most is quote studies about police shootings, which are the most lethal form of police intervention, but also the rarest. Here, I want to drive home the point that George Floyd wasn’t shot by police. Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin or Rodney King weren’t shot by police. None of these were police shootings. And the slogan, “I can’t breathe,” which we see with Black Lives Matter was not only about shootings. We have to zoom out from the focus on shootings and talk about systemic racism and all the different ways that it manifests itself. It will obviously include the killings and the shootings as well, but this is about much more than that.
Maryam, thank you for coming on. You have also had a personal experience being subjected to police brutality at the hands of the NYPD for protesting peacefully. But I wanted to start with some of your initial thoughts about the protests and the way this conversation is unfolding in the ex-Muslim community.
Maryam Namazie: Thank you, Ali, for organising this hugely important discussion. Let me preface by saying that some ex-Muslims have been concerned about disagreements within our “community” and the polarization over BLM but the reality is that we’re not a homogeneous community any more than any other so-called community – whether it be Muslim, LGBT, black, white… Also, differences are not a “betrayal” of some imagined collective “identity” but as a result of our individual politics and choices. I have seen these differences often, when for example, I have defended open borders and refugee rights or condemned Brexit. Similarly, discussion on BLM, systematic racism and police brutality are uncomfortable because of fundamental differences in politics but that is why we need to have them. It has to be added that discomfort is not the same as “bullying,” Also, vehement disagreements are not the same as being silenced.
As someone firmly on the Left, for me, BLM is an important movement that has brought the issue of systematic racism in policing into the mainstream narrative. It’s inspiring to see and I feel very much like we are witnessing a new phase of an unfinished civil rights movement. As an activist, I believe that it is in the streets that the status quo can be challenged and this is what BLM is doing. The fact that we have seen protests in other countries shows how much institutional racism is part of the experience of black and minority women and men in countries outside the US too. That doesn’t mean I don’t have criticisms of aspects of BLM as I do of the ex-Muslim movement, for example, but I understand its importance and relevance (beyond a limited organisational scope), particularly during a Trump presidency that relies on white supremacy and identity politics.
Before we delve into the issue I depth, I would also like to add that one cannot address the issue of systematic racism in policing without seeing its pervasiveness in other aspects of the lives of black and minority women and men in the US, for example in education, mortgages, jobs, in the prison industrial complex, the health care system…
Ali Rizvi: I work in the healthcare system, where there is overwhelming, demonstrated evidence of racial bias. In fact, we are trained to be aware of these racial biases, particularly with conditions like sickle cell disease where the racial stigma is so strong that black people often avoid seeking treatment for it. Our students and residents have received training on this, and we are taking all kinds of measures to address it as well.
Maryam Namazie: Of course, police violence is meted out against primarily the poor and working class, including white people, so class is hugely relevant to the discussion. And yes, statistics are important, especially for a movement that prides itself on rationalism but if you focus only on some statistics, whilst disregarding others, and you refuse to recognise the historical and ongoing systems at play, the biases that inform the statistics, the flaws in statistics… then you miss the point. Feigning impartiality by hiding behind statistics is dishonest because no one is impartial here; everyone uses statistics and facts to prove their politics. We are activists after all. But a focus on some statistics and class aspects cannot erase the existence of systematic racism.
Ali Rizvi: This is a really important point that I wanted to talk about. As someone who has worked in science and medicine for several decades, we are trained to read research articles critically. We took specific courses on critical reading. The way that I look at a journal article, or any kind of scientific publication, is that I look at the figures first, then the materials and methods, results, and then go on to the introduction and discussion. Critical reading is key to the processing of any presentation of data. This is why peer review is so important. Moreover, data must be contextualized. Of course, statistics and data are the only way we have to eventually get to some sort of objective sense of what is happening, but it can’t always be evaluated in a vacuum.
For example, according to the UN, the prevalence of rape in Sweden is 24 times higher than India and 135 times higher than in Saudi Arabia. Now, most of us will look at this data and we won’t believe it. And there is a good reason we won’t believe it: we know that reporting rape carries a heavy stigma—and even risk of punishment—in India and Saudi Arabia, and many times, it is being actively covered up by the authorities. The data that we’re getting from Saudi Arabia and India is often coming from the same establishment that is covering up for these crimes. The Catholic Church is another example. Child molestation is systemic in the Catholic Church. They say, we have a few bad apples and this doesn’t represent the Church. But what happens to these “bad apples”? They are simply moved from one place to another. Their colleagues just look the other way. What makes the child molestation systemic is the complicity of their colleagues that helps the perpetrators get away with it.
Remember, the 1992 LA riots didn’t happen after the beating of Rodney King. Rodney King was beaten by police a year earlier. The riots were sparked by the acquittal of the four officers who beat him. Similarly, Black Lives Matter didn’t start because of Trayvon Martin’s shooting. It started after his murderer was acquitted. This is about justice and accountability. I’d also like to note here for those who cite police shooting data all the time that neither of these cases were cases of police shootings.
Maryam Namazie: Moreover, many things cannot be measured with available statistics for a number of reasons, including bias in data collection as well as cover-ups – e.g. much of the statistics on policing in the US, for example, is provided by the police themselves. It can also be a question of blind spots. When I started the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain in 2007, a number of journalists and others asked why there was a need when there were no statistics available to show that leaving Islam was even an issue. That’s why for me statistics or facts collected by activist campaigns are so important as they bring attention to problems that have been ignored – e.g. in the case of honour-related crimes, apostasy and also systematic racism in policing.
Ali Rizvi: Whenever we talk about these protests and the importance of them, a lot of people point out that the US is actually one of the least racist countries in the world. I understand this as somebody who is also an immigrant, who has come to North America from places like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, where, racism is much more rampant, open, and even state-endorsed. The way the Saudis treat Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos and non Arabs, I can tell them I agree that yes, it is one of the least racist countries in the world, though Canada is much better. These are pluralistic nations of immigrants, and I appreciate that. But it is important to understand how the US became this way. It is precisely because of protests like the ones we’re seeing today, many of which were much more violent and bloody in the past, even if you don’t count the Civil War. In contrast, the vast majority of protesters today—and this is now the largest protest in US history—are peaceful.
