With Us Or Against Us

2010 was marked by two public cases in which members of prominent human rights organizations expressed grave concerns that their organizations were supporting what they have termed ‘misogynist individuals with jihadist leanings’.  In the first case, Gita Sahgal publicly criticized Amnesty International’s (AI) support of Moazzam Begg(1); in the second, Karima Bennoune expressed grave concerns that the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had taken on a case involving Anwar al-Aulaqi.  Gita Sahgal was the head of the gender unit of Amnesty International and went public with her critique of AI’s support of Begg in the Sunday Times(2).  Sahgal left AI in April and published her statement in the New York Review of Books(3). The subsequent global petition on her behalf drew over two thousand signatures including support from well known figures such as Salman Rushdie, Nawal el-Saadawi, and Asma Jahangir. It is not surprising then that Sahgal has gained tremendous notoriety given the nature of her critique, following a similar trajectory to fame as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Asra Nomani. Karima Bennoune is a professor of Law at Rutgers Law School in Newark and serves on the board of CCR.

The two cases coincided with some of the most virulent anti Muslim events and controversy in the US.  Sahgal’s critique of AI emerged in the context of plans announced in December 2009 in the New York Times to open the renamed Cordoba House.  The plans erupted into controversy when conservative blogger Pamela Geller and writers at the New York Post re-christened the Islamic cultural center under the headline “Panel approves WTC mosque.”  Geller added fuel to the fire claiming: “This is Islamic domination and expansionism. The location is no accident. Just as Al-Aqsa was built on top of the Temple in Jerusalem.” (4) Meanwhile, Sahgal’s critique and ultimate departure from AI transpired in February, March, and April of 2010.  Coinciding with these events was the controversy sparked when Oregon-based cartoonist Molly Norris called for “everybody draw Mohammed Day” on May 20, 2010(5).  Norris did so to protest the censorship by Comedy Central of an episode of South Park that depicted the prophet Mohammed and subsequently drew death threats against its creators. Al-Aulaqi then issued a threat against Norris calling her cartoon blasphemous.

There are several reasons why Bennoune and Sahgal’s public accusations went viral.  The first is of course that AI, CCR, and the ACLU are well known defenders of civil rights with international reputations and questioning their choices and tactics makes for news.  The second is that these accusers are not conservative critics, of which they have had their share, rather two people who have worked within these organizations who possess insider knowledge of these cases.  Lastly, and what perhaps gives these accusations their sharpest edge, is that those accusing these organizations are women of color, who claim anti-imperialist political positions, Muslim ancestry, and anti-colonial pasts. Consequently, as brown women condemning brown men of wrongdoing, they thereby elide the taint of racist bias. If they are accusing these men then there must be something to it. It is perhaps precisely because of their political positions, as well as their affiliation with these  organizations that their critiques are rooted in a claim of authenticity.

Articles that have appeared subsequently defending the positions taken by AI, CCR and the ACLU in turn have coalesced around two main points: the first that Begg is not guilty of crimes and was, in fact, exonerated by the state when he was released from Guantanamo. AI partnered with Begg for him to talk about Cageprisoners, a website that details the plight of prisoners in Guantanamo (6).  Secondly, in the case involving  al-Aulaqi, CCR and the ACLU were not actually defending him.  Rather CCR and the ACLU were suing the US government on the constitutionality of CIA’s targeted assassination policy against terror suspects .(7)

Sahgal and Bennoune go to great lengths to stake out anti-imperialist political positions. Yet the ways in which their critiques are framed, the deeply flawed choices they ask those on the liberal left to make, and their constant slippages between ‘jihad,’ ‘Taliban,’ and ‘terrorist,’ fuels an imperial agenda.

First, it bears repeating that AI, CCR and the ACLU are defending the unjust imprisonment (in the case of Begg) and US’ right to targeted assassinations (in the case of al-Aulaqi). In a climate of such extraordinary abuses of power, it should be obvious that it is imperative to defend and safeguard the right to challenge the authority of the state. AI, CCR and the ACLU have been crucially involved in challenging state policies on killing, extraordinary renditions, and detentions. In a political climate marked by tremendous support for the use of extra judicial force in the name of ‘security,’ advocates who defend the modicum of civil liberties we still enjoy must be supported.  As people based in the US and UK, we have an obligation to fight against the excesses of empire, particularly when many of the justifications for killings and detentions intermingle with racist suspicion of Muslims.

