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Dissent vs incitement?

Are human rights organisations failing to draw the line between prisoners of conscience and individuals who espouse extremist and violent forms of identity-based politics? Are organisations such as Amnesty International failing to make clear that some of the people whose rights they were upholding intended to destroy fundamental human rights? Gita Sahgal explains

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” -- Y B Yeats

On February 7, 2010, I was suspended from my job hours after a newspaper published a report about my concerns regarding Amnesty International’s promotion of the former Guantanamo Bay detainee, Moazzam Begg. I immediately issued a statement: “A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when a great organisation must ask: if it lies to itself, can it demand the truth of others?” I argued that in defending the absolute prohibition on torture, one of the strongest standards in international human rights law, Amnesty International had sanitised the history and politics of the ex-Guantanamo detainee, Moazzam Begg, and completely failed to recognise the nature of his organisation Cageprisoners. My statement said: “The tragedy here is that the necessary defence of the torture standard has been inexcusably allied to the political legitimisation of individuals and organisations belonging to the Islamic Right.”

Amnesty International’s first response to the media was to deny that they promoted his views. He only spoke about his experiences, they said, showing that they were not anxious to claim his views as compatible with a human rights organisation. But they continued to be under pressure following a global petition drafted by three senior women’s rights advocates from South Asia calling for the integrity of human rights to be restored. The petitioners argued that “the language of human rights and human rights defenders is being taken over by the US/NATO alliance in its efforts to legitimise a re-born imperialism. Equally disturbingly, this language is also being hijacked by organisations that espouse extremist and violent forms of identity-based politics” (1). The petitioners raised a number of questions and called for a debate with Amnesty International.

So, Amnesty International changed tack and decided to embrace Begg’s views, declaring that he was a human rights advocate like themselves. Just over three months after I left Amnesty, over irreconcilable differences, Cageprisoners had become a partner of Amnesty and “jihad in self-defence” had been declared “not antithetical to human rights”. Amnesty has refused to debate these issues with my supporters and has failed to provide any account of Begg or Cageprisoners to their own membership or staff.

Prisoner of conscience?

For some, Amnesty International had long lost its way when it moved away from its original brief of defending free expression. The term ‘prisoner of conscience’ was invented by Amnesty International’s founder, Peter Benenson, as a term of honour awarded to those imprisoned for simply expressing their beliefs. ‘Appeal for Amnesty’ was launched in 1961, naming a number of political prisoners in a famous article in The Observer, a liberal British newspaper. It was based on Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which guarantees “freedom of thought, conscience and religion”, and Article 19 guaranteeing “freedom of opinion and expression”. Benenson defined a prisoner of conscience as “any person who is physically restrained (by imprisonment or otherwise) from expressing (in any form of words or symbols) any opinion which he honestly holds and which does not advocate or condone personal violence” (2).

So strict was Amnesty International’s definition that it refrained from declaring Nelson Mandela a ‘prisoner of conscience’ because he advocated armed struggle. Though they angered many anti-apartheid activists, the organisation saw itself maintaining its integrity of view in the face of competing political pressures.

This badge of honour was never awarded to Begg or other Guantanamo prisoners either, although there was sometimes pressure from members to do so. The mandarins in the policy department where I served as Head of the Gender Unit, were perfectly aware that many of the people held in Guantanamo had extremely unsavoury politics, whether they had committed crimes or not. The demands relating to Guantanamo were to close the prison and release the prisoners, or to charge them and give them a fair trial. Amnesty International also campaigned very strongly against the attacks by the Bush administration on the absolute prohibition on torture in international law, whether in war or peacetime. This defence of the ‘torture standard’, which I also believe was essential (3), came to occupy a central position in Amnesty’s work. But the way it was interpreted fundamentally undermined its analysis of Articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (4).   

Amnesty’s campaigning activities promoted detainees through “a narrative of innocence”. I do not mean to imply that the detainees should have been declared guilty without due process. The organisation could have gathered evidence that some individuals they were campaigning for were involved with salafi-jihadi networks. In order to support victims of terrorism (rather than only victims of counter-terrorism), they needed to be active in ensuring that these individuals faced justice. Human rights organisations should be at the forefront of gathering evidence in ways that uphold human rights norms. Instead, Amnesty International’s campaigning techniques effectively confused the inalienable right of every human being to be free from torture, with its classical focus on non-violent prisoners who had been imprisoned in contravention of international standards on conscience and free expression.