Maryam Namazie: One response to the assertion that the US is not a racist country would be that things might be better because of struggles similar to BLM – like the civil rights movement in the US, which was met with incredible violence by the state and white supremacists, including for example the assassination of civil rights leaders. Even so, it is questionable to consider the US as one of the least racist countries in the world given its history of slavery, racial segregation via Jim Crow laws, and the continued racism practiced today. 13th is an excellent film on how this racism continues in the prison industrial complex by incarcerating huge numbers of black men in particular and like slavery facilitates slave labour and the denial of citizenship rights. Much of the US’ criminal justice system was established during the Jim Crow era so it is unsurprising that racial biases continue in all areas, including in education. Despite changes in law– e.g. Brown vs Board of Education – to desegregate schools, segregation is still rife. My sister is a teacher in Yonkers where most of the students are black and minority.
Also, saying other countries are more racist is a form of whataboutery that we ex-Muslims are familiar with. When we speak about Islamism, we are reminded about US imperialism as if one cannot speak about a specific injustice and inequity. Now, we are reminded about racism in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan when we defend protests against racism in the US. I think those who try to take the focus elsewhere are more interested in making political and ideological points rather than addressing issues like Islamism or racism.
Racism is institutionalised in the US because as the abolitionist Angela Davis says, it hasn’t transitioned into a post-slavery society to include former slaves. The people who think that the US is the least racist country in the world really have no idea what racism means and its effects on people’s lives.
Ali Rizvi: I want to talk about the looting and vandalism that many right-wingers have tried to make the face of BLM, despite the fact that the majority of protesters are peaceful. We did see it initially in the first few days as we have in past historical events when particularly egregious incidents, in this case the horrific Floyd killing, spark intense public anger. People get angry. They immediately react. They want to be seen and heard for once. And then the conversation begins. It’s worth noting that the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, President Obama, Atlanta mayor Keisha Bottoms, celebrities like Killer Mike, and even the family of George Floyd, have denounced the looting as a distraction from the goal. To be sure, people do understand why it happens, they sympathize with the anger and the frustration and the helplessness, but it nevertheless did die down. And of course, there were opportunistic actors also coming in. But again, people who want to oppose the protests want to make looting the face of it, but these are the largest protests in the history of the US, and they have been astoundingly peaceful. People in my family, my nephews, nieces, they’ve all participated in them. Interestingly, since we’re talking about police brutality, it’s curious that when you look at these videos of looters, there’s no police in sight; but you see countless videos of the police tear gassing peaceful protesters.
Maryam Namazie: When you have mass movements and people on the streets, there will be those who want to take advantage of the situation. As ex-Muslims we know how the far-Right tries to hijack our movement and we have those who have bought into this narrative but you cannot tar a mass movement for equality and an end to discrimination in this way. Mass movements are messy and often not coordinated and not everything always goes according to plan but you need to look at the aims and the actions of movements to determine their legitimacy. BLM has brought attention to an epidemic of police violence and state violence against black and also minority people in the United States. And what it’s done is it has shifted culture in a very short period of time. Seeing George Floyd die in front of our eyes helped people see what anti-racists have been saying for many decades. So this shift has to be celebrated and strengthened and supported so that change can come about. It’s particularly important at this period in time too given that Trump is in the presidency – someone who clearly promotes white identity politics and privileges supremacy. In a period of Trump, Boris Johnson, and far-Right parties in Europe,
a progressive people’s movement taking a stand for equality is a victory for us all. And I think that’s one of the most important points that I want to raise – BLM is a gain for us. When we agree that Black Lives Matter, we’re not saying that other lives are not important, but that all lives can truly matter if black lives matter.
I don’t see myself merely as an ally of BLM. I don’t like the term ally. I have skin in the game. For me, this is my movement. And as I would like others who are not ex-Muslim to see our movement as their own. And this is what BLM has managed to do despite all the misinformation. They have brought lots of different people out on the streets. The protests have been inclusive and inspiring. And because of this deep-seated impact, everybody’s jumping on the bandwagon – from the NFL to Starbucks to Boris Johnson – because the narrative has shifted and it’s shifted in people’s favour.
We need to recognise important moments like these if we are going to build on them and push for equality and human rights for everyone.
Let me also add that not everyone defending or opposing Black Lives Matters are friends or enemies. Also, your enemy’s enemy is not necessarily your friend. I decide what side I take based on its politics and its positive impact on human life and welfare. I know Islamists are jumping on the BLM movement to promote their anti-Americanism. Ayatollah Khamenei speaks of African American’s being brutalised when a pillar of his regime has been based on the brutalisation of minorities, workers, women, LGBT, atheists, dissenters and so on. Also, his regime promotes racism and bigotry against migrants, including Afghan migrants in Iran. But I cannot stop defending BLM because the Iranian regime has Tweeted in its favour, nor am I going to stop defending protests in Iran because Trump Tweeted in their favour. Trump’s or the Islamic regime of Iran’s “support” is only to win political points against one another rather than out of any real concern for people’s lives.
Moreover, there are some on the Left (what is now for me at least confusingly called Woke) that denigrate and accuse anyone who doesn’t agree with them. This section of the Left has long accused us of Islamophobia when criticism of religion and the religious-Right is clearly not the same as bigotry against believers but I am not going to start supporting the far-Right and white nationalists just because some on the Left make false accusations. I do not determine my politics based on what the Islamists or the so-called Woke Left say. And I don’t think anyone should.
