A lot of people will be quietly nodding with satisfaction at the news that the director of Cageprisoners Moazzam Begg has been arrested on suspicion of facilitating terrorism overseas. Begg has not actually been charged with anything so far, but West Midlands police are apparently investigating the possibility that he may have attended a ‘jihadist training camp’ in Syria
Exactly what this means remains to be seen. Given the UK government’s elastic definition of ‘terrorism’, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that charges may be brought against Begg – regardless of the fact that the ‘jihadist training camp’ that he may or may not have ‘ attended’ may also have been – and possibly still is – filled with de facto allies of the UK government, which has been one of the most vocal supporters of armed struggle against the Assad regime.
Leaving aside the arguments about the differences between a refugee camp and a jihadist training camp, or a jihadist who regards war in Syria as an act of defense of Muslims against oppression and a ‘terrorist’ who kills civilians and Western civilians in particular, or whether Begg even ‘attended’ such a camp in the first place, the question remains: how can Begg be a terrorist if he is providing humanitarian assistance to the same refugees that the British government is also helping, and if he politically supports armed rebels that the British government also supports – even if he might have come to do so from a different perspective and for different reasons?
The answer, as far as the government and police are concerned, would be whether Begg has contributed to the ‘radicalization’ of British jihadists who might come back and start killing people and blowing stuff up over here, though this possibility has not been mentioned yet.
Now some years back I saw Begg speak at the Bath Literary Festival, where we were both appearing to promote our books – in my case a book that didn’t exist since it had just been pulped in response to a lawsuit from a certain Saudi billionaire.
All I can say is that if Begg is a ‘terrorist’ then my mother is Al Capone. Given the experiences that he had been through at Guantanamo and Bagram, he was strikingly calm, humane, lucid, funny and forgiving towards his former tormentors – as individuals. But he was a politicized Muslim, a forceful critic of the human rights abuses perpetrated in the name of the ‘war on terror’ and an articulate and persuasive advocate for his fellow prisoners, and he has remained so ever since.
A lot of people have disliked and despised him for that, from the warmongering zealots at the Weekly Standard in the States to the Scoop Jacksonites and ‘liberal hawks’ over here. Attacks on Begg, like the attacks on Tariq Ramadan, have often been steeped in the ‘sneaky Muslim’ variety, which draw their virulence precisely from the fact that an articulate, politically outspoken and persuasive Muslim cannot be who he really says he is, and that he is skilfully manipulating us credulous white folk into presenting him as a human rights ‘poster boy’ through some 21st century version of taqqiya, while in reality he is a member of al-Qaeda, a supporter of the Taliban, a violent fundamentalist, and an oppressor of women, etc, etc.
So now they have got what they want, or think they have. Personally, I find it difficult to imagine why a former prisoner at Guantanamo, a nationally and internationally well-known figure who knows that he is and has been closely watched ever since he was released, would get involved in anything that the British government would construe as ‘terrorism’ and use against him, and it seems far more likely that Begg has simply drawn too much attention to things that the British and US governments don’t want people talking about.
His arrest is not only about Begg himself. His arrest, according to Cageprisoners, coincides with the publication of a new report on the UK involvement in ‘extraordinary renditions’ – including renditions to Syria, in the good old days when Assad was ‘our son of a bitch.’
This week Cageprisoners published a report on the UK government’s anti-radicalisation ‘Prevent’ program, which claimed that British Muslim communities were being subjected to “cradle-to-grave” levels of surveillance and discrimination that go beyond the policies used against suspected communist sympathisers in the United States at the height of the Cold War’.
West Midlands Police have particular form in this regard. In 2008 West Midlands Police were behind the ludicrous arrests of Rizwaan Sabir and Hicham Yezza, two students at Nottingham University on charges of terrorism, for downloading the ‘al Qaeda manual’ that is publicly available on the Internet for research purposes.
Not content with a full-on raid of the University, the police then fabricated evidence against Sabir and tried to stitch Yezza up on a supposed visa infraction when their terrorism case fell apart, before these attempts also unraveled. Then in 2010 West Midlands Police were forced to dismantle a secret network of cameras intended to place Muslims in the Sparkbrook and Washwood Heath areas of Birmingham under permanent surveillance.
The most charitable thing that can be said about such behavior is that some over-zealous coppers and ‘security officers’ higher-up have allowed their imaginations to run away with them.
In Begg’s case, his arrest is the latest act in a long-term campaign of harrassment which has involved the recent confiscation of his passport, on the grounds that it was ‘not in the public interest’ for him to travel abroad.
Whether the UK government – like the US – still believes that Begg is a secret member of al-Qaeda, or whether it just doesn’t want a prominent – and popular – British Muslim to shine a light on the dark sewers of the ‘war on terror’ that it would prefer to conceal, his arrest smacks of politically-motivated vengeance and repression, that is unlikely to contribute to preventing ‘radicalisation’, and is more likely to convince many British Muslims that they are under siege, and that their involvement in democratic politics is only welcome as long as they say what the government wants them to.