“I was relieved.”
A stunned silence from the audience. Hang on – what? Did we hear that correctly? Wasn’t Moazzam Begg just asked how he felt when he was told he was going to be sent to Guantanamo Bay? Yes, he was. “You have to understand that at that time, I was being held at Bagram.” The US base in Bagram, where Moazzam was held for a year, is notorious. This was where he had had to endure being kept awake for nights on end by the terrified screams of fellow detainees – both women and men – two of whom were beaten to death before his eyes, and where he was threatened with being sent to Egypt for extreme torture, before being hooded, shackled and beaten himself. After a year here, “I was looking forward to Guantanamo.”
Moazzam became politicized at an early age through his experiences of racism growing up on Birmingham’s Sparkhill estate. It was these experiences that led him to join anti-racist gang ‘the Lynx’, who played a part in clearing racism off the streets of Birmingham. His political consciousness deepened as he began to educate himself about international issues during the First Gulf War. Always tending to back the underdog his sympathies lay with the Iraqis, and as he read more widely he found himself broadly supportive of Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro in their struggles against US imperialism, as well as Mandela and the Palestinians in their struggles against apartheid and occupation.
His growing internationalism led him to take part in eight aid convoys to Bosnia, and finally to start work as aid worker in Afghanistan. When the US began bombing in 2001, he and his family fled to Pakistan, from where his nightmare began. Kidnapped by the Pakistani police (who were being paid by the US military for each foreign Muslim they captured), and delivered into US custody, his journey took him from Kandahar to Bagram, where he stayed one year before ending up in Guantanamo’s Camp Echo.
Once there, Moazzam was kept in solitary confinement for two years, never once being informed of any charge against him. How did he survive? “In reality, I didn’t always survive. There’s not much you can do. I often felt I couldn’t use the experience for any kind of benefit. I would dream of escape, but I would also try to memorise my copy of the Koran, and I would make lists of everything I could think of – all the foreign words I knew, all the capital cities, what I would do when I got out. I also started to write poetry.” The methods used at Guantanamo Bay – 24 hour lighting, sensory deprivation, public humiliation, half-drowning… – have been widely reported in this paper and elsewhere. I don’t want this interview to dwell on the details, but I do want to know what Moazzam believes is the purpose of this abuse. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Guantanamo/ Bagram methods, far from producing the quality intelligence the US claim is their purpose, are actually designed to break prisoners down until they admit to anything. In other words, the US torture system is designed not to extract information, but to manufacture it for dubious political purposes. In his book, Enemy Combatant, Begg notes that Ibn as-Shaykh al-Libbee was tortured into signing a ‘confession’ that Saddam Hussein had trained Al-Qaeda in using WMD, which was used as ‘evidence’ during the buildup towards the invasion of Iraq, before later being retracted. After several particularly brutal interrogations and threats, Moazzam himself “began to think that the only thing I could do to end this misery and terror was to pretend to admit to being involved in some terrorist plot… eventually I did agree to say whatever they wanted me to say, to do whatever they wanted me to do. I agreed to be their witness to whatever.”
But Moazzam believes there is also another reason for Guantanamo. “It is a stark warning to the rest of the world: this is what happens to people who dissent, or who live in countries whose governments dissent. We can pick you up, anywhere in the world, without charge, and do these things to you for as long as we want: and no one can do a thing about it.” And let’s not kid ourselves that we are talking only about the US here: Contrary to the widely propagated image of the British government as an appalled, if ineffectual, bystander in the case of the British Guantanamo detainees, in Moazzam’s case at least, they were central to the whole process of his incarceration. MI5 were present at his very first interrogation, and at several others subsequently. Indeed, it was they who had suggested to the Americans that he be picked up in the first place. Why? Their suspicions seem to have been raised by his internationalist work over the years – driving aid convoys to Bosnia, visiting, and subsequently moving to Afghanistan to work in a girl’s school set up under the Taliban – but particularly by a letter he had received from an acquaintance alleging torture and requesting legal assistance.
