Moazzam Begg was a former detainee who was imprisoned by the U.S. government in Guantanamo Bay from 2002 to 2005. He is currently the Outreach Director at CAGE (a non-profit that conducts research and provides a platform for survivors of the war on terror), where he challenges the dominant narrative of suspecting minority communities and the threat of terrorism. Ayan Mohamed Ali spoke to him about how he overcame adversity and how, despite the hardships he endured, and he was not only able to not only reclaim his freedom but also empower and educate marginalized British Muslims.
Q. For people who may be hearing about you for the first time, could you tell our readers about yourself and what you do?
I am the director for an advocacy group called CAGE, which campaigns against ‘war on terror’ policies. I’m an author and former Guantanamo prisoner, media commentator and lecturer.
Q. Could you perhaps elaborate on the events surrounding your arrests and subsequent release?
I’ve been arrested a couple of times. One, the main one, of course, was in Pakistan in 2001, in January. That was by the U.S., CIA and the Pakistani intelligence services. I always say it wasn’t an arrest, it was a kidnapping because there were no uniformed officers. Nobody showed me an identification card, everybody was in plain clothes, and there was no warrant. They took me from my house in the middle of the night in Pakistan, which is where I was living.
Our friend evacuated from Afghanistan, where I had been working on a project to build schools and wells in Afghanistan. From there, they took me to secret locations in Pakistan, then into Afghanistan into Kandahar, Bagram, and then ultimately Guantanamo, where I was held in total, between Afghanistan and Guantanamo, for three years without charge or trial, and released in January 2005.
The ultimate thing about why I was taken into custody was primarily because of the role of British intelligence that offered false and fake information to the Americans, suggesting that I was a member of al-Qaeda, which I was not. That was used to hold me, as I said, without charge or trial. Eventually when I did return, I had a case against the British government and MI5 for complicity in my torture, and in 2010 I won an out of court settlement against them.
Q. What impact has your experience had on today’s young British Muslims? Has it gotten to the point that people don’t know what is and isn’t legal?
I think the impact really has spanned over the past 20 years, so you’ve seen Muslims targeted intentionally by anti- terror legislation almost with a new form every year and people are living in a state of being afraid of not knowing what they can or can’t say, what they can or can’t post on social media out of fear of being branded a terrorist or a terrorist sympathizer, having views on Palestine or similarly Afghanistan or a number of things around that.
I grew up in a generation where there was open racism and hatred towards all people of color. Whereas the past 20 years, there’s been very specific anti-Muslim hatred, Islamophobia that will target you even if you were white, it doesn’t matter. The effects of this has been only seen a generation that has been raised on the ‘war on terrorism’ and the result of legislation.
Q. What was your reaction when you were released to see how the situation of Muslims in the UK had evolved, with many being detained indefinitely without charge and a large number being stopped and searched?
I was aware that in the United Kingdom, there were detentions taking place. I didn’t know until the day I arrived, actually, that people were held here, specifically 16, North African and Middle Eastern men detained in Britain in 2002 without charge or trial and continued to be held for 3 years. This was essentially internment that was happening to the Muslims here without people even knowing and this was under the emergency legislation.
So, when I heard that was happening, that there were the secret detention programs all around the world, where essentially it was only Muslims, being targeted by the United States military, in cahoots with Britain, and many other unfortunately Muslim and Arab countries who took part in part of the renditions program, the CIA black sites, to torture sites and all the way from Morocco, to Pakistan, to Thailand and everything in between.
Learning about, especially in Britain, the land of Magna Carta and Habeas Corpus, which are supposed to be these great civilizational teachers to the rest of the world of how good we are because we don’t detain people without trial. It flew in the face of all of that, and the fact that it has happened to Britain’s Muslim population and the world’s Muslim population. You can see it manifest in the worst case scenarios in China, Muslims are being placed in to concentration camps by the millions simply because the Chinese government says we are fighting our own people’s war on terror.
Q. What advice would you provide to young British Muslims who disagree with the assumption that Islam is synonymous with terrorism?
Well, first of all, terminology, because the terminology that’s used to describe terrorism in the Muslim world actually comes from the word ‘to frighten those who are the enemies of Allah’ but this is in a war context with frightening those people who are involved in killing, raping, oppression, and torture. In the western context, terrorism is the use of violence for a political or ideological goal and of course we can see that translates in some places to people that the government is not happy with and in other places where the government itself would fit that definition, but it’s involved in the use of violence for political aims, for example in Iraq, Afghanistan and so forth.
But Islam is not a religion of terrorism, it’s a religion of human beings, it’s a religion of submission to God. It’s not a part of our faith to be connected to violence for political aims but neither are we a passive religion, we’re not a religion of pacifism – we’re in between. Speaking truth to power from a religious perspective should never be synonymous with terrorism, and we must reject it at every level.