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Home > impact on women / resistance > The AI /fundamentalists alliance controversy: Kodachrome

The AI /fundamentalists alliance controversy: Kodachrome

Wednesday 3 March 2010, by siawi2

by Meredith Tax

Tuesday, March 2, 2010 - 18:50


Remember that Simon and Garfunkel song “Kodachrome”— “When I think of all the crap I learned in high school, It’s a wonder I can think at all, But my lack of education hasn’t hurt me none, I can read the writing on the wall.”

Well, so can I, and that’s why I keep writing about the Gita Sahgal and Amnesty. The writing on the wall says that Amnesty’s alliance with Cageprisoners raises a critical strategic issue for the global women’s movement: Who are our reliable allies? Do we have any?

Such questions are bound to come up at this week’s meeting of the UN’s Committee on the Status of Women, and the NGO Forum that accompanies it. So far, the blogosphere has shed more heat than light and Amnesty’s own statements have thrown up a defensive cloud rather than opened up discussion. A number of positions, both right and left, have been written on the cyberspace wall, including:

1) The old fogey position: “This whole mess would never have happened if Amnesty had stuck to its original mandate of defending pacifist prisoners of conscience and not gotten involved with all these other issues.”

2) The neocon position: “Amnesty International has once more shown that it is just a front for those who would destroy Western civilization (or Israel, depending on the writer).”

3) The liberal position: “Women’s human rights are important; the rights of fundamentalist prisoners are important; why can’t we all get along?”

4) The hard left position: “Moazzam Begg is a hero of the people’s struggle and Gita Sahgal is a lackey of US imperialism.”

These positions are useless—black and white when we need Kodachrome. We live in a complex geopolitical era, where those who stand for human rights face two sets of enemies. On the one hand are the imperialist powers that exploit and oppress most of the world’s people—and have imprisoned Muslim men at Guantanamo, including Moazzam Begg. On the other are fundamentalist organizations of every faith whose members may sometimes oppose these imperialist powers—as Moazzam Begg does—but certainly do not stand for human rights, for they think it is their holy duty to kill women, people from other religions and ethnic groups, and even people from different strands of their own religion, though they may not say so to their white supporters.

It is no accident that the most trenchant and persuasive positions in the Gita Sahgal-AI controversy have come out of South Asia and Algeria, where the battle against fundamentalism has been going on for years and the stakes are obvious to all.

A recent statement by a group of women’s human rights organizations—Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), Baobab for Women’s Human Rights, Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL), INFORM in Sri Lanka, MADRE (International Women’s Rights Organization), Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights (UAF), and Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML)—discusses the stakes in Afghanistan:

“In the present context of ‘constructive engagement’ with the Taliban, AI bears the burden of closely scrutinizing that its partners do not use its platform to condone fundamentalist groups that are accountable for gross violations of women’s human rights, the rights of minorities and indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population in Afghanistan. Amidst the growing tendency of privileging religion and culture at the expense of women’s human rights, we must be vigilant not to undermine the extensive work we have done in exposing religious fundamentalisms and draw attention to the lack of mechanisms for accountability of non-state actors such as powerful fundamentalist forces, which have further empowered religious extremists groups such as the Taliban.”
These issues go back at least twenty years, to the struggle in Algeria, when Islamic fundamentalists (“non-state actors”) targeted by the state were themselves busy executing various groups whom they wanted to purge from society—intellectuals, foreigners, women. A detailed exposition of the way human rights groups responded to this complex situation is given by Marieme Helie Lucas in her 2005 article, “A.I. and Muslim Fundamentalists: an old story—the Algerian example:”

“Numerous reports on violence in Algeria, produced by different human rights organizations, were drawn exclusively from information given by supporters of fundamentalists in the guise of human rights defenders. Our attempts, as women’s rights defenders, to organize interaction between victims of violence by non-state actors and international investigation teams that came to Algeria were ignored.”

We hope this precedent will not set the tone for future work on Afghanistan, and that delegates and activists at the CSW meetings in New York this week will insist upon the need for vigilance against fundamentalism. One opportunity to do so will be a presentation given by Amnesty International on March 5 at 4 PM at the UN Church Center, 11th floor. The title is “Obstacles to Justice for SV, Obstacles to Women’s Rights.” It may be appropriate to wonder if Amnesty itself has become one of the obstacles. Suspending the head of its gender research unit does not promote confidence.