In the Name of Allah Most Compassionate Most Merciful
I had not imagined that the poorly researched Sunday Times article last week with the suggestion that it promised to expose a tangible link between Amnesty International, the Taliban and I was actually a prelude to something far more sinister against Cageprisoners and I in the days to come.
What I've found most puzzling about this whole episode is the timing and what the argument claims to be about. So here I wish to point out some glaring facts that have been purposefully neglected by those leading the charge against me, including I'm afraid, Gita Sahgal, who I'd really hoped would have applied a little more wisdom before she began her crusade.
The first and only time I've ever met Ms. Sahgal was on a BBC Radio 4, Hecklers programme hosted by Mark Easton, in 2006. She made a presentation which alleged that the Blair government was pandering to fundamentalists in its fight against terrorism by engaging with groups like the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) - who she alleged were linked to 'some of the most dangerous movements of our time'. Responding to her I joined a panel that included Daud Abdullah (MCB), Tariq Ramadan, Tahmina Saleem of the Islamic Society of Britain (ISB) and Nazir Ahmad of the House of Lords.
Ms Sahgal now avers that Amnesty's relationship is damaged through association with me but, her ideas seemed a little more paradoxically amenable when I suggested that her thesis was flawed because the MCB, ISB, Mr. Ramadan and Ahmed – with all due respect – were largely regarded as sell-outs by some of the very people we needed to engage. I gave her the example of the British government’s banning the BBC from broadcasting Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams’ voice during the Irish ‘Troubles’. I said, based on this experience that the government should in fact be speaking to people like Abu Qatadah, no matter how unpalatable that sounded. Ms Sahgal responded unexpectedly by saying she had no quarrel with my analysis.
So if Gita Sahgal in fact does not oppose dialogue with ‘extremists’ then why all this fuss now? I have been harking on about engagement for years. This seems even more bizarre because only a couple of weeks ago Gordon Brown met in London with Hamid Karzai and outlined a new policy to engage with the Taliban. How ludicrous it seems therefore that I am described the very next week as ‘Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban’. Does anyone really believe this? Surely if that was the case I’d have been invited to the discussions with Messrs. Brown and Karzai about talking to the Taliban, being their ‘most famous supporter’?
If this matter was not so serious I’d be rolling over in laughter. But it is – deadly serious. Over the past few days we have received numerous death threats at Cageprisoners – and this is just the beginning. No doubt, the police will be trawling through the copious hate-mongering posts on right-wing, anti-Muslim blogs but, I doubt that will solve anything.
I think much of it can be traced back to when Cageprisoners launched a report on the detention of terrorism suspects in the UK last year entitled Detention Immorality, which was hijacked by a seemingly unhinged lawyer-cum-blogger who has openly stated that he aims to destroy Cageprisoners and me – though I still don’t understand why. He regularly blogs and cross-posts attacks against Cageprisoners, Islamic organisations and me – amongst others – in an effort to ‘expose’ us. But that is only a part of the problem.
In a BBC discussion with my colleague, Asim Qureshi, last week Ms Sahgal said, “I feel “profoundly unsafe...talking to Asim Qureshi and Moazzam Begg, but I’m more than willing to meet them.” This sits very strangely with the fact that Asim was already seated next to her during the discussion and, that she expressed no such sentiment when she actually did meet me in 2006. In reality it is we who are and have been living in fear for a very long time. We are afraid not only of Britain’s anti-terror measures, which are amongst the most draconian in the world – that would see, for example, a girl convicted of terror offenses for writing poetry – but, we have to accept on a daily basis, the vilification of all things Muslim by certain politicians, a public that increasingly sees Muslims as a ‘fifth column’, fuelled by a media and blogosphere that vilifies us as a matter of routine. Still, I’d be more than happy to sit with Ms.Sahgal, safety permitting, and put to her some of the things I’ve written here.
I could insist that she first disassociate from the support and association she has from the pro-war lobby as they have cemented and justified, through the media, illegal wars of occupation which have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and created severe human rights abuses for many – not least women – or, her status as universal human rights advocate should be publicly called into question. However, it is my code of life that my oppressor does not become my teacher. And guilt by association does not mean moral bankruptcy. I am more interested in the work I do – and I had hoped the same of Ms. Sahgal, a lot of whose work she might be surprised to discover I would support.
