Gita Sahgal had to leave Amnesty International last week after questioning its association with a former detainee of Guantanamo Bay. Now, in an exclusive article for DNA, Sahgal asks human rights groups to introspect about the dangers of legitimising a violent ideology in their eagerness to find poster boys for their campaigns.
For the past two months, the concerns that I expressed publicly about Amnesty International’s relationship with Moazzam Begg have received attention in the world’s media and sparked discussion wherever human rights people gather, from board meetings to coffee shops. In some parts of the world, there is bewilderment — who is this Gita Sahgal who suddenly criticised her employer? And who is Moazzam Begg?
But in the one organisation where debate should be most vigorous, that is in Amnesty International itself, there appears to be total silence. This could be due to apathy towards the key questions of the day: what does the universality of rights mean? And who controls its meaning?
Unlike many NGOs, Amnesty International is a membership organisation with a direct role for ordinary members — not only to take action to address human rights abuses but also to be able to consider some of the great issues of the day and have some say in what stands should be taken.
Today, I speak to Amnesty International members and supporters as an outsider; to ask you to do for yourselves what you have so often done for others. You need to call for public accountability. You need to start asking clear questions on how the relationship with Moazzam Begg grew until he was regarded as an indispensable advocate. And whether, as I and others have alleged, there were indeed grounds for concern and that the link with Begg should be ended.
Platform for jihadism
One of the issues at stake is whether there is any evidence. Indeed, the whole debate calls into question the nature of what constitutes evidence. Amnesty International’s senior leadership at first refused to say whether he was a human rights advocate, in spite of the fact that the organisation had been closely associated with him. Now, shockingly, they defend his views as well as his presence on Amnesty’s platforms.
Moazzam Begg is a British citizen who went to Afghanistan during the Taliban regime. But long before he went, he was under scrutiny by the British authorities. Just as his detention without trial in Guantanamo was not justified, his politics and the dangers of legitimising him by giving him greater visibility and respectability should not be justified either.
His links with Amnesty International seem to have been developed through the Counter Terror With Justice campaign to close Guantanamo, in the face of strong advice not to develop such strong links with him. Even today, after months of intense media scrutiny, the nature and extent of the links have not really been established and ordinary members and section staff of Amnesty International need to look carefully at what they know about Begg and the organisation he represents, Cageprisoners.
Have you helped to legitimise Cageprisoners by naming it a leading human rights organisation as several sections have done? This is a major accolade and a global platform for what would otherwise have been an obscure outfit devoted to the promotion of those detainees and convicted prisoners from groups that are associated with al-Qaeda and other exponents of the ideology that is known as salafi jihadism.
The perfect victim
As far back as 2008, I had prepared a note on Begg to assist a discussion at a board meeting. It was my view that Begg should never have been invited to be a speaker on an Amnesty platform in the first place, but I was not asked for my opinion. Instead, the only thing that I was asked to do was to provide information that could serve to contextualise him more honestly.
Even those of my colleagues who were raising questions were far too hesitant to ask for anything other than a more honest introduction which did not simply paint Begg as a charity worker in Afghanistan at the time of 9/11. Begg had become a hero of the Amnesty movement. It was dangerous to challenge his status as a perfect victim. And far too dangerous to demand that he be stood down as a speaker.
None of the information in the note I prepared came from Amnesty sources, as they have done little work on the kinds of individuals and networks involved. No Amnesty International report exists on European and North American radicalisation of young Muslims. No information was drawn from any source where duress of any kind was even a possibility.
My own opposition to torture, quite apart from Amnesty International’s policy, would have made this abhorrent. I did not read the central section of Begg’s book, Enemy Combatant: A British Muslim’s Journey To Guantanamo And Back, because I was not seeking in any way to challenge his account of his experiences in Guantanamo.
Instead, I tried to create a careful picture drawing from the work of two experts on salafi-jihadi politics and practice — who were known to Amnesty International, having spoken at a closed meeting on terrorism, in 2007. The note also quoted heavily from a document called ‘Key Tendencies of the Islamic Right’ in Britain published by Awaaz: South Asia Watch.
Awaaz, which I founded along with other secular, anti-racist Asians in the wake of the massacre of Muslims by Hindu fanatics in Gujarat in 2002, was used to analysing transnational networks of fundamentalists based in Britain. Our longest report ‘In Bad Faith, British Charities and Hindu Extremism’ had laid out the connection between apparently innocuous Hindu organisations in Britain and those who killed Muslims in Gujarat.
The Key Tendencies document was drawn up by a group who for decades had been tracking the organisations of the Jamaat-i-Islami and Muslim Brotherhood in Britain as well as other newer and smaller groupings. Inside knowledge of these formations was provided by former members of some of these groups.