Second, many of the arguments made by Sahgal, Bennoune and their supporters, such as CCR board member Meredith Tax, have articulated their concern this way: yes its wrong for the US to kill and detain, but its also wrong for AI, CCR, and the ACLU to defend these people and call attention their abuse because they, in turn, have called for the death of innocent people (al-Aulaqi) and have a terrible track record on gender and other issues.  On her blog, Tax writes, “I hate the idea of drone strikes?against anyone, not just US citizens.  But I was very uncomfortable about the idea of defending al-Aulaqi at the same time that he was publicly calling for the murder of a woman cartoonist in Oregon, among others.” (8)  So, is Tax arguing that it is wrong for CCR to challenge the US state to kill people because those people call for the death of a woman cartoonist?  Conversely, is it then allowable for the US government to kill him? Because if it were not for the public challenge by groups like CCR and the ACLU, the US would already have attempted and kill al-Aulaqi, and they might still do so.

What has been set up is a false dichotomy that asks us to choose sides between  CCR et. al. and their efforts to defend Begg and al-Aulaqi against US’ extraordinary laws or critique CCR et. al.’s positions because those they are defending violate feminist principals. Possessing feminist politics cannot be erected as a litmus test to determine who is worthy of protection from abuse and a right to life, just as we should never insist that only innocent victims deserve defense. Do  we not fight against the exploitation of male workers despite the fact that they may hold sexist views?  Do we ask if we should safeguard a woman from assault if she’s also a racist? Do inmates on Death Row need to prove they have clean hands in order to be worthy of a vigorous defense? Political solidarity and struggle is not about standing only for one’s kindred; it’s a commitment to struggle amidst difficult and challenging contradictions.  There is a disquieting proximity between the false choices that Sahgal and Bennoune offer with the imperial fantasies of rescuing the mute, burkha-clad Muslim woman.

My third concern is about messaging.  Sahgal and Bennoune are worried  about the ‘message’ that human rights groups such as AI, CCR and the ACLU send when they stand up for people like Begg and al- Aulaqi.   Ironically, Sahgal and Bennoune end up advocating for the same position they denounce: that some abuses are worthy of defense while others are ignored.  Anxious about the messages being sent by rights groups, Tax asks, “Most importantly, if the CCR becomes identified as defenders of al-Aulaqi, will women who are victims of salafi-jihadists feel they can trust you with their own cases?” (9) Or as Bennoune puts it, “How can we defend the principle that assassinations are wrong by standing silently next to an advocate of assassinations? I urged CCR to find other ways to challenge the Obama administration’s policy without associating with Aulaqi.” (10) The overwhelming ‘message’ about Muslim men is that they are suspect and partial citizens, ripe for conversion by terrorists, Jihadists, fundamentalists, and other haters of American Freedom.  Note the slippage when Sahgal contends that AI must be getting its advice from ‘Islamist organizations’ and the undifferentiated references to ‘global jihad,’ ‘Islamic radicalisms,’ the ‘Taliban,’ and ‘terrorist.’ Such easy interchangeability should give us pause to consider the lack of political space for a more complicated,  multi dimensional articulations of people’s identities.  Feminists have long insisted on strong, intersectional critiques that does not consider third world peoples only through the  framework of rescue, victimhood, and dependence.  Why is okay then for feminists to abdicate on one of its core principles, when it comes to Begg and al-Aulaqi?  Are we now saying that feminism can only get behind those whose ‘contexts’ appeal to ‘our’ sensibilities?  So ‘victims of salafi-jihadists’ are to be defended because their mute victimhood falls neatly within our understandings of those suffering at the hands of ‘Islamic radicalism?’  So lets ask them.  Lets ask if they’d feel comfortable with CCR taking their cases. But lets also ask if they’d rush embrace those critiquing al-Aulaqi and Begg?  Leaving aside for the moment Meredith Tax’s deliberate slippage that the CCR is defending al-Aulaqi rather than challenging US’s policy of targeted assassination, does she and the others who have taken up this cause really think that these women would be more trusting of an organization that refuses to challenge the state’s intention to assassinate its own citizen, because the state’s intended victim is a “bad Muslim”? Women and men suffer not only at the hands of conservative Islam (conservative factions of all religions, really), but they also suffer terribly from the violent impacts of Islamaphobia.

