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Maria Margaronis
Maria Margaronis
Maria Margaronis writes from The Nation's London bureau. Her work has appeared in many other publications,...
D.D. Guttenplan
D.D. Guttenplan
D.D. Guttenplan, who writes from The Nation's London bureau, is the author of American Radical: The Life and Times of I...

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London

Its leaders may not wear white hats--or wings--but most people would put Amnesty International on the side of the angels. Decades of denunciations by dictators across the political spectrum have only increased the organization's prestige. Yet in recent weeks a new wave of criticism has portrayed Amnesty as "a threat to human rights," whose "leadership is suffering from a kind of moral bankruptcy." And this time the attack, which may affect not only Amnesty's reputation but also its funding, originates inside Amnesty itself.

Gita Sahgal is the head of Amnesty's gender unit and has a long and distinguished track record as a fighter for women's rights here in Britain and in South Asia. In February she gave an interview to the Sunday Times objecting to Amnesty's collaboration with Moazzam Begg, a former Guantánamo prisoner who has been touring Europe on behalf of Amnesty's campaign to persuade other countries to admit inmates from the detention center in Cuba. "To be appearing on platforms with Britain's most famous supporter of the Taliban, whom we treat as a human rights defender, is a gross error of judgment," Sahgal said. Claiming she had gone public only after her bosses brushed aside repeated attempts to raise the issue internally, Sahgal, who was immediately suspended by Amnesty, soon became an international cause célèbre. Salman Rushdie issued a statement in her support; so did feminist groups and bloggers in Algeria, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and the United States. Christopher Hitchens wrote a column (a reprise, with variations, of a 2005 piece branding Amnesty's advocacy for Guantánamo detainees a "disgraceful performance") urging Amnesty supporters to "withdraw funding until Begg is cut loose."

Sahgal's case was also taken up with relish by Britain's self-styled "decent left" of journalists and commentators, whose superior moral compasses led them to support the invasion of Iraq--unlike Sahgal, who opposed it. The controversy offered a convenient distraction from February's headlines revealing that officials of MI5, the British security service, were complicit in the CIA's torture of Binyam Mohamed, a British resident detained in Guantánamo from 2004 to 2009. On March 8 the British government went to court to argue that a civil suit by Begg, Mohamed and other former Guantánamo detainees seeking damages for their mistreatment should be heard entirely behind closed doors. For Moazzam Begg, Sahgal's accusations add insult to injury, branding as dangerous a man who was never charged with any crime, and undermining his efforts on behalf of his fellow prisoners.

Born in India and educated at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, Gita Sahgal may have inherited her confidence from her great-uncle Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister. She traces her political involvement to the Indian emergency of 1975-77, when Indira Gandhi ruled by decree. When Sahgal returned to India in 1977, she joined the civil rights movement, working to unionize the country's agricultural workers and fighting for the rights of migrants. After moving back to Britain in 1983, she found herself caught up in the radical response to Thatcherism, joining Southall Black Sisters, an antiracist group whose battles on two fronts--against the racism of some white feminists and the sexism of some black and Asian antiracist campaigners--soon became her own. In 1989, when "the Rushdie thing blew up in our faces," sending thousands of British Asians into the streets demanding the suppression of the novel The Satanic Verses--and in some cases calling for the death of its author--she helped found Women Against Fundamentalism. Defending Rushdie's right to publish, the group also argued that Britain's status as a Christian country with an established church, and blasphemy laws protecting only Christianity, fostered the growth of sectarianism. Excluded by the dominant Christian culture, immigrants were liable to seek refuge in the certainties of religious fundamentalism.

"Because I came from India," Sahgal told us, "I was aware of certain things going on. Over here the discussion was race, not religion. Who knew that people could be persecuted racially but still be quite nasty in terms of their religious affiliations and what they do? I knew that." Though she is from a Hindu background, Sahgal describes herself as an atheist; she has exposed the role of British charities in raising funds for Hindutva, the Hindu nationalist movement, and made films on forced marriages and on atrocities during the Bangladesh war of 1971. "If you're talking about an identity," she said, "it was about the defense of secularism."