Two decades ago, some of us were on different sides of the ‘Rushdie affair’. Now we were working together to try and keep alive increasingly embattled secular spaces in populations that were increasingly subjected to extremist propaganda on the one hand and raids and arrests on the other. We did this work not because we were defending some distant ‘other’, but because of the twin threats faced by our children, in the streets of our communities.
For the note to Amnesty International I drew on a description of the threat posed by salafi-jihadi groups that coalesce around bookshops and through connections made in cyberspace and their strong links to armed groups operating in Pakistan. All this is information that has since been widely reported in the media and various blogs, but appears to be completely outside the institutional knowledge or understanding of Amnesty International.
I also analysed information from Begg’s own highly partial account of his life, in the context of his politics. One clearly disturbing fact was his admission that before he went to Afghanistan, he ran a bookshop, Maktabah al-Ansar, where the bestseller was Abdullah Azzam — a mentor of Osama bin Laden and co-founder of the very violent grouping Lashkar-e-Taiba, held to be responsible for the Mumbai attacks in 2008.
Not mentioned by Begg was the fact that the bookshop also published in 1999, The Army Of Madinah, a jihad manual by Dhiren Barot, perhaps Britain’s most important connection to the al-Qaeda leadership, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to murder and is serving a life sentence in prison, without parole.
Barot, who wrote under the pseudonym Essa al-Hindi (meaning Jesus of India), clearly valorises Afghanistan under the Taliban, as does Begg with some minor caveats. Azzam, and Barot, endorse ‘defensive jihad’, a theme which also runs through Begg’s book.
Writing in the Arches, a journal of the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Cordoba Institute, Begg appears to be arguing that the jihad that he is talking about does not allow indiscriminate attacks on civilians and is, therefore, consistent with the Geneva conventions/laws of war. But he also confirms that violent jihad is an individual obligation of every Muslim — a view that is not widespread among Muslims but is a specifically salafi-jihadi perspective.
It appears again in his defence of Qaeda-aligned preacher Anwar al-Awlaki and of convicted terrorist recruiter Ali al-Timimi whom Begg describes as “one of the most reasonable and middle-of-the-path scholars that I have come across”.
His protestations that he does not support Awlaki’s views on killing civilians raise the question as to whether this careful distancing from a terrorist suspect would be believed in another context. Would Amnesty International members and supporters decide that a man who had once sold Mein Kampf but now said that Hitler, who was a great inspiration, went a little over the top in carrying out the final solution, be considered a suitable person to adorn Amnesty platforms?
Question for survival
Unfortunately, my warnings and those of many others were ignored. Since I have gone public with my concerns, Amnesty International has failed to address my central charge: that they have sanitised the politics of Moazzam Begg and legitmised him as a human rights defender.
Instead, Amnesty International has further legitimised his position by claiming that his views on accommodating the Taliban and the role of jihad in self-defence are ‘not antithetical to human rights’.
In a letter to the three senior human rights advocates who drafted a petition to restore the integrity of human rights to Amnesty International, the interim secretary-general Claudio Cordone says, ‘I am afraid that the rest of what we have heard against Moazzam Begg include many distortions, innuendos and guilt by association, to which he has responded for himself.’
It seems that my research and that of leading experts in the field amounts to innuendo and distortion. Never has the backlash against those who take terrorism seriously as violation of rights been starker at the senior levels of Amnesty International.
One of the last meetings that I held in the office before I was suspended was to meet the excellent Afghanistan team, which was very clear that a deal with the Taliban would be a disaster bringing neither peace nor security. They also reported that some of those who had come back from Guantanamo and been welcomed with re-integration ceremonies had gone straight off to fight the jihad. Their work is severely undermined by the tireless promotion of Begg.
As I argued in a speech on terrorism: “Most acts of terrorism, in most parts of the world, are well sign-posted by the groups that commit them. They are often carried out by people who know their targets well. Their aim is not only to murder and maim, but to intimidate and control. In short, for civilians who are the targets of such attacks, the enemy is not unknown but an intimate one. And the threat of terrorism affects freedom of expression, freedom of movement, the right to education and to health and work as much as it threatens the right to life itself.”
Jihad, whether of the defensive or offensive variety, constitutes a profound threat to all human rights. Amnesty International cannot afford to equate views that are underpinned by systematic discrimination towards women and minorities with those that respect all human rights. Senior human rights advocates and many people across Asia, Africa, and Latin America understand this — they have no choice but to deal with all threats to human rights simultaneously. Universality is no abstract principle for them but often a matter of survival.
It is time that Europeans and North Americans active in human rights movements understood this and told their leaders so.