:: Article

The players of games

By Max Dunbar.

Double Bind: The Muslim Right, The Anglo-American Left, and Universal Human Rights, Meredith Tax, Centre for Secular Space 2013

A lot has been said, a lot has been written, about the treachery of the Western left, its alliance with the religious far right, and its abandonment of solidarity and justice and freedom. You may well be bored of the discussion by now. Isn’t this just political positioning? We’re only really talking about a few extremists here, aren’t we? How do you define ‘left’ anyway? But ideas can impact in ways you haven’t thought about. If a bunch of placard-waving career activists organise a demonstration alongside the Muslim Brotherhood, that doesn’t matter. If the head of Human Rights Watch argues that Western governments should support the Muslim Brotherhood where it is trying to hijack the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt – that does matter. It changes people’s lives.

It is a surreal truth to face, but the fact is that to some extent the ideas of UK far left cults have spread into senior levels of international respected human rights organisations. Take, for example, Amnesty International. According to Meredith Tax, the writer and activist, Amnesty has a larger budget than some states, so what it does certainly matters. As a human rights organisation it had a duty to fight the American abuses of human rights. In a decision of catastrophic stupidity, the US state of the 1980s backed the Arab-Afghan mujahideen against the Russian invaders. The logic was that this was the Cold War, and the enemy’s enemy were our friends in the fight against godless communism. (Hey, they’re completely crazy, but at least they’re believers!) US money and equipment flowed through Pakistani intelligence services to Muslim Brotherhood organiser Abdullah Azzam, who set up an air bureau to get foreign jihadis into Peshawar training camps. Azzam had another rich friend: a young Saudi called Osama bin Laden.

Post 9/11, the Americans maintained their Saudi alliance, despite its incremental role in promoting jihadist propaganda. US abuses in the terror war included the systemic use of torture, and the legal and moral black hole of Guantanamo Bay. There are other, worse secret US black sites – Tax mentions Bagram, in Pakistan – but Gitmo captivated the world like a bloody comet: those kneeling figures in orange jumpsuits linger in the mind and stain the American ideal to this day. It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to be held in such a facility, but there have been numerous attempted and successful suicides, and allegations of torture, including sleep deprivation, hooding, forced positions and solitary confinement. Detainees can be held for years without a whisper of due process.

Amnesty’s response to all this was interesting. It partnered with an organisation called CagePrisoners, run by Birmingham-born Muslim Moazzam Begg. Begg became something of a cause celebre after he moved himself and his family to Afghanistan in July 2001. The timing was unfortunate. Six months later, Begg was arrested by the Americans, and ended up in Guantanamo via Bagram. Begg’s incarceration coincided with a growing liberal outrage about US black sites, the Iraq war and America in general. Artists and journalists mobilised against Gitmo. Michael Winterbottom made a sympathetic and well received documentary about the ‘Tipton Three’, a trio of Midland Muslims picked up by US intelligence on the way to a wedding in Pakistan; and Begg himself was featured in a West End play, Guantanamo: Honour Bound to Defend Freedom, written by the Guardian journalist Victoria Brittain and the novelist Gillian Slovo. Eventually, the then Labour government pressured the US to release Begg and some other detainees. President Bush, against the advice of US intelligence, agreed.

Back in the UK, Moazzam Begg threw himself into journalism and campaigning. He wrote for the Guardian, appeared on antiwar platforms and collaborated with Brittain on his autobiography, Enemy Combatant, in which he portrayed himself as a decent, devout family man who paid the price for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He moved to Afghanistan partly because of ‘the cost of living… Many people told me that we could live in the best area of Kabul for less than £100 a month’. He felt that the Taliban ‘had made some modest progress – in social justice and in upholding pure, old-style Islamic values forgotten in many Islamic countries.’ What was he mainly doing in Afghanistan? The general idea was to give ‘social value and assistance to those less fortunate than myself’ and, in particular, building a school: ‘The plan was to expand both boys and girls schools to incorporate secondary education – and a link to the Kabul University. We collected books, funds and stationery; together with computers, classroom furniture and playground apparatus… Though the girls’ school was not authorised by the strict Taliban regime, I still enrolled my own daughter at the school, and my son at the boys – though he was still too young.’ As Meredith Tax says, Begg presents himself as ‘a good-hearted, wide-eyed innocent who bumbles his way through world-historical events without really understanding what’s going on.’

