Just when it seemed that Republicans in America had a monopoly on Islamophobic hysteria, the Sunday Times prompted a torrent of similar hysteria in the UK by running an article in which an employee of Amnesty International — Gita Sahgal, head of the gender unit at the International Secretariat — criticized the organization that employed her for its association with former Guantánamo prisoner Moazzam Begg.
Before getting into the substance — or lack of it — in Sahgal’s complaints, it should be noted first of all that her immediate suspension by Amnesty was the least that should have been expected. What other organization would put up with an employee badmouthing them to a national newspaper on a Sunday, and then allow them to return to work as usual on Monday morning?
That Sahgal’s many defenders have all chosen to ignore this point suggests that they believe that her allegations were so significant — the actions, indeed, of a self-sacrificing whistleblower — that this blatant unprofessionalism was acceptable, whereas, in fact, it was no such thing.
That Sahgal also chose to air her complaints in the Sunday Times, a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch, is also significant, particularly because the Times first attempted to smear Begg and Cageprisoners a month ago, in connection with the failed plane bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, in an article by the normally reliable Sean O’Neill, entitled, “Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had links with London campaign group.” To me, this suggests that Sahgal may have been used as part of an ongoing attempt to vilify Begg that was part of a specific editorial policy.
It is also significant that Sahgal confided in Richard Kernaj, a reporter who, as Rick B explained at Ten Percent, enjoys his work “specialising in exposing shortcomings, crime and corruption in the Muslim community” to such an extent that, when he exposed child abuse in an Australian Islamic council in 2006, he boasted afterwards — using a distinctly inappropriate analogy — that being handed the documents that led to his scoop “was like a journalist’s wet dream.”
So what of the allegations? According to Kernaj’s article, Sahgal stated her belief that collaborating with Begg “fundamentally damages” Amnesty’s reputation. Kernaj added that, in an email “sent to Amnesty’s top bosses,” she suggested that “the charity has mistakenly allied itself with Begg and his ‘jihadi’ group, Cageprisoners, out of fear of being branded racist and Islamophobic.” He also explained that she described Begg as “Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban.”
Kernaj also claimed that Sahgal had “decided to go public because she feels Amnesty has ignored her warnings for the past two years about the involvement of Begg in the charity’s Counter Terror With Justice campaign,” and quoted more extensively from the email written on January 30, which stated:
I believe the campaign fundamentally damages Amnesty International’s integrity and, more importantly, constitutes a threat to human rights. 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.
Right-wingers — and other thinly-disguised right-wingers described, laughably, as the “decent left” — seized on the article with glee, and responded to Sahgal’s inevitable suspension not with recognition of her lamentable lack of professionalism, but by providing her with a platform for further misplaced allegations, and by writing opinion pieces drawing on their rarely submerged hostility towards Islam.
In the Spectator, Martin Bright posted a statement by Sahgal on his blog, David Aaronovitch followed up with an article in the Times, Nick Cohen set up a ridiculous Facebook group, “Amnesty International You Bloody Hypocrites Reinstate Gita Sahgal,” and even the Guardian allowed a friend of Sahgal’s, Rahila Gupta, to write an opinion piece that failed to justify the descriptions of Begg and Cageprisoners, and that also failed to address the question of why Sahgal should keep her job after criticizing her employers in a national newspaper. Gupta also suggested, erroneously, that Amnesty International had “filtered out” negative comments responding to a statement that the organization issued on its website, whereas, in fact, a cursory glance at the comments should convince anyone that Islamophobia is as alive and well in Amnesty’s supporters as it is in the world of Kernaj, Bright, Aaronovitch, Cohen et al.
On Cageprisoners, Begg defended himself admirably, asking Kernaj why, after discussing his planned article with him, and asking him detailed questions, he chose to ignore all his responses. Begg also criticized Sahgal for not talking to him first, noting, “Whilst it gives me no personal pleasure to hear of the suspension of Ms. Sahgal for holding her view, the newspapers were not the right place to air them without first putting them to Cageprisoners or me.”
In key passages addressed to Kernaj, he wrote:
When asked specifically about the Taliban I told you my view: that I have advocated for engagement and dialogue with the Taliban well before our own government took the official position of doing the same — only last week — although I did not say, like the government, we should be giving them lots of money in order to do so.
