Islamism,  Regressive Left

Moazzam Begg and the Guardian’s Film Critic

On Thursday, The Guardian’s film critic Mike McCahill published a two paragraph, seven sentence review of The Confession, a new documentary about the life of one Moazzam Begg. And his review went like this:

The Confession review – profound Guantánamo Bay documentary ****/5

Moazzam Begg is interviewed about his incarceration in Cuba in a documentary of great clarity and gravitas

The simple framing indicates documentary-maker Ashish Ghadiali knows he has hit upon an inherently resonant modern story. For 96 minutes, here is Moazzam Begg, sitting in a mock-up interview room, describing how a lad from Birmingham wound up in Guantánamo Bay. Personal and political quickly interweave. Begg’s close-miked words, often battling against the sounds of the war machine, allow us to hear the hurt he felt in being persecuted by intelligence agencies, and in seeing his adopted home of Afghanistan obliterated after 9/11.

Ghadiali is careful to clarify key points – he delicately negotiates Begg’s attempts to reclaim the term “jihad” – while suggesting that relentless interrogation, and the suspicion powering it, might in itself be a call to arms. For his part, Begg appears to have gained an exceptional grasp of nuance from his time in captivity. In this post-Chilcot moment, this principled, consistent testimony – coming as it does from deep within Islam – assumes a rare gravity and profound moral force.

On twitter, McCahill took umbrage when people who have not seen the film objected to the reverential tenor of the above. That is, to put it kindly, obtuse.

When reviewing political material – be it a documentary, a memoir, a novel, photography etc – it is incumbent upon an intellectually honest critic to be alive to manipulation, propagandizing, and bad faith. Ghadiali’s biases are certainly not McCahill’s responsibility, but he could at least compare them with the available facts. McCahill displays no such critical judgment or integrity.

“Personal and political quickly interweave” sounds elegant indeed, but what on earth does it mean? Does this delicate poignancy include Begg’s “life-changing” meeting with Jamaat-i-Islami jihadists in Afghanistan in 1993? Or his own jihadist jaunt to Bosnia and later attempt to join the fighting in Chechnya? Does it include Begg’s associations with al-Qaeda operatives Shahid Akram Butt (later jailed in Yemen for his part in a bomb plot) and Mahmoud Abu Rideh (later killed by a US drone), or his ownership of the Maktabah al Ansar bookshop in Birmingham, notorious for its aggressive dissemination of jihadist propaganda? Maybe it includes all or none of these things but McCahill gives no indication that any of it compromises Begg’s ostensible virtue.

And what are we to make of the wistful reference to Begg’s benighted “adoptive home” cruelly “obliterated” after 9/11? Begg took his wife and children to live under the Taliban at the suggestion of Rideh, to undertake what he characteristically describes as “charity work” (I suspect this gloss will be given a generous hearing in the film). In fact, inter alia, Begg helped build religious schools for the children of Al Qaeda fighters. And why Afghanistan? Well, because, as Begg has stated, “I wanted to live in an Islamic state – one that was free from the corruption and despotism of the rest of the Muslim world . . . The Taliban were better than anything Afghanistan has had in the past 25 years.”

It should not be a surprise to discover that an unapologetic admirer of the Taliban thinks that religious ‘jihad’ is much misunderstood and, where violent, probably the fault of the West. But as McCahill would have it, such wisdom comes from “deep within Islam”. Begg’s testimony actually comes from deep within Islamism, but McCahill either doesn’t know the difference or doesn’t care. Nor does he seem to realise how his failure to make this distinction reflects on the faith he thinks he’s defending.

Since I have not seen the film, I cannot comment on its value. But comparing the undisputed facts of Begg’s life to the version reported and endorsed by McCahill’s rhapsodic review, two obvious possibilities present themselves:

(1) The film is a rigorous and fair-minded portrait that McCahill has flagrantly misrepresented or completely misunderstood.

(2) The film is a slickly effective piece of Islamist propaganda that McCahill’s own biases have encouraged him to swallow and then uncritically regurgitate.

McCahill would have us believe that this film is important and powerful because he takes Begg to be some kind of moral authority suited to our post-Chilcot moment, and he explicitly encourages his readers to do likewise. Here, he says, is a gentle, softly spoken Muslim man, ennobled by persecution and struggle, whose dignity, suffering, and outsized capacity for nuance we might like to compare to the malevolent and impersonal din of the ghastly American “war machine”.

Oppose the means and methods with which America and its allies have prosecuted the war against terror, by all means – the wars, the denial of due process, waterboarding, rendition, and so on. But this does not require the laundering of theocratic fanatics any more than, say, opposition to the bombing of Dresden requires anyone to valorize Nazis. Or under analogous circumstances would McCahill decorate an unrepentant white supremacist with the same praise he heaps on Begg?

Early Sunday morning, McCahill reflected on the antipathy his short review had elicited by sending the following 3 tweets:

“Blairites, Zionists, and stone-cold racists”. Interesting.

The ‘wag’ to whom he refers, incidentally, is Rohullah Yakobi – an associate fellow at Julie Lenarz’s Human Security Centre think-tank, who was tortured by the Taliban before fleeing to the UK aged 12. His angry response to McCahill’s apologetics should not be hard to understand.