The Ballad of Jihadi John
You might be surprised to know, but the Mohammed that I knew was extremely kind. Extremely gentle. Extremely soft-spoken. [He] was the most humble young person that I knew. We’re gonna release all the emails . . . and what you’ll see when you read those emails is somebody who, despite going through great difficulties in his personal life, he belittled that difficulty.
These were the now-notorious words Asim Qureshi, research director for the Islamist pressure group CAGE, used to describe Mohammed Emwazi, a British Islamic State fighter wanted for his part in the beheading of at least 5 hostages. They were offered at a catastrophic press conference called by CAGE in the wake of the Washington Post’s unmasking of Emwazi as the IS executioner hitherto known as ‘Jihadi John’. CAGE, the Post revealed, had been in contact with Emwazi before he left for Syria.
Listening to Qureshi’s lachrymose little eulogy, I was reminded of a Guardian profile of Mohammad Sidique Khan, published just one week after the 7/7 terror atrocity, which had claimed the lives of 52 people and maimed a further 700. It was headlined Mentor to the Young and Vulnerable, and it began like this:
Born in Leeds, suicide bomber Mohammad Sidique Khan spent his working life with young, vulnerable children. The 30-year-old, father to a 14-month-old daughter, Maryam, was a mentor in primary schools for children with learning difficulties. He is known to have taught hundreds of children [. . .] One child who was taught by him at Hillside said: “He seemed a really kind man, he taught the really bad kids and everyone seemed to like him. He was there about three years and then he went on holiday and never came back. We just knew him as Mr Khan.”
The narrative being advanced in both instances is of a harmless individual, naturally inclined to selflessness and compassion for the disadvantaged, transformed into a pitiless foot-soldier for the Islamist slaughterhouse by the actions and policies of the West.
The Guardian’s profile of Khan had appeared under the joint byline of its then-crime correspondent Sandra Laville and a 27 year old trainee named Dilpazia Aslam. The day before, the Guardian had published an opinion piece by Aslam entitled We Rock The Boat: Today’s Muslims Aren’t Prepared to Ignore Injustice. “I think”, Aslam had written…
…what happened in London [on 7/7] was a sad day and not the way to express your political anger. Then there’s the “but”. If, as police announced yesterday, four men (at least three from Yorkshire) blew themselves up in the name of Islam, then please let us do ourselves a favour and not act shocked.
“Shocked,” he went on, “would be to suggest that the bombings happened through no responsibility of our own.” This responsibility, he explained, lay with British support for the US-led war in Iraq in general, and the counter-insurgency operation in Fallujah in particular. Aslam noted that the Iraq war had resulted in “22,787 civilian Iraqi casualties to date”, but neglected to mention that the vast majority of these were victims of the same jihadist terrorism that had just been visited upon his fellow citizens in London. Apparently, the injustice of Muslims – both Sunni and Shia – being blown to pieces in the marketplaces and mosques of Iraq by their co-religionists was not sufficient to stir his sense of moral outrage.
Nor did the language Aslam used to describe the crime suggest that he was exactly overburdened with disgust at the use of suicide terror as an instrument of protest. On the contrary, his article sought to valourise a new generation of Muslim activists who refused to fall into line behind the British establishment. “The don’t-rock-the-boat attitude of elders,” he concluded ominously, “doesn’t mean the agitation wanes; it means it builds till it can be contained no more.”
Last week, Mohammad Emwazi’s behaviour was likewise explained as a consequence of Western actions, only this time his treatment at the hands of British intelligence was to blame. As CAGE’s research director would have it, this mild-mannered and thoughtful bearer of “posh baklava” had been subject to a campaign of surveillance and harassment which had left him with no option but to behead aid workers and journalists.
Invited to condemn Emwazi’s actions on Channel 4 news, Qureshi found himself conspicuously reluctant to do so. He preferred to emphasise the extravagant efforts CAGE had made to secure the release of Alan Henning, and accused Jon Snow of anti-Muslim prejudice for having the temerity to even ask him such a question. Undeterred, Snow pressed Qureshi for an answer and was finally rewarded with this:
Absolutely. If it’s somebody, whether it’s Tony Blair, George Bush, Dick Cheney – when somebody’s involved in war crimes, they should be condemned for those war crimes and they should be held accountable for those war crimes.