Sahgal joined Amnesty in 2002. "I had one colleague to service 400-500 people in the International Secretariat and all the women's rights activists across the world," she said. "Absurd! And no money. I was starved of money all the time!" Despite her resentment, Sahgal functioned effectively enough to win praise for her work from Widney Brown, Amnesty's senior director for international law and policy. "I worked with her for four years," Brown told us, "and I have immense respect for her work...on issues that are incredibly difficult."

Sahgal says she has been raising internal objections to Amnesty's involvement with Moazzam Begg for two years. In early 2008, when the American branch of Amnesty (AIUSA) invited Begg to give the keynote speech at its annual general meeting, Sahgal sent a memo outlining her concerns to a colleague on the board of AIUSA, which stood by its invitation. Indeed, the AIUSA website describes Begg as born to "secular Muslim parents" and goes on: "Moved by the plight of the Afghani people, in 2001, Begg travelled to Kabul with his family to start a school for basic education, and to provide water pumps."

"It was a total whitewash," said Sahgal. She doesn't claim that Begg is--or ever was--a terrorist. Instead she argues that his activities and associations, taken together, add up to an unmistakable pattern of support for Islamic fundamentalism, which is entirely incompatible with women's rights or religious freedom for non-Muslims. "You have to be steeped in the language to see it," she said. "If you see it, you see it. If you don't, you don't." Asked for specifics, Sahgal points to:

§ Begg's career as a tourist of jihad, which she says is typical of a particular kind of right-wing Islamic fundamentalism associated with Pakistan's violent Jamaat-e-Islami party.

§ His ownership of an Islamic bookstore in Birmingham, England, in the 1990s, which was raided three times by MI5. In his memoir, Enemy Combatant, Begg says the shop's bestselling title on jihad was Defence of the Muslim Lands, by Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian-born scholar better known as Osama bin Laden's mentor and a co-founder of Al Qaeda.

§ Begg's comment, made to an FBI interrogator and quoted in Enemy Combatant, that "the Taliban were better than anything Afghanistan has had in the past twenty-five years."

§ The relationship of Begg and Cageprisoners, the organization he co-directs, which campaigns on behalf of Muslim detainees in the "war on terror," with Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Yemeni fundamentalist preacher whose sermons were attended by two of the 9/11 hijackers and who, according to the FBI, was an e-mail confidant of Nidal Malik Hasan, sole suspect in the 2009 Fort Hood shootings.

Begg says that he has simply advocated dialogue with the Taliban, just as the British government has done, and that Sahgal's attack is an attempt to put him on trial again. Amnesty officials deny turning a blind eye to Begg's supposed extremism. "Every time we've looked for specifics, we don't get any specifics or we get sensationalism," interim Secretary General Claudio Cardone told an interviewer for Canadian radio. The pattern Sahgal discerns in Begg's life story depends, as she admits, on a certain angle of vision. There are, however, less tendentious ways to read his history.

Moazzam Begg's journey also began in Britain's multiethnic communities and in the politics of the Indian subcontinent. Born in Birmingham to secular Muslims from India--his father sent him to a Jewish elementary school because of its high standards--he too was caught up, by his mid-teens, in antiracist battles as a member of the Lynx, a mostly Kashmiri gang that fought the skinheads and the fascist National Front in the early 1980s. In Enemy Combatant, written with Victoria Brittain after his release from Guantánamo, Begg relates how trips to Mecca and Pakistan, the 1991 Gulf War and the arrival in Britain of Bosnian refugees made him see his faith as the way to unify his disparate identities; Islam became his imagined community. In 1993 he returned to Pakistan and was impressed by the Jamaat-e-Islami's center in Lahore, with its university and karate dojo; he heard romantic tales of the struggle against the Soviets from veteran mujahedeen and visited training camps in Afghanistan. On his return to Birmingham, he opened his bookshop, which became a local center of Britain's Islamic revival and brought Begg to the attention of MI5.

Enemy Combatant offers a glimpse of the heady world of committed young British Muslims in the 1990s. The sense of moral rectitude and passionate doctrinal debates will ring a bell with anyone who took part in the left solidarity movements of the '70s and '80s. It was from this base that Begg set out for Bosnia and Chechnya (where he was turned away) and, in 2001, for Afghanistan, taking his British-Palestinian wife and three young children with him. When war broke out after September 11, Begg and his family fled to Pakistan, where he was arrested by American and Pakistani agents. He spent the next three years in detention, first in Bagram, where he describes being tortured, and then in Guantánamo, where he was kept for months in solitary confinement.