As an aside, though, I think there is a lot of hypocrisy with the focus being solely on what is called the woke Left or Social Justice Warriors. To me, it seems like a sly, underhanded way of attacking the Left in general whilst legitimising right-wing politics or at the very least remaining silent on the Right’s role in promoting Islamism or racism or what have you. For example, much of the support for Islamism has come from Right-wing governments. Islamism was brought to centre-stage because of United States foreign policy during the Cold War and its attempt at creating a green Islamic belt around the Soviet Union at the time. Some of the US’ or UK’s closest allies are Islamist states like the Saudi government that can even cut into pieces a journalist in their embassy in another country and business carries on as usual. What I want to say is that there are those on the Right and Left that defend Islamism. The Right’s role has had the most impact because it has been part of state policy so the focus on SWJs saying something on Twitter or even cancelling a talk is not on par with how those in power have facilitated Islamism. A little perspective might help those who only seem to see the Left bogeyman but never manage to hold the Right responsible for its actions. There is never any excuse for the SJW or Wore Left but there are always excuses for the far-Right and the white nationalists. You can see this in all the discussions taking place nowadays. For example, people are quick to rightly condemn identity politics which homogenises the Muslim “community” and equate criticism with bigotry but some of those very same people buy into white identity politics and its victimhood narrative to the extent that they will say that there is not systematic racism against black people in policing (using limited statistics) whilst saying – without their almighty statistics mind you – that there is in fact systematic racism against white people!
For me, in the end, where you stand on BLM boils down to your politics and which side one stands with. People should stop hiding behind statistics and instead they should have the courage to defend their politics. My politics are clear. I’m going to keep pushing for people to support Black Lives Matter, to support an end to police violence, racism in policing in the same way that I’m going to push for an end to blasphemy and apostasy laws. I think they’re linked. And I think it’s important that we see those links if we’re going to move forward. No movement can win in isolation. You can’t win women’s rights if men are not involved in the fight for liberation. You can’t win rights for ex-Muslim if Muslims are not fighting in your corner. Black Lives Matter has become a mass movement. We need to both support them but also show them how our movements are linked, how our lives are linked, how our rights are linked. That’s how change always comes about I think that is key for me.
Ali Rizvi: Well, for once, you’re far from alone. Something very different is happening this time round. I’ve heard all the doomsday prophesizing about a moral panic and impending chaos, but most people don’t think so. For the first time, and this is actually incredible, 74% percent of people in the US support the protests. And even more amazingly, 53 percent of Republicans—that’s Trump’s party—support the protests. These are very, very compelling numbers and we can see the impact. NASCAR has banned Confederate flags from its races. Mississippi, the last state to have it on its flag, is now removing it. Major sports leagues in the US have embraced Black Lives Matter, including the NFL, which once shunned Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee, but now openly admits that was a mistake. People often dismiss these cultural changes, but they are very significant. Corporations and companies that never get into these charged issues have released strong statements. This is something that I have never seen before.
They’re talking seriously about getting rid of qualified immunity, a special tier of immunity that’s given to police officers, allowing them to get away with much more than the rest of us can. There is a bipartisan effort now to try to get rid of it. So, this is a fight that we’re winning.
For all of you who are disillusioned by the systemic racism-deniers, especially on social media, know that for once, this movement is really gaining ground, not only in the US, but internationally.
Maryam Namazie: Statistics are often used to deny systematic racism so we should look more carefully at these statistics but if I am completely frank, I feel some are hiding behind statistics in order to put forward a certain type of politics. There is political impetus for denying systematic racism against black people (using statistics) whilst maintaining systematic racism against white people (without any statistics). None of us are impartial and we are all trying to put forward our political perspectives – including the far-right, the Islamists… As I said before, differences are about politics and there is a level of dishonesty to hide behind statistics rather than defend one’s position clearly.
For me, placing the focus on “racism against white people” and denying racism against black people is because those people have bought into white nationalism and white identity politics, which is another form of identity politics.
On the issue of statistics, though, I want to reiterate a few points. There are many things you can’t show with statistics, especially if biases or blind spots exist. The statistics on police violence, for example, is gathered by the police themselves, and that’s one of the main problems with available government statistics. The police can lie, can hide the truth and the blue shield of silence means that they will never be held to account. It’s only when video evidence comes to light and their narrative is challenged that we get to see what really happened.
For example, when I was arrested by the NYPD in 1991 at a protest against the War Parade welcoming returning soldiers from the first Gulf War, I was pulled over the barricades, kicked in the face, my glasses broken; one police jumped on my stomach with his knee. I was so shocked I remember asking him “What are you doing?” while he was on my stomach. I had internal bleeding. It was a traumatic experience for me. In jail, we were woken up in the middle of the night and photographed and told we wouldn’t be protesting if we had been fucked properly… We became known as the War Parade 18 (I was working on a one year contract at Amnesty International at the time) and charged with obstructing government administration, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, felony riot… charges that could have ended with 13 years in prison. The court case took many years. We were attacked by police at the court as well. None of us had money for lawyers so we were lucky that a group of left-wing lawyers agreed to take up our case pro bono and that a War Parade 18 Defence Campaign helped to raise funds for court-related costs. Eventually, news footage was discovered showing how the police had actually attacked and beaten us and the charges were finally dropped.
