Why on earth would leftists go out of their way to support Cage?

Max Farrar responds to this article, and its authors respond in kind. What exactly is Cage, and how should it be treated?

David Miller Tom Mills Narzanin Massoumi Max Farrar
12 August 2015

Flickr/Walt Jabsco. Some rights reserved.

Max Farrar

Cage’s staff are on record as supporting extremely conservative views, often summarised in the application of ‘original’ sharia law (ie not the current sharia law that has been subjected to 1400 years of interpretation). No liberal or socialist could stomach these laws, nor the men that enforce them. In fact no modern conservative would have any truck with them. In my view, Cage should be avoided at all costs, and exposed for what they are: a sophisticated front for the worst type of Islamist politics. I’m puzzled by why Tom Mills, a founder of a group called the New Left Project, and his associates go to such trouble to offer their arguments in support of Cage.

After a long defence of Cage staffers’ statements, and a critique of those (particularly Gita Sahgal) who have attacked Cage in print, we read: “What is actually at stake here? It is not just a question of defending the reputation of Cage, but of actively supporting its work with the victims of the 'War on Terror'. This is because it is intrinsically a matter of justice . . .” They defend Cage, they say, because “it is an effective human rights organisation that is dedicated to defending the rights of terror suspects (and indeed of convicted 'terrorists' where there are concerns about due process and the safety of convictions)”. They conclude with what we might call the Pastor Niemoller justification for their defence of Cage: “If we say nothing now when they come for Cage, there will be nobody left to speak for the rest of us.”

Their attempt to portray Cage’s staffers as reasonable men who liberals and leftists should be happy to work alongside is, even on their own account, somewhat limited. After quoting its research director Asim Qureshi’s pusillanimous remarks on stoning, they admit that his legalistic posturing was “hardly an unequivocal condemnation”. They note Qureshi's refusal to distance himself from al-Haddad, an exponent of utterly reactionary and extraordinary views. (“I have never been guided [by Haddad] to believe these things” and “I am not a theologian” are all Qureshi will say.)

Moazzam Beg was a founder of Cage and is now its ‘outreach director’. After his release from Guantanamo Bay prison he published an autobiography (co-written with the Guardian’s Victoria Brittain) and was often given a place on left-wing platforms. Amnesty supported him until recently, despite the objections of Gita Sahgal, as Mills et al discuss. Anyone who reads Begg’s book carefully would be utterly sceptical about working with him. He describes how he departed from his former colleagues in the Asian Youth Movement (a pro-socialist organisation) and became involved with the salafi stream of Islam. Most salafis are only engaged in Islamic theology and have nothing to do with violent jihadi Islam. (They are well satirised in the film ‘Four Lions’.) But Begg wanted to be more active in his support for Islamism.

Begg’s bookshop sold books by Islamists, including those of Abdullah Azzam. According to Lawrence Wright’s definitive book on AQ (The Looming Towers), Azzam had serious disputes with AQ’s brain, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and refuted al-Zawahiri’s endorsement of the doctrine of takfir. (Wright implies this is why Azzam was assassinated in Peshawar.) Takfir is the view (held by AQ and ISIS) that it is legitimate to murder other Muslims who do not agree with your interpretation of Islam. Perhaps this is why Mills et al want to endorse the selling of Azam’s books. But the crucial point about Azzam is that he absolutely supported the Taliban, with whose programme no liberal or leftist could possibly want to be associated.

Begg’s book described his decision to go to Afghanistan. He wrote that he stayed in a camp close to Al-Qaeda’s. At no point in that book did he offer any critique of AQ. It gets worse. Writing on the Cage website, Begg expressed great pleasure at being afforded the honour of interviewing AQ’s representative in the Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki. The interview remains on the Cage website, without the fawning introduction. al-Awlaki has since been murdered in a US drone strike, and there is much to condemn in the West’s extra-judicial activities (including Guantanamo itself), but there is no doubt at all that al-Awlaki was an exponent of violent Islamism. Why would Begg publish an interview that asks no questions at all about al-Awlaki’s political agenda?

It’s quite possible that Mills et al know exactly what Cage really stands for. They go to some trouble to exonerate Cage staffers from their critics on both the left and the right. They must think that their political views are relevant (why defend them otherwise?) but not that relevant to the question of whether Cage deserves our support. They say that Cage is, simply, a human rights organisation. They suggest there are parallels to be drawn with Liberty and Amnesty. But these are false parallels. Liberty and Amnesty staffers stand full square for universal human rights and the values associated with those declarations and the relevant laws. As we have seen, Cage’s staffers do not stand for those values. Egregiously, all they do is expose the gap between liberal human rights law and the practices of the British state when it comes to the Muslims it arrests and charges under the terror legislation. But Cage doesn’t actually believe in human rights law. They believe in shari’a law, as practised in the early years of Islam.

There are lots of lawyers in this country who have serious criticisms of the way that the British state has undermined its credibility as an exponent of human rights and the rule of law. There are plenty of organisations (including Liberty) who have backed that critique. So why do we need to get into bed with Cage over this?