 

Since his release in 2005, Begg has spoken widely about his experiences for Amnesty and toured Britain for Cageprisoners with a former Guantánamo guard. When a British member of a Christian peace group was kidnapped in Iraq in November 2005, Begg made a video statement appealing for his release. But Sahgal's accusations, he writes on the Cageprisoners website, have led him to reconsider his approach: "Withdrawal to a place of safety, my own Muslim community, seems to be the best option right now." Cageprisoners staff, he says, have received death threats since Sahgal's complaints were made public.

Begg seems careful to frame his public statements so as not to alienate either liberal Britain or more radical members of his own community. "You have to speak to people in the Muslim community using Islamic words, Islamic concepts," he explained to us on the phone. It is not always easy to pin down exactly where he stands on human rights under Islamic law. But to call him, as Sahgal has done, "Britain's most famous supporter of the Taliban" is a misrepresentation of his views.

Begg went to Afghanistan in 2001, believing, he writes in his book, that the Taliban's "bad press was probably exaggerated." He told us, "We know that corruption is rife in the Muslim world, that there's no voice for the people. I'm not saying that voice existed in Afghanistan, but there was at least a kind of security that hadn't existed before.... Unfortunately, what also existed was a kind of religious intolerance and brutality, which I saw with my own eyes." In Kabul, Begg helped to set up an elementary school for girls, which taught English and mathematics as well as Arabic and Islamic history. Though the Taliban didn't license the school, they didn't close it either. "I believe it was because we were foreign, Western Muslims," Begg told us. "There was a recognition among some of the Taliban that education matters...and that they had to educate women. I believed in engagement, in helping them see that they could have schools without compromising Islamic values."

Begg also makes no secret of his interest in armed struggle. "In Bosnia," he said, "I did fight for a while. But I saw people horribly damaged, and I thought, This is not for me." When we put to him Sahgal's accusation that the pattern of his activities reflects that of fundamentalists training for armed jihad, he said, "Jihad is armed. People talk now about spiritual jihad because they've been put on the back foot. But jihad is not the same as terrorism. Back when the British--when we--were supporting the mujahedeen against the Russians, that was jihad with Kalashnikovs. Not terrorism.... It is not uncommon to have passed through those camps. I believe millions went through them. I went for a few days. Don't forget, there were terrible things going on in the world that no one was talking about--massacres in Kashmir, a genocidal war with concentration camps and rape camps in Bosnia."

Begg seems particularly wounded by Sahgal's implication that he does not respect women's rights, pointing to his work with groups that empower Muslim women; he mentions HHUGS (Helping Households Under Great Stress), which supports the families of detainees, and an Iraqi women's refugee group. "I've spoken at Amnesty, for instance, on a panel about sexual violence in war. The reason why this is so important to me is that I heard women screaming [when I was in detention], and thought they were my wife. Well, they weren't my wife, but they were somebody's wife. I'll never forget that. [Gita Sahgal] has no monopoly on women's rights."

But Sahgal's complaint against Begg's connection with Amnesty is not so much about his personal views as about his associations: that his presence lends legitimacy to fundamentalist groups and clerics who have supported terrorism and whose record on women is appalling. Here the evidence is more difficult to weigh. The account of his pre-Guantánamo life in Enemy Combatant blends an appealing frankness with an air of naïveté that doesn't always convince; it is hard not to feel, at times, that the tale has been slightly sanitized for a Western audience. The Cageprisoners website combines the discourse of human rights with an anti-imperialist analysis and an Islamic point of view. But while a disclaimer says that Cageprisoners does not necessarily sympathize with the views of detainees it features, the website's page on Dhiren Barot, for example, never mentions that he was jailed for life by a British court after pleading guilty to planning mass attacks on civilians in Britain and the United States.

