The debate sparked by Gita Sahgal’s dispute with Amnesty International over its controversial alliance with a far-right Islamist pressure group goes to the heart of the all-too-familiar conflict that arises when an organisation struggles (and is seen to fail) to reconcile its stated principles with its tactics.
The row erupted when Ms Sahgal, a leading rights activist and until last week head of Amnesty’s gender unit, was suspended for saying that its active collaboration with a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner Moazzam Begg — dubbed Britain’s “most famous supporter of the Taliban” — risked undermining its integrity and secular image.
Whether it is legitimate for a political party or a campaign group to bend its core values in search of ever more allies in a common cause has always been a contentious issue — and a source of much tension between those who fiercely oppose any compromise with their deeply-held principles and their more free-wheeling (and supposedly pragmatic) peers who argue that sometime it is more important to focus on the cause, even if it means hobnobbing with ideologically unsavoury characters.
On the face of it, it should be a no-brainer that principles are sacrosanct but it is not always easy to strike a neat balance between principles and an effective practical strategy. It is a dilemma that secular parties in India, for example, have faced more than once when picking allies against the “bigger enemy” of the day. Post-emergency, they chose some rather strange bedfellows to defeat the Congress. Yet, in 2004 — prompted by the political situation at the time — they flipped everything 180 degrees and embraced the Congress to throw out the BJP which, by then, had come to represent a bigger threat.
In Britain, the Left drew a great deal of criticism for joining hands with an assortment of fundamentalist Muslim groups to oppose the Iraq invasion. Indeed, a significantly large number of the one-million protesters who marched through London in February 2003 under a broad anti-war coalition was mobilised by Muslim organisations, some of very dubious credentials.
The Amnesty row, therefore, is essentially a replay of the same debate; and curiously both then and now the mainstream Left/liberal commentators have remained mostly silent inviting charge of political correctness. Critics see their silence as a “betrayal” of liberal values.
Mr. Begg, who spent three years in Guantanamo Bay after being picked up in Afghanistan in the great post-9/11 American swoop of suspected Al Qaeda/Taliban supporters, was a beneficiary of Amnesty’s persistent campaign against illegal detention and torture of suspected terrorists. When, upon his release in 2005, he formed a group called Cageprisoners to highlight the plight of Guantanamo detainees Amnesty threw its full weight behind him. Soon Mr. Begg became Amnesty’s poster-boy in its anti-torture campaign — and that’s when the backlash started.
It is Mr. Begg’s back-story and his links with radical Islamists that — his critics argue — make him an undesirable ally for an organisation like Amnesty.
A visit to Afghanistan in 1993 to attend a training camp made such a deep impact on him (in his autobiography he describes it as a “life-changing experience”) that in 2001 he moved there with his family to live under Taliban rule. He wrote that the Taliban had made “some modest progress — in social justice and upholding pure, old Islamic values forgotten in many Islamic countries.”
And this after — as The Times’ commentator David Aaronovitch noted — was “about two months after the blowing up of the Bamiyan Buddhas, two years after the televised execution of a woman in the football stadium in Kabul, and in the full knowledge that Taliban police were beating women for improper dress, had fired all women in public service…and had more or less abolished education for women.”
Mr. Begg says that it was his perception of the Taliban at the time and since then he has criticised their human rights abuses. But what about Cageprisoners’ leanings towards people like Anwar-al Awlaki, an extremist Yemeni preacher who is said to have “inspired” a number of alleged terrorists; and its links with Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a virulent jihadi group which is banned in many Muslim countries and has only narrowly escaped a ban in Britain?
Ms Sahgal is not the only dissenting voice in Amnesty. In an internal memo leaked to The Sunday Times, another senior official — Sam Zarifi, Amnesty’s Asia Pacific director — has voiced his disquiet saying that the organisation has not done enough to distinguish its defence of the rights of terror suspects from their extremist views. More Amnesty insiders are expected to come forward in coming weeks as the controversy grows.
Amnesty, of course, insists that its collaboration with Mr Begg is confined to his prisoners’ campaign and that this does not mean that it condones his views on other issues.
“Any suggestion that Amnesty International’s work with Moazzam Begg or Cageprisoners has weakened our condemnation of abuses by the Taliban or other similarly-minded groups does not withstand scrutiny,” it said.
Come on, Amnesty, surely there is such a thing as being guilty by association.