Review of Rizwaan Sabir, The Suspect: Counterterrorism, Islam, and The Security State (London: Pluto Press, 2022.)
Greifswald, Germany (Special to Informed Comment) – In May 2008, a post-graduate student of International Relations was arrested for six days after downloading a 140-page document on Al-Qaeda from the US Justice Department website. A copy of the document could also be bought online from different retailers. In a moment of rare candidness soon after the arrest, a police officer told Rod Thornton, a terrorism and counterinsurgency expert as well as a lecturer of the detained student, that none of this would have happened “if the student had been blonde, Swedish, and at Oxford University.”
But the name of the student was Rizwaan Sabir, he was a Muslim of Pakistani origin and studied at the University of Nottingham. Alongside Sabir, his friend and academic Hicham Yezza was also arrested. Sabir had shared the document on Al-Qaeda with Yezza, as he had done with so many other documents in the past because Yezza was advising him on a proposal for a PhD that would discuss political Islam and Al-Qaeda.
In The Suspect: Counterterrorism, Islam, and The Security State, Rizwaan Sabir discusses his ordeal after being wrongfully suspected of being a terrorist in 2008. At the same time, Sabir’s book goes beyond his particular case. Drawing on his academic research about the effects of the so-called ‘War on Terror’ on British Muslims – a research topic he adopted after being imprisoned –, the author convincingly details how his six-day imprisonment was not an occasional mistake but the result of deep-rooted policing practices against Muslim communities in the UK)
In the description of Sabir’s initial experience with the police, we find echoes of the film “In the Name of the Father”, which masterfully recounts the wrongful conviction for terrorism of the Guildford Four, accused of being responsible for an Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombing in Guildford, Surrey. Sabir himself explains that some scenes of the movie were in his mind while being interrogated. Similar to Gerry Conlon, the member of the Guildford Four whose autobiography inspired the film directed by Jim Sheridan, Sabir was subjected to long interrogations in which the same questions were posed to him repeatedly. Sabir soon realized that “the more you speak, the more material you provide for the police to analyse and use against you” [author’s italics].
Sabir’s encounter with the bureaucratic and coercive power of the state also brings to mind Franz Kafka’s short novel “The Trial.” There is something deeply absurd in the police trying to argue that Sabir’s decision not to include the document on Al-Qaeda in the academic references of his PhD proposal somehow proved the problematic nature of the file. But perhaps the zenith of absurdity is reached when, seeing that the arresting police officer is not familiar with the area and struggles with his car’s navigation system, Sabir offers directions to the officer so that they can reach the police station.
Sabir spent six days in prison and was released without charges. His lawyers brought a civil claim against the police, and in 2011 they were forced to pay his legal fees as well as £20,000 in damages. However, the detention had hurt Sabir in ways no amount of money could have remedied. After his arrest, he explains, travelling by plane entailed more difficulties than the racial profiling himself and his Muslim friends and relatives were sadly already used to.
The police had been obliged, as a result of the successful civil claim, to delete incorrect intelligence entries in their intelligence system – that he had a ‘conviction for terrorism’, for instance. Even so, Sabir would continue to be interrogated by security personnel both in the UK and abroad. In 2015, he travelled to the United States for a conference and was questioned by Homeland Security personnel after arriving in New York. When Sabir was asked whether he was known to the British police, he explained his case to an officer, who then proceeded to inquire about Sabir’s opinion regarding ISIS, al-Qaeda, the 9/11 attacks, or the US drone program.
Sabir’s traumatic experience during his detention, combined with the continuous suspicion he was subjected to by the authorities, had deleterious effects on his mental health. Sabir started to have the feeling that someone was entering his house while he was away and that his friends and family might be cooperating with the British security services to prevent him from pursuing his PhD research on British counterterrorism practices and the policing of Muslim populations. He was always on the move and sleeping in his car, no longer feeling safe at home or with his loved ones. After a severe breakdown in 2013, he was diagnosed by National Health Service (NHS) doctors as suffering ‘acute psychosis.’
