I never went to America: America came to me
Moazzam Begg is interviewed by a leading Czech literary journal during the Jihlava film festival in the Czech Republic
In 2001 you took your wife and children to live in Afghanistan. Why exactly there? Afghanistan is not a usual travel destination for people from Europe. Many would say that the Taliban goverment was an example of really a hard kind of islam, even medieval..
My judgements on any country or situation I want to get involved with are always based upon first-hand experience and not hearsay. Much of what was said about the Taliban was through the media but, my own views were formed only after living and working in Afghanistan under their rule. There were many white non-Muslims living and working there on various humanitarian projects yet they do not come under suspicion. As a Muslim whose parents originate from Pakistan I think I had more in common with the Afghans than they did.
I was working to build and run a school for boys and girls - the latter being of particular interest to me since media reports claimed that the Taliban prevented female education. That is the reason I got involved in setting up girls schools and I have to say we got no opposition from the Taliban in this regard. So we remained working on that project until the US began bombing Kabul. Among the many places destroyed during that time was the school.
Your personal religious belief for sure cannot be the reason for imprisonment. But you were imprisoned for three years without charge or trial just based on
the suspicion that you were a member of al-Qaida, and then shipped from Bagram to Guantanamo. Do you know the Czech writer Franz Kafka and his book The Trial? Can you compare the book with your real life story?
I do know of Kafka’s The Trial
and the notion of being imprisoned by a court for a crime you’ve not committed under evidence you’ve never seen. But in my case and the case of the prisoners at Guantanamo, we’ve never even had the opportunity to defend ourselves - not even in a secret court. There simply was no legal process, no prosecution, no defence, no jury, no judge, no innocence and no guilt. Just imprisonment and torture.
Actually, what happened to your family in the meantime?
I was taken in the middle of the night from my house in Islamabad, Pakistan at gun point with my hands and legs shackled and a gun to my head, in front of my children. For several months I didn’t know what became of my family and often the US interrogators would taunt me, waving pictures of them in front of me. I think the worst torture was watching the humiliation of others - including old men and children - and worse than that was witnessing the deaths of two prisoners at the hands of the soldiers.
Were you waterboarded or did you undergo some other kind of torture?
I wasn’t water-boarded - thank God. But, I was punched, kicked, forcibly shaved, stripped naked and spat upon, threatened with dogs, hog-tied during interrogation, and subjected to the sounds of screams which they led me to believe my wife was being tortured in the next room while they waved pictures of my children in front of me.
How did you stay sane?
Well, I tried to hold on to my faith of Islam and take solace from stories contained within it like the story of the Prophet Yusuf [Joesph] who was imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. But a couple of times I almost lost sanity. I used my time to write poetry, keep myself fit (I can do lots of press-ups still, in many different ways!) and, I would memorise the Quran. One unexpected thing was some of the soldiers who I think made a big difference in this regard.
In your book you are quite sympathetic to your American guards. Why? A kind of Stockholm syndrome?
Not Stockholm syndrome at all. I would never think of joining the US side in anyway, rather I would and have continued to speak out against the US policies and torture in every way. But it was a process of dialogue and understanding that I wanted to - and still try to - foster between opposing sides. I had never been to America - America came to me - but I was more familiar with American culture than most of the prisoners who were either from Asia or Africa. Most of these relationships developed during my years in solitary confinement where I had no interaction at all with other prisoners - only US guards, medics and interrogators. I realised many of them were very young and knew very little about the world they had just entered. So I started a mutual process of educating them and myself. The conclusion of that in several - but certainly not all - cases was more understanding, more respect and even friendship.
What would you say to young American guy who is considering joining the army?
Afghanistan - Bagram, Iraq - Abu Ghraib, Cuba - Guantanamo. Find a proper job.
Here, in the Czech Republic, the official reason for our troops joining the occupation of Afghanistan is based on our commitment to NATO and strengthening
freedom, democracy and human rights and this kind of stuff… What do you say about this? Would it make you angry or laugh?
I think by now no one, not even the US authorities, believes the lie that freedom and human rights are being served by the occupation of Afghanistan but, they have to maintain in public that they do otherwise they would have to accept failure. When I advocated dialogue with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda people said I was a terrorism sympathiser. But history shows us - even here in the UK with the IRA - that dialogue with and understanding of your enemies is the only peaceful way out. Like it or not, the Taliban are Afghans, it is their land and they have more right to it than any other nationality, especially the ones engaged in occupying them. The Czech Republic, like most European states should understand the meaning of occupation since almost all of them have faced or been directly subjected to occupying forces claiming to be liberators while imposing their rule and ideas by force of arms.
What do you think about current wave of Islamophobia in Europe?
It reminds me of attitudes towards the Jews before they began being exterminated. They looked different - bearded men in particular, wearing distintive hats and coats, head covers for women; they ate different foods - kosher; they spoke additional and different languages - Yiddish, Hebrew; they prayed in different buildings - synagogues; their religion was different - Judaism; they were blamed for taking locals’ jobs, especially during recession periods and they had a history of being hated in Europe. With Muslims, all the above is true but additionally Muslim lands are occupied by western nations and laws have been enacted specifically targeting Muslims. Politicians, the media and prominent people openly declare their animosity towards Muslims and Islamic practices. The rise of far-right movements all across Europe isn’t based on hatred of Jews anymore. Its Muslims they have in their sights. Unlike the Jews of Europe however, the Muslims have numerous countries that certain western nations fear will unite under the banner of Islam. If the latter does happen Islamophobia will start to end as they will have to treat Muslims with respect instead of disdain.
And what about the fact, that Muhammed became the second most popular boy´s name in Britain?
In his book, The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History
written almost 20 years ago Michael H. Hart places Muhammad at the top. I think the influence of this phenomenon is based on a couple of things: 1. the obvious growth through birth in the Muslim population of the UK over the last couple of decades and 2. people converting to Islam at the rate of over 5,000 a year. So, I am not surprised since Muhammed is the name of the prophet of the most widely practiced religion in the world.
What will you tell mostly young audience in Jihlava festival? What is Your message?
Smile and be happy because I’m about to ruin your day!