Moazzam Begg should not have spent a single hour in Guantanamo Bay. But nor should he have been toured around the country as a kind of embodiment of the noble victim. As Gita Sahgal said, it’s a basic point. Moazzam Begg is a Taliban enthusiast. He’s both a victim and a supporter of injustice and repression. This goes back to Bertrand Russell’s fallacy of the superior virtue of the oppressed. To quote Sahgal again: ‘a victim can also be a perpetrator’.
You know the story. Sahgal raised concerns with management about Amnesty’s association with Begg and his dodgy and nasty Islamist CagePrisoners group. Her memos were ignored and she went to the press. This is a big deal. Gita Saghal is a serious and experienced human rights professional. It is reasonable to raise questions about a human rights organisation that associates itself with people who believe the very concept of human rights to be a Zionist conspiracy. Saghal was suspended within hours of the Times article appearing.
To say the past week has been a difficult one for Sahgal would be an understatement. She fears for her own and her family’s safety. She has — temporarily at least — lost her job and found it almost impossible to find anyone to represent her in any potential employment case. She rang round the human rights lawyers she knows, all of whom have declined to help citing a conflict of interest. ‘Although it is said that we must defend everybody no matter what they’ve done, it appears that if you’re a secular, atheist, Asian British woman, you don’t deserve a defence from our civil right firms,’ she says wryly.
Andy Newman gets around the central issue by saying that Sahgal was suspended not for raising concerns but for going to the media rather than sorting the issues out internally. This doesn’t help Newman’s case as much as he thinks. If, say, the Metropolitan Police teamed up with the BNP to organise seminars on racist attacks, should a whistleblower speak out publicly or protest the association entirely within the Met? And what if Amnesty not only raised concerns about holocaust denial laws but actually promoted David Irving as a free speech martyr around the nation, organising events in Quaker meeting halls in which Irving could expound on his views on immigration and multiculturalism between lengthy readings of Hitler’s War?
Newman then goes on to identify a ‘greater problem’; that ‘in modern Britain the concept of ‘tolerance’ has become ‘a negative virtue – a means of diminishment and marginalisation’. Drawing on a speech given by the Archbishop of York, Newman expands: ‘the language of tolerance is actually used in a very intollerant way to silence and marginalise those with inconvenient religious views.’
Now, pro-faith writers and activists may be many things, but ‘silent’ is not one of them. They are given regular platforms in news and broadcast media. They are consulted by government. They are not marginalised but established and respected voices. The fact that Amnesty went this far in its association with Begg is testimony to the level of respect for faith – no matter how harmful and fanatical – that exists in our society.
Newman’s piece is fucking risible. He attributes to Sahgal views that she doesn’t necessarily hold. He claims that Sahgal is racially prejudiced and a supporter of illegal detention on the basis that she says she feels ‘profoundly unsafe’ talking to Begg and his Islamist pals. He agrees, without having the guts to spell it out, that liberalism and human rights are purely Western concepts that are being portrayed as ‘a superior set of values which if necessary must be allowed to overrule the rights of others.’
Andy is unhappy with the old securalist model that says: okay, you leave us alone and we’ll leave you alone. This is his alternative:
Human rights also has to include parity of esteem for people with religious views that are out of step with Western liberalism; and a recognition that we need to negotiate space for religious practice in our society, including in areas of morality and ethics where religious teaching contradicts the mainstream consensus.
This stuff has lost its capacity to surprise me. I should ignore it. I know I should ignore it. As Brett said: ‘I don’t believe it is possible for that section of the Left to disgrace itself any further.’
Still, don’t you just love it? The pro-faith faction always goes on about how it wants to be a part of public debate and public life, but it can’t take the principled criticism that will inevitably and rightly come its way.
‘What we cannot do as atheists is assume that the evolution of moral and ethical viewpoints within our own society can be regarded as a superior standard that other people must comply with.’ Yes we can. We can and we will. If you propogate the view that society should be run by priests, that a holy text should take precedence over democratic laws, that non-religious books should be censored or burned, that women should have little freedom and one or two limited uses, that people should be killed for having the wrong kind of sexuality or the wrong kind of nationality or for being the wrong kind of Muslim, if you argue for slaughter over compassion and death over life, then we will challenge you all the way and we will win. Call me a ‘secular fundamentalist’ or whatever – I don’t care. Watch out, gentlemen, because as Hitchens said, there are many more of us and we are both smarter and nicer.