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  • Sahar Al-Faifi

13th: From Slave to Criminal with One Amendment

Updated: Mar 22, 2019

13th is a documentary film produced by Filmmaker Ava DuVernay, exploring the history of racial inequality in the US, that has manifested itself in different forms, one of which is the mass incarceration of African Americans. The US population comprises 5% of the total world population, yet 25% of the world's prisoners are in the US, ironically the land of the 'free'.

The name of the film 13th refers to the 13th amendment (XIII) of the US constitution that abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime and here where the mythology of black criminality that led to the mass incarceration of African Americans began. As a British Muslim woman committed to fighting and tackling Islamophobia, watching such a film has not only raised my awareness of the struggle of those who belong to the black minority people and communities of colour but also opened my eyes to the tactics and methodology of oppression allowing me to draw parallel lines between the discrimination of African Americans and the discrimination of Muslims.

The film shows how black criminality has been portrayed for over 100 years, by painting certain images that match well with the white imagination of black slaves as being savages, animalistic and rapists. An example of such a portrayal is a silent drama film produced in 1915, titled The Birth of a Nation that showed black men as animalistic, unintelligent and sexually aggressive towards white women. In this silent drama, these black men were later brutally persecuted by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). These types of images continued for decades, building a negative collective memory around the black community, to be eventually seen as the 'Other', a cause of harm and treated as an exception.

The story is the same when it comes to the Muslim community in the US and the UK, where they are portrayed and presented persistently in the media as a demographic, ideological and violent threat, to the extent the public fail to differentiate between average Muslims in the street and Da'esh (ISIS). There is also a failure in addressing the root causes of the creation of Da'esh and the political and social instability of the Middle East, Asia and other parts of the world.

The process of 'Otherness' is then followed by the dehumanisation of the black community, in order to provide justification for the denial of their rights and liberties that are fundamentally universal. Subsequently, the black community was put under special measures such as Jim Crow's laws of segregation from 1890 until 1965, followed by Arizona Senate Bill 1070, Probation and Parole laws, GPS system for prisoners and Stop and Frisk policy all of which were in the name of 'War on Drugs' that continues to ensure the mass incarceration of African Americans and communities of colour, allowing the private prison industries to thrive.

The story is no different for British Muslims who have been disproportionally the main subject of many new laws in the name of 'War on Terror', allowing the arms industry to thrive. Such UK laws include Section 44 of Terrorism Act (2000), Anti-Terrorism - Crime and Security Act (2001), Prevention of Terrorism Act (2005), and the Justice and Security Act (2013), which allows secret courts and extradition of UK residents and the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act known as PREVENT which has become public statutory duty since 2015.

It might be argued that the comparison between the black civil rights and the anti-Islamophobia movement is unfair, as such arguments diminish the 400 years of slavery and oppression of black people. Although this is true to some extent, it is worth mentioning that Islamophobia in Europe did not start with the 'War on Terror' or 9/11 but way before. Some historians trace Islamophobia in Europe back to the 15th century in Iberian Peninsula where Spanish Christians planted the seed for the historical foundation of racism led to the exclusion of the Moors (North African Muslims). In fact, the word race in Spanish dictionaries referred to lineage applied on horses. Something they learnt from Arabs who categorise horses. From here the word 'pure blood 'as an expression was initially applied to horses which then invaded the English dictionary. Eventually skin colour and religion began to replace blood as a racial and visible marker, which would give the authority to reproduce superiority.

Another common argument that I often hear especially from those who have verbally abused me in the streets is that they are not racists because Islam is not a race and therefore Islamophobia is not racism. It is true Islam is a religion rather than a race but indeed Islamophobia is the new racism. It is known that the majority of Muslims are black or of colour. However, interestingly racism is not exclusively based on a biological quality or skin colour but it can be also cultural. According to Stuart Hall a leading sociologist, cultural racism is when a group of people perceive their beliefs and customs as being culturally superior to the beliefs and customs of other groups. Therefore, the idea that "civilised" western culture is superior to "uncivilised" Islamic culture, whereby the latter does not respect liberty, democracy and freedom, has led to Muslims being perceived as savages and animalistic needing to be reformed if not abolished altogether. This is the kind of narrative that transformed the rhetorical cultural war into a literal war led by the UK and the US, since the time of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, opening the doors for the fatal alliance of Tony Blair and George W. Bush, destroying Iraq and Afghanistan.

Indeed, there are many intersections between the Black civil rights and the anti-Islamophobia movements and for that, the 13th documentary is a must watch by everyone. Muslims and non-Muslims, Black, white and people of colour, LGBTs, men and women must join Black lives matters as well as any movement against racism, Islamophobia and fascism. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" Martin Luther King.


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