Mills et al’s reason comes down to a peculiar definition of “victim”. Muslims arrested under the terror legislation are, apparently “victims”. Surely that term will only apply to those who have been subjected to miscarriages of justice? There is a proper discussion to be had here: if the recent legislation is outside the highest standards of legal rights, and/or British courts have failed to implement the rule of law, then that needs exposing and changing. We should be led by critical lawyers and Liberty on that, rather than Cage.

Mills et al then slip from judicial “victims” to “War on Terror” “victims”. Again, there is a real argument about the “war on terror” and this, the previous government’s ham-fisted statements about Muslims and terrorism. It’s evident that groups that represent British Muslims, as well as those who have no time for these organisations, are deeply aggrieved by the way that Muslims are being represented as a threat to “British” values and by the exaggerated view that significant numbers are planning to kill British citizens. But these Muslims, exponents of universal values, are speaking up for themselves, lobbying hard, and being supported by lots of non-Muslim organisations in their efforts to change attitudes and policy. Why on earth would we want to work with Cage on these issues when we could work with a plethora of allies with none of Cage’s reactionary views?

Is the remark attributed to Voltaire behind Mills et al’s support for Cage? (“I disapprove of what you say but I defend to the death your right to say it.”) This view chimes well with liberals, but British democracy does not fully implement it. There are very good reasons for legislating against hate speech and its bed-fellow, incitement to violence. Yes, people should be given a fair trial when accused of such views. Cameron is wrong to be introducing new legislation to target Muslims on this. Existing law is quite adequate. Cage staffers are probably too canny to fall foul of the law so they should just go about their disingenuous business while the rest of us keep our distance from them (and offer our critique).

The Niemoller defence is equally bizarre. I was once told by a member of the Communist Party that “after the revolution” I would be among the first to be lined up against the wall and shot. (This was 1968, after all.) Wherever an Islamist government appears, human rights disappear, just as they did in the Soviet Union. It is not just ISIS who engage in summary executions of their enemies. We should refuse Mills et al's proposal that we give ‘active support’ to people who are apologists for such barbarity.


The need for evidence in discussing human rights and Islamophobia: a response to Max Farrar

Tom Mills, David Miller and Narzanin Massoumi

We write to respond to criticisms from the sociologist Max Farrar of our piece on Cage the advocacy group working with victims of the war on terror. We think it important that political judgements be based on evidence and that is why we went to such lengths examining the evidential basis of the various accusations levelled against Cage.  In our piece we noted the lack of evidence presented, and the obvious weaknesses in the arguments advanced, by Gita Sahgal, Meredith Tax and others in their criticism of the activities of Cage. Farrar strongly contests our conclusions. But the shortcoming we drew attention to have not been addressed in his response - let alone resolved - and neither has the lack of evidence.

Indeed, Farrar's response is notable for the confidence of its assertions on the one hand, and the lack of supporting evidence on the other. Cage is a 'disingenuous' and 'canny' organisation, 'a sophisticated front', but Farrar claims to 'know exactly what Cage really stands for.' And the evidence?  Farrar returns to the 1990s and Moazzam Begg's time working at a Birmingham bookshop. As we noted, and as Begg publicly stated in his book, he once sold the writings of Abdullah Azzam. It is notable that Farrar does not defend Sahgal's Nazi smear here and that he also notes Azzam's disagreements with the future leader of Al-Qaeda over attacks on civilians. But, he maintains, 'the crucial point about Azzam is that he absolutely supported the Taliban'. This is neither the crucial point, nor is it correct. Abdullah Azzam died in 1989, five years before the emergence of the Taliban. 

Farrar then claims that Cage has supported Anwar al-Awlaki. This is another allegation, often repeated, which we did not have the space to deal with in our piece (we focused on what appeared to be the most credible criticism). Briefly then, according to Cage's own account, it campaigned for Awlaki during the period of his detention 'without charge in line with the remit of our work', and after his release opposed both his position on attacks on civilians, and his extra-judicial execution by the US Government. Of course if Farrar has any evidence to the contrary then he should draw attention to it. But if not he should refrain from making such accusations.

The fact that Farrar feels able to make such assertions in the absence of evidence is itself a symptom of the hostile climate for Muslims which now pervades British public life, and which we would hope that Farrar strongly opposes. Years of work by the state and Islamophobic movements - neoconservatives, Zionists, the 'New Atheists', some secularists, and Counterjihad and far right activists - have shifted the terrain significantly. It is now enough to simply assert that a Muslim or Muslim organisation is 'Salafi' or 'Jihadi', a homophobe or an enemy of women's rights, and the impossible onus falls on the Muslim to prove their innocence. It is surely wrong for anti-racists to manipulate this state of affairs to their advantage, and in any case as scholars we have a professional duty to insist on evidence and reasoned debate in all circumstances.