In 2018, when he was already working on the manuscript that would become The Suspect, Sabir suffered a relapse. After contacting a professional he trusted, Sabir learned that his symptoms were connected to a re-enactment of trauma. Being aware of Sabir’s personal story, the NHS doctors should not have seen as far-fetched that Sabir might be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This notwithstanding, in his dealings with the NHS doctors “never were the anxiety and uncertainty I was feeling connected to the surveillance I had experienced. The only time PTSD or ‘trauma’ came up was when I raised the subject.”
Studies such as those conducted by the Muslim Youth Helpline or the NHS Leeds Clinical Commissioning Group suggest that British Muslims have poorer mental health than the average British citizen. Although there are certainly multiple reasons for this, the fear of being referred to the police when seeking treatment – healthcare workers have a legal duty to report those considered vulnerable to being ‘radicalised’ – and a lack of cultural sensitivity on the part of some therapists are certainly an important factor. As Tarek Younis, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Middlesex University, explains in his book The Muslim, State & Mind, “psychology cannot claim to be apolitical.”
Psychology is not apolitical and neither is the law “a neutral arbiter that sits above politics,” as Sabir denounces. During the so-called ‘War on Terror’, both abroad and in the UK, the law has been used “to legitimize and sanctify the violence and coercion people suffer.” In The Suspect, the author explains how the behavior of the British police and secret services towards the local Muslim population is influenced by counterinsurgency theory developed in contexts such as Afghanistan and Iraq in recent times and, previously, in Northern Ireland.
In the same way that counterinsurgency abroad has an important hearts-and-minds approach that seeks to drive a wedge between the insurgents and the broader population, counterterrorism at home does not only target those the state believes to be potential terrorists. It is also focused on everyone who contests the official security narrative that securitizes Muslimness and underpins the surveillance infrastructure. Muslims are put on the defensive, being required to disavow any act of violence committed by other Muslims around the world. One of the consequences of this Islamophobia, explains Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan in her book “Tangled in Terror: Uprooting Islamophobia” (reviewed here for Informed Comment), is that Muslim communities often feel that “the apparatus is too big to resist.”
Sabir presents some ideas on how to confront the security state’s reach. He differentiates between consenting and complying with state power. Consent entails acceptance, whereas compliance is born out of the acknowledgement that the state has law and violence on its side even when acting illegitimately. In Sabir’s words, “the withdrawal of consent makes visible how state exercise of power is rooted in fear rather than agreement.” Sabir also argues for personal stories of counterterrorism, policing, and fear of surveillance to be shared globally so that they “can make visible how security state violence and surveillance is the rule not the exception.”
The Suspect is a book that leaves a mark on the reader. Sabir shows great talent and bravery in explaining his personal story in detail – especially his mental health struggles, considering how the topic too often remains taboo. Moreover, the author’s research to better understand what happened to him shows that the torment he went through was not a glitch in the system but an extreme example of its workings.
 Rizwaan Sabir, The Suspect: Counterterrorism, Islam, and The Security State (London: Pluto Press, 2022), p. 133.
 Ibid., p. 34.
 Ibid., p. 191.
 Asim Qureshi, “Book Review – The Muslim, State & Mind: A Manifestation of State-Sponsored Violence,” The New Arab, February 8, 2023, https://www.newarab.com/features/muslim-state-mind-manifesting-state-sponsored-trauma.
 Rizwaan Sabir, “No, Muslims Critical of Prevent Are Not ‘enabling Terrorism’,” TRT World, May 5, 2022, https://www.trtworld.com/opinion/no-muslims-critical-of-prevent-are-not-enabling-terrorism-56889.
 Sabir, The Suspect, p. 182.
 Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, Tangled in Terror: Uprooting Islamophobia (London: Pluto Press, 2022), p. 59.
 Sabir, The Suspect, p. 179.
 Ibid., p. 181.