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  /  Articles   /  The Ideology of Police Brutality

The Ideology of Police Brutality

6 April 2016

Abdullah bin Hamid Ali 

The Islamic tradition offers no support for anarchy or vigilantism. While one of Islam’s goals is to foster a society whose members willfully respect the boundaries of others, the working assumption from the earliest times has been that only a minority generally succeed in the mastery of the appetite and ego. This means that for the majority, unfortunately, extrinsic factors are necessary to regulate their behavior. For this reason, we find slogans like, “The sultan is God’s shade in the earth.” Similarly, it has been related that the caliph ‘Uthman said, “Verily, God inhibits through the sultan what He does not inhibit through the Qur’an.”

Despite such declarations and beliefs, the scholarly community has always largely held proximity to governors to be a sign of divine misfortune. The Prophet Muhammad—God’s blessing and peace upon him—is even quoted as having said, “The one who comes to the doors of the sultan will be tried” (Ahmad). Consequently, many of the most memorable scholars did their best to limit their interaction with governors in order to avoid being associated with oppression which was considered the modus operandi of state actors; fairness and good treatment being the exception. All of this can be attested and is implied from the mere existence of a class of governors called, “The Rightly Guided Caliphs.”

The government of any given society possesses legislative, interpretative, and executive powers. When authority is centralized as in autocratic regimes, societies are at greater risk of oppression than those with decentralized administrations. That notwithstanding, decentralized administration is not a full-proof guarantee from nepotism and despotic rule; for the world political order we occupy today is a predomination of corporate oligarchies masquerading as successful democracies.

When reflecting on the history of injustice in America, for example—although there’s plenty of evidence of legal and judicial oppression—perhaps, the most significant area of concern has and will continue to be the area of law enforcement. The fact that one type of people (Anglo-Saxons) dominates the legislative and judicial processes in this country has made America much more vulnerable to institutional injustice in perpetuity.

Police officers neither make laws nor determine their constitutionality. But, they do something just as—if not more—significant. They enforce them. What happens when an officer selectively enforces laws? What happens when he chooses not to arrest a friend but to detain a foe? What happens when the police officer is motivated by racial bias to physically injure, kill, or frame citizens simply because he/she does not look or live the way they prefer? The fact that this prerogative is left up to law enforcement is essential to understanding how systemic oppression quickly spreads and is perceived by the victims of such actions.

According to one hadith, the Prophet Muhammad said, “There will come at the end of time officers (shurta) who will start the day in God’s wrath and end the day in God’s wrath.” The Arabic word for police officer is shurti. It is a cognate of the word sharat or ‘sign’, since the officer bears the emblem of the sultan as his representative among the populace. If the officer is perceived as a broker of justice, the governor in turn will receive enormous political currency and viceversa. Although the general sense of “officer” is that of one who polices the inner city or “walks the beat”, the Arabic word ‘shurti’ refers to any “agent” of the supreme governor (caliph), the same if he polices a small town in middle America or one who carries out espionage for the benefit of one’s nation far away.

This is an important distinction in that in countries like ours there are hierarchies and chains of command in law enforcement. There are officers of districts, cities, states, and those of the federal level, which we call the FBI. Each level of officer represents one part of a much larger paramilitary force, all expected to work together to ensure the safety and stability of our country. Some officers are for the interior, while others are meant to protect us against foreign entities, like the CIA.

Any person with a good grasp of this, having had significant exposure to law enforcement culture, understands a few important facts:

  1. Officers operate as a tight-knit team: As a matter of fact, the code among law enforcement is not very different than the sort of code one finds among a gang or mafia. Cops are not supposed to “snitch” on one another, and those who break the code are alienated to say the least. In ways this is only natural being that officers, like gang members, are expected to protect one another from harm.
  2. Profiling is considered essential to law enforcement: Political correctness is what prevents it from becoming a matter of public policy, while the truth is that it is the modus operandi. It is normal for a detective working to solve a case to formulate a psychological profile of potential suspects. This is evident in terrorism and drug smuggling cases, today, where Muslims and Latinos respectively are dealt with as ideal suspects, while in rape and serial murder cases whites may be generally suspected.
  3. Entrapment is pervasive in law enforcement: US terrorism-related statistics, for instance, clearly reveal how regular FBI entrapment of US Muslims occurs. But, this is evident as well in special crime injunctions against gangs and organized crime, which land those classified as gang members in prison with detainer sentences ensuring that even if convictions are overturned, they’ll be required to spend additional years behind bars before they are qualified for release. Often what happens is that when the evidence brought by law enforcement to convict a suspect is insufficient, they keep a close watch on them in hopes to find good justification to imprison them under new or different allegations. Think of O.J. Simpson, for example. 

