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Moazzam Begg – Taliban Supporter?

In the Sunday Times article, Moazzam Begg is described as:

“Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban”

Begg is unhappy with the article. In his response to the Sunday Times, he says:

When asked specifically about the Taliban I told you my view: that I have advocated for engagement and dialogue with the Taliban well before our own government took the official position of doing the same – only last week – although, I did not say, like the government, we should be giving them lots of money in order to do so.

I also clearly told you, though you deliberately chose to ignore, that I had actually witnessed what I believe were human rights abuses under the Taliban and have detailed them in my book, from which you conveniently and selectively quote. I added that the US administration had perpetrated severe human rights abuses against me for years but that didn’t mean I opposed dialogue with them. I even told you that Cageprisoners and I have initiated pioneering steps in that regard by organising tours all around the UK with former US guards from Guantanamo and men who were once imprisoned there. Cagreprisoners is the only organisation to have done so. (One of these soldiers, upon in response to your article sent this message to me: They are attacking you and your causes…don’t forget you have real support by some of us ex-Soldiers who have seen the light… I expect he too will be accused by your likes of being brainwashed by me). Instead, you simply say, without qualification, ‘He defended his support for the Taliban….’

Had you – and Ms Sahgal no doubt – done your homework properly you’d have discovered also that I was involved in the building of, setting up and running of a school for girls in Kabul during the time of the Taliban, but of course, that wouldn’t have sat well with the agenda and nature of your heavily biased and poorly researched article.

So, is it accurate to describe Begg as a supporter of the Taliban?

The simple answer is that Begg regards Taliban’s ‘resistance’ against ‘occupation’ as theologically and politically proper. He  also shares the Taliban’s goal of creating an Islamic state, and regards that Taliban’s regime as “better than anything Afghanistan has had in the past twenty-five years”. That is sufficient to describe Begg as a supporter of the Taliban. He would be foolish to argue that he is not.

Begg is not wholly uncritical of everything that the Taliban did, in power. However, criticism of aspects of the Taliban’s conduct most certainly does not make him an opponent of the Taliban. I am open to correction on this point, but I have not seen anything written by Begg which indicates that he would prefer a liberal democratic state to the sort of Islamic state that the Taliban sought to create. Begg might be likened to a member of the Communist Party, prepared to admit that Stalin sometimes might have gone a little too far, but quick to defend the old USSR as the embodiment of ‘actual, existing socialism’. In other words, Begg’s criticisms are not of the Taliban’s goals, but certain limited aspects of the manner in which they sought to achieve them.

The most important sense in which Begg can be fairly described as a Taliban supporter stems from his understanding of the legitmacy of jihad. In his article on Jihad for the Cordoba Institute’s magazine, Begg sets out his stall:

“By consensus of the Islamic schools of thought, jihad becomes an individual obligation, like prayer and fasting, on Muslim men and women when their land is occupied by foreign enemies. That obligation extends to neighbouring lands until the enemy has been expelled. If the whole body of believers abandon it, they are in a state of sin; if enough of them do it to complete the task, they are absolved.”

“Although in the West jihad is often seen as terrorism it is correct to describe it as tourism. Prophet Muhammad said: ‘The tourism of my nation is jihad.’ This is one reason why many Muslims from thousands of miles away travelled to places as far and wide as Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir and Afghanistan.”

“If resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was jihad, if the repelling the massacres by the Serbs in Bosnia was jihad, then how can resisting the current occupation of these Muslims lands be anything else?”

A footnote to that article gives Begg’s authority for this view: Abdullah Azzam:

“15. In his magisterial discourse on jihad during the soviet occupation, Defence of the Muslim Lands, the charismatic scholar, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam resurrected the famous 13th century fatwa of Ibn Taymiyyah which states: ‘As for the aggressive enemy who destroys life and religion, nothing is more incumbent [upon the believer] after faith than his repulsion.’ Al-fatawaa al-kubraa, Ibn Taymiyyah.”

Azzam was the jihadist who reportedly persuaded Osama Bin Laden to come to Afghanistan. However, unlike Osama Bin Laden, he believed that it was incorrect, theologically speaking, to attack non-combatants. The importance of that distinction is also clear in Begg’s defence of the Al Qaeda preacher, Anwar Al Awlaki:

“A cursory look at Awlaki’s pre-incarceration lectures would clearly show just why he became so popular. He was not a radical ‘preacher of hate’ by any stretch of the imagination. Whilst teaching Islamic principles in an erudite and articulate way – he neither shied away from talking about the Islamic concept of jihad (in military terms) nor from condemning the September 11 attacks and terrorism in general. “

The distinction between legitimate and illegitimate jihad is of great significance to Cageprisoners. It goes without saying that they are of the view that jihad – including military struggle – is an essential part of Islam. They oppose attacks on “innocent civilians” (although it is not clear to me whether they regard all civilians as equally innocent) but support “resistance” against “occupation”. Take, for example, this article by Cageprisoner’s Asim Qureshi:

From all of our travels throughout the UK, a common theme that the team at Cageprisoners has found is that many Muslims believe that our brothers and sisters in faith fighting for their survival in various parts of the world have a legitimate right to do so – that policy of self defence from an Islamic perspective is known as jihad. It is a concept that has already been recognised by the Western world in the 80s through their support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan against Soviet occupation, and again in the 90s as they supported the Bosniaks and Kosovars in their resistance. What this means in practice is that the limitations and justifications require to be clarified and refined in the caldron of public debate between those who have an interest in these issues. Only then can there be a meeting of the opposing views – it is only through this mechanism that we have any hope of persuading, in light of the grievances mentioned by the 7/7 bombers, Abdulmuttalib and others like him, that the ends can never justify the means. It would seem common sense that an open and honest debate about jihad is very much required, indeed, the discussion on jihad is the solution.

