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A victim of wanderlust?

Lakshman Menon 

Recently, Gita Sahgal, a senior staffer at Amnesty International, was suspended after she gave an interview to The Sunday Times in which she expressed her concerns about Amnesty’s high-profile association with former Guantanamo-detainee and his organisation Cageprisoners.

Ms Sahgal claimed Cageprisoners “actively promotes Islamic Right ideas and individuals”. She was swiftly suspended by Amnesty. But the international Blogosphere instantly lit up with a controversy which continues to rage.

Mr Begg has emphatically denied he has any links to or sympathy with terrorists.

But he has a history that is not always easy to make sense of. In his autobiography, Enemy Combatant: A British Muslim’s Journey to Guantanamo and Back, Mr Begg recounts the fascinating story of how a young British man ended up in Guantanamo.

His background could not be less likely; he had what might be described as a liberal upbringing; his father even sent him to a Jewish primary school, hardly the breeding ground for someone who would be accused of being an Islamist.

Mr Begg seems to have long possessed a religious bent and a kindly heart. Charity, he modestly says, “was to become an important feature of my adult life”. It was also to get him into a whole lot of trouble.

Along with his charitable works, Mr Begg was smitten by wanderlust, which pulled him to locations not generally renowned as holiday resorts. His early perambulations took him to Lahore, where he was glad to accept an invitation to visit a centre run by the Jamaat-e-Islami. The Jamaat has an interesting pedigree; its founder admitted that the party was dedicated to establishing an Islamic nation which would bear a “resemblance to the fascist and communist states”.

Here, Mr Begg visited the centre’s hospital, which was primarily “for those wounded in Kashmir and Afghanistan”. And indeed, the first patient Mr Begg met was a gentleman who claimed he had been shot in the face by the Indian Army in Kashmir. His spirit was undimmed, “I’m just back here for it to heal, and then I can go back again”. Mr Begg “felt very moved by him”.

Then it was on to a Mujahideen training camp in Afghanistan whose leader told him: “As long as Muslim lands are occupied, I have vowed to fight for their liberation”; Kashmir was among the “lands” specifically mentioned and the camp duly included Kashmiris who recounted in vivid detail their alleged torture at the hands of the Indian Army.

Mr Begg was much struck; “I had met men who seemed to me exemplary in their faith and self-sacrifice, and seen a world that awed and inspired me.”

Subsequent peregrinations took Mr Begg on several occasions to deliver aid to besieged Muslims in war-ravaged Bosnia, where he met Islamist soldiers whose ranks he was tempted to join.

In the end, Mr Begg decided to return to Britain. He opened a bookshop in Birmingham, selling “Islamic and educational books”, one of which was Abdullah Azzam’s Defence of the Muslim Lands, a treatise which argues that in jihad, killing “unbelievers” is a personal obligation for all Muslims. Its author was a leading light of the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Mr Begg’s bookshop was raided by the police in 1999; no charges were made.

But Mr Begg was soon to tire of Birmingham. Who can blame him? Even the most ardent Anglophile would freely admit to its lack of charm. So off, he relocates. To Taliban-controlled Afghanistan: “I wanted to live in a pure Islamic state.”

However, “I soon got quite disillusioned by the Taliban”. His reasons? One was because of a traffic accident he had with a Taliban commander who tried to bribe him. Another was “some of the foreigners who’d been there a while, had other stories too, about things such as executions”. Ah, yes, the executions. Afghanistan under the Taliban had adopted the narrowest form of Shariah; the use of the death penalty had been dramatically extended. Executions and floggings were regularly held in football stadiums. Music, even kite-flying, was banned. And, of course, the ancient Bamiyan Buddha had just been destroyed. Here, Mr Begg became a teacher, involved in the establishment and running of a girls’ school.

Alas, Mr Begg’s good works were to be short-lived. Within months, 9/11 struck and the Americans invaded. Mr Begg fled to Pakistan but was seized and it was off to Guantanamo for him. The account he gives of his torture at the hands of the Americans (vigorously denied by them) spares no detail, and is shocking to read.

On his release without charge three years later, Mr Begg returned to Britain where he wrote this book. It became an instant cause celebre. And indeed, his memoirs are fluently and powerfully written. So, why is it one feels there is something missing?

A British Muslim’s Journey to Guantanamo and Back

Victoria Brittain
Pocket Books; £7.99

First Published: Fri, February 19 2010. 00:02 IST