I’ll start as I’ll finish; forget Islam under fire, this brother was on fire. In both, his on point chatter and in answering a range of questions from sometimes irritating and naïve students Moazzam Begg was tough, poignant and humorous. I feel I have a shadow of the experience of a Black Panther rally thanks to him. If his humbling promise to go part-time because he ‘doesn’t have all the answers’ is serious he will he will be sorely missed.
Apparently there had been some ignorant discussion within the Islamic Society and within the wider university about whether the man should even be ‘permitted’ to speak because of ‘his links to terrorism’. Southampton seems a strange and sheltered place at times. Moazzam Begg has no links with terrorism; he has experiences of building schools in Afghanistan, being kidnapped and taken on a horror tour of illegal prisons, including Bagram and Abu Ghraib, ending up in Guantanamo for three years. In other words he is a victim of US human rights abuses. All naturally without charge or trial, he has since received compensation for the UK’s role in this but no apology. Either way the debate proved enough to bring the comical security of the Pro-Vice Chancellor and the university’s legal bigwig (I couldn’t help resist pointing out that there is only one copy of his book in the library).
I’ve heard Moazzam speak twice before and he is always excellent but this time he seemed particularly charged, I asked him afterwards why this was so, he replied ‘perhaps because I was fired up [in expectation]’. He had explained at the beginning of his talk that he had spoken at just about every university in the UK as well as in many other places, yet this was the first time threats had been levelled at him. It was certainly impressive to see his calm and rational response to the ridiculousness but I couldn’t help but feel we had also missed something of a more relaxed Moazzam Begg. He explained that he had gone to a Jewish school and learned some Hebrew, he had done relief work in Bosnia and married a Palestinian; he knew about other people’s suffering and his own. Yet he still took former Guantanamo guard into his home and listened to the apologies of former torturers and murderers.
Looking back at the discussion I can’t help but feel there was an air of suspicion, and of ‘them’ and ‘us’. This was definitely how some students framed their questions and while Moazzam responded with grace and humour he didn’t seek to break convention. Take my question, ‘would it help to distinguish between Islamic culture and the Islamic religion because we never hear about Iran, apparently performing the most sex-change operations each year, or about the Muslim alcoholics, or about the Islamic females challenging their family, communities and wider society?’ His immediate reply was ‘well they don’t live in the UK’ he then asked why I thought this was so to which I replied, ‘I thought it was mainly the [corporate]media but also British Muslims so often seem only capable of reacting to the mainstream’. While Moazzam agreed that there was much to discuss on this point there were other questions he wanted to answer.
It is indeed a positive attribute that discussion should begin before events and I am certain that Moazzam Begg has seen to it that he has not only thoroughly challenged dissenters but also made further discussion and interaction a more fruitful experience. In a microcosm, however, it makes my point clear, while Moazzam wanted to engage in a conversation about the diversity within Islam the negative press dominated the day. All that remains to say is that if you get the chance to hear him, go; possibly send some threats beforehand (jokes). Regardless he’s always on fire!