Comment: When human rights organisations align with the far-right

A new book examines the mistakes made by the left in finding common cause with the islamic far-right.

On Monday, in Toynbee Hall, London, the Centre for Secular Space (CSS) launched its first report authored by Meredith Tax entitled ‘Double Bind: The Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Left and Universal Human Rights’.

The panel for the launch, which included Meredith Tax and Gita Sahgal, the former head of Amnesty International’s Gender Unit, now founder of the new centre, cut through much of the so-called left’s hypocrisy when it comes to siding with supporters of extremist views.

The inclusion of Gita Sahgal makes the centre all the more interesting. Her resignation from Amnesty International in 2010 raised some very pressing questions about which groups and individuals nominally left-wing groups, or human rights organisations, should provide a platform for.

I refer here to Amnesty’s teaming up with Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo detainee, head of the group Cageprisoners, and who the Sunday Times described as ‘Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban’.

When Amnesty started to do more than just advocate on behalf of former prisoners, and start to give Begg a louder voice, even support, despite the contradiction in beliefs and values, Sahgal rightly raised the alarm saying how inconsistent this was in highlighting human rights abuses worldwide.

The reasons for Sahgal’s opposition to Begg go further still. The Cageprisoners had a long time relationship with the late al-Qaeda recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki. The relationship dates back to when al-Awlaki was in prison in Yemen.

From the outset it is clear that the relationship between Begg and the Cageprisoners and the once al-Qaeda motivator was more than a simple one of political networking (I profile this relationship here). So why it was that Sahgal received the cold shoulder from Amnesty is anybody’s guess.

But it is one more episode of the left, or left leaning organisations, finding skewed comradeship with what the CSS’s report calls the ‘salafi-jihadis‘, or what the media, often erroneously, calls the moderate Islamists.

According to the report, the genesis of salafi-jihadism stems from Saudi-financed madrassahs (or is at least bolstered by them), which have been described as ‘factories for salafi jihadism’ by the late US diplomat Richard Holbrooke.

The running themes of salafi-jihadism include the ultimate belief in Sharia law; sectarianism; the curtailing of women’s rights; an authoritarian view of the family; the disregard of democracy; a support for jihad, as in physical fighting or providing money for it; chauvinism and the creation of a global caliphate.

None the less both the US and the UK today both remain allied to Saudi Arabia, despite the state’s appalling human rights record.

Saudi Arabia has one of the highest rates of executions in the world. Proving how the organisation is an otherwise worthy one, according to Amnesty in 2011 at least 82 executions took place; more than triple the figure of at least 27 executions in 2010. In 2012, a similar number of people were executed.

Additionally, of the 10 executed in the first five-and-a-half weeks of 2013, four were executed for drug related offences, and four were foreign nationals.

However consider the case of self-proclaimed Saudi cleric Fayan Al-Ghamdi, a Father who allegedly raped and killed his own daughter last year, only to pay ‘blood money’ of £50,000.

Lama al-Ghamdi, the daughter, was denied seeing her Mother and the courts did next to nothing, since by law after a man divorces a woman he claims sole custody of any children. The five-year-old had been repeatedly raped and burned all because, a court heard, he wanted to ‘save her virginity’.

Saudi Arabia is a country where men can, in the words of writer Iman Al Nafjan blogged, ‘literally get away with murder‘.

Though instead of calling Saudi out over it, the UK would prefer to carry on its lucrative trade deals and arms sales.

And here is were the far-left and the British and American establishment can find harmony. While the latter needs the Muslim far-right in Saudi Arabia for cash, they keep quiet about human rights abuses. For the far-left the comradeship is just as dubious, if not slightly more immature.

Recently I was at the launch of a new book by Trotskyist writer and blogger Richard Seymour, who told a packed audience in Kings Cross that the Stop the War Coalition did not wish to pursue sectarianism, deciding who should and should not be marching against the war, but in any case those religious right-wingers might have had their minds changed through a union with the left.

In a book whose main charge is that Christopher Hitchens was patronising to Muslims for belittling their beliefs, it comes as a surprise that he should consider the beliefs of the Muslim right as so weak that even Trots could persuade them of the virtues of progressive politics.

If this isn’t paternalist (Muslim beliefs, whatever they are, are only temporary, easily overturned), I don’t know what is.

The CSS’s new book goes a long way in to finding fault with the Anglo-American left and the British and US establishment. They are on the side of neither. I think this is something we should all get behind.

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8 Responses to “Comment: When human rights organisations align with the far-right”

  1. Gita Sahgal

    Thank you for this review. Fascinated to see Seymour hasn’t learned that the SWP is on the record as making very firm choices to form a coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood, making things uncomfortable for secular Muslims, let alone anyone who did not get behind their politics and segregated spaces

  2. Penfold187

    This a nasty pot to tackle. There are great difficulties in addressing this also, given the predominance of various ilks of extreme interpretations of Koranic principles. There is great danger in tackling this issue from outside the Islamic community, even basic concepts of science (like evolution) can cause great offence to the faithful. We have to learn to give this community the space,time and ability to deal with major issues of faith and reason, secularism, etc. While not giving ground basic principles of our society, such as free speech, freedom of expression, freedom of belief or and this is critical freedom of non-belief (this is a real thorn, given the various hadith stating apostasy is a capital offence for the faithful). Look to Hamza Kashgari twitter storm ( ), this man potentially faces beheading for the mildest perceived slight against the prophet. This is without even looking to the powder keg issue of the occupied territories/Holy land. Given that the faithful of 3 overarching faiths and lord only knows how many subsets vie over various holy sites, mostly peaceably but none the less fervently. We ourselves haven’t mastered the various pitfalls of balancing faith and civil society, only masked the fractious issue to a greater extent.