I also clearly told you, though you deliberately chose to ignore, that I had actually witnessed what I believe were human rights abuses under the Taliban and have detailed them in my book, from which you conveniently and selectively quote. I added that the US administration had perpetrated severe human rights abuses against me for years but that didn’t mean I opposed dialogue with them.
I even told you that Cageprisoners and I have initiated pioneering steps in that regard by organising tours all around the UK with former US guards from Guantánamo and men who were once imprisoned there. Cageprisoners is the only organisation to have done so. One of these soldiers, in response to your article, sent this message to me: “They are attacking you and your causes … don’t forget you have real support by some of us ex-soldiers who have seen the light.” […]
Had you — and Ms Sahgal no doubt — done your homework properly you’d have discovered also that I was involved in the building of, setting up and running of a school for girls in Kabul during the time of the Taliban, but of course, that wouldn’t have sat well with the agenda and nature of your heavily biased and poorly researched article.
Cageprisoners, for whom I write on a regular basis, describes itself, accurately, as an organization that “exists solely to raise awareness of the plight of the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay and other detainees held as part of the War on Terror.” In his letter to Kernaj, Begg also mentioned that Cageprisoners would not “be forced into determining a person’s guilt outside a recognised court of law.” This happens to be a view that I share, and it has motivated me for the last four years as I have assiduously chronicled the stories of the men and boys — all Muslims, in case anyone has overlooked this particular point — who have been redefined as a category of human beings without rights in a post-9/11 world of hysteria in which apparently intelligent non-Muslims regard the indefinite detention without charge or trial of Muslim “terror suspects” as somehow appropriate.
I know from personal experience that Moazzam Begg is no extremist. We have met on numerous occasions, have had several long discussions, and have shared platforms together at many events. He also features in the new documentary about Guantánamo, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” directed by Polly Nash and myself, talking about Afghanistan, and his hopes, in 2001, that civilized intervention from other Muslims would help the country to engage with the modern world.
Along with other representatives of Cageprisoners, Moazzam and other released prisoners have all welcomed me — a non-Muslim — with nothing less than friendship, support and openness at all times, as they have with numerous other non-Muslim supporters of universal human rights. Is this really what we should expect from extremists or supporters of the Taliban?
I also know, from my conversations with Moazzam, that he is capable of far more open-minded discussions than many of his critics mentioned above (of the kind that sustained him in his conversations with guards throughout his long ordeal in US custody), and that his calm and considered response to the treatment he received is a far more moderating and moderate influence than that of his divisive critics.
It also seems clear to me that the manner in which this story has been stirred up by the media actually has less to do with Moazzam and Cageprisoners than it does with illiberal attempts to smear Amnesty International’s reputation, and to advance an all too prevalent anti-Islamic agenda.
This is supposedly disguised through the purported defense of an Amnesty employee who had no excuse for speaking to the press as she did, but instead, I would suggest, Gita Sahgal is largely being used by those whose only aim is to stir up hostility towards a man who was imprisoned without charge or trial for three years, who has never been charged with a crime, and who dares to defend the rights of other Muslims not to be held without charge or trial.
Note: Moazzam Begg, Omar Deghayes and Andy Worthington will attend a screening of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” at Amnesty International’s Human Rights Action Centre in London on Tuesday February 16, at 6.30 pm, and will take part in a Q&A session following the screening, moderated by Sara MacNeice, Amnesty’s Campaign Manager for Terrorism, Security and Human Rights. For further details, see here. Tickets are free, but booking is required. Please visit Amnesty’s site for booking details, and see here for details of other UK tour dates for the film.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009, details about my film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
A letter to the Times regarding Moazzam Begg and Amnesty by Bisher al-Rawi
11 Feb 2010
In response to the hysteria regarding Amnesty International’s association with former Guantánamo prisoner Moazzam Begg and Cageprisoners which I reported in detail here, another former prisoner, Bisher al-Rawi, has written the following letter to the Times, which I found to be eloquent, understated and unerringly accurate about the role of Amnesty in providing hope to prisoners held outside the law in the “War on Terror”, and of Moazzam in articulating these dark experiences to the world, in an attempt to bring them to an end.