The disclosure by Prime Minister Tony Blair in January 2004 that the issue of the Guantanamo Bay detainees will be resolved shortly was welcome but not convincing. For all its worth, his special relationship with the Bush White House has created more problems than solutions both at home and abroad. Instead of embracing the multi-cultural components of British society it has alienated many, not least of all its Muslim population.
Underlying this disturbing state of affairs is the insular notion of “us and them”. Already it has given rise to much anguish and frustration. This was visibly demonstrated in the letter written by 7 year-old Anas Jamil el Banna on behalf of his four siblings to the Prime Minister imploring his help to bring their father home from Guantanamo.
In Guantanamo there are no paramount or uniform rules. Policies are applied according to the nationality of detainees. Thus, American ‘combatants’ were not sent to Camp X-Ray. Though ostensibly held for the same reasons non-Americans namely; Afghans, Arabs, Pakistanis and Brits were sent to the infamous camp. Faced with resounding condemnation by human rights and legal authorities the US is reportedly about to release some detainees. Ultimately, the fate of individuals would not be decided on the basis of humanitarian law but the level of support given by their governments’ to the US led ‘war on terror.’
There is something that is strikingly farcical about this affair. Thirty years ago, the world’s conscience was alerted to the predicament of American prisoners of war in North Vietnam. Amid claims of torture and inhumane treatment the US government called upon their captors to respect the Geneva Conventions. The Conventions were relevant then but they are not today. Thus, in order to avoid their treaty obligations under the Conventions, Defence Secretary Rumsfeld has invented the obscure category of “unlawful combatants”.
Jamil el Banna was, by the way, apprehended in Gambia.
This method of dealing with the phenomenon of international terror is deeply rooted in the American political culture. In 1972 former US Undersecretary of State, Charles W. Yost explained in the Christian Science Monitor [September 14th, 1972]: “We all righteously condemn it – except when we ourselves or friends of ours are engaging in it. Then we ignore it or gloss it over or attach to it tags like “liberation” or “defence of the free world” or “national honor” to make it seem something other than what it is.”
One of the worst consequences of the ‘us and them’ approach is that it has enabled states close to the Anglo-American alliance to get away with crimes against humanity. Israel, the most favored of the favorites could violate UN resolutions, transfer its citizens into the Occupied Palestinian Territory in contravention of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, build settlements, and justify it all in the name of security and ‘fighting terror’.
Likewise, it can run its own Guantanamo style jail to incarcerate its opponents. Jonathan Cook’s article in Le Monde Diplomatique, November 2003, about Facility 1391 gave an insight into the identity and condition of many of its inmates – Lebanese, Palestinian and other Arabs. Though shrouded in secrecy for years, information is finally emerging through legal practitioners and former detainees. Much more will come to light after the long-awaited prisoner exchange with Hizbullah.
Facility 1391 is more than a legal “black hole” where civil courts have little information and loses its jurisdiction. It is, according to Leah Tsemel, an Israeli lawyer, a place where anyone “can be made to disappear, potentially for ever."
Whether it is effected in Camp X-Ray, Facility 1391 or Belmarsh, the notion of ‘us and them’ has never helped to advance the cause of justice. This explains Prime Minister Blair’s failure to realize the justice he proclaimed for the Palestinians at the Labour Party annual convention in 2001.
Every initiative that was undertaken since has been guided not by the rule of international law but by the pragmatist demands of containment and balance of power in the region. Here in the UK respectable charities like International Development Fund for Palestine (Interpal) had its assets frozen not because of any illegal activity but because Israel recommended, through the US, the “drying up the wells” of support for the millions of Palestinian refugees living under occupation and in the diaspora.
All told, the indiscriminate application of anti-terrorism laws has resulted in a spate of arrests, interrogations, and imprisonment without charges of wrong-doing. A delegation from the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) met the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, in December 2003 to express the widespread sense of disquiet and alarm in the Muslim community over the application of anti-terrorism legislation.
Anas Jamil el Banna did not get his dad back in time for eid as he requested from Mr. Blair. Whether his wish will be fulfilled before the next eid is something not even Mr. Blair could promise. Policies and decisions concerning this matter are determined elsewhere. Cases like his leave British Muslims with three options; two are undesirable and one is recommended.
They could assimilate into the society and lose their identity or they could retreat into their inner cities and adopt similar attitudes of ‘us and them’. These are both undesirable. The third option is far more challenging but, nonetheless, recommended. It is for British Muslims to engage with the society and enrich it with their knowledge, expertise and values.
The author is Assistant Secretary General of the MCB
Acknowledgments: Islamic Forum Europe