“I am asking,” Snow persisted impatiently, “about Mohammed Emwazi. Do you condemn what he’s doing?” Qureshi:
Of course I condemn…erm…the…the…act of killing people or assassinating them or executing them. That is not really the way in which I think they should be going about doing things . . . But coming back to what CAGE thinks is important: when you have a cycle of violence; when you see things like Guantanamo Bay taking place; when we see the images of torture coming out of Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo and everywhere else, then what that does – that sends a message to other parts of the world that you can treat human beings like animals, and what we are seeing in Iraq right now is a manifestation of what we have seen elsewhere.
The similarities between the sentimental narrative of self-pity offered on behalf of Mohammed Sidique Khan by Dilpazia Aslam and that offered on behalf of Mohammed Emwazi by Asim Qureshi are striking, right down to the last trope. Bombing tubes and buses is “not the way to express political anger” and beheading bound and helpless hostages in front of a video camera is “not really the way to go about doing things.” This is not a coincidence.
Aslam, it turned out, was then a member of the Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir, an openly imperialist, totalitarian, racist, and homophobic political organisation, with extremely regressive views regarding women’s rights and emancipation. And while Hizb ut-Tahrir may not openly endorse violent jihad to establish the theocratic caliphate for which it yearns, it is extremely reluctant to criticise those who do, and happy to voice its support for the doctrine of ‘defensive jihad’.
While Asim Qureshi denies any current affiliation with Hizb ut-Tahrir, his views are indistinguishable from theirs. At a Hizb rally outside the US embassy in London in the summer of 2006, he boldly declared:
When we see the example of our brothers and sisters fighting in Chechnya, Iraq, Palestine, Kashmir, Afghanistan then we know where the example lies. When we see Hezbollah defeating the armies of Israel, we know what the solution is and where the victory lies. We know that it is incumbent upon all of us to support the jihad of our brothers and sisters in these countries when they are facing the oppression of the West. [video link here]
Notice the use of the word “incumbent” here. Holy war under such circumstances is not held to be a preference or a negotiable tactic, but a religious obligation.
When Dilpazia Aslam’s Hizb ut-Tahrir connections were exposed in the week after his 7/7 articles appeared, the Guardian acknowledged that “several colleagues and some senior editors” were already aware of Aslam’s involvement with the group, and conceded that his political affiliations ought to have been clearly disclosed. This oversight had apparently been an unfortunate error, not a deliberate attempt to mislead.
Be that as it may, a more pressing question remained. What was the Guardian doing with an Islamist propagandist on its payroll at all? It is inconceivable that it would employ a trainee it knew to be a committed BNP activist to speak on behalf of the white working class, still less to provide informed commentary in the wake of a white nationalist terror outrage.
But the Guardian was indignant and, in an article credited to an unidentified ‘staff reporter’, it accused “rightwing bloggers from the US” of engaging in a politically-motivated and “obsessively personalised” witch-hunt:
[This] episode was a striking illustration of the way that blogs and bloggers can heat up the temperature and seek to settle scores – as well as raise legitimate concerns about journalism and transparency – when something awful happens in the streets of London.
Nevertheless, in the face of gathering press criticism, the paper asked Aslam if he would resign his membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir. When he refused, they asked him to resign. When he refused to do that either, the paper “regretfully concluded that it had no option but to terminate Mr Aslam’s contract with the company.”
Aslam may have been left without a job, but he could reasonably say that his personal integrity was intact. The Guardian, on the other hand, had willingly compromised its values to accommodate a member of a fascist organisation. Aslam’s Islamist apologetics were, after all, indistinguishable from much of the opinion on jihadist terror offered by its own columnists. He shared their hatred of Bush, Blair, Israel, and the West and this, apparently, was enough to set his eccentric views about democracy, the place of women, and the impermissibility of homosexuality to one side.
An independent advocacy organisation working to empower communities impacted by the War on Terror. The organisation highlights and campaigns against state policies, striving for a world free from oppression and injustice.