The organisation failed to make clear that many people whose rights they were upholding intended to destroy fundamental human rights. They were not simply resisting occupation. Amnesty failed to produce materials showing that the version of Islam upheld by their ‘cases’ was so harsh, that by their standards most Muslims could be labelled apostates, and normal Muslim practices and prayers could be banned. Moazzam Begg supports ideologues such as Ali al Timimi (called “inspirational” on the Cageprisoners website), who advocates the killing of Shia. In short, Amnesty promotes certain individuals as if they were purely victims, when in fact these persons are dedicated to the destruction of Articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, along with many other rights.

Victims and perpetrators

Marieme Helie Lucas, an Algerian feminist and founder of the network Women Living Under Muslim Laws, has long warned that a victim can also be a perpetrator, and that human rights organisations need to be mindful of this. Otherwise, organisations can end up condemning terrorism in general terms; but when taking up individual cases of terrorist suspects, behave as if these persons had nothing to do with supporting terrorism or other human rights abuses. In an article for Communalism Combat, Helie Lucas argued that there was a pattern to the promotion of fundamentalists on Amnesty platforms (5). She also revealed for the first time that three founding members of Amnesty’s Algerian section had been expelled after they wrote to the Secretary General protesting the publication of a report which (they felt) assigned disproportionate responsibility to the state, at a time when fundamentalists were killing large numbers of civilians in planned attacks. “Being loyal to the organisation, they remained silent and did not publicly expose AI’s inappropriate reaction to their freedom of thought, freedom of speech and freedom of conscience.”

Cageprisoners have brilliantly adapted Amnesty International’s techniques. Following intense scrutiny after my complaint, they have finally made changes to their website to remove some of the more obvious markers of their ideological stance. Gone now is the section called ‘Islamic Focus’, which showed distinct salafi-jihadi sympathies in the choice of people they highlighted, either as revered scholars or as prisoners whom they were defending. Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, a very senior member of al Qaeda (6), was styled a ‘prisoner of conscience’ (7). Detainees who were highlighted at the time of my dispute included Khaled Mohammed Sheikh the ‘mastermind’ of 9/11 and his colleague Dhiren Barot who pleaded guilty and is serving 30 years in a British prison for planning massive attacks on civilians (8). Neither of them was condemned for either their ideology or their actions.

Careful examination of the Cageprisoners website shows that their goal was to obtain the release of such prisoners, rather than simply affording them fair trial and punishment by a properly constituted court. So while one section of the website appears to work within human rights standards (9), others are more clearly dedicated to imposing a religious obligation to ‘Free the Prisoners’ who are seen as suffering for their faith. Supporters such as Imams are asked to “give fatawa (legal verdicts) explaining to your congregation the obligations of Muslims towards their unjustly detained brethren around the world, and the punishment for abandoning them” (10). Supporting prisoners in this way is not simply an act of charity, but a form of religious support towards their theo-political goals -- the founding of a theocratic state. Not meeting this obligation should become a punishable offence.

Moazzam Begg also believes that jihad is the obligation of every Muslim. Writing in a journal associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, he is clear that he does not mean jihad simply as a form of spiritual or intellectual struggle. He means war, which includes war against shaytan or desires, against unbelievers, hypocrites, oppressors and evil-doers. He states his opposition to the killing of “unarmed civilians”, but the wide range of people against whom (in his opinion) it is obligatory to wage war, constitutes an attack on the freedom of religion and of expression (11).

No attempt is made by Cageprisoners to distinguish between detainees who have never been charged and those imprisoned after a fair trial. When Abu Hamza, a notorious pro-jihadi preacher, was interviewed, he is said to have been convicted of “alleged incitement”. The reader is not told that Hamza is serving a seven-year sentence for incitement to murder and racial hatred. Asked about his extradition, Abu Hamza said: “It is part of a dirty war against terrorism which means nothing but promotion of real Islam” (12).   

Cageprisoners use similar language to describe grassroots campaign groups that support “communities” that claim they are being criminalised. Thus, they write: “Counter-terrorism policies in the UK and European mainland have led to innumerable pieces of legislation that seek to criminalise communities and any form of dissent” (13). There are indeed legitimate concerns relating to the surveillance of people according to their identity rather than their acts. But Cageprisoners do not discuss the difference between ‘dissent’ and ‘incitement to kill’. They too are promoting a narrative of innocence which elides terrorism with the ‘right to dissent’.

Dissent vs incitement?

