Student movement should find better allies than Cage

Submitted by AWL on 19 August, 2015 - 9:20 Author: Omar Raii

Following the passing of a motion at NUS conference, in April 2015, resolving to work with Cage, the student left has been discussing its view of this organisation. Omar Raii argues that Cage is not an organisation we should support students working with.


Issues of the role of the bourgeois state, freedom of speech and Islamism have never been more pressing.

David Cameron recently gave a speech in Birmingham highlighting what he regarded as the continuing problem of Islamist extremism. In his “struggle” against this phenomenon, Cameron’s government has brought out policies that will have an alarming effect on freedom of speech in universities and elsewhere. The student movement has, on the whole, rightly, condemned the hypocritical and reactionary measures, that will mean more surveillance of students and a limit to what can be said on campuses.

There is however one small problem. One of the organisations that the NUS decided to work with in combatting the government is Cage (formerly Cageprisoners), founded in the wake of the war on terror by former Guantanamo Bay prisoner Moazzam Begg.

Cage, officially, works to campaign against state policies, implemented by the UK in connection with the war on terror. This is of course, unobjectionable, and along with opposition to state surveillance and obstruction of freedom of speech, socialists should indeed advocate that the student movement campaigns on this.

The problem is however with the political nature of Cage, and many of its key figures. Cage claims to be a human rights advocacy group with an “Islamic focus”, but many of its figures have been shown to have reactionary politics that are, to put it mildly, soft on Islamism.

Cage resembles the Stalinist “peace” organisations that existed in several NATO countries during the Cold War. These officially stood for opposition to nuclear proliferation and war, but often held a pro-Soviet agenda.

It’s been said before that the left (particularly the British left), including in the student movement, has lost its way on the issue of political Islam in recent years. But this still needs pointing out. Our opposition to the government’s reactionary and hypocritical agenda should not mean forming alliances with organisations led by reactionaries.

The detainment and torture of Cage's founding member, Moazzam Begg, by the US government is something that any decent democrat, let alone a socialist, must unequivocally condemn and oppose. This does not mean however, that we must fool ourselves into thinking that Begg himself is a progressive figure.

A closer look at Begg’s politics shoes that he is one of the few people in Britain that, after thousands of Afghans had fled Taliban-run Afghanistan, actually moved there, with his family and children.

In his book Enemy Combatant he explains “I wanted to live in an Islamic state — one that was free from the corruption and despotism of the rest of the Muslim world.... I knew you wouldn't understand. The Taliban were better than anything Afghanistan has had in the past 25 years.”

This “free from corruption” Islamic state was one where the education of girls was prohibited, the female population of the country was put under virtual house arrest, where Shia Hazaras were massacred among other human rights abuses.

One almost has to admire the man for practising what he preached. There were plenty of virulent defenders of Stalin’s Soviet Union or Mao’s China that wouldn’t have dreamt of actually going to live in those countries.

He is not wholly uncritical of the Taliban, but then again Margaret Thatcher wasn’t wholly uncritical of Augusto Pinochet. A principled student movement should not give brownie points for pointing out minor flaws in an otherwise glowing review of a monstrous medievalist cult like the Taliban.

The NUS Black Students’ Campaign even invited Begg as a keynote speaker at their Summer Conference. Championing the human rights of Islamists like Begg is noble and the right thing to do, but putting them up on a pedestal as if they themselves are champions of human rights is absurd and would be laughable if it wasn’t so dangerous.

When the Indian secularist Gita Saghal criticised Amnesty International for its associations with Begg in 2010, she was made to leave the organisation.

Years later, after it became clear that Mohammed Emwazi, the shadowy Daesh (ISIS) member notorious for committing beheadings in Daesh videos, had links with Cage when he was living in the UK, Saghal was somewhat vindicated.

This year Amnesty released a statement saying:

“Amnesty no longer considers it appropriate to share a public platform with Cage and will not engage in coalitions of which Cage is a member.

“Recent comments made by Cage representatives have been completely unacceptable, at odds with human rights principles and serve to undermine the work of NGOs, including Amnesty International.”

The “recent comments” in question were made by another prominent CAGE figure, Asim Qureshi. After slightly embarrassing himself in a press conference where he described Mohammed Emwazi as having been “a beautiful young man” prior to becoming Jihadi John, he appeared on television where he responded to a question about whether or not he supported the views of a preacher who advocated Female Genital Mutilation and stoning for adulterers with the phrase “Look, I’m not a theologian”.

At a rally organised by the Islamist organisation Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Qureshi is on record as supporting jihad in Iraq, Lebanon and many other countries.

I suspect that Qureshi, like many people (including many on the British left) who were so enamoured by Hezbollah during its 2006 war with Israel, is now somewhat embarrassed for this support, not only for the bad PR it has given Cage, but also given the Hezbollah’s notorious role in fighting on behalf of the murderous dictatorship of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.

In an interview for Russia Today, it is clear that while people like Begg and Qureshi oppose the repressive measures of the US and UK governments, they do not oppose executions or stoning in principle and in fact personally support a caliphate that would in fact have those punishments at their disposal.

One can’t help feeling that any organisation led by people who, while denouncing Daesh, still believe in principle in the idea of a caliphate that executes apostates and stones adulterers is about as principled as a Maoist group opposing the dictatorial regime in the Soviet Union while supporting the Stalinist regimes that existed in China and Albania.

And it is hard not to suspect that an organisation that say, stood against nuclear weapons, who worked with and even employed figures that held such retrograde views, would probably not receive support from the NUS, and rightly so.

According to former NUS President Toni Pearce, NUS are refusing to work with Cage.

Socialists should argue that it is right to combat the government’s measures that restrict the right of students, including Muslim students, to worship freely and to invite to their campuses speakers who may have controversial views. However it is pure folly to work with organisations that regularly align themselves with groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir, who even fall under NUS’s current no-platform policy.

Our opposition will only be successful if it is principled and consistent.