Cageprisoners's relationship with Anwar al-Awlaki is also troubling. On August 30, 2008, Awlaki preached by video link to the charity's Ramadan fundraising dinner. His remarks on that occasion were unobjectionable, but a blog cached from his website on the previous day strikes a different note: "Our position is that we will implement the rule of Allah on earth by the tip of the sword whether the masses like it or not." A piece by Begg on the Cageprisoners website declares that the charity "never has and never will support the ideology of killing innocent civilians, whether by suicide bombers or B52s, whether that's authorized by Awlaki or by Obama," but remains evasive about Awlaki's views: "After his release [from prison], I am told, Anwar's position on issues pertaining to US foreign policy had started to become more hostile." Asked to elaborate, Begg told us, "The reality is that I don't know much about [Awlaki's] work except for his sermons on Mecca and Medina. I hadn't heard of him until I came back from Guantánamo and found he was very popular among British Muslims."

Amnesty's Widney Brown is adamant that none of this should undermine her organization's partnership with Begg: "We would be the first to say if there was any evidence against him. There is nothing new." Amnesty's fundamental principle, she says, is justice; guilt or innocence can be determined only by due process. "We advocate for people's rights across the board," she told us, "and we don't do a litmus test as to whether you're guilty or not. On prisoners of conscience, we say, 'Release that person unconditionally.' In the case of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, for example, we say, 'Don't torture him, don't detain him without trial. Bring him to justice.' When we do the former, we are seen as a good organization. When we do the latter, we are seen as political."

Amnesty, Brown explained, often works with people or groups it disagrees with: "The Catholic Church...[is] not good on women's rights. They are horrible on gay rights. And frankly, if you look at what they say about HIV and condoms, they have blood on their hands. Does that mean that we do not continue to work with the Catholic Church against the death penalty? Of course not.... [But] we would never allow someone to use an Amnesty International platform to attack human rights."

When Begg arrived in Britain in January 2005, almost nothing was known about conditions at Guantánamo; later that year, Amnesty's then-secretary general, Irene Khan, was criticized for calling it "the gulag of our times." In a way, Begg was the answer to the organization's prayers: "We found somebody who was clear and articulate and passionate about helping not just himself but others to get out, and who was willing to work with us. And this takes incredible courage for someone who has been tortured, because in talking about it memories inevitably come back," Brown said. Recently Begg has worked with Amnesty to persuade European governments to take Guantánamo detainees who can't go home because of the risk of torture. At the same time, in response to objections raised by Sam Zarifi, director of Amnesty's Asia-Pacific program, in a memo that was also leaked to the Sunday Times, the charity decided not to use Begg in its South Asia work. (In a subsequent letter to the newspaper, Zarifi said he did not oppose Begg's involvement in the Guantánamo campaign but felt that Amnesty had not been clear enough in distinguishing between defending someone's rights and embracing their views, which raised the risk of "creating a perception...in South Asia, that AI is somehow pro-Taleban or anti-women.") Says Brown: "Sam's view was that, no, he was not the right person for [our South Asia campaigns]. He raised the concern, and he was heard."

Brown is clear about her respect for Sahgal's work but doesn't recognize her account of a culture of suppression in the organization, or agree that her concerns were brushed aside: "Gita spoke to me several times over the last four years saying that our work on terrorism was not sufficiently focused on how it affects women. This is a very legitimate concern. But the first time she ever raised issues to me about Moazzam Begg was in January, when she said she could make a connection, through al-Awlaki, between Begg and the Christmas Day bomber [Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab]. I said, 'You have to write this up so we can deal with it.' I read it; no red flags went up for me. When I talked to her about it, I said, 'You know what we expect of research, and you know that this is not acceptable. Drawing out a relationship from innuendo is something we would never support.'... Within a week, we had the article in the Sunday Times."

There are no angels in this story, only human beings. Women have too often been expected to stay silent for the greater good, and Gita Sahgal probably didn't intend her complaints about Amnesty to be taken up by apologists for the "war on terror." But a case based on guilt by association simply isn't good enough to publicly condemn a man, especially one who has already been imprisoned for crimes he did not commit. Moazzam Begg didn't seek out a life in the public eye; it came to him as a consequence of his ordeal. In the current climate he might be forgiven for being protective of his community, but if he is to be taken seriously as an advocate for universal human rights, he needs to clarify his views about fundamentalist clerics his organization embraces. Amnesty needs a more transparent culture to match its principles; women's rights must be integral to all of its campaigns.

The butterfly that set this particular tempest blowing beat its wing decades ago in some British inner city. Islamophobia, antifeminism, the mutual mistrust between Muslims and the secular left have all fanned the breeze. If successive governments had not encouraged minorities to define themselves by religion, if they had answered racism and poverty with justice instead of tokenism, Gita Sahgal and Moazzam Begg might not be on opposite sides of this destructive argument.

