Book Review

Moazzam Begg Enemy Combatant,  ISBN 9 781416 522652

Quiet, unassuming, gentle, thoughtful, philosophical, considerate; we are indeed fortunate that the outrageous system invented by George Bush didn’t succeed in crushing and destroying Moazzam who survived to tell us lucidly what it was like, with little apparent bitterness.

We get a glimpse of life as a British born Asian growing up with the racism and identity crisis which nudged him towards piety and Islam. At home in Birmingham he was already under surveillance by UK police and security because of an Islamic bookshop he and a friend ran and his mercy missions and charitable work in trouble spots. Moazzam and his loving wife had determined upon founding schools in Afghanistan in 2001 as an extension of their charitable work for Muslims in various areas of Europe and Asia who had suffered appallingly in conflicts in the 1990s – a fateful decision.  In blissful ignorance of the 2001 World Trade Centre attack he and his family only escaped US bombing of Kabul by luck, and after a tortuous journey settled temporarily in Islamabad where he was brutally abducted by the US at midnight two months later. At the time hundreds of people were kidnapped and abducted on a whim, often in exchange for a US bounty.  It was as indiscriminate as the B52 bombing of Afghanistan, and as an exercise in detaining “terrorists” and/or ‘winning hearts and minds’ it was futile and counter-productive. Moazzam escaped rendition; a part of the programme for ‘kidnapped’ victims to be flown to countries for torturing – sometimes to be killed. He admits to being fortunate that he was British, well-read and spoke several languages, attracting greater respect than indigenous Afghans for example. For most of his three years in detention he endured solitude in a cage with only occasional contact with his captors. When finally freed he felt regret that he couldn’t do anything for those left behind. One absurdity was the US argument that the prisoners were effectively stateless fighters not entitled to legal protection or rights – and generally that’s how they were treated.

There are two stories here. One is the grotesque behaviour of the United States, the authors of the programme and everyone who conspired with them or was complicit in its execution. The more interesting story for me is that of survival under torture – surviving the application of extreme mental and physical pressure by a state on an individual. Nuremberg established that all participants in torture are guilty, and the UK secret services were up to their necks in it. Though Blair claimed useful information had come from ‘Guantanamo’ it is unlikely anything of consequence did. It’s more likely that US agents’ fiction was disseminated as if it were true, once sufficient torture, threats, and duress had been applied to prisoners to force them to sign. Moazzam was said to be hatching a plot to fly a pilotless drone crashing into the Houses of Parliament loaded with anthrax spores!

In only a few years Moazzam has experienced more than most of us will in an entire lifetime. He has come into contact with a very diverse range of people, some of whom are amongst the most altruistic and generous on the planet. His contacts with US servicemen haven’t been entirely unproductive either and in some cases meaningful exchanges have broadened minds on both sides. He admits he was luckier than many but clearly he built on any supposed advantages. He was apparently fairly calm throughout most of his captivity which is an achievement in itself, and apart from odd references to the ignorance and brutality of some US servicemen he appears to bear them no malice. Our government has some responsibility but his criticism is measured. He mediated between prisoners locked in ideological dispute over Islam. He is no terrorist and abhors the indiscriminate violence of both al-Qua’ida and the US bombers, both of whom destroy their victims remotely. And he has shown wisdom, patience, and restraint in the face of unreason, hatred, and intolerance. Would that we could all be so richly endowed; then maybe we shouldn’t be in the mess we currently are.

Noel Hamel