The rule of law, in any given polity, is an expression meant to convey a number of sentiments, one of those being the impartial and equal application of legal codes. The axiomatic Aristotelian pronouncement that “the rule of law is better than that of any individual” has been held by all civilised societies to protect citizens from arbitrary judgment or the fiat of public officials. The prophetic tradition that underlies Islamic law defends the notion of the supremacy of law, and in the English context, the Magna Carta of 1215 emphasised the importance of the independence of the judiciary as a distinguishing feature of the rule of law.
For some time, many within the Muslim British community have questioned the idea that Muslims are also equal citizens, that is where the rights afforded all citizens of faith or no faith are equally granted to those of the Islamic faith. They submit a number of cases, the most recent and notable example being the way in which the CPS (Criminal Prosecution Service) plans to arbitrarily prosecute those who have travelled to Syria – even doctors involved in relief work. Sue Hemmings, head of counter-terrorism at the CPS opined that while helping in humanitarian efforts was not a crime, Britons might meet people from terror organisations and then pose a threat to the security of the UK. (Of course, the malevolent ideology of killing innocent civilians can be contracted through touch or breathing the same air.) The use of section 5 of the Terrorism Act 2006, which bans acts preparatory to terrorism and assisting another person in such activities, is extremely dubious not least due to the fact that it isn’t being used to prove complicity in terrorism but what the CPS perceives of being a remote possibility in the future. The arbitrary nature of the CPS interpretation of the Act is reflected in Ms Hemming’s continual use of the word ‘potentially’ – “they will be potentially breaking the law in this country” and “potentially it’s an offence to go out”.
Poignantly, it is this arbitrary interpretation applied to whomever the CPS deems fit that has landed Moazzam Begg, director of an advocacy group that highlights and campaigns against state policies developed as part of the ‘War on Terror’, with this latest spot of bother. As the celebrated journalist Glenn Greenwald et al put it, ‘This raises the obvious question: if the British government had concerns about his involvement with militant groups in Syria, why did it specifically meet with him to green-light his trip there? Furthermore, if his arrest was related to his December 2012 trip, why would the government wait more than a year to arrest him for it?’
Rather than rally against the excesses of the state, there are those who feel that Begg has little to do with them, conflating their own (often immature) sectarian views with the issue at hand. Regardless of the groups that might have appropriated Begg for their own utility, it must be noted that as the director of Cage, Begg has engaged various sections of the Muslim community galvanizing support for his work and without affirming adherence to any brand of Islam. In fact, while being a conscious Muslim, Moazzam Begg has never adopted the role of an ideologue but instead one of a peaceful activist seeking to raise awareness of the effects of the insidious campaign known as the ‘War On Terror’.
Some Muslims, with a keen desire to ‘fit in’ and ‘not cause a fuss’ inaccurately view Begg and others like him as a further reason for the unwarranted spotlight on Muslims. Such intuitions are profoundly ignorant and warrant the severest of condemnations. Firstly, such are the sentiments of a people that don’t belong but wish they did, those who feel less than equal to the rest of society, often due to their colour, where reservation and passivity are adopted to continue a mundane existence. Secondly, Begg merely works in a realm that is full of all sorts of activists, of all colours and creeds. While the government may have used a form of criminalisation (terrorism) that implies his faith, most of Begg’s colleagues in this realm are most probably white and not Muslims. Thirdly, such mollifiers, in claiming adherence to our great Abrahamic tradition should question their affiliations to the will of God. He says:
You who believe, do not be like those who disbelieved and said of their brothers who went out on a journey or expedition (in righteousness), ‘if only they had stayed with us, they would not have died or been killed’…It is God who gives life and death; and God sees everything you do.
Yet you will see the perverse at heart rushing to them for protection saying, ‘We are afraid fortune may turn against us.’ But God may well bring about triumph or some other event of His own making: then they will rue the secrets they harboured in their hearts!
The theological duplicity showing from such sentiment, as God informs us, hides rather more pernicious maladies: distrust of the divine plan, cowardice, and a lack of trust in God. Had believing men and women from the nations of old, from the Children of Israel to those who followed the last Prophet of God from Arabia acted with such ignominy, what would have remained of Abrahamic monotheism, truth, and justice?
Of course, there are those at the other end of the spectrum who shall use Begg’s arrest as the much needed proof of an entire political establishment at war with Islam. The fallacy of such a view is evident for anyone with an objective or at least dispassionate understanding of politics. Although politics is indisputably a disagreeable undertaking, many are drawn to government with noble ideals and serve with the desire for good – how else do we explain the many praiseworthy policies and rights that we do have, especially in comparison with much of the rest of the world? My point isn’t to grant the entire establishment a waiver but to keep things in perspective.
Coming back to Begg, I have heard a few opine that his arrest has little to do with his religion or colour. While I feel there is some truth in that, race and religion cannot be discounted completely. But this isn’t necessarily to agree with those clearly caught in an identity crisis resulting from the reality of being a Brit but believing it to be a theological necessity to reject a sense of belonging with wider society. These people argue that Begg’s arrest is simply down to racism; they’ll offer the tweets of ‘whites’ who agree with them as if melanin is an authoritative factor.
While race and Islamophobia may be a consideration, there is undeniably an overemphasis from some quarters. We must be nuanced about motives: the State may have started with Begg because he’s brown and a Muslim, but those certainly aren’t the prime reasons.
As we have seen from much of the praiseworthy journalism and whistleblowing over the past couple of years, including the recent Snowden revelations on GCHQ, the British government has been increasingly willing to trample on the rights of its people, and it is brave citizens such as Begg and countless others from across the humans rights community that call government officials to account. Indeed this is an attack on them, and by extension, all citizens in the United Kingdom, Muslim or not. Obviously, it makes sense to commence a campaign of intimidation with members of those minority communities that are already treated with suspicion, the misinformation already disseminated means that initial protest from wider society is hoped to be rather minimal. As the scope of obstructing dissent and the type of activists widens, the already established apathy in the public psyche allows for the arbitrary detention of fellow citizens (of all or no faiths) who work tirelessly to ensure that government officials are bound to observe limitations on their power and prevent our country resembling the Middle East.
Begg is not at war with Britain or its people, but with the continued policies of the Bush-Blair era and those who continue to support them. For myself, I salute him; that his competency has forced those within government responsible for abuses into awkwardly acting in contradiction to the very democratic values they profess by attempting to silence him publicly, especially when western governments tend to prefer covert suppression. Today, where there will be protests out of anger, I shall celebrate Moazzam Begg and his endeavours; the state has palpably shown us that what he and those like him do for the rights of others makes them extremely uncomfortable, and more importantly, is proving rather effective.