Julian Assange, “The World Tomorrow (Episode 5: Moazzam Begg, Asim Qureshi)” (Russia Today, 15 May 2012)
At last Julian Assange gets a real cosy conversation with both interviewees bunkered down with him in his house prison. Moazzam Begg is a British citizen of Pakistani origin who was detained in both the Bagram Theater Internment Facility and the Guantanamo Bay detention camp for three years by the US government until his release in January 2005. He and Asim Qureshi, a former corporate lawyer, run Cage Prisoners Ltd, a human rights organisation working to raise public awareness of prisoners still trapped in Guantanamo Bay prison. The talk is part-interview / part-discussion as Assange sets the agenda in a general way and Begg and Qureshi answer his questions and probing to the best of their ability.
Begg and Qureshi are polite and articulate interviewees who are open about what it means to be Muslim and to witness for their fellow Muslims and struggle on their behalf. They discuss the concept of “jihad” and what “submission” to God means to them personally as Muslims. Assange questions the men at length about how they reconcile their beliefs in Islam and their concept of an Islamic caliphate with social justice and living in the modern world. The three range across many issues facing Muslims in the world after the World Trade Center attacks on 11 September 2001, in particular the Arab Spring events, and how Muslims across the Middle East and northern Africa are continuing to push for democracy and social justice and move away from repressive dictatorships supported by foreign powers. Finally Begg and Qureshi talk about why they formed Cage Prisoners Ltd and why they want to continue agitating for the rights of people still trapped in Guantanamo Bay prison and similar prisons around the world.
The episode is a very condensed version of what the men actually talked about; a full transcript is available. Reading the transcript, I discover that Begg is quite knowledgeable about the history of British repression of the IRA and early support for mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and Colonel Gadhafi in Libya in 2011, and how current laws in the UK being passed to restrict Muslims’ rights and to spy on them can very easily be used against the rest of the British population. There is mention of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born imam who was killed by a US drone strike in Yemen in 2011 and what his death represents in the context of the US becoming a criminal police state that kills people before they’ve even been charged with committing crimes. There is also talk about Western hypocrisy in the conduct of the War on Terror and the demonisation of al Qa’ida.
Assange still can’t quite get his head around the concept of “submission” to God, taking “submission” very literally whereas I suspect that for most Muslims, “submission” refers to accepting God and religion with all its disciplines and strictures in their lives, and the spiritual peace and assurance that come with that acceptance. I am disappointed that Assange didn’t ask his interviewees more details about what Cage Prisoners Ltd is doing to publicise their cause and how the general public in Britain can support the organisation’s activities.
Interestingly near the beginning of the talk, Begg mentions that while in prison he heard the sounds of a woman screaming next door and was told the woman was his wife: he does not say which prison he was in at the time but if he had been in Bagram when he heard these sounds, it’s very likely that he had been hearing Dr Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani “Grey Lady of Bagram” neuroscientist, arrested with three of her children while in Pakistan in 2003, and imprisoned and subjected to horrific abuse for five years while the children disappeared. In 2008, Siddiqui was arrested in Afghanistan and while in custody, supposedly shot US soldiers guarding her; for this, she was forced to stand trial in the US in 2010 despite being severely ill and was convicted of all charges against her. At this time of writing, Siddiqui remains in jail, having been sentenced to 86 years’ imprisonment; two of her children were returned to her family and the third child is now known to have died during her initial 2003 arrest.
Overall this episode was a good introduction to Moazzam Begg, Cage Prisoners and the work they are doing but beyond that, I’m afraid there’s not much really substantial that hasn’t already been dealt with in previous “The World Tomorrow” episodes. The series is starting to sound repetitive with constant references to the Arab Spring, Tunisia and Egypt, and while the fight for democracy and social justice in the Arab world is important, the concept of the series was intended to be more inclusive of ideas and concepts going beyond current events.