I tell you my experience to explain how you cannot rely on police statistics. Police brutality, if recorded, will blame the victim by claiming – for example – that they resisted arrest. My own arrest and the ensuing court case opened my and my family’s eyes to the immense violence and brutality of the police. One of the black women arrested with me had braids from her head completely pulled out. Another 16 year old black woman had a concussion as cops told her she would get the Rodney King treatment when they attacked us in the court house! I hope I would have had empathy without my traumatic experience but because of what happened to me, a world previously hidden opened up. Political commentator Trevor Noah makes an excellent point about this; with only 21% of US adults coming in contact with police, and opinions on police formed via television programmes showing how they can do no wrong, one can begin to see why the general public have taken so long to understand the extent of racism in policing. Until George Floyd when perceptions shifted considerably. As we know from his case, the initial police report was very different from what we all saw on our screens during the last harrowing nearly 9 minutes of George Floyd’s life. Initially, the police report said he was resisting arrest but the video clearly showed otherwise – him pleading for his life, calling for his mother and saying he couldn’t breathe. In the case of Breonna Taylor who was shot dead in her own home, the police report initially listed her injuries as none – though she had been shot 8 times. In the case of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, the father and son who killed him whilst he was jogging were only arrested two months later. Initially, the police said there were no grounds for arrest as the father and son had used their citizen’s arrest rights in confronting Arbery. Later when the video came to light showing that he was in fact jogging, it was revealed that there had even been orders not to arrest the two white men. Two District Attorneys also had to recuse themselves because of connections with one of the killers…
So, if statistics are based on police reports, you can see very clearly how they can be fallible and deceptive. And we only know the reality is very different in the rare cases that video footage or other evidence comes to light.
Therefore, I find it absurd when some say that according to statistics only a few of those killed were actually innocent! More importantly, even if someone has committed a crime, why should they be killed during arrest? And how many were killed like George Floyd and there is no video footage to prove it?
In 2016, a US government pilot project to count police killings which drew on open-source data and a survey of local authorities found that the rate of those killed were much more than official reports. It recorded 270 homicides by officers in three months in 2015. The FBI said earlier this year that it had counted just 442 in all of 2015 because the FBI’s annual count of homicides by police, depends on police chiefs voluntarily submitting their numbers. So, clearly, data is not being fully shared. Also, when other police officers are the only witnesses, they will defend other cops and it is hard to get the facts and data in all the cases.
Ali Rizvi: One of the studies that is quoted by a lot of systemic racism-deniers is the Harvard study by Roland Fryer, which looked both at police shootings and non-lethal force—which is serious in and of itself. As I said before, George Floyd, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray weren’t shot by police. Fryer found that black people are at least 50% more likely to be roughed up by police, and this disparity cannot be explained by offending rates alone. But he found no racial disparities when it comes to shootings. The paper was widely criticised. For one, it wasn’t peer-reviewed and this is stated in a disclaimer at the outset. Second, the police shootings data came almost entirely from police reports, often written by the involved officers themselves. This is like obtaining data on medical malpractice from the accused doctors themselves. Obviously, when you’re getting your data from law enforcement authorities who also have the power and interest to hide these incidents from the public eye, you’re not going to get an accurate picture. Third, looking at racial bias among police shootings alone ignores a fundamental component of the story: police encounters. Most police killings happen during routine traffic stops, arrests for non-violent or petty crimes, responses to domestic disturbances, and so on. And every killing begins with an encounter. Studies on police shootings that find no racial disparities, such as the PNAS Johnson and Cesario study, typically analyse all shootings, when they should really be looking at how frequently police use force in all encounters, and then correct for differences between blacks and whites. Recently, the authors of the PNAS study retracted the study in full for this reason. And a letter criticising the study for being based on “flawed science” was signed by an astounding 871 academics and researchers from a variety of disciplines, ranging from criminal justice and economics to medicine, engineering, and statistics.
And by the way, the data on systemic racism in police encounters is unequivocal. Many studies show that black people are more likely to be stopped by police. A recent study of 95 million traffic stops—the largest study of this kind to date, I believe—showed that this disparity disappears at night, when the race of the driver can’t be clearly discerned. That’s jarring. And once stopped, black people are more likely than whites to be searched, but less likely to be carrying contraband. Once arrested, they are more likely to be charged, incarcerated, and receive longer sentences and higher bail for similar offenses compared to whites. They are more likely to be subjected to physical force, even after adjusting for higher offense rates. Young black men are more likely to be seen as threatening by police than young white men. People sometimes say black people resist arrest. This is also baseless. The data shows that black people are less likely to resist arrest, and more likely to be unarmed. And even when they’re compliant, black people are 21% more likely to experience police aggression than compliant whites. So being compliant and cooperative with arresting officers actually disproportionately benefits whites significantly more than blacks.
The thing is, you simply cannot divorce police shootings from police encounters, where the evidence of systemic racism is robust and unambiguous. Physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson knows a thing or two about data analysis, and he puts it simply and clearly when he says, “If your demographic gets stopped ten times more than others, then your demographic will die at ten times the rate.”
Maryam Namazie: As an aside, even if someone resists arrest, how does that justify killing them? Why is it considered justifiable for the police to kill? We are always hearing about how the person in question would have been alive if only they hadn’t resisted arrest or ran or … As Trevor Noah says “There’s one common thread beyond all the ifs. If you weren’t black, maybe you’d still be alive.”
And BLM isn’t just relevant in the US. Some ask why BLM exists in the UK as if the UK doesn’t have a racism problem. One of the reasons, George Floyd’s death moved so many across the world is because the racism, the dehumanisation, the brutality hit a nerve. It was personal for a lot of people who had seen this day in and day out throughout their own lives. And racism isn’t history or old news as some would like us to believe. Take into account the wider context, from race science and eugenics, which Angela Saini documents in her book “Superior,” the perpetuation of the idea that black people are biologically inferior and white people biologically superior, colonialism, the hostile environment… and you can see its ugly effects very much today. The recent Windrush scandal in Britain shows that this is not past history and that it’s very much part of present-day British history in the making. People who came to Britain 50-60 years ago as children and Commonwealth/British citizens were detained and abused and deported from the only home they had known because no proof was enough to show they had lived here all their lives. Later, it was revealed that the Home Office had actually torn up their landing cards so they could deport large numbers of people. Some died before being able to return to Britain and some have not yet been able to return to their homes and families.
Even slavery is not in the past. British taxpayers only stopped paying for slavery in Britain in 2015. An equivalent of 17 billion pounds was paid in reparations not to the enslaved but to slave owners for loss of property!