  3. Sun

    LOL wut?

    Human Right Organization allying with the far right? The far left hates anyone who isn’t white, Christian, or male. The far left continuously sides with minorities and say that violence is justified because of oppression.

    This article is so full it.

  4. Bitethehand

    Here’s what The Times editorial said of Amnesty International and Gita Sahgal at the time of her suspension:

    “The victims of the worst oppressors of the past generation did not have lobbyists to alert Western public opinion to their fate. The reliable defence of the right of protest, speech and conscience in Cambodia, Iraq, Rwanda and places of lesser horror has fallen instead to an organisation with cramped offices, tight budgets and a network of volunteers. Amnesty International, founded in 1961, has become a near-synonym for the defence of universal human rights.

    That reputation is irreplaceable. Yet through inexplicable insouciance, Amnesty is squandering it. It has collaborated with a group called Cageprisoners, which was established by Moazzam Begg, a British Muslim who is a former inmate at Guantánamo. Cageprisoners is not a defender of political liberty and the welfare of prisoners. It is a defender of radical Islam.

    Gita Sahgal, the head of the gender unit of Amnesty’s international secretariat, has drawn attention to the cynicism of this association. Amnesty stands for a disinterested defence of human rights. Islamism is an ideology of theocratic and sexual repression. Having stated her concerns to Amnesty, Ms Sahgal went public with them this week. Within hours, she found herself suspended from her post. In an extraordinary inversion of its traditional role, Amnesty has stifled its own still small voice of conscience.

    Amnesty has a message and a mission. It is entitled to expect its officers to promote that collective view rather than undermine it. But in this case, it is Ms Sahgal who is defending Amnesty?s reputation, interests and axioms. She has spoken out, at a professional cost to herself, to draw public attention to a shabby business. Amnesty has in turn treated Ms Sahgal with casual contempt. It has then sought to justify its attitude to Mr Begg and its actions towards Ms Sahgal with a series of sententious irrelevancies.

    Mr Begg was interrogated at Guantánamo and released in 2005 without charge. He claims to have been tortured and threatened with death. The treatment of terrorist suspects has violated the moral limits that a democracy must set in its own interests on the defence of liberty. That does not mean that anyone who has suffered the deprivation of liberty becomes a friend of liberty. Mr Begg is demonstrably not. He left Britain with his family in 2001 to live in Afghanistan under the Taleban. This was a place where 4,000 residents of Mazar-i-Sharif were massacred for belonging to the wrong branch of Islam, females were allowed no education beyond the age of 8, and homosexuals were crushed to death. Under CIA interrogation, Mr Begg declared the Taleban better than anything Afghanistan had had in the previous 25 years.

    Mr Begg has been at pains in the past few days to stress his criticisms of the Taleban. Yet the notion that he upholds impartial and universal standards of justice is absurd. He is an extremist. Ms Sahgal is right and brave to point out the damage to Amnesty?s reputation and integrity.

    In a statement of spectacular feebleness, Amnesty ventured yesterday that Mr Begg had “never used a platform he shared with Amnesty to speak against the rights of others”. The issue is not whether Mr Begg has embarrassed his hosts, but what he stands for. Amnesty is now faced with that discomforting truth. So it has fearlessly shot the messenger.”

  5. Jen

    I don’t want to start arguing on
    the whole issue around Gita Sahgal and Amnesty’s support to former detainee
    Moazzam Begg (wrongly arrested and detained without charges for years) and his
    organisation CagePrisoners. One’s might want to remember that due process and
    the protection from torture and arbitrary detention is applicable to all as
    well as the right to a fair trial and that is what CagePrisoners is all about –
    the respect of DUE PROCESS AND JUSTICE FOR ALL. Amnesty’s support to this cause
    seems therefore obvious to me.

    I just want to point out that
    what is written is this article is untrue; CagePrisoners is certainly not
    supporting Saudi human rights abuses. On the contrary it has issued a lobby
    pack very recently, after having received former detainees’ testimonies, in
    order to ensure that abuses do not continue in Saudi Arabia. It has asked the
    public to lobby the Saudi regime to stop practices of torture and ill treatment
    in prison. If you want more info on this, here is the link to the
    aforementioned lobby pack

  6. norman lamb

    interesting take on the left and militant islam. i’ve always regarded them as natural allies because their philosophies are almost identical. they both want everyone to live exactly how the prescribe. just how that is that differs. both illiberal.

  7. jeff huseman

    looks like another decent organisation has been hijacked by extremist lefties. i won’t be donating again

  8. RandyZ2063

    I am sorry for replying so very late but I cannot let this go unanswered. Amnesty is misleading about the nature of due process re Gitmo, but I’ll leave that for another time. For now, just note that Cageprisoners does not support the Geneva Conventions, and Amnesty is tying itself in knots.

    You misunderstand Cageprisoners’ opposition to Saudi abuses, which is specifically a part of their opposition to its government. Al Qaeda itself is at war with Saudi Arabia. So, you should consider any of their talk about Saudi Arabia as similar to the Bush administration’s talk of Saddam Hussein’s many human rights abuses. It may be valid, but it’s convenient. True support for human rights requires that one oppose torture when even when it’s politically inconvenient.

    No one associated with Cageprisoners opposes real, eye-gouging torture when Al Qaeda does it. It doesn’t matter how much they may claim to oppose enteral feeding when the U.S. does that.

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