Amnesty International is the world’s biggest human rights organization. Its prestige is enormous and its budget is larger than the budgets of some states. So it matters a lot which organizations Amnesty promotes as its partners; if they are not in fact reliable human rights groups, but pro-jihadi or other armed struggle organizations, not only Amnesty’s reputation but the moral authority of the entire human rights movement is on the line. For this reason, the story of Gita Sahgal’s 2010 battle with the leadership of Amnesty International—or Gitagate, as it was called around AI’s London office—should be better known outside the UK.
Though it happened two years ago, the controversy raised issues that remain current, like the tendency of human rights organizations to put the rights of women and sexual and religious minorities into silos that do not affect their work on counter-terrorism, thus enabling them to claim universality while endorsing ideas and organizations of the Muslim Right. This tendency was the subject of a recent debate in the New York Review of Books, when an international group of women’s human rights advocates (including Gita Sahgal and this writer) challenged a call by the director of Human Rights Watch to support the electoral victories of the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia and Egypt, rather than advocate continued expansion of the democratic process and guarantees of fundamental rights. “Like you,” their open letter said, “we support calls to dismantle the security state and to promote the rule of law. But we do not see that one set of autocratic structures should be replaced by another which claims divine sanction.”
Gita Sahgal is well known as a writer, filmmaker, and human rights campaigner in both India and the UK. (Full disclosure: she is also the Executive Director of the Centre for Secular Space, of which I am U.S. Director.) She has been a board member of Southall Black Sisters, a West London group that reshaped the UK feminist movement through its work against domestic abuse and racism; AWAAZ – South Asia Watch, a group primarily known for its opposition to Hindutva; and Women Against Fundamentalism, founded in response to the fatwa on Salman Rushdie. Her award winning film The War Crimes File documented atrocities committed by members of the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami during the 1971 Bangladeshi liberation struggle. She was the first person hired to lead Amnesty’s Gender Unit, and was among the architects of its campaign on violence against women, as well as one of its internal experts on both the Hindu and Muslim Right. By January, 2010, she had been expressing concern about Amnesty’s relationship with Moazzam Begg for two years.
Moazzam Begg is a British citizen and jihadi sympathizer who took his family to live in Afghanistan in 2001 because he supported the Taliban. After 9/11, he was kidnapped from his home in Kabul by Pakistani and U.S. security forces and held for a year in Bagram prison and two more in Guantánamo without being charged. In 2005 he and other British citizens were released from Guantánamo as a favor to Tony Blair; with the aid of former Guardian journalist Victoria Brittain, Begg then wrote an account of his life called Enemy Combatant. He is now the director of Cageprisoners, a London-based organization for the defense of “prisoners of the war on terror” that purports to be a human rights organization. Because of his high profile and fluency in English, Amnesty-UK eagerly took him on as a partner in its “Counter Terror With Justice” campaign, aimed at closing Guantánamo. Amnesty International USA and the Center for Constitutional Rights also partnered with Begg in this campaign.
According to his book Enemy Combatant, Begg first went to Afghanistan in 1993, when he met with mujahadeen fighting the Soviets and visited a Jamaat training camp. Inspired by these dedicated warriors, he made a number of trips to Bosnia and tried to join the struggle in Chechnya but was unable to get a visa. He then returned to Birmingham and founded a bookstore called Maktabah al Ansaar, which became a gathering place for people interested in jihad and a strategic node for dissemination of works by, among others, Abdullah Azzam and Osama Bin Laden, the founders of al-Qaeda, and Ayman al Zawahiri, its current leader. While Begg was in charge, Maktabah al Ansaar commissioned and published The Army of Madinah in Kashmir, by Dhiren Barot, who is considered the most significant al-Qaeda figure captured in the UK. The book, which uses the term “defensive jihad,” contains instructions on how to find jihadi camps, and justifications for carrying out acts of terrorism in the West.
Though it was obvious to Gita Sahgal that Amnesty was right to defend Moazzam Begg against rendition and imprisonment without trial, she felt that someone with his history of support for the Taliban and involvement in publishing and distributing works by al-Qaeda was not a suitable partner for a human rights organization. On January 30, 2010, in despair over her failure to get senior management to listen, she wrote a last-ditch memo about the “Counter Terror With Justice” campaign:
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….fatally blurring the distinction between defending the rights of the individual and creating a narrative of innocence to suit our campaigning. This is a very old problem but it has currently reached its apotheosis in the decision to take Begg to Downing Street and to tour with him across Europe.
