The Past Ain't Even Past: 

In a rare confession of ignorance, George W. Bush admitted not knowing what crimes, if any, were committed by the hundreds of Muslims, young and old, held without charge or trial at Guantánamo Bay. “I don’t know what these men have done,” said the president, “but I know they’re the worst of the worst.” Unlike the serenely confident Bush, Moazzam Begg is a man without convictions; he even lacks arraignments and indictments. After three years of harsh imprisonment in Guantánamo, Bagram, and Kandahar, he was released, without explanation or apology. Bush is as likely to read Begg’s memoir, Enemy Combatant, as view the film An Inconvenient Truth. However, despite a few stylistic infelicities, it is hard for any honest reader to rank its level-headed author as “the worst of the worst.”

Begg’s ordeal began in Islamabad at midnight on January 31, 2002. Without waking his pregnant wife or their three children, Pakistani agents under American supervision bound Begg’s hands and ankles, threw a hood over his head, and spirited him away. He would eventually be transferred to American custody, spend 20 months in solitary confinement, and endure more than 300 interrogations. He witnessed the murders of two fellow detainees and was himself tormented physically and mentally. Begg’s Caribbean holiday came to an end January 25, 2005, when he was flown home to England.

After recounting his midnight abduction, Begg circles back to his childhood in Birmingham. Though his mother, who died when he was 6, was born in Delhi, and his father in Agra, Begg is a native Englishman. His father, a banker who wrote Urdu poetry, sent him to a Jewish primary school because of “its high standards of education and emphasis on religious and moral ethics, coupled with kosher dietary laws similar to our own.” During adolescence, Begg got into violent scrapes as a member of a gang called the Lynx that was formed to counter racist skinheads. In 1993, during a visit with relatives in Pakistan, he underwent what he calls “a life-changing experience” when he traveled to Afghanistan to camp among mujahideen training for the insurgency in Kashmir. By the time he returned to Britain, Begg had renewed his commitment to Islam and to fellow Muslims throughout the world.

After September 11, 2001, skittish American security officials might have had reason to be wary of Begg, though he claims that he never joined al Qaeda nor sympathized with its operations targeting civilians. The Islamic bookstore he ran in Birmingham became a meeting place for malcontents and a collection point for questionable charities. Begg traveled to the Balkans to bring relief supplies to beleaguered Bosnian Muslims, and he actively supported resistance movements in Chechnya and Afghanistan. In order to raise his children more effectively in their faith, he moved the family to Afghanistan. During the chaos of the American campaign against the Taliban, they fled to Pakistan, which is where, taken into custody, Begg began his long-term captivity.

Begg’s memoir offers vivid details of existence in an 8-by-6-foot steel cage and of insults to spirit and body that its author bore without quite cracking. For all the degradation and deprivation that Begg was forced to undergo, he is especially indignant about a confession that agents of the FBI prepared for him to sign. Beyond the untruths that he is asked to affirm, Begg is deeply offended by the shoddy style of the document. “This is terrible,” he complains. “The English used here is terrible. Nobody could ever believe that I would write such a document.” Begg, who also speaks Urdu and Arabic, prides himself on his fluency in English, and he disdains the uncouth recruits guarding him for being inarticulate in their shared native language. His command of English, as well as his broad interests in literature, history, and theology, sets him apart from most of those he encounters, in orange jump suits or military uniforms, and must have been a psychological resource that helped him to survive. Yet it must be said that the English prose of Enemy Combatant, written with the help of journalist Victoria Brittain, is undistinguished and suffers from occasional solecisms, such as the recurrent phrase “different to,” as in Begg’s statement that the briny scent that greeted him at Guantánamo “was distinctly different to the smell of the sea in Britain.”

The prologue to Enemy Combatant asserts that one of the book’s aims is “to introduce the voice of reason, which is so frequently drowned by the roar of hatred and intolerance.” That voice is heard when Begg is able to strike up a meaningful conversation and even a friendship with several of his guards, despite the chasms of culture and power that separate them. The voice of reason spoke also in the recent Supreme Court decision that President Bush lacks authority to conduct war-crimes tribunals at Guantánamo and that “military commissions” there are illegal under both military-justice law and the Geneva conventions.

At 5’3”, Begg presents himself as an underdog whose favorite movie is Braveheart. What he says about himself in Enemy Combatant could be disingenuous, but unless it could prove that he was an enemy or a combatant, the United States had no business abducting him from a foreign land and imprisoning him for three years. Such contempt for the sovereignty of other nations and the rights of individuals to habeas corpus and due process betrays American principles and alienates potential allies. It aligns this country with North Korea, Zimbabwe, Syria, and other regimes that are the worst of the worst.

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