Ali Rizvi: I don’t think those who say slavery or the Jim Crow laws ended many years ago understand how the collective mindset behind these, still continue to this day. Yuval Noah Harari wrote about this in one of the most eloquent ways that I’ve seen, in Sapiens. From the time they were brought to America as slaves, black people were thought of as unclean, unintelligent, and incompetent. When slavery ended, they were still thought of that same way—the stereotype persisted into the segregated Jim Crow era, which was essentially premised on the stereotype. If some of these freed black people got a good education and then applied for a good job, they were very likely to lose it to an equally or even less qualified white person because of the stereotype. Then, the society sees that despite being freed and having a shot at education, white people still hold all the good jobs, and that probably means that black people really aren’t as smart or competent, so our stereotype was right. To quote Harari: “Trapped in this vicious circle, blacks were not hired for white-collar jobs because they were deemed unintelligent, and the proof of their inferiority was the paucity of blacks in white-collar jobs.” So no, it hasn’t ended, and Black Lives Matter isn’t just about George Floyd. It’s about the overall system. George Floyd was just a catalyst. His killing was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The system was built in the Jim Crow era and hasn’t significantly been updated since.
Maryam Namazie: There are instances in history where masks are removed and the truth comes through despite all the propaganda and lies and I think George Floyd’s death was one such moment. It was 8 minutes and 46 seconds of police sitting on his back and neck with such impunity and disregard for human life even though they knew they were being filmed. It’s because there is never any accountability and they felt they would get away with it. Chauvin who kneeled on Floyd’s neck had 18 prior complaints against him as did some of the other officers involved.
Apart from that fact that there is no accountability, the problem is systematic, which doesn’t mean that everyone in the system is racist but that regardless of individuals within, the systems and institutions perpetrates racism and produce disparate outcomes.
In the UK, it was the killing of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 that highlighted institutionalised racism in policing. Stephen was an 18-year-old young black man who was murdered by a group of white racists in Eltham, southeast London whilst waiting for a bus. It took 20 years for two of those who were responsible to be prosecuted. The McPherson inquiry into his killing found that his family were failed because the police were not able to recognise both the racism that killed him but also the racism in the police. All the officers involved in the investigation denied racism or racist conduct and genuinely believed that he or she had acted without bias or discrimination. They also wouldn’t accept that the murder was racially motivated. So what this case showed is that racism is often hidden, unconscious, insidious, difficult to detect and even unintentional so it doesn’t show up in statistics.
Racism in general terms consists of conduct or words or practices which disadvantage or advantage people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. In its more subtle forms, it can be as damaging as in its overt forms.
The McPherson inquiry stated that institutional racism was “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”
Ali Rizvi: It is also important to recognise what systemic racism isn’t. It is expressly not about an army of racist cops going out and looking to kill black people. You can’t see what’s going on inside someone’s head. We don’t even know if Chauvin was genuinely racist, or just a general sociopath who may have done the same to a white man—unless we have mind-reading fMRI type technology, we can’t objectively evaluate that. But what we can say is that the criminal justice system produces racially disparate outcomes. For that, the evidence is overwhelming, as I cited earlier. This system produces and trains white cops, black cops, good cops, and bad cops. It’s similar to what we see with religion. Major religions like Islam and Christianity are fundamentally misogynistic, and we can see these misogynistic attitudes manifest themselves in religious women as well. Sure, no analogy is perfect, but you do see, and studies have shown, that black officers who come out of the system can also harbour its inherent biases. Now you have artificial intelligence being used to predict crime, where some communities are given more policing attention than others. And if the data being fed into these AI algorithms is bad, you will have officers of all races making assumptions about people in one community potentially being more violent than another, and that will affect how they approach, say, routine traffic stops. This problem is huge, and its roots are deeply entrenched in very contaminated soil.
Maryam Namazie: The criminalisation of the black male in particular has helped pave the way for a new form of slavery as shown very clearly in Ava DuVernay’s brilliant documentary – 13th – on mass incarceration in America. The view of black men as naturally violent and criminal hasn’t changed much from the view that was perpetrated during slavery and the Jim Crow era. This view of black men gives permission to the police to act with impunity.
Ignoring all these facts and realities and using limited statistics to “prove” there is no racism against black people, whilst also regurgitating the racist narrative of the “violent criminal” black man isn’t about being rational but about hiding behind some statistics to promote a politics that is informed by white identity politics. My politics in support of BLM is clear. What is unclear to me at least is why those who hide behind statistics don’t just come out and defend their politics rather than reducing an important social and political issue to a question of statistics.
If you rely on statistics alone, you can reach the shocking conclusion of Tulsa police major who said “All of the research says we’re shooting African Americans about 24% less than we probably ought to be, based on the crimes being committed”!
Also, as I mentioned before, official statistics can be misleading and deceptive. So when looking at statistics, it helps to look at those gathered by activists and human rights defenders like Mapping Police Violence, which shows how there were only 27 days in 2019 where police didn’t kill someone with black people being three times more likely to be killed than white people; three times more likely to be unarmed compared to white people. Also, the level of violent crime in US cities doesn’t determine the rate of police violence. For example, in Buffalo, New York, where the percentage of “people of colour” is 50 percent, violent crime rate is twelve per thousand and no one has been killed by Buffalo police from 2013-16. In Florida, where the percentage of “people of colour” is 42 percent and violent crime rate is nine per thousand – less than Buffalo – 13 people have been killed by Orlando police in that same period. And there’s no accountability for these killings. 99 percent of police killings from 2013-19 haven’t resulted in anyone being charged.
As Maurice Mcleod writes: “Black people are being killed by law enforcement in the USA at a rate of about two deaths per week. This is almost identical to the rate that lynchings took place in the Jim Crow era. Lynching didn’t stop in the USA, it just put on a uniform.”
