By Muhammad Rabbani, CAGE Managing Director
Over the last couple of weeks, there’s been quite a strong debate that’s erupted since the announcement of a new Bill, The Nationality and Borders Bill, passing through Parliament that would grant powers to the Home Office to remove citizenship from any British citizen without notice. Over the weekend, a demonstration outside Downing Street was organised by a coalition of groups including Muslim Association of Britain, Media Diversified, South Asian Solidarity Group and CAGE.
My first awareness of the existence of two tiers of citizenship in the UK was when I received a call one night from my colleague Dr Asim Qureshi telling me about a case of a young man that had been deprived of his British citizenship. I took over the case the next day and spoke to the sister of this young man to discover that her brother had been stripped of his citizenship whilst he was in Somalia. He had received a letter of ‘notification’ in the post at his address here in London informing him that he is no longer a British citizen.
This happened ten years ago.
So from my own personal experience, I know the UK government has been doing this for at least a decade. It’s a form of medieval exile: when the King doesn’t like one of his (foreign looking) subjects, he sends them into ‘exile’ instead of putting them on trial in a court of law.
That individual I mentioned was Mahdi Hashi of Camden. His family contacted CAGE back in 2012. We highlighted his case and worked with the Mail on Sunday (yes, that racist rag) to ensure that the broader British public is informed of the excesses being committed under their watch.
After being stripped of his citizenship, Mahdi was kidnapped and taken to a US military base in neighbouring Djibouti. He was then forcibly sent to the US, a country he had never visited, all the while the UK Home Office stood by saying ‘he’s not our citizen anymore’. Eventually after serving his prison sentence in the US, which included evidence from a forced confession, he returned ‘home’ to Somalia and not London.
All of this made me reflect about this outpouring of concern and I felt compelled to share a few thoughts that you may find useful for any discussion or organising especially by the Muslim community.
1) What is this Bill actually going to change?
Clause 9 of the Nationality and Borders Bill introduces a provision that permits the Home Office to remove citizenship without notification. That’s the key power that is new. The reality is, the UK government already has the power to take away citizenship from British citizens and it has been using that power a lot in recent years. In fact, between 2010 and 2018 only, at least 150 British citizens were sent into ‘medieval exile’. Since 2017, even more probably, but we don’t have accurate data. Based on our experience, I’d put the figure closer to 500 Muslim citizens that have already been ‘sent into exile’.
So what this means is, Clause 9 of the Bill which talks about notification, is a smokescreen that hides the already existing practice of stripping British citizens of their citizenship.
So why is the Home Secretary introducing this Clause? It is in response to a 2021 High Court ruling that overturned the citizenship deprivation of a British woman, known as ‘D4’, because the government failed to issue a written notice to her as per existing law. So to save the government headaches and money if one of the future targets for ‘exile’ raises this technical question of notification again, the Government has moved the goal posts to guarantee it never happens. That’s it.
2) Therefore, our opposition to this Bill should not be on the basis of Clause 9 only.
We should oppose citizenship stripping with or without notification. All citizens should be EQUAL. There must never be two classes of citizenship. What this practice reveals is, the UK government has been running a two tier system of citizenship that is institutionally racist since at least the passing of the British Nationality Act 1981 but especially from Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act of 2002, coinciding with the UK joining the global War on Terror.
3) Our opposition to this Bill should also be on the basis that it totally violates all due process norms.
In all honesty, does it REALLY matter if they send a letter of notification or not? The real question is – how can it be right that a person’s citizenship is taken away? If a person commits a crime, they should be charged and sent to court to answer for their crimes – they can’t just be stripped of all rights and then sent into exile?!