In May last year I appeared alongside Colonel Tim Collins (famous for the stirring speech he gave to British soldiers on the eve of the 2003 Iraq invasion) on a televised panel discussion about Barack Obama’s attempt to censor the publication of photographs of alleged prisoner abuse which included images of apparent rape and sexual abuse of Iraqi women by US soldiers. Col. Collins opined that these pictures should be made public so that the world becomes aware of the abuses and that the culprits are brought to book. Again, there was a deafening silence on this issue – especially from the journalists who promoted the war, the same ones who now champion Ms.Sahgal’s work on women’s rights.
Sadly, Ms. Sahgal, and subsequent columnists and bloggers, have wilfully misled people into believing that I am somehow opposed to women's rights. During the mid-90s I took several aid convoys to Bosnia, motivated to help the people there after genocide, ethnic cleansing and mass rape was used as a weapon of war against women. Bizarrely, my decision to go there too has been described as part of a mindless ‘jihadist’ fantasy, overlooking completely that an entire Muslim population, in the heart of Europe, was being systematically put to the sword, under the noses and ‘protection’ of European nations.
It is by now public knowledge that I was involved in the establishing and running of a school for girls in Kabul, Afghanistan, during the rule of the Taliban. The Taliban did not give us a licence to operate but, neither did they impede us from having the school - openly - or from having the girls collected to and from the school in buses clearly marked with the name of the girl’s school. There is a deliberate attempt by my detractors to neglect this point each time I mention it – and I can only assume why: it doesn’t fit the stereotype, or the agenda. Then there is the repeated allegation that because I went to live in Afghanistan – with my wife and children – I deserve what happened to me because I chose to live under a regime that was known for abusing women’s rights – amongst other things. I have never denied the Taliban were guilty of abusing women’s rights, but my presence there should not be equated as an endorsement of their views regarding them. A similar charge however is not put to the numerous white, Caucasian and non-Muslim NGO workers who were living there during the time of the Taliban – sometimes with their families – well before I ever arrived. I wonder why?
It might come as a surprise to some that the executive director of Cageprisoners for over six years was a Muslim woman – someone who was regarded as the backbone of the organisation and an immense source of pride for us all. Since my return from Guantanamo Cageprisoners and I have been very closely involved in organisations which assist the silent victims of anti-terror measures (utilised against men detained without charge): their wives and children. These organisations help to empower women to face the harsh reality of life without a partner. Cageprisoners’ patron, Yvonne Ridley, has been the most active and vociferous in this regard whilst I am a patron of one of these support groups for women. But what support, if any, have this section of our population received from the great women’s rights defenders who claim to champion their cause?
I’m not sure why, after having spent years in Bagram and Guantanamo and being subjected to innumerable human rights violations and abuses - including witnessing two murders - I might be expected to be an expert on women's issues, especially when almost every single prisoner I encountered was male, even though some of the abuses were carried out by female soldiers. There was however, one woman whose screams I still hear sometimes in my head. I was led to believe she was my wife being tortured in the next room while photographs of her and my children were waved in front of me as I lay tied to the ground with guns pointing at me and interrogators asking: “What do you think happened to them the night we took you away? Do you think you're going to see them again?”
Several months later I received news via the ICRC that my wife and kids were, thankfully, safe but, I knew the screams had been real, that it had been somebody's wife, sister, daughter or mother I had heard. After my return from Guantanamo I began investigating who that person might have been but have been unsuccessful in my findings. However, through my own investigations I discovered that there was a female prisoner once held in Bagram and her number was 650. After years of denial of the existence of women prisoners the US administration finally admitted that there had indeed been a female held in Bagram - but only after I'd asked a colleague to request the US administration’s official policy on detaining women in Afghanistan.
Shortly after his return from Guantanamo Binyam Mohamed told me that he believed prisoner 650 was in fact Dr. Aafia Siddiqui. This is the same Dr. Siddiqui that last week’s Times extraordinarily provides as evidence of Cageprisoners campaigns for convicted terrorists. (And while I’m making the point, Cageprisoners has not campaigned for anyone who has received a fair, transparent and appropriate sentence as a result of proper due process. As I’ve stated previously that Cageprisoners is an information portal which merely carries information and reports on the cases of all held as part of the War on Terror. In no place does Cageprisoners ever claim that some of these convicted prisoners are “innocent” or faced a “miscarriage of justice”. Cageprisoners has raised the cases of those held under control orders, deportation, detention without trial, US extradition – making them no different from other human rights organisations that similarly do not face the same accusations as a result. The people we do campaign for are highlighted clearly on our campaigns page on the site. But we also recognise that not everyone who is convicted of terrorism is always necessarily an ‘embodiment of evil’ – Nelson Mandela serves as the greatest reminder of that).