Begg and al-Aulaqi appear in these critiques as grossly oversimplified characters as if all Muslim men hold identical, fundamentalist views.  Sahgal and Bennoune’s critique finds common cause with the mainstream construction in which Muslims are essentialized into their beliefs.  That by just being Muslim they will hold particular views and violent tendencies  The na?ve and decontextualized question, “why do they hate us?” after all stems from just such level of ignorance of US interventions across the world.  The ‘they’ are part of some decontextualized other world, that is both impenetrable and incomprehensible.  Which is why it becomes all that more feasible to essentialize ‘them’ as people with unreasonable belief systems.  When we say we are anti imperialist, what that means is to defy at every possible instance any attempt to erase and remove the larger contexts within which these men form their subjectivities.  Yet, there is a way in which through the critiques by Sahgal and Bennoune that Begg and Aulaqi are rendered products of a distant, alien culture and politics, at odds with ‘ours.’  Which is why ‘Jihadist’ or ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ appears as independent de- contextualized formations from which Begg and Aulaqi derive their political subjectivities.  An anti imperialist critique requires we understand that ‘their’ world is connected to ours, that ‘we’ all are part of a larger political, economic, cultural frame, where the prosperity of some has been predicated on the death and disenfranchisement of thousands of others.  The point is to make the complicated and detailed set of connections, to ask why? For which imperial projects? To achieve what end? To demonstrate that these spaces as intertwined and mutually dependent.

It is irresponsible to misread the signals in the West and dismiss Islamaphobia as a loose conglomeration of prejudices among a right wing fringe.  As the controversy over the “Ground Zero Mosque” demonstrated, such skirmishes are part of a larger ideology that has wide currency within swaths of the American public, wealthy corporations, and elected members of the state .(11)  Over the past few years, Islamophobia has spawned multi million-dollar cottage industries capitalizing on the fear and hatred of Muslims. Its entrepreneurs have produced web sites, books, and films; for instance, the Clarion fund raised $17 million to make a race-baiting short film entitled “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West,” distributing 28 million copies of the video in the swing states during the 2008 presidential campaign .(12)  In Rutherford County, Tennessee prominent Islamophobes have been called to testify in a lawsuit filed to block the construction of a mosque in Murfreesboro.  Steven Emerson, a leading figure in this field, has through his company SAE Productions collected funds just shy of four million dollars peddling the word that Americans are in imminent danger from Muslims .(13) The spectacular rise of the Tea Party has been fueled in part by the antipathy directed at Islam and the scapegoating of Muslims. All of this of course is of course chump change compared to the accumulated resources of the military industrial complx mobilized around the manufactured War on Terror.

For a human rights organization like AI, to organize around the testimony of prisoners like Begg is politically significant inside an atmosphere saturated with Islamaphobia.  Some vocal Amnesty activists would prefer that it publicly distance itself from Begg and Aulaqi there is no doubt that incidents such as this may cause mainstream rights organizations to think twice before it defends controversial figures such as detainees. Bennoune and Sahgal have failed to demonstrate any solidarity with those who suffering from many of the violent excesses of the War on Terror.  In what capacity, then, are they able to speak to the political agendas of Begg and Aulaqi?  What does it mean to generate a political space where feminist principals and anti-imperialism are crafted as mutually exclusive enterprises? Empires have long perfected the craft of the dividing its opposition on spurious grounds and devise ways to benefit from the work of its critics.  It is not surprising then that many a neocon is delighted to have Sahgal and Bennoune create strife among leftists whom they consider soft on ‘radical Islam.’ What an ironic turn for feminist human rights advocates to end up echoing the sentiment made famous by George W. Bush when he declared: “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”  And if those are the choices you represent, then I am not on your side.

RUPAL OZA is the director of the Women and Gender Studies Program at Hunter College, CUNY.


(1) http://www.guardian.co.uk/

(2) http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/afghanistan/article7017810.ece

(3) http://www.nybooks.com/articles/


(5) http://blogs.seattleweekly.com/

(6) http://www.cageprisoners.com/

(7) The case was recently dismissed by federal district court.

(8) http://www.meredithtax.org/taxonomyblog

(9) http://www.meredithtax.org/taxonomyblog

(10) http://www.guardian.co.uk/

(11) http://leftturn.org/Islamophobia-TeaParty-EndlessWar

(12) http://mobile.salon.com/

(13) http://www.tennessean.com/article/20101024/NEWS01/10240374