Sunday, 7 February 2010

In Defence of Moazzam Begg

Today The Sunday Times reported that a senior official at Amnesty International has accused the organization of compromising its stance on human rights by working with Moazzam Begg, a former detainee of Guantanamo Bay. Gita Sahgal, head of the gender unit at Amnesty, described Begg as a supporter of the Taliban and labeled his group Caged Prisoners ‘Jihadi’.

I have heard some nonsense in recent years but this quite possibly tops it all. I have had the absolute pleasure of working with Moazzam Begg on numerous occasions, through the Stop the War Coalition, twice inviting him to speak at The University of Essex whilst I was the SU President. I have had long discussions with Moazzam and there were issues we had disagreements on. But to label the man as a supporter of the Taliban is inaccurate and offensive.

I can think of many events where Moazzam has publicly condemned terrorism and expressed sadness for the victims of 9/11 as well as the London bombings in July 2005. However, he is quite right to argue that these events do not excuse the clear violation of human rights shown by the western governments in the so-called ‘war on terror’.

A war that has had millions of victims, from the dead in Iraq and Afghanistan to those illegally detained elsewhere. One of which has been Moazzam Begg himself, detained first in Bagram and then the infamous Guantanamo Bay for a total of three years. Begg has never been convicted or charged with any crime, but will forever be scarred by his three years of detention, in which he saw two fellow detainees beaten to death as well as children as young as twelve in detention.

Moazzam Begg knows about human rights abuses more than most. Amnesty International is absolutely right to work with activists like Begg who have first hand experience of the violations made in the name of anti-terrorism.

Since 9/11 we have seen a massive campaign of hate against the Muslim community worldwide, encouraged by global leaders. It’s no wonder that the BNP can stand by the side and rub their hands together as governments fall over each other to show how tough they are on terrorism.

It is this atmosphere that has led to the huge wave of Islamophobia that has swept across Europe. From the Swiss ban on minarets, to the niqab ban in France and of course not forgetting the racist anti-terror laws in Britain. University campuses are constantly spied on for signs of ‘radicalisation’, and Islamic societies have been targeted for growing terrorists.

The reality is that the radicalization of young Muslims doesn’t take place in the mosques, the schools or the prayer rooms. It comes from switching on the television and seeing the daily images of the wars waged by the British and American governments that have ripped through the Middle East. It comes from the silence and the compliance of the same governments when Israel launches yet another onslaught on the suffering people of Palestine. It comes from the Islamophobia that has become a recurrent part of the lives of British Muslims over the past few years.

So Amnesty is absolutely right to campaign on behalf of those who have been targeted time and time again. To ignore the plight of the Guantanamo detainees is to fail in advocating human rights. Gita Sahgal claims that this campaigning damages the integrity of Amnesty and is a threat to human rights itself.

So should we sit back and ignore the crimes of western governments? Should we pretend that America and Britain are the champions of human rights and the backwards Middle Eastern countries need to follow our lead? Bush and Blair wanted us to think that in 2003, and look where it got them. Anyone who seriously tries to say that Afghanistan and Iraq are better places to live now than before should go there and ask the people themselves. It’s very easy to sit in the comfort of expensive London home and talk about others.

So I congratulate Amnesty for their tireless campaigning for the closure of Guantanamo Bay and for their defence of the victims of the war on terror. And Moazzam Begg should not be hounded and accused of extremism by those who should really know better. A couple of newspaper articles are nothing compared to three years in illegal detention, but Moazzam does not deserve that treatment. For somebody who has been through what he has and is still standing today, fighting injustice and campaigning for what is right, the man should win a medal.

Sadly, the only thing that hangs around his neck is the memory of Guantanamo and the relentless racism that just won’t go away.


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