Ali Rizvi: And while we’re talking about evidence, there’s the data from the National Academy of Sciences Frank Edwards, Hedwig Lee, and Michael Esposito, showing the lifetime risk of a black man being killed by police to be 1 in 1000. That’s staggering. Over the course of their lifetime, one of every 1000 black men can expect to be killed by police. And when they point out that black people offend at a higher rate than whites—which many of the studies showing racial bias adjust for, by the way—we also have to look at what is being implied. Why did it become that way? Is it in their DNA? Is it genetic? Could it possibly be the effect of the same systemic biases that these people are denying? Are we going to talk about that? Why are black people on average at a lower socioeconomic tier? What are the reasons for it? And are those reasons systemic? And that will also bring you back to this whole conversation about systemic racism. Some things become so deeply entrenched in society that we consciously forget how big they are. It’s like Google, which just started as a company, but is now literally a verb that means “search for on the web.” Google this, Google that. It becomes part of our day-to-day living, and we consciously forget that it’s actually a brand. The demonisation and criminalisation of black men, I think, operates at that level.
Maryam Namazie: The Sentencing Project shows that “African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, and they are more likely to experience lengthy prison sentences. African-American adults are 5.9 times as likely to be incarcerated than whites and Hispanics are 3.1 times as likely. As of 2001, one of every three black boys born in that year could expect to go to prison in his lifetime…” Also, they show that the same crime by a white and black person doesn’t have the same consequences.
A large part of this is as I mentioned before the criminalisation of black men in America. It’s like the criminalisation of migrant men who are seen as threats to “our white women”. This is a continuation of racist propaganda seen in the Jim Crow era that feeds into fear and legitimises scapegoating and dehumanisation whilst encouraging silence.
On the issue of violence, too, it is interesting how the more expansive all-encompassing, institutionalised violence inflicted by the state is never seen as violence but taking food or shoes from a shop is. I’m not for looting, but the British Museum is filled with things that have been looted from Iran and other countries. The West was built on the looting of other countries. The looting of those in power, however, is completely legal and legitimate. But if you are poor and disenfranchised, then it is a major offence. The division between legal and illegal looting is important here as is legal and illegal violence.
It is perfectly legal for the police to kill you with impunity. And still be fully funded. Look at police budgets. The NYPD budget is $11 Billion – imagine! 1 in every 125 New Yorker is homeless, people don’t have health care, schools are dilapidated, services are being cut but the police budget keeps growing and growing. That’s why people are calling for defunding the police and pouring money into the communities instead. Community policing can be dangerous as Rahila Gupta explains with “community leaders” acting as gatekeepers and it’s difficult to see how police can be abolished in a capitalist system but transformation is desperately needed. Much of the money poured into police departments should be poured into social services and welfare.
Ali Rizvi: Police reform is key. And smarter funding isn’t just a hypothetical thought experiment. It has been tried and tested in places like Camden, New Jersey. As you said, these police departments have monstrous budgets. But the problem is they’re dealing with things that they really shouldn’t have to deal with, like traffic stops, where so many of these unfortunate incidents happen. Why do you need super armed police with tasers and guns giving out speeding tickets? Why do you need super armed police to deal with homelessness, domestic disputes, mental health issues, or drug addiction? You should have substance abuse specialists dealing with that. You should have social workers dealing with domestic issues. Of course, it’s still dangerous work, and police could still have a role, but it would be a secondary role. It’s putting too much pressure on the police that if there is a mental health issue, if there is a homelessness issue, well, call the police. They’re underqualified for all of this and overworked already. We should absolutely be talking about redistributing these resources to other disciplines as well. I do want to say here that from a branding perspective, I don’t exactly love slogans like “defund the police” or “abolish the police.” You always end up having to explain what it means, and that becomes a distraction from the issue. I hope they call it something that’s quicker and clearer to understand, even something more aggressive sounding, like “radical police reform.”
Maryam Namazie: Now that attention is on the police, there is a chance to push for fundamental changes. It is going to be difficult because I think the police play an important role in managing communities for those in power. And violence is an important component of that control and management. I wonder if the police are really reformable and if reform is enough?
Ali Rizvi: It’s like the conversation we have about reforming Islam versus being ex-Muslim. It really depends what you mean by “reform.” If you look at it, what Minneapolis is doing is they’re dismantling the entire police force and then they’re building it again from the ground up. Right-wing alarmists love to talk about the dismantling part without mentioning the part about rebuilding. Nonetheless, that is also a form of reform. There is a misunderstanding that this means that they’re going to absolutely get rid of policing, which is not the case there, and it certainly wasn’t the case in Camden, New Jersey. No one serious is talking about getting rid of the police. In Camden, they dismantled what they had, and then rehired a lot of the officers. They implemented new systems of training. They established new protocols on de-escalation of situations. In this sense, yes, I do think reform is possible. I’ve had friends who are police officers who genuinely want to help, have good intentions, and want to do the right thing, often at great risk to their lives, livelihoods, and mental health. Another parallel with Islam and Muslims: I often hear apologists say that the problems in the Muslim world aren’t because of Islam. Islam is great, they say, but Muslims are the problem and they misrepresent it. The “bad apples” thing. And I think it’s the other way around. Most Muslims are good, conscientious people. It’s the system, the ideology that is warped.
Maryam Namazie: I understand what you’re saying but, if I’m honest, I hate the police as I hate immigration. I shake when I pass a border, when I see the police as I do when I pass the embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It makes me feel very uncomfortable. And again, there might be wonderful police officers but the system is unjust and it has to change. And because of public attention and pressure right now, there is the possibility for demanding accountability. But for transformation, I can’t see it happening under this system. I am very much on the left. And I do think that racism, sexism… is intertwined with capitalism and a system that puts profit before human welfare. Whatever gains we make, if we’re not vigilant, can easily be taken away so the fight for equality or an end to racism is ongoing. But whilst attention is on BLM, it is important to push for change. And to remember that an injury to one is an injury to all. This is not a slogan. If our societies are unequal and racist, it affects everybody, even those who are not facing that inequality directly.