The “very old problem” of portraying anyone who is persecuted by the state as a human rights defender, including members of armed groups that violate the rights of others, goes back at least as far as the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, when members of Islamic armed groups and their lawyers were defended by human rights organizations and received asylum in the West, even while their groups continued to murder civilians, especially women and schoolgirls. Their victims couldn’t get redress from anyone.
A few days after Sahgal submitted her internal memo she was called by a reporter from the Sunday Times, and on February 7, 2010 she gave the paper an interview, hoping in this way to get Amnesty to take the problem seriously. Three hours after the article appeared, Sahgal was suspended from her job.
Her suspension became an international cause célèbre, featured on the BBC, CBC, NPR, in all the major British newspapers, and reflected widely in the blogosphere. A Facebook group called “Reinstate Gita Sahgal, You Bloody Hypocrites” debated the issues. A supporter in India put up a website, “Human Rights for All,” which became a repository for documentation of the affair. And on February 13, three South Asian feminists—Amrita Chhachhi, Sara Hossain, and Sunila Abeysekera, all human rights activists who worked with Amnesty locally—wrote a global petition saying Amnesty had to maintain “an objective distance” from salafi-jihadis:
This issue of principle is critical at the present moment, with the United States led “War on Terror” leading to the suspension of human rights and increased surveillance over individuals and the body politic. Ironically, the language of human rights and human rights defenders is being taken over by the US/NATO alliance in its efforts to legitimize a re-born imperialism. Equally disturbingly, this language is also being hijacked by organizations that espouse extremist and violent forms of identity-based politics. The space for a position that challenges both these is shrinking, and human rights are becoming hostage to broader authoritarian political agendas, whether from states or communities. In this context, it is crucial for human rights defenders and organizations to clearly define principles and core values that are non-negotiable.
But Amnesty’s leaders seemed unable to take this step. Claudio Cordone, its interim director, said the organization had investigated Moazzam Begg and Cageprisoners and found nothing wrong with either from a human rights standpoint. He did not, however, make this investigation public, beyond the fact that Begg had said he was not in favor of killing civilians. In his response to the authors of the global petition, Cordone also seemed to be fine with the concept of “defensive jihad”:
Moazzam Begg is one of the first detainees to have been released from Guantánamo and to disclose information when much of what was going on in the camp was shrouded in secrecy. He speaks powerfully from personal experience about the abuses there. He advocates effectively detainees’ rights to due process, and does so within the same framework of universal human rights standards that we are promoting. All good reasons, we think, to be on the same platform when speaking about Guantánamo.
Now, Moazzam Begg and others in his group Cageprisoners also hold other views which they have clearly stated, for example on whether one should talk to the Taliban or on the role of jihad in self-defense. Are such views antithetical to human rights? Our answer is no, even if we may disagree with them—and indeed those of us working to close Guantánamo have a range of beliefs about religion, secularism, armed struggle, peace and negotiations.
The doctrine of “defensive jihad” was spelled out by Abdullah Assam, a key figure in the Muslim Brotherhood and mentor of Osama bin Laden, in a 1979 fatwa entitled Defense of the Muslim Lands, the First Obligation after Faith, which called upon all Muslims to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Now the leader of an international human rights organization appeared to be supporting this idea. The three women who had initiated the petition wrote him again, protesting his endorsement of the term:
The call for “defensive jihad” is a thread running through many fundamentalist and specifically “salafi-jihadi” texts. It is mentioned by Abdullah Azzam, mentor of Osama bin Laden, and founder of Lashkar e Tayyaba. It is the argument of “defensive jihad” that the Taliban uses to legitimize its anti human rights actions such as the beheading of dissidents, including members of minority communities, and the public lashing of women….It has been shown that “defensive jihad” results in indiscriminate attacks on civilians, attacks which are disproportionate and attacks which are targeted for the purpose of discrimination such as those on schools, shrines and religious processions. As you know, international humanitarian law prohibits all such attacks under Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. Given this it is shocking to us that in your letter you appear to endorse “defensive jihad” as a public position of Amnesty International.