In October last year I attended a conference in Malaysia where I met survivors of the Abu Ghraib prison. Amongst them was a woman who told me about some extremely disturbing experiences she and others had gone through. She now runs a woman’s refuge in Syria for Iraqi refugees. Cageprisoners intends to do more work on the cases of such women and it is an issue I discussed with some Amnesty UK members who were very keen to bring her over and start highlighting issues related to sexual violence against women during incarceration. In fact, I discussed this issue at the Amnesty Human Rights Action Centre only in November on a panel with Professor Joanna Bourke, who spoke about ‘Sexual Violence in the War on Terror’. Ms. Sahgal, oddly, was nowhere to be seen. After countless events with Amnesty– or any of the 600 plus I’ve spoken at around the country – I’ve still never encountered Ms. Sahgal since meeting with her in 2006 when she had “no quarrel with my views”.
I may be no expert on women's rights issues but I think I have a little idea and sympathy to some of their causes – as a husband and father. Take Johina Aamer for example, a 12 year old girl whose father, Shaker Aamer, has been held for over eight years without charge or trial in Guantanamo. Johina’s mother has undergone repeated psychiatric treatment since her husband’s abduction all those years ago. I went with Johina, Vanessa Redgrave, Victoria Brittain, Helena Kennedy, Gareth Peirce, Kate Hudson and Kate Allen to Downing Street so she could deliver a letter to the Prime Minister, asking that her father finally be allowed home. None of those who attack me now were there - from media or otherwise - to show their support for this innocent little girl. That really is shameful, because this is the sort of thing they are opposing when they address my relationship with Amnesty.
There is another charge implicitly laid against me (and Cageprisoners): that I am only concerned with the rights of Muslims. Just a few months after my release from Guantanamo I saw on the television images of four hostages in Iraq, dressed in orange Guantanamo-like suits, facing threats of execution. I contacted all the former Guantanamo prisoners I knew and issued a televised and written statement in all our names calling for their release: Sadly, the only American hostage was killed but, the others, a Briton, an Australian and a Canadian (all non-Muslims) all lived and are safely back home. All of them have written to me the warmest messages of support I’ve ever read. I told them it was the orange suits that did it.
I find incredible too that there a new re-reading of my book, Enemy Combatant, - after having been in print for over four years - as some kind of handbook for the propagation of the Taliban, fanaticism and a latent Islamic extremism. That sits very peculiarly with the fact that it has received very positive reviews from the likes of Tony Benn, Jon Snow, David Ignatius (Washington Post), Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (The Independent) and, ironically, Christina Lamb (Sunday Times). Did I fool them all? The book – and I – has been scrutinised at every literary festival I can think of, from Hay-on-Wye to Edinburg and Dartington to Keswick. The common response I get is that it (and I) lacks bitterness, is devastatingly reasonable, conciliatory in nature and as Desmund Tutu says: I feel that Enemy Combatant has the capacity to win hearts and minds.
Unfortunately some minds are not accompanied by hearts in order that they can be won. I would have thought that the pioneering work done by Cageprisoners and myself might also have served to create more understanding and less hatred by engaging in dialogue with former US soldiers and interrogators – but I seem to have been proved wrong. Up until now I have spoken all around the country addressing over 50,000 people with a view to educate, debate, understand and be understood so that hatred is eroded through interaction and knowledge.
The numbers of people who have told me they’ve been inspired to learn more, get involved, join human rights groups like Amnesty International, raise awareness and develop a new and nuanced understanding is countless. But, in spite of all the blatant anti-Muslim feeling and the rise of the far-right Islamophobic sentiments it is only now, after this episode with Ms. Sahgal and her protagonists, that I am reconsidering my entire approach towards engagement and dialogue to create understanding and acceptance. The fact is the climate of fear has just been raised a level – and I am no longer immune. I will continue to campaign for the men suffering in the concentration camps of Bagram, Guantanamo and the secret prisons. But withdrawal to a place of safety, my own Muslim community, seems to be the best option right now. It seems, at least to some, that engagement has its limits.
