Left of the Taliban

March 14, 2010 § 11 Comments

by: M. Tahir

A critique of the Left from the Left. With the encouragement of friends, I’m posting an email below that I wrote regarding a recent controversy on the Left involving former Guantanomo detainee and human rights activist, Moazzam Begg and head of Amnesty International’s gender unit, Gita Sahgal. The debate exposes a larger division on the Left about where it stands with respect to the global war. The incident that sparked the larger discussion began when Sahgal accused Amnesty of tarnishing its human rights work by collaborating with Begg and the organization with which he works, Cage Prisoners. Begg is a Taliban supporter and Cage Prisoners a “jihadi” organization according to Sahgal, and Amnesty damages its reputation by working with them. Following Sahgal’s public remarks, Amnesty suspended her. Some have taken the view that Sahgal is an upstanding activist wrongly penalized by Amnesty while others argue that she is leveraging rampant Islamophobia for her ends.

The disagreement operates along a deepening fault-line in the Left that has wider implications. Many liberals and leftist allies (who support Sahgal) accuse the anti-imperial Left of egregious silence on the issue of the Taliban while it criticizes America’s imperial wars. Charges of insufficient critique of the Taliban and criminal silence on their atrocities are being hurled with increasing ferocity at Pakistani leftists in particular. Those making the accusations include Pakistani liberals as well as those who in the past have been our international allies in South Asia and elsewhere.

The email below is my response to this debate on a particular listserve. I’ve edited it to excise sections particular to an internal debate as well as to keep identities private but kept the rest in tact in the hopes of having a wider discussion.

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Dear X,

….

The larger issue, however, is this: why do our so-called allies constantly demand that we articulate our disavowal of the Taliban? Do they perhaps believe that in some deep dark religious corner of our lefty Pakistani hearts, we nurture a secret love for the ruthless brutish bearded circus called the Taliban?  Why are we being constantly asked to prove our bona fides as secularists and as humanists (in the sense that we believe in the dignity of *all* humanity)?  And that too by those who appear to have little qualms about retracting dignity from a man whose words and appearance unsettle us but who has done nothing – in terms of his actions – but run a girls’ school in Afghanistan and, now, defend the rights of precisely those that the American empire has reduced to ‘bare life.’ [1]  Does the problem lie in the fact that he “has championed the rights of jailed Al-Qaeda members and hate preachers…” as the Sunday Times puts it? But isn’t the selective granting of rights precisely what the Left is critical of in general?  Or is it that he stated in his memoirs that the Taliban were “better than anything Afghanistan has had in the past twenty-five years.” Yes, these views are abhorrent, but by no means unique. I heard much the same thing from the Afghans I met when I traveled to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border town of Chaman (in Balochistan) over a month ago.  These were Afghans who all hated the Taliban now (among them were ex-Taliban fighters).  To them, the Taliban had seemed like an answer to the corruption, chaos and random murders that had afflicted Afghanistan for decades when they first rose to power. They left when they realized that this was not the case or that the price they were being asked to pay was too high.

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