Cordone responded a week later, repeating that he had not seen any evidence that Moazzam Begg or Cageprisoners endorsed attacks on civilians, although they “have spoken and written about jihad in self-defense,” and further stating:
Amnesty International does not take a position on the particular justification for using force put forward by individuals, groups or states, irrespective of whether such use of force is termed jihad, or “war of national liberation,” a “just war,” or something else. We do not take sides in a conflict, as has been the case throughout our history. We remain independent of any government, political faction or ideology.
But in fact, by declaring that jihad in “self-defense is not antithetical to human rights,” he had just taken a position that contravened this long-standing policy, giving the Amnesty seal of approval to a doctrine that says all Muslims everywhere have an obligation to make war on any state that invades or oppresses “Muslim lands.”
On April 9, 2010, after negotiations, Amnesty issued a statement saying that “due to irreconcilable differences of view over policy between Gita Sahgal and Amnesty International regarding Amnesty International’s relationship with Moazzam Begg and Cageprisoners it has been agreed that Gita will leave Amnesty International on 9 April 2010.” Sahgal responded with her own statement:
The senior leadership of Amnesty International chose to answer the questions I posed about Amnesty International’s relationship with Moazzam Begg by affirming their links with him….Unfortunately, their stance has laid waste every achievement on women’s equality and made a mockery of the universality of rights….adherence to violent jihad even if it indeed rejects the killing of some civilians, is an integral part of a political philosophy that promotes the destruction of human rights generally and contravenes Amnesty International’s specific policies relating to systematic violence and discrimination, particularly against women and minorities.
In the prevailing climate of xenophobic attacks on Muslims by the Christian Right, it has become difficult for the U.S. left, the anti-war movement, or human rights organizations to discuss the beliefs or human rights violations of salafi-jihadis; indeed, anyone who brings the question up runs the risk of being called Islamophobic. Meanwhile, the mainstream press, the State Department, and Human Rights Watch are busy promoting “moderate Islamists” who have the same goals as salafi-jihadis but are willing to achieve them through elections. According to a report by NYU’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, the Obama administration’s new “Strategic Implementation Plan for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism” (SIP) is modeled on the “Prevent” strategy of Tony Blair, which was severely criticized in a 2011 report by Lord Carlile. Prevent combined “hard” and “soft” counter-terrorism by promoting organizations that were fronts for the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami, in the belief that such “nonviolent extremists” would capture the hearts of the young and keep them from becoming jihadis.
In response to the Prevent policy, AWAAZ, a group of British-South Asian activists who came together to oppose the Hindu Right, produced a pioneering piece of research titled “The Islamic Right—Key Tendencies,” spelling out the implications of an alliance between the neoliberal state and “moderate Islamists,” in which the state showed itself willing to overlook systematized discrimination against women and gays as long as nobody set off bombs in the subway:
…terms such as “moderate,” “mainstream,” “representative” are used by government, media and various political tendencies in deceptive ways….the popular conflation of “violent” with “terrorism” can mean that the forms of systematic, legalised gender-based violence (such as hudud punishments) promoted by various political Islamists can be ignored by governments and other official bodies who wish to work with them. The UK government operates a dual strategy of, on the one hand, weakening human rights and civil liberties in the name of the so-called “war on terror” and, on the other…the systematic and sustained promotion of the Islamic Right in the UK.
Unfortunately, as far as I know, no U.S. left-wing or human rights group is doing research on the Muslim Right comparable to that done by AWAAZ. The Christian Right and neocons dive into the subject and draw their own bizarre and racist conclusions; the subject also interests national security experts, who are principally concerned with state security and unlikely to foreground questions of human rights. But the knowledge base of feminists, the human rights movement, and the American Left is minimal when it comes to how the Muslim Right organizes in the United States. Can we really afford to leave an area of such importance to national security experts and conservative ideologues?
Meanwhile, back in London, Amnesty International has yet to disavow its partnership with Cageprisoners or its statements on “defensive jihad,” even while it continues to defend the rights of women and sexual minorities in other contexts. Until the question of human rights violations by people who may themselves be victims of counter-terrorist abuse is openly and honestly addressed, it will remain corrosive to the human rights movement. When major human rights groups are entangled with the Muslim Right, who will blow the whistle when similar alliances are made by the state?