This brings us to Farrar's claims about Islamism.  Following the lead of Sahgal and others, his argument, in essence, is that because Cage is allegedly staffed in part by 'Islamists' then by definition 'Cage doesn't actually believe in human rights law'. 'Wherever an Islamist government appears,' Farrar asserts, 'human rights disappear, just as they did in the Soviet Union. It is not just ISIS who engage in summary executions of their enemies.' Implicit in this argument is the notion that the problem with the Middle East is not the injustice and violence suffered by its people (from dictators or western intervention or other sources), but the religion to which the majority of them adhere. Well, let us consider the case of Egypt where Mohamed Morsi served as the first democratically elected President of the country leading an Islamist government until his removal by the current US/UK-backed dictator, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in July 2013. It was only then that the first executions in the country since the revolution were carried out.  Hundreds of Islamists have now been sentenced to death, among them the democratically elected President himself.

The regime's broader human rights abuses have been shocking. According to Amnesty International an estimated 1,400 people were killed in protests following the July 2013 coup and at least 16,000 people were imprisoned, mostly Muslim Brotherhood supporters, but also left-wing and secular activists. 'A crackdown that began with the arrests of Mohamed Morsi and his supporters, including senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, in July 2013,' Amnesty noted this June, 'has rapidly expanded to encompass the whole of Egypt’s political spectrum.' It was in this context that last week that the Muslim Brotherhood reportedly agreed to form a revolutionary front with socialists. Farrar himself has written – back in 2012 - that 'radical, political Islam – like the revolutionary movements formed in Europe – is a complex and layered phenomenon' and that Islamism is a 'broad camp'.  We agree. And it will not do for scholars to make sweeping, politicised generalisations of the kind Farrar has made, not least in circumstances where it might make racialised minorities more vulnerable to disadvantage and mistreatment.

A further and perhaps more fundamental point of disagreement with Farrar, however, concerns the nature of the 'war on terror'. He accuses us of slippage from 'judicial "victims"' to "War on Terror" "victims".' This argument betrays a real complacency about the politics at stake here. At it's very beginnings the 'war on terror' was a 'war' on international law, and this war soon extended to the domestic sphere where the most fundamental civil liberties and principles of justice have been curtailed as state power has expanded.

In its most recent phase this has meant the criminalisation of ideas and the expansion of 'security' powers across the public sector and civil society. Remarkably Farrar, a professed libertarian socialist, seems to have no principled objection to these developments and agrees that people should be incarcerated for their political views ('Yes, people should be given a fair trial when accused of such views'). To be clear, this is not a question of 'hate speech' as Farrar claims. Incitement to violence is already legislated against and we consider that quite proper. No one to our knowledge has accused Cage of incitement to violence, let alone provided any evidence to that effect.

Farrar goes on to say of our argument: 'Muslims arrested under the terror legislation are, apparently “victims”. Surely that term will only apply to those who have been subjected to miscarriages of justice?' We beg to differ. Miscarriages of justice are a serious issue but the 'victims' of the war on terror are much wider. There are the thousands of Muslims who every year are stopped and searched, harassed or arrested and released without charge. In 2010/11 official figures show 11,792 people were stopped and searched under terrorism legislation leading to zero arrests for terrorism. Though terrorism stop and searches ceased after a European Court ruling that the use of these powers was unlawful, the most recent figures show black people are up to 17.5 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched under other legislation by the police in certain areas of the UK. 

And then there are those convicted under illiberal legislation that creates thought-crimes and criminalises free expression. Section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 targets the possession of information 'likely to be useful' to terrorists. Then there is the nebulous and Orwellian offence in the 2006 Terrorism Act of glorifying 'the commission or preparation (whether in the past, in the future or generally)' of terrorism. 

Rather than speaking out in defence of Cage, Farrar suggests we lend our support to Muslim groups challenging 'the way that Muslims are being represented as a threat to "British" values'.  'Why on earth would we want to work with Cage on these issues' he asks, 'when we could work with a plethora of allies with none of Cage’s reactionary views?' There are indeed a number of organisations doing important work on the stigmatisation of Muslims in Britain, and we would hope that it goes without saying that when they are also attacked by the government and its conservative allies, we will stand with them also.  

But this notion that what is at stake here is simply the 'government's ham-fisted statements about Muslims', or more broadly the negative ways Muslims are being portrayed in the public sphere, ignores the vital question of where anti-Muslim racism comes from. This is not just a question of wrong ideas.  Islamophobia needs to be understood as centrally related to the interests of the British state, and the practices of the security apparatus in particular. This is why Cage's work is so important and why it should be defended. Farrar notes that Cage 'expose the gap between liberal human rights law and the practices of the British state when it comes to the Muslims it arrests and charges under the terror legislation'. But he describes this work as egregious. What is egregious about this is a mystery to us. It seems to us a quite proper role for a human rights group like Cage. The crucial point here, though, is that the gap between law and practice is not incidental to the racism that Muslims in British society face, or the broader threat to freedom and democracy, it is absolutely central. 

Farrar concludes by arguing that Cage should be left alone 'to just go about their disingenuous business while the rest of us keep our distance'. This is itself disingenuous. The point is that Cage is not being allowed to carry out its business. As we described in some detail in our piece, it has been subject to relentless harassment and intimidation from the highest levels of the British state. If he does not feel comfortable lending his support then that is his business. But we take no pleasure in pointing out that through his intervention, Farrar, a long time activist and scholar of racism, is providing – by his arguments -  active support for racist state policies.  We sincerely hope he will re-examine his position.


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