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Beyond Guantanamo - Review of Cageprisoners Fundraising Dinner
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by Fahad Ansari

Crescent Magazine

As a general principle, if the work a Muslim does for the sake of Allah does not face any opposition from the enemies of Allah, he or she needs to evaluate his or her intention and the nature of the work that is being carried out. For if one was truly carrying out work on the path of Truth, Falsehood would never let him rest in peace. The more beloved the work to Allah, the greater the animosity from His enemies.

Last Ramadan, Cageprisoners, an Islamic human rights organisation working to protect the rights of Muslim prisoners unjustly detained in the war on terror, held their annual Ramadan fundraising iftar and dinner. What had been a relatively incident-less event 12 months earlier became the number one target of the enemies of Allah a year later, reflecting the increasing importance of the work of Cageprisoners and its impact on the world.

The dinner was organised to take place on 30 August 2009 at Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall. The audience was to be addressed by a range of speakers from different background. These included ex-Guantanamo detainees Moazzam Begg, Binyam Mohamed and Sami El-Hajj (al-jazeera journalist held in Guantanamo Bay) as well as a former Guantanamo guard, Terry Holdbrooks, who became Muslim at the hands of the prisoners who he used to guard at the detention facility. One of the highlights of the event was to be a video message from the inspirational Imam Anwar al-Awlaki, who was himself detained without charge in Yemen for two years. 

Banning the Imam

The first challenge came on Monday 11 August when members of Cageprisoners were summoned by Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall (KCTH) officials and told in no uncertain terms that Imam Anwar al-Awlaki’s video message could not be shown. The decision was made by the Council Leader Merrick Cockrell after he received a number of complaints regarding Imam Anwar. The officials refused to elaborate on the nature or source of those complaints. Despite the venue being confirmed with the Town Hall on 29 April with full details of the speakers, including Imam al-Awlaki, provided and several subsequent site visits by members of Cageprisoners, no concerns were ever raised about any of the speakers.

 It rapidly became apparent that the pressure was being applied on the Council from Islamophobic blog Harry’s Place who curiously announced that the video message was being cancelled the evening before Cageprisoners had even been informed of the Council’s decision.  By Friday 15 August, KCTH were asking whether Cageprisoners wished to cancel the event. Again, no reference was ever made in writing to Imam Anwar or the issue of banning his video message. On 17 August, less than two weeks before the event, Cageprisoners responded that the event could not be cancelled at such a late stage but requested details in writing about the nature and source of the concerns people had about Imam Anwar, why they had not been raised earlier, whether KCTH had discussed these concerns with the police or the Home Office and what their response had been, and any alternative solutions they had to resolve the matter amicably. The following day, KCTH sent an aggressive response giving notice that the Council was terminating the booking of the venue due to there being a possibility that if the event was to proceed with the current list of speakers, ”there would be damage to the Council’s reputation.” Cageprisoners were further accused of not having paid for the hall in accordance with terms of hire. In actual fact, Cageprisoners had attempted on several occasions to make payment but for reasons unknown, KCTH had refused to accept it.

On 19 August, deciding that finding an alternative venue with less than two weeks remaining before the event was not a viable option, Cageprisoners agreed with KCTH that Imam Anwar’s message would not be screened or read out at the event. When KCTH confirmed this in writing, they went a step further and stated that the event could only go ahead on the basis that “the Imam’s message will not form part of the evening’s event in any way.”

As this was happening, Harry’s Blog and other Islamophobic pressure groups celebrated their “victory” and urged their supporters to persuade KCTH to cancel the entire event. In particular, they published hateful propaganda against other guest speakers such as Press TV journalist Yvonne Ridley, American ‘spoken word’ poet, Amir Sulaiman, and ex-Guantanamo detainee Musa Zemmouri whose role on the evening was limited to leading the prayers.

Although KCTH allowed the event to continue, they nevertheless put up innumerable obstacles to make life as difficult as possible. This included conditions such as allowing only one car to park in the forecourt of the venue to unload for 15 minutes only and requiring Cageprisoners to hire cleaners from official companies and employ SIA approved security guards for the night. Both conditions were never in the initial contract or terms and conditions and only raised days before the event to further frustrate the noble efforts that were being undertaken. Three days before the event, KCTH informed the caterers (Sapna Catering) that they had no facility for rubbish and that everything must be taken away. KCTH informed Cageprisoners that Sapna have catered at the venue on prior occasions and are aware of this rule. Such information directly contradicted an email from Sapna which expressed surprise at such a rule. Clearly, the truth was being trampled upon in KCTH’s efforts to undermine the event.

Detaining the Guard

If this was not problematic enough, former Guantanamo guard and Muslim revert Mustafa Terry Holdbrooks was detained in the US on 27 August while trying to depart as his name had allegedly come up on a terrorist watch list. He was put on a flight 24 hours later and then detained upon his arrival at London Heathrow. The UK Border Agency claimed that he was being detained and deported because he did not have a job or a girlfriend and lived in rented accommodation in the US and it was thought that he did not intend to leave the UK. Following a barrage of telephone calls and faxes from lawyers, politicians, community leaders and activists, Holdbrooks was finally released into the UK on 30 August, hours before he was due to speak at the dinner. Visibly upset, he still managed to crack a joke with some of the ex-detainees that if he was being punished for his role in their detention, he would continue to experience such problems for the next four years. There seemed to be some truth in what he said as upon his return to the US a week later, Holdbrooks was again detained temporarily in connection with alleged terrorist material he encountered during his trip to the UK.

The Best of Planners

Allah mentions on numerous occasions in the Qur’an that we should have trust in Him and that He is the best disposer of all affairs. He further reminds us that although His enemies plot and plan, that He also plots and plans, and that He is the best of planners.

Despite the above obstacles and perhaps because of them, the Cageprisoners event turned out to be enormously successful. Firstly, the incidents with Imam Anwar and Terry Holdbrooks generated a vibe of defiance which reverberated throughout the Muslim community with ticket sales rocketing in the aftermath. Secondly, it resulted in the event receiving increased media attention with BBC, SKY, the Independent, the Guardian and others frantically trying to enter the KCTH to record the event. This also led to Terry Holdbrooks being interviewed about his experiences by more media outlets and being given the opportunity to publicise his forthcoming book, ‘Traitor’. Thirdly, due to the ban on Imam Anwar, Cageprisoners were forced to think outside the box and come up with new ideas to make the evening special. One such idea was the reading out of a letter from Guantanamo detainee Shaker Aamer to his wife who was present with her children in the audience. The letter brought the audience to tears as the human element of this dirty war became apparent. Fourthly, the people’s desire to hear Imam Anwar’s moving speech increased even more with knowledge that it had been banned. CDs containing the audio of his speech were distributed on the night to those who attended, albeit outside the KCTH premises. The lecture has since been uploaded onto the internet with the title – Banned in Britain – and has reached a global audience of millions of people, curious as to why his words have been banned. Some of those who have heard his message through this medium have sent large donations to Cageprisoners directly as a result of his words. Which leads us to the final aspect of this success  -  when people were made aware of the number and nature of the attempts to hinder and impede the work of Cageprisoners, they realised its true value and emptied their wallets and purses and pledged to help Cageprisoners to continue the noble work they have embarked upon. None of this could have happened without the assistance of KCTH, Harry’s Blog and other enemies of Allah who plotted to sabotage these efforts. Truly, Allah is the Best of Planners.