If this is all true, one need not wonder why it would be said of such people that they are those “who start the day in God’s wrath and end their day in God’s wrath.” Of course, this is not to say that all or even most law enforcement officers are not committed to doing their jobs of bringing real criminals to justice. The point is simply that when the broader policy of law enforcement in the nation—a matter whose ball stops ultimately at the door of the president of the United States—is to profile and entrap people in pre-crime fashion, one must wonder just how long it will be before trust in our system will be completely eroded.

A good question, I think, is how did we get here? This conundrum results naturally whenever a population believes that its “faction” is the only faction fit for rule, and that that rule must be maintained at all costs. Consider that in the film “Kingdom of Heaven”, after Balian of Ibelin rejected Queen Sybilla’s offer to murder her husband for the “good” of Jerusalem, Sybilla says to him, “There will be a day when you wish you had done a little evil to do a greater good.” This scene clearly underscores the ethical predicament of the West. This also brings to mind “Syriana” in the exchange between actors Jeffrey Wright and Tim Blake Nelson where Nelson tells an indignant Wright, “Corruption is our protection. Corruption keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why you and I are prancing around in here and not fighting over scraps of meat out on the street. Corruption is why we win!” 

Prison chaplaincy and pastoral care are extremely important jobs. But, chaplaincy in the local, state, and federal prison systems from the regard of the overall goal of managing prisoners on one level serves to consolidate control of prison populations. This is not to say that most chaplains are aware of this or that they do not genuinely work as advocates for the incarcerated. I know, because I was one of them. But, having had worked a number of years with inmates able to observe law enforcement up close, what I do know is that there are two basic modes of thinking about the reform of criminals. One type of thinking which is typical amongst the centralized services branch of prisons is that there is good in incarcerated individuals, a good which can be nurtured with the right tools and support. That is, there is a generally held belief that prisoners can reform themselves. On the other side, however, is the facilities management or security apparatus whose constituents generally have given up hope on the reform of convicts. Their motto is, “Once a criminal always a criminal.” They look upon the prison population as an enemy force which needs to be subdued, controlled, and constantly reminded of who is actually in charge. In one sense, to feel differently might expose corrections officers to significant harm from the more dangerous prisoners.

Of course, there’s good reason not to blame them for feeling this way. We live in a society where the majority of people know nothing of what it is like to be incarcerated; nothing of what it’s like to be in trouble with the “law”; and nothing of what it feels like to be the subject of unsolicited harassment by law enforcement. Many of these same people tend to feel often that inmates have too many rights and far too many luxuries. These are often the same people who, if they are business owners, would turn former convicts looking for work away due to their prior offenses. In many instances, former convicts who supposedly paid their debt to society come home deprived yet of basic rights like access to business and student loans or even the right to vote. No wonder so many of them return to what they know best when all the doors are shutting before them. And, it is no wonder why so many in law enforcement give up hope in their reform.

These same ideas about formerly incarcerated individuals, unfortunately, are applied to people merely suspected of being “ticking time bombs,” people who if pushed hard enough will turn to criminal or terroristic behavior, like blacks, Latinos, and Muslims. This not only results from officers observing the high recidivism of former convicts. Some of it results from the fact that we have had centuries of indoctrination into racist pseudo-science, which reinforces hierarchies of race and color-based behavioral determinism. In other words, certain people are just genetically disposed to commit certain crimes, while others are not. Thanks for that, Mr. Linnaeus. Once officers are convinced that a certain type of crime fits a certain type of person, it is easier to profile and to even frame someone to ensure that that person is far away from the public so as not to cause them any harm.

To summarize, the following factors that perpetuate this mentality prevalent among many members of law enforcement:

  1. The belief in a natural class/race-based social hierarchy, which demands that the least evolved members of society be policed and “brought to heel.”
  2. That belief, then, leads to the dehumanization or subhumanization of those who do not represent the ruling elite. The dehumanization process facilitates maltreatment and heavy-handed reactions by those who see themselves as keeping the peace.
  3. Add the authoritarian urge to dominate in light of such beliefs and because of the license given to kill, officers who often are not the most educated members of society respond negatively to perceived challenges to their authority.

This is the ideology which fuels police brutality. It is the same ideology which fuels the efforts to ban Shariah law or ban Arab Muslims and Mexicans from entering the United States. And it affects every branch of law enforcement on both the domestic and foreign stage.

(Originally Posted on almadina.org)