 

London

Its leaders may not wear white hats--or wings--but most people would put Amnesty International on the side of the angels. Decades of denunciations by dictators across the political spectrum have only increased the organization's prestige. Yet in recent weeks a new wave of criticism has portrayed Amnesty as "a threat to human rights," whose "leadership is suffering from a kind of moral bankruptcy." And this time the attack, which may affect not only Amnesty's reputation but also its funding, originates inside Amnesty itself.

Gita Sahgal is the head of Amnesty's gender unit and has a long and distinguished track record as a fighter for women's rights here in Britain and in South Asia. In February she gave an interview to the Sunday Times objecting to Amnesty's collaboration with Moazzam Begg, a former Guantánamo prisoner who has been touring Europe on behalf of Amnesty's campaign to persuade other countries to admit inmates from the detention center in Cuba. "To be appearing on platforms with Britain's most famous supporter of the Taliban, whom we treat as a human rights defender, is a gross error of judgment," Sahgal said. Claiming she had gone public only after her bosses brushed aside repeated attempts to raise the issue internally, Sahgal, who was immediately suspended by Amnesty, soon became an international cause célèbre. Salman Rushdie issued a statement in her support; so did feminist groups and bloggers in Algeria, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and the United States. Christopher Hitchens wrote a column (a reprise, with variations, of a 2005 piece branding Amnesty's advocacy for Guantánamo detainees a "disgraceful performance") urging Amnesty supporters to "withdraw funding until Begg is cut loose."

Sahgal's case was also taken up with relish by Britain's self-styled "decent left" of journalists and commentators, whose superior moral compasses led them to support the invasion of Iraq--unlike Sahgal, who opposed it. The controversy offered a convenient distraction from February's headlines revealing that officials of MI5, the British security service, were complicit in the CIA's torture of Binyam Mohamed, a British resident detained in Guantánamo from 2004 to 2009. On March 8 the British government went to court to argue that a civil suit by Begg, Mohamed and other former Guantánamo detainees seeking damages for their mistreatment should be heard entirely behind closed doors. For Moazzam Begg, Sahgal's accusations add insult to injury, branding as dangerous a man who was never charged with any crime, and undermining his efforts on behalf of his fellow prisoners.

Born in India and educated at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, Gita Sahgal may have inherited her confidence from her great-uncle Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister. She traces her political involvement to the Indian emergency of 1975-77, when Indira Gandhi ruled by decree. When Sahgal returned to India in 1977, she joined the civil rights movement, working to unionize the country's agricultural workers and fighting for the rights of migrants. After moving back to Britain in 1983, she found herself caught up in the radical response to Thatcherism, joining Southall Black Sisters, an antiracist group whose battles on two fronts--against the racism of some white feminists and the sexism of some black and Asian antiracist campaigners--soon became her own. In 1989, when "the Rushdie thing blew up in our faces," sending thousands of British Asians into the streets demanding the suppression of the novel The Satanic Verses--and in some cases calling for the death of its author--she helped found Women Against Fundamentalism. Defending Rushdie's right to publish, the group also argued that Britain's status as a Christian country with an established church, and blasphemy laws protecting only Christianity, fostered the growth of sectarianism. Excluded by the dominant Christian culture, immigrants were liable to seek refuge in the certainties of religious fundamentalism.

"Because I came from India," Sahgal told us, "I was aware of certain things going on. Over here the discussion was race, not religion. Who knew that people could be persecuted racially but still be quite nasty in terms of their religious affiliations and what they do? I knew that." Though she is from a Hindu background, Sahgal describes herself as an atheist; she has exposed the role of British charities in raising funds for Hindutva, the Hindu nationalist movement, and made films on forced marriages and on atrocities during the Bangladesh war of 1971. "If you're talking about an identity," she said, "it was about the defense of secularism."

Sahgal joined Amnesty in 2002. "I had one colleague to service 400-500 people in the International Secretariat and all the women's rights activists across the world," she said. "Absurd! And no money. I was starved of money all the time!" Despite her resentment, Sahgal functioned effectively enough to win praise for her work from Widney Brown, Amnesty's senior director for international law and policy. "I worked with her for four years," Brown told us, "and I have immense respect for her work...on issues that are incredibly difficult."

