Monday, 23 August 2010

Azmat and Moazzam Begg

What a pity Steve Evans' documentary ("British Muslims, Father and Son") is not available on "Listen Again". The story of a father, first fleeing India's post-partition violence as a child, then making a career in banking in this country at a time when we still welcomed Commonwealth citizens, and a son whose experience of racism in Birmingham drove him to connect with the ummah, was riveting and instructive. It was all the better for being told by a relatively conservative commentator, who was therefore going to question motives throughout, while reporting scrupulously in the best BBC tradition.

There were all sorts of ironies along the way. Azmat Begg's own father had fought for Britain in World War II, and indeed the family had a tradition of serving the British colours. Azmat is observant, but not a militant Muslim, so he had no qualms about sending his boy to a Jewish primary school, the King David, because he felt it was the best. While there, Moazzam reports , he suffered no racial or religious abuse; it was only when he moved on to secondary school that the mindless chants of "Paki" (applied, he noted, also to those of Indian and Sri Lankan descent) and violence affected him.

Moazzam's career of helping, or attempting to help, Muslims in Bosnia (where he was impressed by the motivation of British forces), Chechnya and Afghanistan were outlined. In Kabul, he wanted to help run a school for young women, against the philosophy of the Taliban, and was appalled by the Taliban's violent justice. The method by which he was abducted to Guantanamo and the privations he endured there are already well-known and were lightly sketched in. There was rather more on the fight by his father to have him released. Azmat had been puzzled by his son's actions before, but knew that he could not be guilty of the crimes he was charged with by the Americans.

Evans questioned Moazzam's motivations. To me, it's an old story: a young man, reacting against his parents' generation and against discrimination, takes a radical path. He suffers a reality check, then diverts his idealism into more mainstream channels. In Moazzam's case, as director for the prisoner rights organisation, Cageprisoners, which is concerned with more than detained Muslims.

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