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AI: Defending human rights vs giving fundamentalists a political platform

Tuesday 9 February 2010, by siawi2

From The Times,
February 9, 2010

How Amnesty chose the wrong poster-boy

Collaboration with Moazzam Begg, an extremist who has supported jihadi movements, looks like a serious mistake

by David Aaronovitch

If you were a prisoner of conscience, a dissident, hounded by the authorities, imprisoned without proper process, shut up, shut in and shut down, then an organisation such as Amnesty International might be your one breath of air. Those Amnesty postcards, which seem like flinging a dart from a mountainside, may keep someone from despair. So the news that there is trouble at Amnesty is not welcome, except to tyrants. And yet it is hard not to see these ructions as being Amnesty’s own fault.

The problem came to prominence at the weekend when The Sunday Times reported that one of Amnesty’s senior officers, Gita Sahgal, had circulated a memorandum extremely critical of the organisation’s collaboration with a group called Cageprisoners. Cageprisoners’ most famous figure is the former Guantánamo inmate Moazzam Begg, a man whose three years’ incarceration without trial has helped, for many liberals, to turn him into a kind of Muslim Mandela — an embodiment of the wrongly accused.

Saghal does not dispute Begg’s ordeal. She objects to Begg, however, being used as a kind of poster boy for important Amnesty campaigns when, in her view, he is not a great stickler for the rights of others.

Amnesty, by promoting Begg, she argues, has misled people about his jihadi politics, and been blinded to the nature of his organisation, which “actively promotes†anti-woman Islamic ideas and individuals. Yesterday, probably inevitably, Sahgal was suspended from her job.

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Readers of this column possibly know that I don’t believe all the millenarian twaddle about Eurabia, the innate anti-democracy of Islam, or that most Muslims somehow don’t want what most non-Muslims want: respect, equal rights and happy children. But that said, it seems to me that there are parts of our right-thinking establishment that are too cowardly or aesthetically unwilling to separate the religious sheep from the jihadi goats.

A couple of years ago I was invited to debate with Moazzam Begg, but in the event he pulled out. I wasn’t surprised. It was clear to me, and I had suggested it, that while there was no evidence that he was a al-Qaeda sympathiser, there certainly was plenty of reason to believe that he was a political extremist who supported jihadi movements abroad.

In the wake of the Sahgal statement, that strangely likeable but unreasonable Muslim convert, the former journalist Yvonne Ridley, complained that Begg was being “demonised†and asserted that he was “a great supporter of women and a promoter of their rights†.

Consider. By his own account, in 1993, Begg had gone to a training camp in Afghanistan. There he was addressed by the camp’s leader who told him: “To me jihad is a drug I’m allowed to take and I always come back for more ... As long as Muslim lands are occupied I have vowed to fight for their liberation.†The leader mentions several such lands, including Kashmir and Israel, and quotes approvingly a Chechen fighter whose credo was “much of mankind has chosen life as a path to death, but I have chosen death as a path to life†.

Is Begg horrified by this commitment to never-ending war? Not a bit. “The Afghan visit was a life-changing experience for me. No few days have ever affected me like that. I had met men who seemed to me exemplary in their faith and self-sacrifice, and seen a world that awed and inspired me.â€

So Begg ends up taking his family, including two daughters, to live in Taleban-run Afghanistan in the summer of 2001. This must be about two months after the blowing up of the Bamiyan Buddhas, two years after the televised execution of a woman in the football stadium in Kabul, and in the full knowledge that Taleban police were beating women for improper dress, had fired all women in public service, would not permit women to see male doctors and had more or less abolished education for women.

Yet Begg writes: “I believed that the Taleban had made some modest progress — in social justice and upholding pure, old Islamic values forgotten in many Islamic countries.†As far as one can tell, Begg has never recanted this belief.

According to Begg, his organisation exists to represent (Muslim) prisoners who, in his words, have neither been charged nor been sent to trial. But the Cageprisoners website demands solidarity for several jihadis who have been both tried and convicted, and for several more who are at large. One wonders whether Amnesty has perused the full list, which includes Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani- American currently on trial for shooting US soldiers. Also there are Abu Hamza, Sajid Badat, who confessed to being part of the plot to blow up an aircraft with a shoe-bomb, and was sentenced to 13 years in 2005, and Andrew Rowe, the convert also given 13 years for acts preparatory to terrorism.

Then there is Begg’s dalliance with Anwar al-Awlaki, the man whom the recent pants bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, has fingered as being his practical inspiration. Awlaki has called for the killing of the Danish cartoonist, Kurt Westergaard, praised the Somali girl-stoners and murderers of al-Shabaab for “giving us a living example of how we as Muslims should proceed to change our situation†and described hatred of the unbeliever as being a “central element to our military creed†. In a recorded interview with al-Awlaki from two years ago Begg says to this man: “Obviously many people want you to come here to the UK to give lectures ... a lot of your supporters, mashallah.†“Mashallah†is an expression of approval.

As if all that were not enough a video exists of a senior researcher at Cageprisoners, Asim Qureshi, addressing a rally of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Qureshi says: “When we see the example of our brothers and sisters fighting in Chechnya, Iraq, Palestine, Kashmir, Afghanistan then we know where the example lies. When we see Hezbollah defeating the armies of Israel, we know what the solution is and where the victory lies.†The brothers and sisters in Afghanistan are the Taleban.

When he was putting together his week of lectures on the war against terror at UCL in 2007, the would-be bomber Abdulmutallab invited Begg, Qureshi, Ridley and that dangerous idiot George Galloway to speak. He did so because he knew that the cumulative effect of their commissions and omissions would be to radicalise his audience. Not in defence of human rights. Not in favour of Western agendas such as Amnesty’s, but against democracy, women’s rights and peace. You have to be a something of a fool not to see it.