Following CAGE questioning the role the security services played in radicalising Mohammed Emwazi, individuals at CAGE came under attack and CAGE as an organisation sustained backlash for merely calling for accountability. In this piece, Dr Adnan Siddiqui (a CAGE director) discusses that by countering the War on Terror narrative, CAGE are attempting to move from a “politics of pity” that maintains an unjust Western superiority, to the politics of real justice, in order to really advance human rights.

I am proud of being a director of CAGE. It has made me a better doctor, a better human and a better Muslim.” These were my words at a CAGE event a week after our press conference on the revelations about the identity of Mohammad Emwazi.

After all the uproar and accusations laid against us, surely this should prompt questions over my fitness to practise as a GP in the NHS. Surely I should be struck off? Being a bearded Muslim GP, it would be easy to demonise and caricature me as the latest folkloric devil, an “Islamist” Harold Shipman.

But the past two weeks and preceding 12 years as a CAGE director has taught me to ignore stereotypes and treat the patient in front of me irrespective of who they are and, more pertinently, irrespective of what they believe.

Contrary to popular belief, doctors do not swear the Hippocratic Oath on qualification, but all our codes of practice are very clear: “We must not unfairly discriminate against patients or colleagues by allowing our personal views to affect our professional relationships or the treatment you will provide or arrange”.

If occasions arise where a patient’s views and beliefs are so at odds with our own that our ability to give professional care is compromised, then we must arrange for colleagues to take over the care of the patients – without denigrating the patient or making pompous political or ideological points.

Most experienced doctors would have confronted these scenarios and especially those of us who are from a BME background are well used to the casual racism from some patients and even from some colleagues.But being a good doctor has always been about treating the root causes of disease, and doing so in a space that is unaffected by the personal or political. In this space, it is profoundly humane.

When humanitarianism is “whitewashed”

Prior to my directorship at CAGE I used to work in the humanitarian relief sector. Recent events have highlighted that philanthropy and the human rights sector is shot through with the “politics of pity” and is bedevilled by what the Nigerian author Teju Cole coined three years ago the “white saviour industrial complex“.

“White” in this case is not about pigmentation or race, but is representative of a particular hierarchy of power, which maintains unjust Western superiority because “the West knows best”. Because of this, it prefers that philanthropic organisations treat the symptoms of injustice rather than its root causes, embedded as they are in politics, history and context. In so doing, certain NGOs, through charitable acts that assuage the guilt of the West, reinforce “white” power.

The white saviour industrial complex supports a philanthropic industry. Cole, who reacted to offensive Western charity billboards urging guilty Westerners to “Save Africa”, said this complex is not about justice, but rather “about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege”. “The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening,” Cole tweeted.

The white saviour industrial complex is underlined by the “politics of pity”, a particular way of viewing the world that James Wan summed up in a recent article for New African magazine, which criticised Bob Geldof’s latest venture Band Aid 30.

The “politics of pity” rest on the assumption that there is and always will be a strict distinction between those who are suffering and those who are not. It assumes and reinforces a power imbalance between the two, and posits that our fates are unrelated.

The politics of pity rely on racial and cultural stereotypes. This way of seeing the world is partner to the establishment of a white saviour industrial complex, and it relies on simplistic notions that entrench a donor-recipient mentality – an example is the way in which Geldof distils the Ebola crisis into a pure stroke of bad luck for Africans, which could at any time hit the UK:
“This ignored the fact that the possibility of Ebola spreading in the UK is virtually nil given the country’s high quality healthcare infrastructure, and clearly obscured the myriad factors that have
shaped the spread of the disease in West Africa.”

“In direct contrast to a politics of justice, which would see suffering as evidence of systemic failures, Geldof and Band Aid’s perspective not only avoids questions of complexity but even derides them as being frivolous distractions,” Wan writes.

This politics objectifies those who suffer into one-dimensional caricatures in need of rescuing and ignores the systems that create suffering. In so doing, it dehumanises and decontextualizes victims of injustice, coating them with a knee-jerk Western save-all, in the form of Geldof’s simplistic exhort to viewers to “Give us your f*****g money”. This save-all does nothing to dismantle injustice on the ground, and everything to reinforce “white” privilege.

Where CAGE fits in, and where it does not

If real human rights are to be advanced, we need to move from the “politics of pity” to the politics of justice. Part of this entails confronting and dismantling the structures, organisations and mentality that perpetuate the “white saviour industrial complex”.

CAGE has been attempting to do this despite the constraints put on us. We propose that all human rights NGOs should formulate and adopt a “Hippocratic Oath” that ensures that any person subject to human rights abuses is “treated” with a full acknowledgement of thecomplexities of their context, the injustice of the system that put them there, and their full and unique human experience. This is the first step in the real work that must be done to build a just world.

As doctors we cannot choose our patients. It would be a bizarre situation if I started to question patients on whether they supported all aspects of the NHS and treat them according to their ideological answer. Many human rights NGOs, by subscribing to the politics of pity and being part of the white industrial complex, are guilty of doing just this.

CAGE has been accused of masquerading as a human rights organisation and our actions have apparently “affected human rights culture”. If being part of a culture that humanises or dehumanises people based on whether or not they fit in to a particular mindset and ideological view, then we stand condemned and we have no concerns of being excluded from this club.

The philanthropic industry should not be above scrutiny. The latest alliance struck up between Amnesty International and the right-wing Henry Jackson Society begs questions of Amnesty’s true purpose in the field of human rights, and the hierarchies it seeks to reinforce. It should encourage enquiring minds to ask of which power structures the organisation is truly answerable. After all, it was HJC director Douglas Murray who in December last year delivered a sinister and mendacious apology for torture on Andrew Neil’s This Week.

The link is worth watching. Diane Abbott is outraged at Murray’s obfuscations but is brought to task by Michael Portillo over her ambivalence and support for the execution of terrorist suspects by drones. The interchange illustrates how easily our moral compasses change with the hysterical language associated with the “War on Terror”, which is uttered continuously by its cheerleaders.

Like doctors working in prisons, impoverished areas and immigration camps, CAGE deals with people that society has labelled “terrorist” suspects within the “War on Terror” prism. We do not have the luxury of cherry-picking victims that would appeal to middle England.

In the “War on Terror” we are highlighting abuses of process irrespective of who the victims or perpetrators are. We look at the context and mechanics of suffering and action, rather than what victims believe.To paraphrase Amnesty’s famous strapline: We defend the human, not define them.


(CC image courtesy of Jeremy Schultz on Flickr)

(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.)