Before I do though it is worth noting how we have reached this point.
The Times led the libellous charge straight after the failed Detroit bomb plot by suggesting that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had become radicalised by attending a couple of Cageprisoners’ lectures, without offering one shred of evidence, and once again, choosing to completely ignore Cageprisoners’ response. This charge was parroted again last week in David Aaronovitch’s contribution to the attack.
A quick look at how the Sunday Times has dealt with the latest issue almost beggars belief: an article written by Richard Kerbaj, who quotes almost nothing of what I say and uses language to suggest the Taliban is actually involved in the whole affair as a headline. I write an immediate response, registering a complaint with the Press Complaints Commission, his editor and my lawyers. The following Sunday another two articles appear in the same paper: the first, a more sober one by Margaret Driscoll, which actually uses my responses that Kerbaj had so deliberately omitted the week before. The second, by Kerbaj again, claims that ‘Second Amnesty chief attacks Islamist links’ showing clearly the Sunday Times sees the problem isn’t even about the Taliban anymore, rather it’s about having Islamic ideals. The only problem is that, Sam Zarifi, upon whom the article is based, also says Kerbaj has mischaracterized his views. It is strange that Mr. Kerbaj and the Sunday Times make careers out of this sort of thing calling it ‘news’.
The fuse, however, had been lit and out came the others, the way they had done before, demonstrating their credentials in supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and everything that came with that. This is what it comes down to in my estimation. The attacks have been very personal, questioning everything I’ve done in my life in the same way as the US/UK intelligence services had sought to when they colluded in my abduction, false imprisonment, torture and abuse. What no one had bargained for though, not even me, was what would happen after my release. The motto of Cageprisoners is ‘giving a voice to the voiceless’. That voice has echoed across the world and has even reached the ears of some very influential and powerful people, who recognise just how appalling this whole process has been.
Cageprisoners’ previous work on reports like Off the Record which details the cases of ‘ghost prisoners’ and enforced disappearance and the secret detentions network discussed in Beyond the Law illustrate the levels of criminality we have stooped to in the name of fighting terrorism . The extent to which our own government has been involved in this is quite breathtaking too. Our report last year, Fabricating Terrorism II, highlighted the cases of 29 individuals – one of them before September 11 - who had been tortured and abused with the complicity of British intelligence services, while Detention Immorality showed the extent to which prisoners are held without charge or trial in the UK under secret evidence.
The cases we, the former Guantanamo prisoners and torture victims, have against our own government for complicity in torture is so troubling that I have actually been questioned at UK airports if I had travelled abroad in pursuance of my case against the intelligence services.
Last week’s revelations that British intelligence was involved in the torture of Binyam Mohamed came as no surprise to me. It is something I’ve been saying publicly, at Amnesty meetings, in my book and my writings since my return. Cageprisoners and I have also led the campaign for Shaker Aamer who I believe was not only tortured in the presence of MI5 but, the government is very worried that revelations of complicity in his torture might be even worse than Binyam’s.
Ms Sahgal has, perhaps unwittingly, become a cause celebre for some of the pro-war (hence, pro-by-products of the wars: targeted assassinations, ‘collateral damage’, refugee crises, secret and military prisons, torture etc) hacks in this country – and around the world. A tool for the intelligence services or people like Paul Rester, the director of the Joint Intelligence Group at Guantanamo, who says, “[Begg] is doing more good for al Qaeda as a British poster boy than he would ever do carrying an AK-47.” I firmly believe this, more than anything else, is the reason why people want my voice and that of Cageprisoners silenced. But it won’t be –not as long as I can help it.
It has been my great pleasure to break many a stereotype one would assume of a Guantanamo terrorism suspect who believes in Islam as a way of life. As a child I had studied at a Jewish primary school and as an adult I married a Palestinian woman. Both have given me fond and loving memories. Last week I was walking with a friend in the streets of Berlin, where Adolph Hitler had once created – and ultimately destroyed – the capital of his Nazi wonderland. My friend is an observant Jew whose family had fled the pogroms in Eastern Europe around the same time. The experience was surreal for both of us: for him, the knowledge of the sort of hatred that once spewed out on these very streets so many years ago changed the world; for me, the growing feeling that hatred of a comparable sort, albeit in a subtler guise, is on the march once again. I can’t help but to think now, as we passed what was once the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, what Joseph Goebbels once said about the truth: If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.