Moazzam Begg Interview
By Hana Leaper
Moazzam Begg was illegally held at Guantánamo Bay and other US prisoner detention camps, and narrowly avoided being sent to torture camps in Egypt and Libya. His book about the experience (co-written with Victoria Brittain), is entitled “Enemy Combatant”, after the title afforded to him by the American military.
He is currently promoting it by speaking at universities, rallies and literary festivals. In Liverpool, he spoke at the Stop the War Rally on 20th March and will be attending the Writing on the Wall festival, which runs from 14th-19th May at various venues throughout the city.
It seems more than a little insensitive to be questioning a man who was interrogated over three hundred times during his three year captivity (that's around once every three days), but he is ungrudging of the intrusion. In his book, Moazzam writes that the shock of going from solitary confinement (speaking only to military personnel for whom he was the 'enemy'), to being surrounded by friends and family eager to get close to him after so long and so much heartache, was hard to handle. Now he speaks to crowds of thousands, and his book has become essential literature for the politically aware.
Despite - or perhaps because of - the continuing trauma caused by his
imprisonment, Moazzam has become a spokesman for the website cageprisoners.com.
Established during his time at Guantánamo Bay, those involved with
the site helped campaign for his release. As well as providing a forum
for former inmates, it functions as a vital resource for prisoners' families,
who may be suffering both emotionally and financially, and to act as a
focal information point with updates on the conditions of prisoners and
their legal progress. Through cageprisoners.com, Moazzam can be contacted
by anyone interested in his story; he describes the work he does on an
Witnessing the devastating effects that Bush's 'war on terror' has had on the lives of ordinary Muslims around the world has instilled in Moazzam a sense of duty to act as a mouthpiece for the concerns of the Muslim community, as well as for the majority of Brits who're opposed to the war and the human rights abuses being perpetrated under the banner of 'terror prevention'. Although he states that his primary priority is his family, it's easy to perceive that the desire to assist others and fulfil his religious commitment to charity is a strong motivating factor. His compassion for his fellow human beings was proven many times over by his trips to Bosnia with aid envoys, and his relocation to Afghanistan to run schools for girls, something that the Taliban may have been unreceptive to if foreign, non-Muslim agencies tried to do it.
His upbringing in Birmingham has privileged him with an excellent education, an ability to speak and write clearly and concisely "as well as an understanding of what it means to be a cultured man who belongs within a multicultural society". This has operated both as an advantage and disadvantage for him: he was one of the few prisoners at Bagram air base who could converse fluently with the guards, enabling him to diplomatically arrange better treatment for prisoners by explaining that food and water rations were insufficient and badly distributed. He states that his aim - 'to be understood by people who wouldn't otherwise have experience of, or access to knowledge about being a British Muslim' - is fulfilled thanks to this background. Yet, it is also this background that has aroused suspicion from the US and UK government institutions who have persecuted him.
His imprisonment has acted as a catalyst, and perhaps a platform from which Moazzam publicly demonstrates/remonstrates, but other decisive factors in his choice to do so are the changes he has witnessed in British society. I ask him whether he believes a functional multicultural society can exist and he replies that "yes, it has been flourishing throughout my life-span". He believes that although issues existed in the 70s (he was a member of the notorious Birmingham Lynx gang as a teenager), they were more to do with racism than religion. He compares the demonisation of Muslims by 'intelligence' agencies and the press to the treatment of Irish Catholics during the 80s. Unsurprisingly, given this analogy, the reception he has received in Ireland has been one of great empathy and understanding. Demonstrating his cultural astuteness, Begg cites Northern Ireland as an example of a "contemporary situation which not long ago seemed irresolvable". Northern Ireland, like Afghanistan, was basically a neo-colonial conflict, in which rebels were engaging terrorist tactics. The comparison is a positive one Begg surmises: "the same people who refused to negotiate are now engaging in productive, peaceful dialogue with those they saw as a source of oppression".
When asked what he thinks about press coverage of Muslim-related terror news, he is sceptical: "certain sections of people within the media have an agenda". He refrains from stating the obvious - that this agenda is clearly racial and religious hatred, distempered by sensationalist appetites, but goes on to analyse the effects; instilling fear, reinforcing negative stereotypes and easing the way for the implementation of draconian 'anti-terror' legislation. In the case of the police force's misguided responses to 'terror alerts', Begg believes that in incidents such as the notorious Forest Gate cock-up, the knee jerk reaction of the force has been based on bad intelligence (the same sort of bad intelligence which led to him being arrested without charge several times by MI5). Again, demonstrating his reasonable brand of optimism, he finds it encouraging that the police have since become more sensitive in their approach to how the raids are conducted. Although, as Begg points out, thus far "such raids have only succeeded in causing unease and most arrests have been made without sufficient evidence to lead to detainees being questioned regarding terrorist plots".
Begg is an exemplary figure. He has not succumbed to the fear and blinkered intolerance which has fuelled the religious rift since the events of 9/11 and the London train bombings, despite the tremendous injury this prejudice has caused him. Whilst he is uncertain what actually motivates our politicians in their erroneous decisions and ridiculously reactionary crusades, Moazzam Begg's openness, his refusal to despair or panic, and his firm belief that the situation can be resolved diplomatically and peaceably, without further retaliation from either 'side' (if the parties involved can be so clearly defined), clearly highlights the fact that various sectors of society are behaving like frightened school children. His refreshingly balanced attitude is shown when he talks about his captors, some of whom he is still in contact with. He goes so far as to say that their simple kindnesses and human contact "helped maintain my faith in human beings and my hope that I would be freed".
As an ex-captive, and a British Muslim, Begg believes he is in a position of potency from which he may act to provide rationally voiced mediation in this volatile global situation. However, he has yet to receive an apology for the years of his life wasted through other people's fear and misunderstanding.
As part of the WOW Festival, Moazzam will talk about his experiences and his book, Enemy Combatant, with Mirror journalist, Brian Reade on Monday 14th May at 6.30 at the Kuumba Imani Millennium Centre, 34 Princes Road.
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