Sahgal says she has been raising internal objections to Amnesty's involvement with Moazzam Begg for two years. In early 2008, when the American branch of Amnesty (AIUSA) invited Begg to give the keynote speech at its annual general meeting, Sahgal sent a memo outlining her concerns to a colleague on the board of AIUSA, which stood by its invitation. Indeed, the AIUSA website describes Begg as born to "secular Muslim parents" and goes on: "Moved by the plight of the Afghani people, in 2001, Begg travelled to Kabul with his family to start a school for basic education, and to provide water pumps."

"It was a total whitewash," said Sahgal. She doesn't claim that Begg is--or ever was--a terrorist. Instead she argues that his activities and associations, taken together, add up to an unmistakable pattern of support for Islamic fundamentalism, which is entirely incompatible with women's rights or religious freedom for non-Muslims. "You have to be steeped in the language to see it," she said. "If you see it, you see it. If you don't, you don't." Asked for specifics, Sahgal points to:

§ Begg's career as a tourist of jihad, which she says is typical of a particular kind of right-wing Islamic fundamentalism associated with Pakistan's violent Jamaat-e-Islami party.

§ His ownership of an Islamic bookstore in Birmingham, England, in the 1990s, which was raided three times by MI5. In his memoir, Enemy Combatant, Begg says the shop's bestselling title on jihad was Defence of the Muslim Lands, by Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian-born scholar better known as Osama bin Laden's mentor and a co-founder of Al Qaeda.

§ Begg's comment, made to an FBI interrogator and quoted in Enemy Combatant, that "the Taliban were better than anything Afghanistan has had in the past twenty-five years."

§ The relationship of Begg and Cageprisoners, the organization he co-directs, which campaigns on behalf of Muslim detainees in the "war on terror," with Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Yemeni fundamentalist preacher whose sermons were attended by two of the 9/11 hijackers and who, according to the FBI, was an e-mail confidant of Nidal Malik Hasan, sole suspect in the 2009 Fort Hood shootings.

Begg says that he has simply advocated dialogue with the Taliban, just as the British government has done, and that Sahgal's attack is an attempt to put him on trial again. Amnesty officials deny turning a blind eye to Begg's supposed extremism. "Every time we've looked for specifics, we don't get any specifics or we get sensationalism," interim Secretary General Claudio Cardone told an interviewer for Canadian radio. The pattern Sahgal discerns in Begg's life story depends, as she admits, on a certain angle of vision. There are, however, less tendentious ways to read his history.

Moazzam Begg's journey also began in Britain's multiethnic communities and in the politics of the Indian subcontinent. Born in Birmingham to secular Muslims from India--his father sent him to a Jewish elementary school because of its high standards--he too was caught up, by his mid-teens, in antiracist battles as a member of the Lynx, a mostly Kashmiri gang that fought the skinheads and the fascist National Front in the early 1980s. In Enemy Combatant, written with Victoria Brittain after his release from Guantánamo, Begg relates how trips to Mecca and Pakistan, the 1991 Gulf War and the arrival in Britain of Bosnian refugees made him see his faith as the way to unify his disparate identities; Islam became his imagined community. In 1993 he returned to Pakistan and was impressed by the Jamaat-e-Islami's center in Lahore, with its university and karate dojo; he heard romantic tales of the struggle against the Soviets from veteran mujahedeen and visited training camps in Afghanistan. On his return to Birmingham, he opened his bookshop, which became a local center of Britain's Islamic revival and brought Begg to the attention of MI5.

Enemy Combatant offers a glimpse of the heady world of committed young British Muslims in the 1990s. The sense of moral rectitude and passionate doctrinal debates will ring a bell with anyone who took part in the left solidarity movements of the '70s and '80s. It was from this base that Begg set out for Bosnia and Chechnya (where he was turned away) and, in 2001, for Afghanistan, taking his British-Palestinian wife and three young children with him. When war broke out after September 11, Begg and his family fled to Pakistan, where he was arrested by American and Pakistani agents. He spent the next three years in detention, first in Bagram, where he describes being tortured, and then in Guantánamo, where he was kept for months in solitary confinement.