Ali Rizvi: I think you’re right that it is the system that is unjust, and it tars everyone who is a part of it. We may not align on everything politically even as fellow left-liberals, but on that fundamental point, I’m with you.
I also wanted to talk to you about identity politics. I’ve often heard you talk about identity politics and how problematic it is. This is also something we hear right-wingers complain about all the time, even though identity politics is even more rampant on the right. They’ll complain about how the left fetishizes black and brown identity. I saw a funny comic about what would happen if these Trumpistanis were around at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s time, saying, “There you go, Martin, making everything about race again!” But they’re so obviously blind to the much more insidious identity politics on their side, about white nationalism, “race realism,” preserving their European or Judeo-Christian heritage, and so on. They talk about how the nation states of Europe must maintain their identity, as if it’s somehow immutable. But you, I think, are one of the only people I know who has called both sides out on this.
Maryam Namazie: There’s confusion on what identity politics is. Some feel Black Lives Matter is about identity politics. But there is a difference between promoting difference / superiority and demanding equality and rights. Like ex-Muslims are. I think it’s important to make distinctions between liberation movements, between movements that are defending rights, that are defending equality like BLM versus identity politics, which defends difference and superiority (two sides of the same coin) and promotes a form of narrow nationalism and the idea that it’s only authentic members of your in-group that matter. We’ve seen this perspective often and it’s detrimental to liberation movements. With BLM, like with any movement, it is important to look at what they say and do and their aims. BLM protests include all types of people – and is based not on identity – but on common cause – to end institutional racism in the police.
Ali Rizvi: If your identity has been the basis of discrimination against you and you call it out, that’s not the kind of identity politics we’re talking about. We are talking about identity politics being problematic when identity is exploited to gain some kind of privilege, not when it is asserted to fight for equal treatment. Which brings us to the question of white privilege, which I also want to ask you about. One thing that has been really unprecedented about these protests is the diversity. You have white people, black people, brown people, men, women, gay, straight, trans—all marching together. Not only are a majority of white people showing solidarity with the protesters, but also, as we mentioned earlier, a majority of Republicans. So even though we know white privilege is real, how helpful is it to bring it up in this context? Is it a distraction? Does it take away from BLM’s focus on trying to get rid of systemic racism?
Maryam Namazie: Personally, I don’t like the term white privilege because I agree with the writer Kenan Malik that “viewing white people – all white people – as ‘guilty and complicit’ distorts political issues and deflects from real causes.” Just as men can be feminists, white people can be anti-racists but I can understand the concepts of privilege and entitlement. As ex-Muslims, as LGBT, as women, once can understand how the default in society is religious, straight or male. It’s also white.
Ali Rizvi: Another issue I wanted to get your views on. A lot of people are concerned about vandalism and the destroying of statues. Anti-BLM folk have made this the face of the movement. Do they have a point? Are they right to be concerned about historical revisionism? They want to get rid of the statues of Winston Churchill. There is a street in the city that I live called Winston Churchill and they want to change the name of it. Some wanted to get rid of statues of Gandhi. There’s a petition saying we must bring down the Gandhi statue because he was a racist. Set aside the long-overdue acknowledgment here that people of colour can also be racist, but how do you view this issue of statues?
Maryam Namazie: It’s not really revisionism or erasure of political figures if there are no statues glorifying them. There is a space for historical statues in museums but in the public space? Is it fitting to have statues of slave owners, for example, or the Belgian king Leopold II whose rule killed 10 million Africans or of Winston Churchill whose crimes included 50,000 men, women and children forced into concentration camps? Stalin also fought the Nazis, but do we want a statue of murderer like him in the public space? In history, victors decide who is glorified and a large part of that actually includes erasure and revisionism of reality.
Ali Rizvi: I understand. But there is another way that I look at this. First of all, I’ve never cared all that much for statues in general. It doesn’t really matter to me. And I don’t have a problem with some of these statues being moved from the public space into museums. But I want to channel something that Barack Obama said: people are complex, and people change. I grew up in the 80s, when homophobia was vastly normalised. In my school, we used anti-gay slurs as part of what was the norm. We would use the “f” word and call things we didn’t like “gay.” As I grew older, more aware, and the public conversation changed, I evolved my views on this, and felt embarrassed about how I used to think. We sometimes underestimate the power of indoctrination from your environment. We have seen countless examples of people who embraced misogyny and anti-scientific thinking when they were religious, and then changed when they left the religion. Cultural and political views work the same way. So when the questions come up, “Is this a statue we should destroy?” or “Is this a historical figure we should permanently cancel?” I put it through a test: If I was a white man living in North America in the early 1800s, would I be sympathetic to the idea of owning slaves? Chances are, yes. If I were a man living in 1915, would I subscribe to the idea of determined gender roles? Most of us would. A lot of these white Antifa kids today would probably harbour any number of racist and homophobic attitudes if they were transported back to the 1940s. From that lens, I give some historical figures a pass. But if I were transported back to the time of the Civil War, I know I wouldn’t be on the side of the Confederacy. If I went back to 1930, I know I would be evolving in favour of suffrage, just as I evolved in favour of LGBTQ+ rights in the late 1980s and early 1990s. So for me, there is a clear distinction between tearing down a Lincoln statue versus the statue of a Confederate general. It’s strange to me to imagine if two generations in the future, when lab-grown meat is the norm and killing animals for food is obsolete, people began to equate Obama and Trump as equally bad because both ate meat. It muddles history when we view it through the lens of our current ethics and moral standards.