And guess what – for the last 20 years, since the War on Terrorism began (ie war on Muslims accused of terrorism), hundreds of Muslims have had their citizenship taken away and each time, no charges were brought, no evidence was presented against them and no opportunity was given to them to appear in court to answer any accusations. You may not believe this, but their cases were heard in a place called SIAC (Special Immigration Appeals Commission) – which are ‘secret courts’ where the lawyer and the judges only enter and the defendant cannot attend. And these lawyers (called Special Advocates) are specially vetted by the UK security services and are therefore complicit in an extraordinary abuse of power by the State. These lawyers for the sake of advancing their careers are helping the secret state to put on a pretence of a fair trial, when clearly this is not the case. Yes this has all been happening for years now. To learn more about these ‘vetted lawyers’, look at the table in this article CAGE published in 2018: https://www.cage.ngo/secret-evidence-a-cover-for-torture-and-state-crimes
In an article for CAGE back in 2013, Frances Webber of the Institute of Race Relations, wrote: “It is worth repeating that none of those deprived of citizenship while abroad has been convicted of any criminal offence – and although ‘GI’ faced charges when he left the UK, they related to public order, not terrorism. But when it comes to British Muslims suspected of support for insurgency anywhere in the world, neither the presumption of innocence, nor the much-trumpeted ‘British value’ of fair play, will help them. British citizenship, even for second- and third- generation citizens, has become a mirage, insubstantial and misleading.”
4) Muslims have been the victims of this oppressive power more than any other group.
The vast majority of the cases so far are of Muslim citizens of Britain. There was one non-Muslim who was caught as a spy and she was deprived of her British citizenship and sent back to Russia, where she became a bit of a celebrity. Other than that, this power has been used against the Muslim community really.
So this proves that, in practice, this is institutionalised islamophobia if there ever was an example of it.
5) So, where has the Muslim movement in the UK been?
Muslims should have been organising against powers such as citizenship stripping, suspicionless stops at borders, bank account denials, surveillance and other institutional forms of oppression. Not ONLY because these powers are directed against Muslims more than any others, but because we are a people of justice and values, and we are required to oppose injustice and oppression wherever we see it. Also, any laws or powers that governments pass that curbs our ability to spread da’wah and organise together, should be at the forefront of our agenda’s since these could become barriers to sharing the message of Islam. But unfortunately, as this sudden outcry against the Nationality and Borders Bill shows, Muslim communities, leaders and groups have been largely missing or diverted.
CAGE supported an effort back in 2015 to gather more data on this issue. We could see the real impact of these powers (with or without official notification) on our community but we weren’t able to mobilise the community sufficiently. Is it because many people aren’t sufficiently moved unless they feel it has mainstream validation?
6) This whole episode reveals once again that the processes of the domestic ‘cold war’ on Terror has created new norms for Muslims in the UK and once these norms are set, they are used against OTHER groups too.
The UK Government used the argument that it is ‘combatting terrorism and extremism’ and ‘protecting national security’ and granted itself all these powers and then used it against Muslim citizens and no one spoke out! Many Muslims bought into these arguments and lies and remained silent instead of placing a check on the powerful. Naively they trusted these false narratives and many even bought into the demonisation of certain Muslim individuals that were caricatured in the press, not realising that this was simply laying the groundwork for an infrastructure of powers and the preparation of a public attitude towards the ‘other’. Today, many from our community are up in arms. They have finally come to the realisation and it is better to arrive, even if it’s late. However as a community we must recognise that we have a duty to defend targets of persecution out of principle – even if society makes it unpopular to do so – and if we were heedless for so long, we must prepare an answer or seek Allah’s forgiveness. We have to oppose injustice when we see it and especially before it becomes entrenched
7) We should welcome the public outcry and mobilisation by various groups, but also reflect deeper.
Questions for reflection:
- Why has this phenomenon not taken more prominence in the work of organisations that fight islamophobia and racism? It’s a power that has destroyed the personal, professional and family life of atleast, and probably vastly more than, 150 Muslim families in the UK. We need to do better as a community in focussing our efforts on the structural and institutional forms of islamophobia.
- Why has this institutional racism and islamophobia not featured more in the discourse of anti-racist organisers, writers and groups? How come there’s such a massive outcry now in December 2021 when in fact this power has been in operation since 2002 (and in law since 1981) atleast? Is it something to do with the fact that the people targeted for deprivation were not the ‘right type of citizens’ that deserved our defending and campaigning?