 

Since his release in 2005, Begg has spoken widely about his experiences for Amnesty and toured Britain for Cageprisoners with a former Guantánamo guard. When a British member of a Christian peace group was kidnapped in Iraq in November 2005, Begg made a video statement appealing for his release. But Sahgal's accusations, he writes on the Cageprisoners website, have led him to reconsider his approach: "Withdrawal to a place of safety, my own Muslim community, seems to be the best option right now." Cageprisoners staff, he says, have received death threats since Sahgal's complaints were made public.

Begg seems careful to frame his public statements so as not to alienate either liberal Britain or more radical members of his own community. "You have to speak to people in the Muslim community using Islamic words, Islamic concepts," he explained to us on the phone. It is not always easy to pin down exactly where he stands on human rights under Islamic law. But to call him, as Sahgal has done, "Britain's most famous supporter of the Taliban" is a misrepresentation of his views.

Begg went to Afghanistan in 2001, believing, he writes in his book, that the Taliban's "bad press was probably exaggerated." He told us, "We know that corruption is rife in the Muslim world, that there's no voice for the people. I'm not saying that voice existed in Afghanistan, but there was at least a kind of security that hadn't existed before.... Unfortunately, what also existed was a kind of religious intolerance and brutality, which I saw with my own eyes." In Kabul, Begg helped to set up an elementary school for girls, which taught English and mathematics as well as Arabic and Islamic history. Though the Taliban didn't license the school, they didn't close it either. "I believe it was because we were foreign, Western Muslims," Begg told us. "There was a recognition among some of the Taliban that education matters...and that they had to educate women. I believed in engagement, in helping them see that they could have schools without compromising Islamic values."

Begg also makes no secret of his interest in armed struggle. "In Bosnia," he said, "I did fight for a while. But I saw people horribly damaged, and I thought, This is not for me." When we put to him Sahgal's accusation that the pattern of his activities reflects that of fundamentalists training for armed jihad, he said, "Jihad is armed. People talk now about spiritual jihad because they've been put on the back foot. But jihad is not the same as terrorism. Back when the British--when we--were supporting the mujahedeen against the Russians, that was jihad with Kalashnikovs. Not terrorism.... It is not uncommon to have passed through those camps. I believe millions went through them. I went for a few days. Don't forget, there were terrible things going on in the world that no one was talking about--massacres in Kashmir, a genocidal war with concentration camps and rape camps in Bosnia."

Begg seems particularly wounded by Sahgal's implication that he does not respect women's rights, pointing to his work with groups that empower Muslim women; he mentions HHUGS (Helping Households Under Great Stress), which supports the families of detainees, and an Iraqi women's refugee group. "I've spoken at Amnesty, for instance, on a panel about sexual violence in war. The reason why this is so important to me is that I heard women screaming [when I was in detention], and thought they were my wife. Well, they weren't my wife, but they were somebody's wife. I'll never forget that. [Gita Sahgal] has no monopoly on women's rights."

But Sahgal's complaint against Begg's connection with Amnesty is not so much about his personal views as about his associations: that his presence lends legitimacy to fundamentalist groups and clerics who have supported terrorism and whose record on women is appalling. Here the evidence is more difficult to weigh. The account of his pre-Guantánamo life in Enemy Combatant blends an appealing frankness with an air of naïveté that doesn't always convince; it is hard not to feel, at times, that the tale has been slightly sanitized for a Western audience. The Cageprisoners website combines the discourse of human rights with an anti-imperialist analysis and an Islamic point of view. But while a disclaimer says that Cageprisoners does not necessarily sympathize with the views of detainees it features, the website's page on Dhiren Barot, for example, never mentions that he was jailed for life by a British court after pleading guilty to planning mass attacks on civilians in Britain and the United States.

Cageprisoners's relationship with Anwar al-Awlaki is also troubling. On August 30, 2008, Awlaki preached by video link to the charity's Ramadan fundraising dinner. His remarks on that occasion were unobjectionable, but a blog cached from his website on the previous day strikes a different note: "Our position is that we will implement the rule of Allah on earth by the tip of the sword whether the masses like it or not." A piece by Begg on the Cageprisoners website declares that the charity "never has and never will support the ideology of killing innocent civilians, whether by suicide bombers or B52s, whether that's authorized by Awlaki or by Obama," but remains evasive about Awlaki's views: "After his release [from prison], I am told, Anwar's position on issues pertaining to US foreign policy had started to become more hostile." Asked to elaborate, Begg told us, "The reality is that I don't know much about [Awlaki's] work except for his sermons on Mecca and Medina. I hadn't heard of him until I came back from Guantánamo and found he was very popular among British Muslims."