What it actually does is to agitate for the unconditional release of any and all Islamists held on terrorism charges, irrespective of whether they languish in extra-judicial detention or they have been lawfully convicted by a properly constituted court under due process.
On 20 February 2010, for instance, Cageprisoners carried a post on its website [cached here] announcing a demo organised by ‘The Women of Hizb ut-Tahrir’ to protest the imprisonment of Aafia Siddiqui (also known as ‘Lady al-Qaeda’). Siddiqui had been tried before a New York jury and, on 3 February 2010, duly convicted on all seven counts, including two of attempted murder. For this, she naturally blamed Israel.
In 2011, the counter-extremism blog Harry’s Place reported that Asim Qureshi had given a lecture at Queen Mary University in East London at which he had denigrated secular Palestinians, praised Hamas and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, endorsed the use of suicide terrorism (euphemised as “martyrdom operations”) against Israeli civilians, and advised students of the legal and religious legitimacy of volunteering for jihad in Palestine, Chechnya, and Iraq. CAGE also maintained links with notorious extremists like Abu Qatada and al Qaeda operative Anwar al-Awlaki (at least until the latter found himself on the receiving end of an American drone.)
But none of this prevented CAGE from cultivating relationships with ostensibly respectable NGOs, journalists, activists, MPs, and celebrities who were all mesmerised by the organisation’s groovy rhetoric about oppression and injustice and its opposition to rendition, extra-judicial detention, control orders, and Guantanamo Bay. Human rights organisations like Liberty, Amnesty International, and Reprieve have all forged links of various kinds with the group, co-sponsoring campaigns and co-signing letters; Peter Oborne, Clive Stafford-Smith, the Labour MP Sadiq Khan, and Vanessa Redgrave (of course) have spoken at the group’s conferences and shared platforms with their activists; and CAGE has been pleased to accept six-figure donations from the Roddick Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. All of this has damaged the reputation of the organisations and individuals concerned in the eyes of those who have been paying attention, whilst – disgracefully – helping to launder the reputation of CAGE in the wider public perception.
In 2010, the head of Amnesty International’s gender unit Gita Sahgal attempted to warn her organisation of the dangers posed by its links with former Guantanamo detainee and Cageprisoners director Moazzam Begg. She maintained that while it was right that Amnesty should campaign for the release or trial of Begg and others likewise held in extra-judicial detention, they should not be decorating such people with their own moral legitimacy, nor forging links with Islamist organisations of any kind, irrespective of overlapping concerns. In an internal email, Sahgal protested:
I believe the campaign fundamentally damages Amnesty International’s integrity and, more importantly, constitutes a threat to human rights. To be appearing on platforms with Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban, whom we treat as a human rights defender, is a gross error of judgement.
When her objections were brushed aside, Sahgal went public in a Sunday Times interview, an act of principle and moral courage for which she was rewarded with a P45 and a tsunami of abuse, perhaps the most egregious example of which came from blogger-turned-Guardian columnist Sunny Hundal:
Listen Gita, we get it: you’re angry. No one rallied to your support other than a bunch of discredited neocons who are best known for their mealy-mouthed apologies for torture.
Oh and Salman Rushdie, the man offering moral guidance after signing a letter supporting child-rapist Roman Polanski. I suppose not many sane people would be heartened with that kind of support. But Gita bravely kept giving more interviews to Christopher Hitchens so they could together take down Amnesty. Brave stuff.
Five years on, Sahgal has every reason to feel vindicated. As CAGE’s credibility implodes in the wake of Qureshi’s ill-advised paean to Mohammed Emwazi, those previously proud to stand beside its activists are suddenly scrambling to find a way to distance themselves without admitting that they had ever been wrong.
In 2013, the Community Security Trust warned the JRCT that CAGE were an extremist-linked and anti-Semitic organisation, but their concerns, like Gita Sahgal’s, were waved away. However, on 2 March, in the wake of the disastrous Emwazi press conference, the Charity Commission announced that it was launching an investigation into the Roddick Foundation and the JRCT, and on 6 March, the Commission announced that “both the Roddick Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust have ceased funding CAGE and will not be doing so in future.”
