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Book review of Enemy Combatant by Moazzam Begg, published by Free Press.
Reviewed by Chris Saliba
After spending three years incarcerated at various locations by the US Army, you’d expect this book to be one long vituperative tirade. Despite Moazzam Begg’s hardships, the former Guantanamo prisoner comes across more an impatient rather than angry man.
Taken from his home in Pakistan after September 11 by Pakistani and American agents, the British Moazzam Begg would eventually be released into British custody, questioned briefly, then given his freedom 24 hours later. The whole sorry affair need never have happened.
It is perhaps unfortunate for the US that they decided (obviously with the help of British intelligence) to kidnap Mr Begg, in that he is a civilised and educated man, thus enabling him to write this surprisingly level-headed account of his experiences. (When asked to sign a confession Begg baulks at the substandard English. "The English used here is terrible. Nobody could believe that I would ever write such a document.") Begg saves most of his scorn for the ill-educated military police and MI5 intelligencers he had to deal with.
Quite a bit of Enemy Combatant reads like a black comedy. Here are some examples of the absurdities Moazzam Begg endured: they find a picture of the Pope on his computer, and then conjecture that he wants to assassinate the Pope; they try to get him to sign confessions that detail acts he simply never could have performed; at one point an MI5 agent tells him of how they had ‘interrogated a computer’. How this is done is not explained.
Begg also describes the huge cultural gap between the Americans interrogating Moazzam and his own religious beliefs and education. The Americans just don’t get Islam at all. In one part of the book, the Military Police throw copies of the Koran on the ground, just to desecrate it. Moazzam asks, "why do they do this, I would never do the same thing to the Holy Bible".
There are also some strange ironies in the book. At Guantanamo US law protects iguanas, yet the so-called ‘enemy combatants’ have no protections under US law.
Despite the bad times experienced in detention, Moazzam Begg actually makes a few friends with the guards. He comes to the realisation that not all Americans are the same, indeed, some are very decent.
One soldier that left a lasting impression on Begg was a labour relations student from Ohio in her early twenties.
"I discovered that she loved English literature and poetry. We discussed Thoreau’s Walden, which I had recently read, and Mere Christianity, by C.S Lewis, which had been sent to her by her sister. I talked to her about Islam, and even wrote a few sheets comparing the history and beliefs of the two religions."
You get the impression that one of the reasons Moazzam Begg survived his ordeals is because of his educated British accent. He could surprise guards who took him for a fire breathing mujahadeen by hurling back tart witticisms.
The book also has interest for Australian readers due to the portrait drawn of David Hicks. He appears quite a bit in the book. By the time the author met him in Guantanamo, Hicks had given up Islam. We get the picture of an out of place Australian who loved all his blokey hobbies.
Enemy Combatant highlights how unmonitored prisons, dealing with suspects of terrorism, are an absolute recipe for disaster. Now we know what happens, having seen the pictures of Abu Ghraib and read the Amnesty and UN reports on torture and humiliating treatment.
Moazzam Begg straddles two cultures: British liberalism, and the faith of Islam. If you want to get off the extremes of the debate, this is a worthwhile read by someone who has actually suffered, but is determined to try and make the world a better place.