Philip Henshaw identified this almost 19 years ago when he said: “But the important point is that there cannot be different grades of Britishness in the eyes of the law. You are either British, or you are not. If you are committing treason, or actively inciting violence, then the law can deal with you. If, on the other hand, you are only exercising your right of free speech, then there is nothing to be done, and there is nothing that should be done. The law can decide which of these categories Abu Hamza falls into; it doesn’t need invented and specific categories of semi-Englishmen to address his case.”
And here is Moazzam Begg in 2010 in conversation with Ruth Barnett, a survivor of the holocaust, discussing citizenship deprivation and what that means for identity and belonging.
- Citizenship stripping is a stark form of institutional racism and islamophobia. Have you ever heard any concerns raised by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the official government body that has “the mandate to challenge discrimination, and to protect and promote human rights”? “Our job is to help make Britain fairer” they say. So why are they also silent and complicit in official and institutional discrimination? Oh yes, they were headed up by Trevor Phillips! If they are also complicit, can Muslim and other minority communities expect any fairness from them? Perhaps you’re thinking that there is hope in the European Court of Human Rights? But back in 2010, CAGE noted how they also rubber stamped UK’s decision to remove citizenship without due process. It’s not looking good.
- Is it really a success if the Home Office concedes to demands and agrees to issue a notification of deprivation? How is that a success when – as happened in all cases thus far – you will still get ‘a notification’ letter through the post…whilst you are in holiday in Morocco or Umrah in Saudi! And you have no idea they sent you a letter, since you’re not at home. You get a call from your wife or sibling in UK telling you that you are no longer a citizen! So this needs reflection too and campaigners mustn’t fall into the trap. Make a note of organisations and leaders that focus on clause 9 only, remind them to focus on the core issue. Whilst well intentioned, this statement could have been better worded for example.
- Even deeper reflection: what does this mean for the narrative that Muslim leaders and scholars have been pushing without qualification that ‘we are British Muslims, we are equal citizens’,assuming that this is actually true in every respect. I’ve debated with a number of these brothers and reminded them that they have to include more detail so that their message reflects the actual reality on the ground and that is: We are British citizens and we should assert our rights and obligations as EQUALS, we should think and act as equals under the law. And at the same time we must recognise that legally speaking, there is a two tier citizenship system that we must oppose and organise against. And even before that, there is a two tier class system in the psychology and culture of the natives in Britain, which manifests itself in attitudes towards black and brown people. This is cultivated and exploited by the elites of society, who do not consider non-whites as genuine citizens. Without this detail and nuance, we will be misleading our community into a false sense of security
8) Finally, we must be careful not to spread irrational fear.
As outlined above, these powers have already been in place for a long time and they continue being used against Muslims – so, in a sense, what’s new? This basic practice is not likely to change. Yes, we must oppose this Bill but in a way that doesn’t terrify our already anxious and fearful brothers and sisters! If we are alarmist in our approach – especially when its not backed up by facts – we will simply end up achieving what the islamophobic racist agenda wants to achieve, to paralyse our community through fear! So we need to keep things in proportion and continue to do da’wah, educate, organise and work for justice, because this is the right thing to do by our religion.
So to conclude, at its heart, this citizenship stripping power is a process that can only work if there is a two tier justice system alongside a two tier citizenship system. This is what needs to be opposed and not just the ‘notification clause 9’.
We should call for an equal system of citizenship and for a fair, transparent process to ensure that appropriate checks are placed on any government or entity with power. We should reject the idea of two classes of citizenship. We should work together in collaboration with others to oppose this Bill.
- Citizenship Deprivation: What you need to know, CAGE
- On citizenship deprivation: when neo-nationalism meets big tech, Red Pepper
- The Nationality and Borders Bill: Imperial nostalgia, fascist resurgence and social control, Media Diversified
- Removing clause 9 and beyond, Institute of Race Relations
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)