It seems clear that a big part of what MI5 had against Moazzam was his model of internationalism – a practicing example of aiding just struggles and supporting those less privileged than ourselves. Is part of the ‘War on Terror’ aimed at terrorizing and criminalizing the whole concept of international solidarity? The Terrorism Act 2000, by banning even symbolic support for mass resistance groups such as Hamas, certainly gives that impression…
“One of the things that people don’t recognize in this country – or seem to have forgotten – is that there was a time when Britain could well have been occupied; in fact Jersey and Guernsey were occupied. There was a counter-occupation plan drawn up by the Ministry of Defence, which included what would today be termed terrorism. It included dad’s army – the real dad’s army – taking up arms against not only the occupiers, but also collaborators. We seem to have forgotten that. How do we recognize the legitimacy of, say, the French Resistance, who were using ‘terrorism’ against the Nazis, and not recognize the right of people to defend themselves in Iraq or elsewhere? It’s a principle: are you allowed to resist occupation or not? To say that it is only legal ‘when we say so’ is to remove the principle of self defence. It is a time honoured tradition for people to resist occupation. The Terrorism Acts in this country attempt, with a series of legislation, to criminalize not only attacks against civilians – but any ability or idea to support resistance movements against occupation, whether in Iraq, Palestine, or anywhere else.”
Do people outside the Muslim community have anything to fear from the Terrorism Acts? “We’ve already seen it being used against people like Walter Wolfgang [elderly Labour Party member arrested under the Terrorism Act for heckling Jack Straw at Labour Conference]. I think it is just a beginning. Clearly they are not targeting the non-Muslim community, but I would only add the caveat “yet”. And that is because the idea of dissent is being demonized. It’s not only just the [Muslim] community that is being demonized, as much as we are, but what is really being demonized is dissent. Because we are regarded as having traitorous voices, not supporting our boys back home because we are against the war; when in fact, the reality is that the government doesn’t support them. The government, by introducing this new legislation, is beginning to try to suppress dissent. One example of this is the glorification of terror. Having a certain interpretation could very easily include situations where the British government themselves would have supported terrorism; for example during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. The Russians called the mujahadeen terrorists. The British, on the other hand, were bringing mujahadeen to Scotland and to Snowdonia to train them and sending them anti-aircraft missiles; but the Russians always maintained they were terrorists. So it’s paradoxical to recognize just how the tables have turned, but in essence the idea of criminalization will not just be limited to the Muslim community, but to wherever opposition is.”
I ask Moazzam if he sees parallels between the criminalization the Muslim community is now facing, and what the Irish community here faced in the 1970s and 1980s. “There is, and one parallel stands out in particular – the major lesson of Northern Ireland – unpalatable as it may be to some – is that the people the government need to think about talking to, are the very people they are currently demonizing.”
It turns out Moazzam has just returned from his third visit to Ireland, where a plaque bearing his name was unveiled as part of the annual Bloody Sunday commemoration. Moazzam’s activism has clearly not been blunted by his time in US custody – not even, it seems, for its duration. In Bagram, he successfully agitated to improve the prisoners’ conditions on two occasions – once to be allowed to exercise, and once for more daily water – the latter through that time-honoured Irish prisoners’ tactic of the hunger strike.
Back in Britain, what does Moazzam think is the way forward for the anti-war movement, given the fact that government are not bothered by marches? His answer is unequivocal: “I can tell you that with a lot of people I have been speaking to across the board, Muslim and non-Muslim, the idea of a campaign of civil disobedience is really starting to take off. That could well be the next step I think.”
How would the government respond? “The response would be arrests of people. I think this goes out to the crux of the matter – how much are people willing to sacrifice for the greater cause? As a lot of Americans also say, our country is now internationally hated – and I think anybody that cares about how their country appears to the rest of the world should take note of that, because whether we like it or not, we’re all British. When we go out of this country, people regard us as ambassadors to our nation. How can one be proud to say, yes, I’m British, to, not just somebody in Iraq, but in Brazil or Guatemala or anywhere else, when people regard you now as war criminals? Britain has invaded Afghanistan more times than Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan, and it continues to do so.”
Could a campaign of civil disobedience really take off? “I often get asked when I speak at universities and elsewhere, ‘what do you think should be done’? And I remember a soldier, a Southern Alabaman who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, who said, “listen, son, we didn’t lose Vietnam, it was those punk-ass kids – they’re the ones who lost us Vietnam”. So what I said at the University is: we need more punk-ass kids.”
Moazzam is clearly a serious political thinker and strategist of whom the British anti-war and anti-imperialist movement can be immensely proud. Maybe we should start doing as he suggests.