Amnesty International: some alliances are more impartial than others

The recent furore surrounding Cage’s defence of ‘Jihadi John’ has reopened the debate on appropriate alliances between Cage and human rights organisations.

Rahila Gupta
13 March 2015

Cage, the group formerly known as Cageprisoners, is in the hot seat once again – this time as a result of their intervention in the national debate around the unmasking of ‘Jihadi John’ as Mohammed Emwazi. The questions they raise about the radicalisation of Emwazi are important ones; their view that British foreign policy and the domestic harassment of Muslims in the 'war on terror' have been major contributory factors is one that many of us can support. However, when Asim Qureshi, Research Director of Cage, alleged that harassment from MI5 was responsible for Emwazi’s journey to IS (Islamic State) in a Channel 4 interview with Jon Snow, they overreached themselves and opened themselves up to general ridicule and incredulity.

The ensuing outrage at Cage’s arguments appears to have pushed Amnesty International (AI) to put more distance between itself and Cage than it has ever done before, even though it was widely called upon to do so at the time of Gita Sahgal’s suspension from her post as head of the Gender unit at AI in 2010.

In December 2014, Gita Sahgal again criticised AI for co-signing a letter with Cage, along with seven other signatories, to David Cameron calling for a judge-led inquiry into rendition and torture of Islamic states. Both Steve Crawshaw, the deputy director of Amnesty, and Gita were interviewed on the Radio 4 Today programme on the issue of AI’s relationship with Cage. Crawshaw began by saying that he was ‘enormously saddened’ by Gita Sahgal’s interview which was ‘inaccurate on so many levels’ although he did not elaborate on this. In relation to Cage, Crawshaw was also ‘saddened’ by ‘any statements that may give comfort to organisations like ISIS’. He added, ‘I can't condemn strongly enough, anybody, in any context who seeks to find some justification somehow for why they can kill civilians.’ When Crawshaw was asked whether AI would sign joint letters with Cage in the future, he hesitated, then said ‘I don’t know’, followed up with it was ‘highly unlikely’ and added hastily that this was a personal position. On the following day, Kate Allen, the UK director of Amnesty was quoted in the Guardian as saying ‘We are reviewing whether any future association with the group would now be appropriate.’

Hopefully these public statements are not just an exercise in image management but an indication that Amnesty is undergoing a genuine and long overdue ‘crise de conscience’, although the above statements have left them with substantial wriggle room.  Gita Sahgal is not optimistic. She says, ‘Amnesty International's long relationship with Cage and other Islamists damages the credibility of their research and their ability to make informed decisions on campaigning and partnerships. There is no sign that they have actually understood this - they are simply responding to media pressure and thinking it will all blow over.’ 

Why should the level of co-operation between two NGOs matter to women, particularly BME women? Why should the world view of groups like Cage impinge on Amnesty’s decision to work with them? It matters because women need the support of organisations like Amnesty in their lonely struggle against the growth of religious fundamentalism. It matters because joint work with Amnesty is a gift to any organisation, gives them credibility and a place at the top table. What kind of belief systems acquire legitimacy as a result?  Both Asim Qureshi and Moazzam Begg, director of Cage, idealise societies which would, in my view, extinguish women’s rights as we know them. In an interview with Julian Assange when Qureshi was pushed to make a statement on stoning to death for adultery and the death penalty in sharia law, he said, ‘I agree with Islamic concepts of… of how we… um, practice our punishments, ok, generally speaking, what they are.’ In a more recent interview with Andrew Neil, Qureshi equivocated to such a degree on the same question that Neil dismissed his ‘weasel answer’. Moazzem Begg, in his book Enemy Combatant, admires the Taliban and defended his decision to move his wife and children to Afghanistan from England because ‘I wanted to live in an Islamic state – one that was free from the corruption and the despotism of the rest of the Muslim world.’ Begg explains why being described as a Sufi is an insult ‘Many who practice Islam according to the Salafi (early) way, like Uthman and even myself, regard parts of Sufi mystic doctrine as heretical.’ Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters has described on 50:50 the shariafication by stealth that is taking place in Britain and how the plea for religious tolerance becomes a wedge with which to reverse gender equality.