In summary, the position of Cageprisoners is that recognising the legitimacy of jihad against ‘occupiers’ in places like Afghanistan will defend Britain against those who believe that the doctrine permits the killing of civilians. Cageprisoners’ solution is: let’s have a mass debate about Jihad.

Perhaps this is what Cageprisoners meant when they explained to the Quaker charity, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, their reasons for establishing their organisation:

To support Moazzam Begg’s work in educating, advocating and inspiring people about the possibilities of reconciliation between the values of the west and Islam.

You can see Asim Qureshi make the same point here:

We embrace the mercy. We embrace every single thing that is set upon us and we deal with it because we have no fear. So when we see the example of our brothers and sisters fighting in Chechnya, Iraq, Palestine, Kashmir, Afghanistan then we know where the example lies. When we see Hezbollah defeating the armies of Israel, we know what the solution is and where the victory lies. We know that it is incumbent upon all of us to support the jihad of our brothers and sisters in these countries when they are facing the oppression of the west.

At this juncture, we should remind ourselves quite how illegitimate is any suggestion that the Afghan people support the Taliban, recognise them as their proper government, or support this ‘jihad’ against ‘occupation’. The most recent BBC poll of Afghans showed that 83% think that it was either very or mostly good that the Taliban were overthrown. 69% regard the Taliban as ‘the biggest danger in our country’ and only six percent of the population would like to see them as their rulers. They are about as popular as the BNP are in the United Kingdom.

It was to this country that Begg traveled. Here, in his autobiography, is Begg’s perspective on the Taliban in power.

“When I went to Afghanistan, I believed the Taliban had made some modest progress – in social justice and in upholding pure, old style Islamic values forgotten in many Islamic countries. After September 11 that life was destroyed” (p.381).

What attracts him to the Taliban’s rule is that it constituted an attempt to create an Islamic state. His regret at its destruction is made clearer in the account he gives of his interrogation:

‘I wanted to live in an Islamic state – one that was free from the corruption and despotism of the rest of the Muslim world’.

- ‘So you chose the Taliban?’

‘I chose Afghanistan. I admit I have made mistakes – but had it not been for 9/11, I think I would still be living happily in Afghanistan’

- ‘Probably as a member of Al Qaeda or the Taliban’

‘I knew you wouldn’t understand. The Taliban were better than anything Afghanistan has had in the past twenty-five years. You weren’t in Afghanistan – not before nor during the Taliban. Child sex, rape, looting, robbery, murder and opium production only ended when they took control. ‘ (p. 214)

He explains:

“I know the Taliban isolated themselves with their strict interpretation of sharia. But I am sure its regressed to how it used to be, now that the warlords are back” (p.214)

The attraction of the Taliban to Begg is easy to understand. He travelled not only to Afghanistan but also Bosnia. He tried, but failed, to get to Chechnya. Some “tourist”! On each occasion, his motivation was the same: to play his part within the closest thing that existed, in his mind at least, to a perfect Islamic state. Afghanistan under the Taliban may have fell a little short of the ideal: but just like the Soviet Union to the idealistic young Communist, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan had one major attraction. It existed.

It is also important to remember the intellectual milieu in which Begg is steeped. He quotes Azzam, and promotes Awlaki (but not his endorsement of killing civilians). Indeed, Begg has said that one of the most popular books that his bookshop Maktabah Al Ansar sold was Azzam’s “Defence of the Muslim Lands”. Awlaki was guest of honour – by videolink – at Cageprisoner events. Moazzam Begg describes himself as a Salafi. It is natural, therefore, that he is attracted by thinkers who provide a clear and theologically convincing justification of the centrality of jihad in defence of Islamic states.

Begg points out in his letter to the Sunday Times that he “had actually witnessed what I believe were human rights abuses under the Taliban”. That is true.

In his autobiography, Begg describes seeing the dead bodies of those killed by the Taliban, lying at a roundabout. His response is:

“I found the whole thing very shocking”

I have no doubt that he did. Perhaps he thought that a true Islamic state would not need to kill people to maintain its rule. However, it is difficult to think of any similar revolutionary group or regime which has managed to obtain and then retain power without the application of a little judicious force upon those whose purity of spirit is found wanting.

In conclusion, it is difficult to see why Moazzam Begg objects to being described as a supporter of the Taliban. It is clear that he regards their project of creating an Islamic state as a valuable one: so much so that he moved to live under their rule at the same time that many Afghans were fleeing their tyranny. Crucially, he supports jihad against ‘occupation’ in Afghanistan. The Taliban are the only major group fighting “occupation” in Afghanistan.

The United Kingdom is  full of followers of a broad range of political movements. Those partisans are frequently and openly critical of aspects of their chosen party’s programme, but stick with them through thick and thin. But they’ll all cheer on their party’s success, when it romps home to victory.

Begg should should demonstrate a similar pride in his own convictions.