CAGE have every reason to feel betrayed by this unseemly flight. Like Dilpazia Aslam, they have never been ashamed about who and what they are, and their narrative of victimhood and innocence has been remarkably consistent. Interviewed by Andrew Neil on the BBC’s This Week programme, Qureshi was unembarrassed by questions about his associations with Hizb ut-Tahrir (“a non-violent organisation”) and his support for jihad (“the right to self-defence”). It is not CAGE that has changed but the political environment.
In 2001, the belief that America was somehow to blame for the attacks of September 11 was fairly widespread on the political Left. A generous interpretation of this phenomenon might be that it was – at least in part – an attempt to rationalise an event that was otherwise incomprehensible, and that this appearance of an explanation was nourished by a pre-existing reservoir of hostility to American hegemony and power. Likewise, there was a certain amount of misplaced sympathy for the idea that the Madrid and London atrocities were an inevitable consequence of misguided wars that the Left despised. If anything, this retrospectively reinforced the idea that 9/11 was an understandable – if excessive – blowback caused by American foreign policy (although exactly which aspect of American foreign policy was seldom specified).
But as time has worn on, the appetite for this kind of sickly, reprehensible masochism has been diminishing. Bush and Blair are both long gone. The righteous protests against the Iraq war are a receding memory. Yet still the attacks continue. And with every new Islamist atrocity committed on Western soil, fewer people are prepared to accept that this is somehow the fault of the victims.
Gazing at the moving scenes of crowds pouring onto the streets in the wake of the Paris attacks, I wondered if we were finally witnessing a perception shift. Since the controversy over the Danish cartoons in 2005/6, a lot more people seem to have concluded that what is being demanded of open societies is unacceptable, and that the punishment being meted out to those who disobey has become intolerable.
At the Guardian, a chasm opened up between columnists above the line, who were perversely committed to the idea that fanatical sensibilities were to be respected, and commenters below the line who had wearied of this craven tune. After all, even if cartoonists agreed to desist from depicting Islam’s purported prophet, what on earth were Jews supposed to do?
And in the background, across the Muslim world, Islamist violence has run totally out of control. When people open their browsers now or watch the news, they see scores of defenceless children being massacred in Pakistani schools. They see the wholesale slaughter of villages by Boko Haram and the summary execution of mall shoppers by al-Shabaab. And they see the pornographic cruelty of the Islamic State: beheadings, crucifixions, mass graves, immolation, slavery, ethnic cleansing. None of this is intelligible as a resistance to American or Zionist imperialism anymore. The sheer arbitrariness of the spiralling carnage – in which cruelty is an end, not a means – inspires only revulsion and horror.
CAGE do not seem to have realised that with all this harrowing mood music, Muhammad Emwazi was always going to be a tough sell as a sweet-natured naif, no matter how florid the language marshalled in his defence. Nor is he simply some nameless beard rotting in a cell for something or other he may or may not have done somewhere miles away in the midst of some hated war. Long before Asim Qureshi delivered his pitiful defence, Emwazi’s reputation as a ruthlessly malevolent sadist who barks demands and then slaughters his victims like livestock was already firmly-established.
Apologetics for terrorism depend upon a reversal of cause and effect. But in seeking to persuade people that Emwazi became a fanatic following interest from the security services rather than vice-versa, CAGE wildly over-reached. Given the available evidence, many understandably concluded that the problem here wasn’t a surfeit of MI5 interest but the exact opposite.
For too long, much of the liberal commentariat and the widely-respected NGO establishment have allowed a combination of credulity and ideology to blind them to the toxicity of Islamism and those who espouse it, even as the corpses have stacked up before their eyes. And while CAGE looks to be finished, liberal apologia for others like them will not disappear overnight. Just as the controversy over Dilpazia Aslam’s employment changed nothing at the Guardian, I suspect that the errors which led Amnesty and others into the arms of CAGE will remain uncorrected once this row blows over.
Nonetheless, Gita Sahgal and her supporters can take satisfaction in Sahgal’s vindication. The humiliation of CAGE, and the collateral damage inflicted on its enablers, have been worth the wait for their own sake.