Close Reading of The Nation—You Asked
by Meredith Tax
source: http://www.meredithtax.org/blog Monday, April 12, 2010
Several people have written to ask what I thought of Don Guttenplan and Maria Margaronis’s article in the Nation on the Gita Sahghal-Amnesty International controversy. I thought it was politically fuzzy, superficial, and slanted. Politically fuzzy: essentially saying that both Gita and Moazzam Begg are nice people, why can’t they get along, and ignoring the centrality of women’s human rights to the story. Superficial: not dealing with the history and complexities of the human rights issues involved, particularly the fraught question of “non-state actors.” Slanted: Gita “claims;” she shows “resentment” (at the fact that Amnesty’s gender unit was starved for money and had only two people out of a staff of 500); she is “tendentious,” not to mention a member of the Indian elite who derives “her confidence from her great-uncle Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister.” (In fact, Gita’s branch of the family has been estranged from the rest since her mother, a well known novelist, publicly denounced Indira Gandhi’s State of Emergency decrees.)
The language used for Moazzam Begg is considerably more sympathetic, beginning by comparing “the sense of moral rectitude and passionate doctrinal debates” of “the heady world of committed young British Muslims in the 1990s” to US “left solidarity movements of the ’70s and ’80s.” The article presents Begg in a sympathetic light, glossing over his views and giving a lot of play to Begg’s claim that he went to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in 2001 to set up an elementary school for girls and that nobody had any problem with this at a time when all the other schools for girls were deeply underground and their teachers risking death—even today, the Taliban throws acid in the faces of girls going to school in Kandahar. So how did Begg manage to set up a school for girls in Kabul? "’I believe it was because we were foreign, Western Muslims,’ Begg told us. "There was a recognition among some of the Taliban that education matters...and that they had to educate women. I believed in engagement, in helping them see that they could have schools without compromising Islamic values." I’d like to see some corroborating evidence that this school actually existed, and wasn’t just private tutoring for his daughters.
Guttenplan and Margaronis admit that Begg has had an interest in armed struggle, but they don’t press him on his beliefs. “When we put to him Sahgal’s accusation that the pattern of his activities reflects that of fundamentalists training for armed jihad, he said, ‘Jihad is armed. People talk now about spiritual jihad because they’ve been put on the back foot. But jihad is not the same as terrorism.’” The authors do concede that “Begg seems careful to frame his public statements so as not to alienate either liberal Britain or more radical members of his own community. ‘You have to speak to people in the Muslim community using Islamic words, Islamic concepts,’ he explained to us on the phone. It is not always easy to pin down exactly where he stands on human rights under Islamic law. But to call him, as Sahgal has done, ‘Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban’ is a misrepresentation of his views.” And in what way is it a misrepresentation? Certainly he has done nothing to denounce the Taliban and supports negotiating with them. This in itself is worth noting since people who renounce their former views usually tend to make rather a big deal about it.
Nor do the authors of the Nation article push Widney Brown, Amnesty’s Senior Director of International Law, Policy and Campaigns, on her slurs against Gita’s research on Begg and Cageprisoners: “’I read it; no red flags went up for me. When I talked to her about it, I said, ’You know what we expect of research, and you know that this is not acceptable. Drawing out a relationship from innuendo is something we would never support.’” If this were indeed Brown’s opinion, it is curious that she promoted Gita at the same time all this was happening. In fact, sad to say, Gita actually believed Brown shared her concerns. But, just as with Begg, the authors of Nation article do not probe; they simply accept what they are told, ending with the extraordinary conclusion that Gita Sahgal and Moazzam Begg are two nice people of color who could probably get along if British society were not so racist.
Several people, including me, wrote letters to the Nation about this article.They are worth reading. A trenchant commentary by Cathy Fitzpatrick, formerly of the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International League for Human Rights, places the problem in the context of Amnesty’s departure from a firm position of defending only “prisoners of conscience,” rather than political prisoners who may endorse violence. She distinguishes between “building a global movement for human rights affirming universality of ‘all human rights for all’ that rejects violence—the abuse of human rights—to achieve human rights goals, as distinguished from building an internationalist movement for social justice with a range of views on armed struggle. They are different; they must be kept separate. Even if it means not being fashionable at times.” She expands this analysis in her own blog.
Marieme Helie Lucas, founder of Women Living Under Muslim Laws, vehemently refutes Amnesty’s claim that it defends human rights for all by pointing to its record during the Algerian civil war, when its researchers were a lot more eager to defend male fundamentalists attacked by the government than they were to defend women and intellectuals attacked by those same fundamentalists. You can find much more on that struggle on her website, Secularism Is a Woman’s Issue.
And a letter from Laura Guidetti describes these issues as reflected in Italy: “The issue of secularism is being let down both by the feminist movement and the left. On one hand they say that secularism is a colonial thought coming from the period of the Enlightenment, on the other they mix up social control of migrants with cultural and political support of migrants’ organizations, often organized on a religious basis. Some of them asked that Islam to be taught at public schools as Catholicism is, or to have beaches and swimming pools segregated for Muslim girls, or to have a symbolic injection instead of female genital mutilation, and the answer of the left has been very weak, if not positive.”
We all have to get sharper on these issues. It has to be possible to interrogate fundamentalism—Islamic, Jewish, Christian—from the left, and to do so rigorously, rather fuzz over problems or back off for fear of being thought Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, or anti-working class. If we do not take on these battles, we abandon the ground where religion meets politics to conservatives, and that is in nobody’s interest, least of all women’s.