Tax has a whole chapter on Moazzam Begg and CagePrisoners. Reading it, you are frequently shaking your head and wondering how even Victoria Brittain could be taken in by such an obvious front story. Tax points out that back in the late nineties, Begg ran a Midlands bookshop called Maktabah al Ansaar, which disseminated salafi-jihadist propaganda, was raided three times by UK authorities, and published a book by al-Qaeda operative Dhiren Barot, now serving thirty years for conspiracy to murder. During this time he met al-Qaeda fixer Mahmoud Abu Rideh, whose war stories inspired Begg’s relocation to Afghanistan. Begg’s stated activity there – building a school for Afghan girls – is absolutely key to his defence. The girls’ school gives a liberal gloss to both Begg’s account and the Taliban regime, and puts a dent in feminist criticism. Abu Rideh, interviewed by Begg, says that ‘We worked together to build that school… for girls in a place where the rest of the world was saying that the Taliban did not allow female education, when in fact Muslims were helping to set up schools, like yourself, for girls in Afghanistan.’ All very civilised. Except that the Taliban had already closed down all the girls’ schools. This particular school was set up by al-Qaeda’s treasurer to teach the children of foreign jihadis. Begg escaped the bombing of Kabul through Osama bin Laden’s Tora Bora caves, and a money order in his name was found in a Jalalabad training camp raided by the Northern Alliance in November 2001. All this, by the way, Tax gets from Begg’s memoir, interviews and tribunal statements that Begg does not dispute. She discounts his confession at Bagram which Begg says was extracted under duress.

No surprise then that Begg’s organisation CagePrisoners campaigned for some of the most vicious jihadi ideologues ever to walk the earth. Tax lists a rogue’s gallery that includes Abu Hamza, who turned the Finsbury Park mosque into a jihad recruitment centre; Anwar al-Awlaki, the al-Qaeda theoretician who inspired the Fort Hood massacre, the Underwear Bomber and the stabbing of a British MP; and Khalid Sheikh-Mohammed, who helped organise 9/11, the ’93 bombing of the World Trade Centre, the Bali nightclub bombing and the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl.

Obviously, even jihadis are entitled to due process. Guantanamo should be burned to its foundations, and salt sewn into the ground. But it’s a massive deductive leap from arguing for due process, to arguing that everyone in Gitmo should be released regardless of what they have done or the evidence against them. CagePrisoners made that leap. Gita Sahgal ran Amnesty’s gender unit and was increasingly concerned about her organisation’s partnership with Begg’s crew. After going through CagePrisoner’s website, she found that ‘their goal was to obtain the release of such prisoners, rather than simply affording them fair trial and punishment by a properly constituted court… Supporting prisoners in this way is not simply an act of charity, but a form of religious support towards their theo-political goals.’

As Tax explains, human rights is based on the rule of law. Short circuit that and you don’t have a human rights organisation. Sahgal tried to get Amnesty’s management to understand this. In an internal memo she argued that:

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….fatally blurring the distinction between defending the rights of the individual and creating a narrative of innocence to suit our campaigning. This is a very old problem but it has currently reached its apotheosis in the decision to take Begg to Downing Street and to tour with him across Europe.

When that memo got no results, Sahgal went public with an interview for the Sunday Times. Three hours after that interview appeared, she was suspended.

CagePrisoners is an old tale but it is indicative of wider problems. The Great Game was a term for the swashbuckling imperial rivalry between Britain and Russia for Central Asian rule. It continued well into the Cold War with players like Kissinger and Nixon making alliances and manipulating peoples like Haig with his toy soldiers. Now the left has discovered its own version of the Game – where all that matters is strategic partnerships and the language of resistance, and secularism, liberty and the rule of law are discarded as bourgeois frivolities. The results for people who actually are fighting for freedom, particularly dissidents in Islamic countries, are disastrous. The antiwar left doesn’t support the rights of women: indeed, we know that the SWP, the driving force behind the antiwar movement, does not even support the rights of female activists in its own organisation. Forget the anti-imperialist rubric. Feminism is key to everything. It’s the only recent radicalism that has worked and has to be supported if the suffering in the Arab world will ever end. To paraphrase Orwell, hope lies with women.

With this in mind Sahgal and Tax have set up the Centre for Secular Space which aims to promote universal rights without concessions to misogyny, fundamentalism and lies. Meredith Tax’s book, Double Bind, can be ordered from there, and it’s essential if you want to understand the nasty little hole the left has dug itself into. I should also say that the CSS is a new organisation, it doesn’t have Amnesty’s huge corporate budget, and it badly needs donations.

Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, March 17th, 2013.