stories of peace and oppression, inspired by a talk by Moazzam Begg

Thursday, 10 March 2011 at 15:57
This evening I went to a talk by Moazzam Begg held at Southampton University. Moazzam is a survivor of the Guantanamo prison camp in the United States, where he was held for 3 years without crime, charge, or any evidence being given for a crime. He is also a peace campaigner, and author of the book "Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Kandahar". I found the talk very inspiring and illuminating. As someone who knows practically nill about Islam, accept the general media slant on it, I was alarmed to hear about the level of suspicion and animosity many Islamic communities are apparently facing, not just from the usual suspects but from establishment too. I was also surprised to learn about the kind of hatred and violence the Jewish community faced in England and other countries, beyond Germany, during the lead up to WWII. Moazzam made a saddening comparison to the status quo. There were lots of interesting facts in the talk relating to how 'flexible' media and government can be. For instance, Nelson Mandela, perhaps one of the most widely respected and revered people on earth, is actually a convicted communist terrorist. Fancy that.

While I was very touched by Moazzam's personal stories of how borders could be crossed and bridges to peace and compassion built, I was also slightly disappointed at the polemic style the debate took sometimes. I would have liked even more focus on collaborative approaches to conflict resolution, and practical steps that everyone can take. I would have liked less engagement with threat-focused thinking, 'us and them', blame, etc. that some questions from the audience steered towards.

It's of course true that the more threat someone, or a group of people, perceives then the harder it becomes for them to resist focusing on the threat and becoming defensive (or potentially aggressive) in their thinking and action. The harder it becomes to retain a firm focus on working together to bridge gaps of understanding and rediscover our common humanity that underlies even strong cultural and religious differences. Therefore the more important it is to try and keep that more constructive approach, when threat raises its head.

As Martin Luther King put it "Peace is not some distant goal we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal." When Moazzam spoke of making peace with the soldiers that had beaten and tortured him, and even bringing them into his house for dinner, I felt his message was very much aligned with that philosophy. In one of his true stories he described how he'd developed a rapport with a young soldier at Guantanamo Bay. One day the soldier broke down in front of Moazzam's 8ft by 8ft cell, dropping to his knees and also dropping the food he'd bought with him. The soldier had committed adultery, had been found out and that day ordered to phone his wife and explain what he'd done. The soldier said to Moazzam, who spent everyday in that cell: "Do you ever have one of those days where you feel like everything is going wrong?" It was a funny story, but Moazzam becoming an 'agony uncle' to this young soldier showed how behind the roles we accept in life, people are just people. In another story he described how former torturers had wept down the phone to him in apology and later became dedicated proponents for peace.

Moazzam showed through his stories how engaging with 'the other', reaching out and learning about them, that conflict naturally gives way to peace. It's the kind of steps that he has taken that lead to profound inner change in people and that change spreading to others. But in the face of such entrenched and widespread 'them and us' thinking, or at least media coverage, it takes a lot of effort and sacrifice to get the message through to a critical mass.

As Moazzam pointed out, the English language bears the fruit of different cultures. Therefore by rejecting those cultures we also reject a part of our own identity. And surely it goes deeper than language? If we see someone and immediately judge according to a cultural or visual association, are we not also closing the door to our own virtues? How can we be compassionate or loving if we let our preconceptions rule us? To offer compassion or love to someone, we must first 'see' them. I think, then, that when we judge in this way we become smaller and more alone in the world.

On that note, I noticed myself making judgements about Moazzam even before he started speaking. I didn't have a clue who he was before the talk. All I'd been told in the invite was that it was about a guy who'd promoted education in Afghanistan and Iraq and that it had something to do with Islam. Since I have some interest in education and am starting to learn more about global affairs, I went along. I was sitting there, the talk was due to start 10 minutes ago, and a large man in a suite, who may have been Turkish, wearing a taqiyah (skullcap) entered the hall. Lots of people greeted him. I assumed that was the guy. Minutes passed and he sat down. All the while there was a small Indian man, in casual dress standing around the podium area. He didn't seem like he was setting anything up, so I wondered what he was doing there. It just didn't occur to me that he could be the speaker. Funny how the mind works.

If you get a chance to hear Moazzam speak I highly recommend it.

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