Gareth Davies

Moazzam Begg has become somewhat of a household name in the British campaign against extraordinary renditions and for the rights of detainees held on terror charges. Begg, a British Muslim, first entered the media spotlight in 2002 when he was arrested in Pakistan on suspicion of terrorism and sent to Bagram, Afghanistan, and then on to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba where he was detained without charges until 2005. Recently, Begg entered the spotlight again after being arrested just two years ago for allegedly attending a terrorist training camp in Syria and “facilitating terrorism” from the UK. The charges were dropped and Begg was released before the case went to trial.

Ashish Ghadiali’s film The Confession represents the latest attempt to shed light on Begg’s unique and at times unsettling story. Using a mixture of original and archive footage, Ghadiali sketches out a timeline of events, using Begg’s responses to push the plot forward. The interview with Begg covers a lot of ground, from his earliest days fighting to protect Bosniaks in the Balkan war up until his latest arrest in 2014. In that sense, the documentary regrettably covers a lot of old biographical ground that is firmly trodden in his 2006 memoir Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Kandahar.

Begg is a difficult character to write about and interview. The gross injustices he has faced at the hands of the US and British governments can barely be understated, but it is true that Begg has been in close contact with a number of known extremists that lend an ambiguity to his position. His organization CAGE UK, which seeks to "empower communities impacted by the War on Terror,” has also been the subject of criticism for being “little more than a jihadist front.” The organization’s research director Asim Qureshi famously failed to condemn stoning to death as a punishment for adultery under Sharia law. Most recently, and bizarrely, Begg’s colleague Qureshi referred to Mohammed Emwazi—the ISIS mercenary responsible for killing James Foley, Steven Sotloff and others—as a “beautiful young man.”

CAGE UK plays an important and positive role in the advocacy environment on issues of terror and state responses to it, but in the context of Begg it is often difficult to reconcile his support for closing Guantanamo on human rights grounds with a historical set of Islamist views that seem to violate those very principles. This is what makes Begg such an interesting character, and I suspect, is part of the reason he captures so much interest.  

The Confession’s iteration of Begg’s story becomes most interesting when it departs from the narrative of his arrests, transfers, and police charges, and digs into deeper motivational and political issues that aren’t elaborated on elsewhere. There is Begg’s view that the western narrative about “Islamic radicalization” is flawed. Begg outlines his view that people like Mohammed Emwazi, better known by the crude moniker “Jihadi John,” are radicalized by the actions of the British authorities and security services rather than any religious indoctrination. This is a view that Begg has espoused for some time now, prompting fierce response from the powers that be in Westminster. It’s an idea that has some purchase, given reports that former Guantanamo detainees have gone on to fight as part of terrorist groups after their experiences, but it’s not one that can fully explain the phenomenon of radicalization. Extremism can be exacerbated by alleged and actual mistreatment by authorities, but it is rarely the sole cause of it.

Towards the end of their conversation Ghadiali and Begg turn towards more recent events, specifically the rise of ISIS. Begg makes an interesting point that ISIS chooses to dress its hostages in orange “trademark Guantanamo” boiler suits when executing them as a protest against the Iraqi detention center in which many of their senior members allegedly met each other. The use of these boiler suits by ISIS is portrayed as a literal and symbolic act of resistance against the policies of the West.

The absurdity of Moazzam Begg’s story is that despite being arrested numerous times, he has only been sent to trial once in 2014, and on charges that were subsequently dropped. This absurdity is also what makes his story so compelling. Begg is the ultimate Kafkaesque victim, trapped in an unending web of state bureaucracy.

In a moment of clarity Begg spells out his situation, declaring “I wasn’t anti-state, the state was anti-me.” And while this statement makes for a great sound bite, it glosses over the reasons why the state may have been watching him in the first place. When interviewing Begg, Ghadiali pushes in the right places, even calling him out on this specific point. He asks whether Begg can understand why the state might have been tracking him after he briefly fought in Bosnia, provided financial assistance to Chechen separatists, and had alleged links with the Taliban. Begg replies in his characteristically cool and collected manner that he understands why he is the sort of person the state wants to question, but not why he should have been detained in Guantanamo when there was no evidence of direct involvement in terrorism.