Maryam Namazie: But current moral and ethics standards matter because it is part of human progress and history. Why celebrate slaver owners and criminals when there is so much of human history that deserves celebration. Those in power have very good reason for why they glorify slave traders and criminals and no amount of discussion will get them to change their minds. There had been years of petitioning to remove the statue of Colston in Bristol. He was a slave trader! Let that sink in and they did nothing so protesters took action and dumped the statue in the sea. I don’t see anything wrong with it. It’s not an act of violence. But it pushes boundaries and makes the authorities understand that glorifying slave traders is not acceptable – not in the 21 century. Every right that has been fought for has pushed boundaries and made unacceptable what was normal before the struggle reached fruition. “Riots” for civil rights, gay rights, for women’s suffrage, people arrested, killed…
Ali Rizvi: They were killed, Martin Luther King and Harvey Milk were assassinated.
Maryam Namazie: After a fight has been won, it shifts culture, perceptions, laws, policies, society and it is seen as a positive movement in hindsight but not so when it is taking place all around us. Then it is labelled violence, rioting, vandalism, criminal…
Ali Rizvi: I’m with you on that. The transformative revolutions of the past that brought about changes like suffrage for women, civil rights, abolition of slavery, and gay rights were much more violent and bloody than what you’re seeing today. All those movements were called riots in their time. That doesn’t mean violence is okay, of course, but those who want to make a few incidents of violence and vandalism the face of the largest protest in American history are laughable.
I wanted to talk to you about one last point. We were talking about statistics and some of the problems with them, like data on shootings coming from police officers themselves. Often with data, people start dismissing lived experiences as anecdotes, as if they are of no significance. And I find that especially strange coming from ex-Muslims. How many times have we been told, well, your experience isn’t real, you only left Islam so you could get attention, make money, have sex and drink alcohol? In Bangladesh in 2015, when we saw a half-dozen secular bloggers violently hacked to death with machetes in a matter of months, people were talking about how this is not a serious issue in Bangladesh, the government is officially secular, and these are just a few bad Muslims who don’t represent Islam. Where were the statistics and data? I see the videos that Ex-Muslims of North America does, they are personal stories, anecdotal for sure, but do you dismiss them for want of more data?
When Rodney King was beaten, and black people were telling us this was the norm and not the exception, how much data was there on systemic racism and police brutality? Not everyone had a cell phone camera in 1992 like they do now so there is every reason to think that this was much more rampant back then than it is now, even though we see more videos of it now. When people asked at that time, we don’t know if this is really happening—where’s the evidence?—there wasn’t really a lot of it, was there? I was in high school at the time and it was no surprise to me, maybe because I used to listen to a lot of the early ‘90s hip-hop. NWA’s Fuck the Police was amazing, and Ice-T had a great song called Cop Killer, which sparked a lot of controversy for those who didn’t understand it. It obviously wasn’t a call to kill cops. It was a cry of protest, an expression of the frustration and anger around being on the receiving end of this immense injustice that remained invisible to the public eye. Funny enough, he plays a cop on TV now. So when Rodney King was beaten, my friends and I thought, okay, that’s what these guys have been rapping about for a few years now. It was depressing, obviously, but not as shocking as it was to the deniers. The thing with data and statistics when it comes to systemic racism in policing is that this is an ongoing inquiry where we’re still finding out about it. There are many things about it you can’t draw firm conclusions on, especially those who say it doesn’t exist. I think it was Carolyn Porco who talked about how hard it is to prove that something doesn’t exist. To prove there’s a cockroach in your house, all you need is to find one cockroach and you’re done. But to prove there isn’t, you have to search every nook and cranny thoroughly, repeatedly, and simultaneously. It’s essentially impossible. It is irresponsible and dangerous to conclude that systemic racism isn’t real when the evidence for it is so overwhelming. As rationalists, we should be following the evidence, in all its forms, and not the political narratives of denial that have almost become dogma in themselves.
It is bizarre to see some ex-Muslims who rightly lambasted the regressive left for turning a blind eye to Islamic supremacy now themselves turning a blind eye to white supremacy. Do you have any final comments on this?
Maryam Namazie: I would like to end by saying that BLM as a movement must be supported. I am not talking about a specific organisation. But about a movement for equality and an end to racism in policing. This isn’t saying that only black lives matter but that they matter too. The writer, Arundhuti Roy says arguing #alllivesmatter… “is a sly way of draining the politics out of what is being said by resorting to meaningless truisms. Asians and Whites are not being murdered, incarcerated, disenfranchised and impoverished in the US in the way African Americans are. Ever since slavery in the US ended there has been a concerted effort to violently hobble, hold down and enslave African Americans in other ways that appear to fit into the social contract and legal framework of a democracy.” Saying All Lives Matter is like saying AllPeopleMatter during Gay Pride or AllMenMatter during International Women’s Day. The aim is not to defend everyone but to trivialise and diminish the fight for gay rights or women’s rights and in this instance black lives.
As feminist Jessica Crispin wrote recently: “When we are dealing with someone who is indoctrinated or besotted with bad or regressive thinking, the intuitive approach is to educate or instruct. But there truly is no replacement for actual, physical, social encounter between humans to create a shared perspective. And right now, in this uprising, that is where the counterintuitive, but constructive, answer is forming. We are encountering each other in our shared (and forced) encounters with the police. The building can start from there. There is no shortcut. We must find one another on the streets.”
Whist things have shifted in such a short time in favour of those fighting against racism, what becomes of this fight in terms of lasting change depends on us all. No fight for equality or liberation is guaranteed. What happens in the end will depend on what we each do next.
It is an uphill battle. There are huge historical and real forces that are against racial equality, that are against an end to racism in policing because racism is a useful tool for control like religion or sexism as is a policy of divide and rule. But if there is hope, it is the streets where we find it most by standing with and for each other and recognising our common humanity.
Ali Rizvi: Well said. Thank you, Maryam.
Ali Rizvi is Pakistani-Canadian author of The Atheist Muslim and host of the Professional Novice. Maryam Namazie is Iranian-born activist and Spokesperson of Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. The above is an edited and expanded transcript of a 15 June 2020 podcast discussion.