Qureshi spoke at a Hizb ut-Tahrir rally in defence of jihad. I came across this gem, among a number of other gems, on women which is worth quoting in full in an address to the ‘Ummah’ given by a Hizb ut-Tahrir speaker entitled The Onslaught on the Islamic Social System. After listing the various international conferences on women’s rights held in places like Beijing and Nairobi, the speaker goes on to say that ‘America endeavours through these conferences to destroy the concepts of family, motherhood and marriage, and to open the floodgates for promiscuity, outside marriage and outside the framework of the family, thus generating a host of new concepts such as raising the minimum age for marriage, legalising adultery, abortion, homosexuality, transsexualism, lesbianism and incorporate their right to exist under Human Rights and under personal freedoms of individuals. These conferences call for women to be equal to men irrespective of the consequences and the complications that may occur.’

How come such beliefs do not undermine the dangerous tropes circulating in left wing circles? One of the tropes is that one person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. This assertion is no longer a clever inversion of dominant narratives that it once was since most of the recent strands of 'terrorism' have an ideology which is anti-woman, anti-sexual minorities and religious minorities and anti-secular. This ideology does not make them 'freedom fighters'. Whose freedoms are they fighting for - a tightly defined brotherhood of a particular strain of Islam, be it wahhabi or salafi? This is not comparable to the old freedom struggles for independence from colonial yokes or Marxist-inspired struggles for the liberation of the working classes from their capitalist masters. In that historical context, the line had resonance. The very fact of fighting foreign occupation, the idea of self-defence, the notion of a battle between David and Goliath, which might arguably put IRA and Al Quaeda in the same camp, attracts many on the left to uncritical support of political Islam or at the very least, a refusal to condemn it.

Cage itself has encouraged this identification, seeking to position some of the far-right extremists that they support as anti-establishment heroes. Quoting the US government’s description of the war on terror as partly a war of ideas, this is what they say on their website, ‘In particular, the 'war on terror' has been characterised by sustained attacks on classical Islamic concepts and Muslim opponents to state policies across the world. The same rhetoric and indeed practices have been used in an attempt to discredit dissidents and whistle-blowers who have exposed some of the crimes committed in the War on Terror. This includes WikiLeaks, Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden to name a few.’

Victoria Brittain also encouraged this elision when she argued on openDemocracy that “No one in Cageprisoners calls for killing of civilians, though they might consider the anti-apartheid movement, or the anti-colonial struggles of the Algerians, Vietnamese and South Africans in the 1960s and 70s to have been a secular kind of defensive jihad.” The very use of the term jihad to describe all armed struggles is problematic given its ideological location within religious discourse. The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT), which has funded Cage, made the last payment to the organisation in January 2014. On March 6th this year the JRCT issued a statement confirming that following intense regulatory pressure from the Charity Commission, and " to protect the interests of all our grantees and the other work of the Trust, we have decided to publicly confirm that we will not fund Cage either now or in the future" ( JRCT full statement pdf). The Charity Commission also issued a statement saying that both the JRCT and the Roddick Foundation have both now discontinued their funding of Cage. In the light of Qureshi’s and Begg’s beliefs, I come back to the question – whose human rights do they privilege?

It is a question that has been repeatedly put to Amnesty. Interestingly, Maryam Namazie, of the International Committee against Stoning, says that AI refused to campaign jointly with them on the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the Iranian woman who was sentenced to be stoned for adultery, on grounds of impartiality.  She adds ironically that she may have won AI support if she had supported ‘defensive jihad’. All human rights organisations are faced with choices about the alliances they make. Their choices need to be consistent with a universal human rights agenda.


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