Nowhere is this clearer than in Cageprisoners’ relationship to Anwar al Awlaki who has emerged as a senior voice in al Qaeda and writes for a new online magazine called Inspire, al Qaeda’s English language propaganda organ. Cageprisoners have long been Awlaki enthusiasts, having conducted interviews with Awlaki and invited him to send a message to a Ramadan dinner at a Town Hall. After concerted protests, the dinner went ahead without the Awlaki message, which was put online later. Cageprisoners claimed that they had been censored and denied any knowledge of Awlaki’s views (14). Yet Awlaki’s work 44 Ways To Support Jihad, had been available online for about eight months. It clearly supports the foundation of a theocratic and fascistic state practising systematic discrimination against women and minorities (15). Begg’s views on jihad and the obligation to free prisoners appear to derive from the same sources as Awlaki’s. When Amnesty International said that jihad in self-defence was “not antithetical to human rights”, this is what they were supporting, and what they continue to support.

Cageprisoners have been forced to acknowledge that Awlaki has issued calls to attack civilians. They say they oppose such calls (16). But their position on the killing of civilians is not clearly stated on their website. The distancing from Awlaki seems to occur only when he is directly criticised, and when the silence of human rights advocates regarding Awlaki’s beliefs and activities is highlighted.

Karima Bennoune, a human rights lawyer and member of the Board of the Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in the US, publicly voiced her concerns regarding a case launched by CCR challenging the US government for putting Awlaki (a US citizen) on a hit-list for drone attacks. Bennoune argued her view on the Board before she went public. She was clear that she opposed extra-judicial executions (17). However, she pointed out that there was mounting evidence that Awlaki had inspired bombings and attacks such as the attempt by Faisal Shazad to blow up Times Square, and by Abdulmuttalab, the ‘Christmas bomber’, to blow up a plane with explosives in his underpants. Awlaki has published death lists which include Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and a cartoonist called Molly Norris who has had to go into hiding. But CCR was silent about all this. They treated him as a respected ‘cleric’, a title that most Muslim scholars would not give him. CCR could have supported a process for bringing Awlaki to stand trial. Instead, they merely developed a case against the drone attack, which amounted to claiming that there were no grounds for an investigation of him at all. Bennoune felt that this was “tantamount to representing, without comment, the father of the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan who claims his son is a good man. Would a progressive human rights group do that, even if the son faced abuses at the hands of the US government? And if they did, would they be silent about the grave harms done by the KKK?”

There is a piece on Awlaki on the Cageprisoners website that is clearly composed to respond to critics. Distancing language is carefully used, even where the facts are well established. “Nidal Hassan is said to have killed 13 people…”, “Someone tried to blow up some people in Times Square” (18). The Cageprisoners ‘briefing’ quotes a Yemeni claim that there is no confirmation that Awlaki is part of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). AQAP itself is only mentioned once with regard to its responsibility for the attempted bombing by Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab. This claim appears to help to distance Awlaki from responsibility, as if he were not part of AQAP. His philosophical or political stances are not analysed, nor would you discover from this ‘briefing’ that he writes for the al Qaeda journal.

Nowhere in the Cageprisoners document, or in the legal case brought by CCR and ACLU, will you find any discussion of statements by Awlaki such as: “Hatred of the kuffar (unbelievers) is a central element of our military creed.” This statement was cited by Karima Bennoune in her explanation of her extreme disquiet at the stand taken by CCR -- a stand that seemed to have turned away from its long-held values. In the 1990s, when most human rights organisations were supporting Algerian fundamentalists, CCR associates were virtually alone in their support to the victims of fundamentalism, to research and present their case to human rights bodies, and to litigate against the leader of the Algerian fundamentalist political party, the FIS (19).

By 2010, CCR constructed their case for Awlaki by ignoring all evidence that he was implicated in serious crimes. The US has strong free speech protections, and it is possible that CCR would consider that the instigation of a crime was protected by the First Amendment that guarantees free speech. But it seems that in other cases, CCR do understand the distinction between speaking freely and inciting violence. In January this year, they wrote to Fox News about an academic who had been attacked by the right-wing host Glenn Beck and then subjected to death threats. They distinguished between First Amendment rights, of which they were “vigorous defenders” and an “intentional repetition of provocative, incendiary, emotional misinformation and falsehoods (that place, that person) in actual physical danger of a violent response” (20). 

Awlaki’s death lists and his involvement in many terrorist plots could be regarded as orders to kill rather than endangering someone by extreme and false statements. Professor Chetan Bhatt, an expert on right-wing religious movements, including Hindutva and al Qaeda, believes there is ample evidence that al Qaeda publications are providing English-speaking readers with recipes on manufacturing explosives as well as producing orders to kill through assassination lists. Recently, they claimed responsibility for postal bombs that were carried on planes to Europe and boasted of how little the plot had cost (21).

