Will the concept of an Islamic human rights activist ever be fully acceptable in Western society? During my many years working at the Islamic Human Rights Commission, several valuable minutes were wasted every morning deleting hate mail which often described the organisation as an oxymoron or a contradiction in terms before descending into a volley of Islamophobic and racist abuse. For those who send such emails, Islam and human rights cannot coexist. They are mutually exclusive. Recent events in the UK suggest that such views are not just shared by bigoted cowards who hide behind their desktops using pseudonyms.
Early last month, Gita Sahgal, chief of the gender unit at Amnesty Interna-tional, the globally recognised symbol of human rights, publicly condemned in the national media Amnesty International’s working relationship with former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg and his human rights organisation, Cageprisoners. Since his release, Begg has spoken on numerous Amnesty platforms about his experiences in Guantanamo Bay and last month was on a tour of European capitals organised by Cageprisoners, Amnesty, Reprieve, and the Centre for Constitutional Rights in which he is meeting foreign ministry officials to persuade them to accept some of the detainees. Sahgal states that she went public after her internal criticisms were not appropriately dealt with. Within hours of the article being published, Sahgal was suspended by Amnesty International pending an inquiry into her behaviour. This has led to an enormous campaign both to have Sahgal re-instated and for Amnesty to sever its links to Begg and Cageprisoners.
Sahgal’s criticisms of Begg and Cageprisoners are both unfair and unfounded. With respect to Begg, she accuses him of standing for a “set of ideologies that support not only violence in itself but very very [sic] discriminatory behaviour, systematic discrimination against women, religious minorities, and Muslims who don’t agree with them.” What is the basis for such views remains a mystery. Perhaps she has bought into US propaganda that was used to justify Begg’s detention in the first place.
The undeniable fact is Begg was kidnapped, tortured and detained for three years after which he was released without charge. To date, he has never been charged, tried or convicted of a terrorism offence, either in Britain or elsewhere. Before he was kidnapped, Begg was involved in the building, setting up and running of a school for girls in Afghanistan during the time of the Taliban. During his entire lifetime, Begg has vociferously defended the human rights of women in Bosnia, Chechnya and Kashmir against the brutal rape and torture that was committed against them. Begg routinely reaches out to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, of all denominations, even touring the UK with ex-US soldiers. If Sahgal has evidence to support any of her allegations, she would be well advised to produce it.
As for Cageprisoners, Sahgal describes it as a “jihadi” organisation “committed to systematic discrimination” and accuses it of having “an agenda that is way beyond being a human rights organisation.” Her only evidence in support of such allegations is first, that Cageprisoners campaigned for notorious clerics such as Anwar al-Awlaki and second, that Begg and Executive Director of Cageprisoners, Asim Qureshi, support the concept of armed jihad in self-defence against oppression and foreign occupation. Cageprisoners is a human rights organisation that was established and exists solely to raise awareness of the plight of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other detainees held as part of the War on Terror. Its sole objective is to ensure that anyone suspected of terrorism is granted full due process in accordance with their basic human rights and fundamental freedoms.
In the environment we live in today, this effectively means that Cageprison-ers has over 10,000 detainees it will attempt to support and campaign for to the best of its abilities. The universality of human rights, which Sahgal alleges Cageprisoners works to undermine, means that not one of these individuals should be denied those rights, irrespective of their beliefs and actions. Cageprisoners campaigned for the release of Awlaki when he was detained without charge in Yemen. Amnesty International has also campaigned for the rights of controversial figures such as Abu Qatadah and all of the Guantanamo Bay detainees, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, because they were being detained without charge. Like Amnesty International, Cageprisoners sees no contradiction in campaigning for due process for such individuals whilst firmly adhering to the principle that innocent civilians can never be targeted by any party.
So why should Cageprisoners come under the microscope and not Amnesty? For someone of Sahgal’s ilk, a senior member of Amnesty International, to condemn Moazzam Begg and Cageprisoners, as Trojan Horses for the Taliban and al-Qaeda, reveals that Islamophobic mindset exists even within those that the world looks up to as defenders of human rights for all.
Cageprisoners believes in the right of people living under foreign occupation and facing oppression to raise arms in self-defence. In doing so, Cageprisoners is merely reiterating international law, specifically Article 1 of Additional Protocol 1 to the Geneva Conventions which recognises the legitimacy of the use of armed force in the struggle for self-determination against colonial domination, alien occupation and racist regimes. That there is a meeting of minds here between the Shariah and international law should be welcomed as evidence of the fundamental human right to self-defence. Yet, to call it international law is to be civilized, to defend it as jihad is to run the risk of being arrested.
As Muslims, we are commanded by Allah (swt) to stand up for justice and to defend the rights of the oppressed. So if there is any hidden agenda at play at Cageprisoners, it is that it is motivated by Islam and by Qur’anic injunctions and not by secularism. This however has never been a secret and anyone familiar with the work of Cageprisoners is aware of this. Just as charitable organisations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide or Amnesty International should not be condemned for their respective sources of inspiration, neither should Cageprisoners. If anyone should be suspected of having an agenda, it is Sahgal. Despite several friendly invitations to a dialogue from Cageprisoners, Sahgal has refused to accept, claiming she feels “profoundly unsafe” even talking to Begg or Qureshi. Really? Begg and Qureshi have shared platforms and held meetings with international lawyers, journalists, activists, celebrities, and humanitarians, none of whom ever reported feeling threatened by them, not even Begg’s former guards at Guantanamo. Again, Sahgal refuses to provide any basis for her irrational fear and instead simply continues to make her unfounded allegations through the media.
Islamic human rights organisations such as Cageprisoners are often criticized by some in the Muslim world for their association with secular NGOs such as Amnesty International. These critics believe that because Amnesty officials do not believe in the supremacy of Islam and believe in a secular ideology, Muslims should not trust them. They allege that Amnesty is simply a human rights front organisation with a hidden agenda to destroy Islam, remove the hijab from Muslim women, and abolish Shariah law in totality. Nevertheless, Allah (swt) commands us to “Cooperate in good and piety and do not cooperate in sin and transgression” (5:2). Therefore we work with such organisations to promote the rule of law and international human rights. Amnesty, to its credit, has defended the relationship with Begg and Cageprisoners but is coming under increasing pressure to end it. Yet by doing so, it will be acting contrary to everything it stands for — the presumption of innocence. It will effectively be penalizing Begg for allegations made against him by the US government which to this day have not been proven in a court of law. If Amnesty succumbs to Sahgal’s scandalous allegations that are eagerly being amplified by the Islamophobic media both in Britain and North America, it will be undermining the universality of human rights.