LONDON — They stood on opposite sides of the razor wire at Guantanamo, but this former prisoner and former American guard both left sickened with anger about what they experienced there.
And Jan. 20, the same day Barack Obama makes his inaugural address, these two men will come together. They will be marking the seventh anniversary of the first detainees being sent to the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It could also be the day the new president announces its closure.
The former prisoner is Moazzam Begg, a 40-year-old Briton who was seized by the CIA in Pakistan in 2002 and held in extrajudicial detention at Guantanamo until President Bush released him in 2005 without charge.
The former guard is a young American named Chris Arendt, who joined the U.S. Army National Guard just after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and was assigned to the facility that he likens to a “concentration camp.”
Although an order closing the facility might be one of Obama's first acts as president, the Associated Press reported Tuesday, it could take months to relocate detainees and complete the process.
As Obama places his hand on a Bible in Washington and outlines his promise to restore America’s image in the world, Begg and Arendt will hold a public meeting together in the English city of Sheffield.
They will be inaugurating something else, a fledgling effort by a London-based group known as Cage Prisoners, made up of anti-war and human rights activists, intent on drawing attention to human rights violations at Guantanamo, where the U.S. military stands accused of systematic torture. The meeting of Begg and Arendt — which is being billed as a sort of public reconciliation — may also reflect an opening for the new American presidency that seeks to redefine how the American government relates to the Muslim world.
Guantanamo’s chain-link cages, its orange jump suits and depravations for inmates, have come to symbolize in most of the Muslim world the brutal compromises that America made in its “war on terror” under President George W. Bush.
Its razor wire casts a jagged silhouette up against the enormous task that lies ahead for Obama as he sets out to chart a different course in the struggle against terrorism, to live up to his campaign promise to shut down Guantanamo within two years.
Begg is not sure that Obama’s promises will amount to anything more than a shifting shadow in what he believes is an American policy of secret, illegal detentions of Muslim men suspected of terrorism.
“I’d like to quote another famous black American, Malcolm X,” he said in an interview. “'If you stick a knife nine inches into my back and pull it out three inches, that is not progress.’ [Obama’s promise] is like pulling back the knife three inches. The reality is the secret detentions system will remain,” Begg said in an interview with GlobalPost.
Arendt has also been outraged by what occurred in Guantanamo and about the actions he himself says he carried out there.
“What I hate about myself over there was the callousness, the emptiness. I wish I was angrier while I was there,” he said in testimony last fall for the Winter Soldier, a series of public gatherings of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seeking to speak out against the wars in which they fought.
Obama’s election was met with relief in Britain. Widespread disdain for the nation that elected Bush twice gave way to broad admiration for the same country, which had now elected a black, moderate, intellectual internationalist.
But among Britain’s 1.5 million Muslims there is still skepticism about whether there is truly a new dawn in America. The years since Sept. 11, 2001 have seen a confusing, worrying jumble of events that have often created unease between British Muslims and the British government.
Among them are the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the introduction of tighter British anti-terrorism laws and the imprisonment and alleged abuse of British nationals and residents in American detention centers in Afghanistan, Cuba and other countries.
As one of the four suicide bombers who attacked London on July 7, 2005 made clear in a pre-recorded video, Britain’s alliance with the United States was a motivating factor in the bombings, which killed 52 people.
“What you have witnessed now is only the beginning of a string of attacks that will continue and become stronger until you pull your forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq,” 22-year-old Shehzad Tanweer said. “And until you stop your financial and military support to America and Israel.”
There are signs, however, that some within the British Muslim community think Obama might have a conciliatory impact on relations between British Muslims and the West. In the days and weeks that have followed Obama’s election, one former Islamist, Ghaffar Hussain, has picked up a note of anxiety in radical Muslim circles in Britain. In many ways, Obama steals the argument against the West.
“There was that sense that this isn’t good because it’s going to make America look good in the eyes of the world,” said Hussain, who resigned from the Hizb ut-Tahrir extremist group in 2002 and now does outreach work among potentially alienated young British Muslims.
Unlike the U.S. Muslim population, extremists from within Britain’s Muslim population have carried out acts of domestic terrorism and British intelligence agencies believe hundreds more continue to pose a serious threat in the U.K. and abroad. One of the great, if implicit, hopes of the Obama presidency is that Obama’s very identity and his foreign policy decisions will persuade young Muslims in countries like Britain to feel less alienated from the West, and inclined in fewer numbers to engage in extremism and terrorism. That would make America’s most important ally breathe more easily.
Hussain believes there is reason to hope there will be, and already is, an Obama effect: “Among ordinary Muslims, they were kind of intrigued that America has changed and is capable of renewing itself.”
But Obama still has much work to do if he is to change the perception of the United States among some British Muslims.
Hussain said the hatred of America among extremist groups in Britain pre-dated the election of George Bush but has intensified over the past eight years.
“I suppose you could say it deteriorated further under Bush, in that more people possibly came on board with the idea that the U.S. is out on a mission to destroy Muslims, humiliate Muslims, conquer Muslims and to impose American values on them,” said Hussain, who is head of training and outreach at the Quilliam Foundation, a self-described “counter-extremism” think tank staffed mainly by former Islamist radicals who now renounce violence and terrorism.
Begg remains deeply skeptical of any American president’s inclination to stop what he considers the on-going victimization of Muslims by the United States. Most worrying to him is Obama’s pledge to order a troop surge in Afghanistan, as Bush did in Iraq.
“Bagram will get doubled in terms of intake” of prisoners, Begg said, referring to the detention center at the main U.S. airbase in Afghanistan where he and hundreds of other detainees have been held and, at times, abused. Begg was taken there after being picked up in Pakistan as a so-called “enemy combatant” who purportedly was sympathetic to al-Qaida. Begg denies the allegations and says he was in Afghanistan prior to Sept. 11, 2001 to work as a teacher. He is critical of Obama's pledge to send more American soldiers to Afghanistan.
“Are more abuses going to take place as a result of more troops being there? I think the answer will likely be yes. Then there will be a huge new set of problems in Afghanistan which will be the legacy of Obama making a decision on Afghanistan without looking at the place properly.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect new comments from Obama's advisors about his intention to close the facility at Guantanamo Bay.