Those defending Awlaki and supporters of so-called ‘defensive jihad’ are attacking foundational principles of free speech and freedom of religion. As Article 30 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights tells us, “no state, group or person” has any right to engage in activities aimed at the “destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth”. By 2011, Amnesty International’s 50th anniversary, it has become clear that it is doing just that. On its 10th anniversary, Peter Benenson lit a candle for the great Gandhian leader, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan. Today, Moazzam Begg is their hero. What a distance they have travelled.

(Gita Sahgal was a Founder Member of Women Against Fundamentalism and former Head of the Gender Unit at Amnesty International, which she left after making public her disquiet about Amnesty International’s promotion of salafi-jihadis. She is a Founder of the Centre for Secular Space, which opposes fundamentalism, amplifies secular voices and promotes universality in human rights)

Note: This article by Gita Sahgal reflects the opinion of the author, and not necessarily that of Infochange or Infochange Agenda. Amnesty International’s counter-arguments and position on this issue may be read at the following link: A letter by Amnesty’s ad interim Secretary General Claudia Cordone dated February 28, 2010, http://www.human-rights-for-all.org/IMG/pdf/Claudioletter-2.pdf

1 Global petition to Amnesty International to restore the integrity of human rights.
2 http://www.amnestyusa.org/about-us/the-forgotten-prisoners-by-peter-benenson/page.do?id=1101201
3 See Gita Sahgal’s statement on Amnesty International and Cageprisoners at http://www.human-rights-for-all.org/spip.php?article1
4 For a longer discussion of how western human rights organisations have concentrated on some rights and not others, please see, ‘Soft Law, Hard Choices’, http://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/deniz-kandiyoti/soft-law-and-hard-choices-conversation-with-gita-sahgal. And ‘Conflict and Custom in the New World Order’, http://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/deniz-kandiyoti/conflict-and-custom-in-new-world-order-conversation-with-gita-sahgal
5 Marieme Helie Lucas, ‘Conscientious Objection: Amnesty International Persists in Suppressing Dissent’, at  http://www.siawi.org/article1775.html
6 While Cageprisoners never mentions al Maqdisi’s political affiliation, Maqdisi himself uses US military and scholars’ assessments to bolster his position in internal sectarian debates. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/30/world/middleeast/30jihad.html?_r=1&hp
7 See ‘The Firmness of a Prisoner of Conscience’, http://old.cageprisoners.com/articles.php?id=27293
8 A counter-extremism think-tank, Quilliam Foundation, based a report on the spread of extremism in British prisons from materials found on Cageprisoners websites. See ‘Unlocking Al-Qaeda: Islamist Extremism in British Prisons’, at http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/index.php/component/content/article/582
9 See for instance, http://www.cageprisoners.com/about-us
10 http://www.cageprisoners.com/get-involved/item/15-volunteering
11 Moazzam Begg, ‘Jihad and Terrorism, a War of Words’, Arches, Vol 2, Edition 1, Summer 2008
12 http://old.cageprisoners.com/articles.php?id=24793
13 http://www.cageprisoners.com/the-issues and the website http://www.campacc.org.uk/, which purports to highlight the impact of anti-terror laws (such as bans on particular groups) on the broader communities within which the terrorist groups operate. Neither organisation has acknowledged the existence of terrorism, nor the distinction between democratic dissent and the incitement towards or commission of violence
14 http://www.pureislam.co.za/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=777&Itemid=37
15 This link to Awlaki’s website and 44 Ways to Jihad was available online at http://cryptome.org/anwar-alawlaki/09-0105.htm
16 Victoria Brittain and Asim Qureshi. A reply to Karima Bennoune on al Awlaki’s rights,
17 Karima Bennoune, ‘Why I Spoke Out on Anwar al Awlaki’,
18 http://www.cageprisoners.com/cases/middle-east/yemen/item/1126-anwar-al-awlaki
19  See reports of civil law case against the leader of the Algerian Islamist party, FIS, http://apic.igc.org/docs97/alg9703.htm
20 UPDATE: CCR Appeals to Fox News President for Help in Silencing Glenn Beck Misinformation Campaign Against Progressive Professor, http://ccrjustice.org/newsroom/press-releases/update%3A-ccr-appeals-fox-news-president-help-silencing-glenn-beck-misinformat
21 Prof Chetan Bhatt, inaugural lecture, ‘The Virtues of Violence and the Arts of Terror’, March 23, 2011

Infochange News & Features, July 2011