It’ll all be over one day

James Meek

  • Enemy Combatant: A British Muslim’s Journey to Guantánamo and Back by Moazzam Begg and Victoria Brittain
    Free Press, 395 pp, £18.99, February 2006, ISBN 0 7432 8567 0

When Moazzam Begg was kidnapped by the American government and its Pakistani foederati on 31 January 2002 – ‘kidnapped’ appears to be the appropriate legal term to use of Guantánamo Bay prisoners, none of whom has ever been charged, tried or formally designated a POW – he experienced a curious moment of melodrama. Seized from the house where he was staying in Islamabad and dropped in the back of a 4x4, Begg couldn’t help laughing at the atrocious Pakistani disguise of one of the Americans. A second American then waved a set of handcuffs in front of him. ‘Do you know where I’ve gotten these handcuffs from?’ he said. Begg replied that he didn’t, and the American said: ‘I was given these by the wife of a victim of the September 11 attacks.’ Even though Begg was already cuffed behind his back, the American snapped the second pair of cuffs on him. The American’s prop and scripted line were part of a pattern Begg came across repeatedly while in US custody in Kandahar and Bagram in Afghanistan, and subsequently in Guantánamo: he was always a character in somebody else’s narrative, and nothing he said or did could alter the part that had been written for him. It was in the names of the cells at Bagram: Lebanon, Somalia, USS Cole, Nairobi, Twin Towers, Pentagon. To Begg, this list referred to an eclectic set of episodes over twenty years which had nothing in common except the deaths of Americans and Muslims, but to whoever wrote them, this was a coherent, tightly linked sequence of outrages demanding revenge. The same pattern was evident in the only piece of news Guantánamo prisoners were officially given by the US authorities: the news that Saddam Hussein had been captured. To Begg, it signified the fall of an apostate tyrant, one of the secular Arab dictators against whom underground Islamicist movements had fought, but to whoever ordered the news to be given out, it signified an American triumph against one of the captains in a mythical, unified, global terrorist army which would have the Guantánamo captives reeling in despair.

There are two things likely to strike anyone from the non-American English-speaking world when they first associate with the US military-intelligence machine. One is its officiousness, a quasi-religious belief in the remissive quality of SOP – Standard Operating Procedure. The other is its tendency continuously and self-consciously to produce itself, in the Hollywood sense of the word. Aim and action are not sufficient. Tasks must be dramatised. A plot has to be storyboarded. Dialogue has to be written in advance. Roles must be imagined, then cast. It was Moazzam Begg’s misfortune that, when the CIA sent out a casting call for villains in 2001, a muddled version of his CV and his name provided his unwitting audition. And like stubborn producers making a cheap exploitation movie, having cast Begg as an international mastermind of evil, his US captors didn’t release him even when they realised they had the wrong man for the part, as if all they needed to fill that space on the credits was a dark-skinned Muslim body.

Begg describes how the Kandahar guards used to refer to his fellow British prisoner Feroz Abbasi as ‘the SAS guy’, although he’d never been in the SAS. This, Begg writes, ‘showed me how much the American mentality was geared to the creation of heroes and anti-heroes, so their enemies had to be the very worst characters possible, but highly trained, committed and effective enemies’. ‘The interrogators were convinced that I was a highly trained assassin,’ he goes on, ‘veteran of the Afghan, Bosnian and Chechen jihads, with a black belt in jujitsu, fluent in eight European and Asian languages, and an Oxford graduate with a degree in artificial intelligence.’

Begg is not these things. He has never killed anyone, doesn’t appear to have fought in any jihad and doesn’t have an Oxford degree. He has a green belt in jujitsu and a blue belt in Taekwondo, acquired in classes in his native Birmingham, and speaks English, Urdu and Arabic, along with some Pashto and a little Bosnian. What the Americans got when they captured him was a small – 5’3’’ – Brummie of Indian Muslim descent, an intellectually curious autodidact, a zealous, pious yet ecumenically-minded Muslim, a devoted husband with three (now four) small children, and a restless traveller, naive yet open-minded, who had not, at the age of 34, completed his spiritual quest.

Begg wasn’t immune to the romantic impulses implicit in the US military’s penchant for Hollywood melodrama. For much of his life, he looked for a good fight – ‘good’ in both senses of the word. As a teenage member of a counter-skinhead, mainly Asian gang in Birmingham called the Lynx, he was drawn to the Anthony Quinn movie about the birth of Islam, The Message, with its portrayal of seventh-century Arabs as noble, chivalrous, thoughtful warriors. Begg denounces terrorism – ‘senseless acts of murder . . . carried out by desperate mujahedin’. But early on in the book, he writes that ‘my favourite film of all time is probably Braveheart,’ and this cinematic ideal of the just war, the virtuous warrior, the martyrdom of an outnumbered hero, kept propelling him to parts of the world where he felt that brave, honest Muslims were standing up to bullies.

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