Amnesty's Widney Brown is adamant that none of this should undermine her organization's partnership with Begg: "We would be the first to say if there was any evidence against him. There is nothing new." Amnesty's fundamental principle, she says, is justice; guilt or innocence can be determined only by due process. "We advocate for people's rights across the board," she told us, "and we don't do a litmus test as to whether you're guilty or not. On prisoners of conscience, we say, 'Release that person unconditionally.' In the case of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, for example, we say, 'Don't torture him, don't detain him without trial. Bring him to justice.' When we do the former, we are seen as a good organization. When we do the latter, we are seen as political."

Amnesty, Brown explained, often works with people or groups it disagrees with: "The Catholic Church...[is] not good on women's rights. They are horrible on gay rights. And frankly, if you look at what they say about HIV and condoms, they have blood on their hands. Does that mean that we do not continue to work with the Catholic Church against the death penalty? Of course not.... [But] we would never allow someone to use an Amnesty International platform to attack human rights."

When Begg arrived in Britain in January 2005, almost nothing was known about conditions at Guantánamo; later that year, Amnesty's then-secretary general, Irene Khan, was criticized for calling it "the gulag of our times." In a way, Begg was the answer to the organization's prayers: "We found somebody who was clear and articulate and passionate about helping not just himself but others to get out, and who was willing to work with us. And this takes incredible courage for someone who has been tortured, because in talking about it memories inevitably come back," Brown said. Recently Begg has worked with Amnesty to persuade European governments to take Guantánamo detainees who can't go home because of the risk of torture. At the same time, in response to objections raised by Sam Zarifi, director of Amnesty's Asia-Pacific program, in a memo that was also leaked to the Sunday Times, the charity decided not to use Begg in its South Asia work. (In a subsequent letter to the newspaper, Zarifi said he did not oppose Begg's involvement in the Guantánamo campaign but felt that Amnesty had not been clear enough in distinguishing between defending someone's rights and embracing their views, which raised the risk of "creating a perception...in South Asia, that AI is somehow pro-Taleban or anti-women.") Says Brown: "Sam's view was that, no, he was not the right person for [our South Asia campaigns]. He raised the concern, and he was heard."

Brown is clear about her respect for Sahgal's work but doesn't recognize her account of a culture of suppression in the organization, or agree that her concerns were brushed aside: "Gita spoke to me several times over the last four years saying that our work on terrorism was not sufficiently focused on how it affects women. This is a very legitimate concern. But the first time she ever raised issues to me about Moazzam Begg was in January, when she said she could make a connection, through al-Awlaki, between Begg and the Christmas Day bomber [Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab]. I said, 'You have to write this up so we can deal with it.' I read it; no red flags went up for me. When I talked to her about it, I said, 'You know what we expect of research, and you know that this is not acceptable. Drawing out a relationship from innuendo is something we would never support.'... Within a week, we had the article in the Sunday Times."

There are no angels in this story, only human beings. Women have too often been expected to stay silent for the greater good, and Gita Sahgal probably didn't intend her complaints about Amnesty to be taken up by apologists for the "war on terror." But a case based on guilt by association simply isn't good enough to publicly condemn a man, especially one who has already been imprisoned for crimes he did not commit. Moazzam Begg didn't seek out a life in the public eye; it came to him as a consequence of his ordeal. In the current climate he might be forgiven for being protective of his community, but if he is to be taken seriously as an advocate for universal human rights, he needs to clarify his views about fundamentalist clerics his organization embraces. Amnesty needs a more transparent culture to match its principles; women's rights must be integral to all of its campaigns.

The butterfly that set this particular tempest blowing beat its wing decades ago in some British inner city. Islamophobia, antifeminism, the mutual mistrust between Muslims and the secular left have all fanned the breeze. If successive governments had not encouraged minorities to define themselves by religion, if they had answered racism and poverty with justice instead of tokenism, Gita Sahgal and Moazzam Begg might not be on opposite sides of this destructive argument.

 

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