Gita Sahgal was right
Five years ago Gita Sahgal, head of the gender unit at Amnesty International, told the Amnesty bosses that it was a mistake to collaborate with Moazzem Begg, a mistake that would damage Amnesty’s reputation. The Sunday Times reported at the time:
Sahgal describes Begg as ‘Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban’. He has championed the rights of jailed Al-Qaeda members and hate preachers, including Anwar al-Awlaki, the alleged spiritual mentor of the Christmas Day Detroit plane bomber.
Sahgal, who has researched religious fundamentalism for 20 years, has decided to go public because she feels Amnesty has ignored her warnings for the past two years about the involvement of Begg in the charity’s Counter Terror With Justice campaign.
‘I believe the campaign fundamentally damages Amnesty International’s integrity and, more importantly, constitutes a threat to human rights,’ Sahgal wrote in an email to the organisation’s leaders on January 30. ‘To be appearing on platforms with Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban, whom we treat as a human rights defender, is a gross error of judgment.’
That seemed undeniable to me at the time, and it still does. Amnesty is a human rights organization, perhaps the best known such organization in the world. This is how they describe themselves:
As a global movement of over seven million people, Amnesty International is the world’s largest grassroots human rights organisation. We investigate and expose abuses, educate and mobilise the public, and help transform societies to create a safer, more just world. We received the Nobel Peace Prize for our life-saving work.
That is not the sort of organization that should be working with Taliban-supporters. It should be defending their rights, like anyone else’s, but that’s not at all the same thing as working with them. This is a fundamental distinction. Amnesty would be right to say that alleged fighters for Islamic State should get due process in a court of law, but that doesn’t mean Amnesty should share platforms with them or sign petitions with them. Cage was never a good fit with Amnesty.
But in 2010 Amnesty did not see it that way, and it forced Gita Sahgal out of the organization. Here is some of her statement on that event, via Women Living Under Muslim Laws:
The senior leadership of Amnesty International chose to answer the questions I posed about Amnesty International’s relationship with Moazzam Begg by affirming their links with him. Now they have also confirmed that the views of Begg, his associates and his organisation Cageprisoners, do not trouble them.
They have stated that the idea of jihad in self defence is not antithetical to human rights; and have explained that they meant only the specific form of violent jihad that Moazzam Begg and others in Cageprisoners assert is the individual obligation of every Muslim …
Unfortunately, their stance has laid waste every achievement on women’s equality and made a mockery of the universality of rights. In fact, the leadership has effectively rejected a belief in universality as an essential basis for partnership.
Five years on, Asim Qureshi, Research Director of Cage, blamed MI5 for the radicalization of Mohammed Emwazi, aka Jihadi John, and was, as the Guardian put it, “reluctant to directly and explicitly condemn his actions”. Amnesty finally cut its ties with Cage.
But did it apologize to Gita Sahgal? Did it admit she was right and it was wrong? Did it apologize to her? No it did not. It did the opposite of that – it said it was right then, and has taken a different stand now only because the situation has changed. Amnesty International UK’s Director Kate Allen said in a statement on March 12:
At the time that Gita Sahgal left Amnesty International, we commissioned an independent external review into our work with Cage and Moazzam Begg which concluded that it was reasonable for Amnesty to campaign with Cage and Moazzam Begg in his capacity as a former detainee at Guantanamo Bay.
Gita’s view was that it was inappropriate for Amnesty International to share a platform with individuals and organisations whose religious or political views were inconsistent with the full range of rights and women’s rights in particular. Amnesty International has never questioned the integrity of this view or the sincerity with which Gita held it. However, it is not uncommon for NGOs to enter into coalitions with other organisations or groups on one specific issue despite their disagreement on others.
Based on an extensive review of comments made by Cage Prisoners (as it was then known) then available to the public, we concluded that limited cooperation with Cage on the narrow issue of accountability for UK complicity in torture abroad was appropriate, given their consistent and credible messaging on this issue.
What a grudging and self-serving response. The issue wasn’t Sahgal’s sincerity or integrity, it was whether she was right about Cage and Moazzem Begg or not, and she clearly was. How ungenerous and unfair of Amnesty not to admit it. Sahgal was forced out of the organization because Amnesty refused to see that she was right five years ago; the least they could do now is admit that she was right all along.
Maajid Nawaz, co-founder and chairman of the Quilliam Foundation and LibDem candidate, has been energetically tweeting at Amnesty UK to apologize at #SorryGita, and others have been joining in. I’m hoping Amnesty will soon do the right thing.