Begg’s criticism points directly to the problematic nexus of the war on terror: the need to protect people and their rights from the power of the state, and the state’s need to protect itself from so-called “enemy combatants.”

Begg, like other former Guantanamo inmates, protests the disproportionate response to 9/11 which resulted in a suspension of the rule of law and human rights. In his continued fight for justice Begg denounces the “untouchability” of the state, claiming that it is completely unaccountable when it comes to issues of national security. Begg doesn’t delve into how the suspension of the rule of law may have become a technique of government in and of itself, but he notes that the effect of counter-terror policies, including increasing surveillance and suspicion of the Muslim community in Britain, is clear for all to see.

Short of saying that British multiculturalism has failed, he makes clear that the Muslim community is effectively demonized and ghettoized as a result of British counter-terror policy. This trend seems like it can only get worse in a Brexit Britain where racially motivated hate crime has spiked in the last few months, and in a Europe that has experienced an increase in Islamist terror attacks. Just two weeks ago the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police stated that a terror attack in the UK is a case of “when not if.

The documentary gives Begg the space to expand on his personal defense of Jihad as an integral part of his interpretation of Islam. It becomes clear in the course of the discussion that Begg defends the right of all people to defend themselves against oppressors regardless of faith. But he is very clear in stating that “the right to self-defense is not the right to offend.” In other words, defending oneself doesn’t give one the right to become a despot that other people need to defend themselves against. As such, the term Jihad has become warped by the media in connection with depraved acts by groups such as ISIS, acts that are designed to be offensive and coercive. Begg’s concept of Jihad also seems to inform his view on the allied response to the 9/11 attacks, where his story effectively begins. After 9/11 the US had a right to defend itself against future terror attacks, but that did not give it the right to abuse, torture, and dominate others.

While Begg is quick to condemn the acts of ISIS, the Taliban receives a rather different treatment. He once claimed that the Taliban were “better than anything Afghanistan has had in the past 25 years.” Ghadiali questions Begg on his affiliation with the Taliban, but his responses are framed very much within a discourse of “aid work.” Begg says that he helped to build schools and improve the quality of life for people in Afghanistan. Interestingly he points towards a mischaracterization of the Taliban by western media, citing their suggestion that the group banned education for women. Begg was able to enroll his own female child in school. Moazzam acknowledges that the Taliban community leaders held “conservative” views, but argued that as a Muslim he was able to bring some "western ideas" to them without being shut down immediately. However, even after questioning, the nature of Begg’s affiliation with the Taliban still seems unclear—at no point does he denounce their actions.

The Confession provides a well-rounded portrait of Begg, but one that lacks analytical depth. Many of Moazzam’s responses feel like boilerplate CAGE advocacy material, and anyone familiar with his story might find them a little predictable. The film struggles to break much new ground, but works well as a neat biographical portrait of one of the most interesting people currently campaigning against the inhumane treatment of political prisoners. As with other films and books that deal with Moazzam Begg, it often feels as if the moral outrage we are meant to feel at his story whitewashes some inconvenient truths about his prior affiliation with the Taliban and other known extremists. There is no denying that Begg’s story gives good cause for indignation, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of accepting Begg as someone that can do no wrong.

There is little in the documentary that isn’t already expounded in his memoir, and what new information there is makes up a small portion of the film. Instead of taking a linear approach, the film might have been better guided by themes, which would have allowed for deeper analysis of specific issues. At times the documentary seems more as if it is offering up another platform for CAGE UK advocacy than trying to get under the skin of Begg and shed new light on this confusing character.

Ghadiali’s interview with Begg takes place in a seemingly oppressive battleship grey room, well lit, and with a one way mirror embedded in the wall. As Begg speaks we see his face reflected in the one way mirror in a move that is clearly designed to be reminiscent of a Guantanamo interview room. But those hoping for sturdy interrogation of Begg are instead faced with some lukewarm questioning. Viewers that are already familiar with Begg’s book will feel a little hard done by if they are expecting any new “confession” from this movie.

Gareth Davies is an Associate Editor for Warscapes. Twitter: @garethaledavies