LONDON — Religion today often crosses into the public sphere, becoming a battering ram for extremist politics across the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
In the case of Islam in particular, declares veteran feminist and human rights activist Gita Sahgal, Western liberals find themselves in a double bind: "In a period of right-wing attacks on Muslims … how does one respond to human rights violations by the Muslim Right without feeding hate campaigns?"
This is not a small question and it is posed at the beginning of a new book, “Double Bind: The Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Left, and Universal Human Rights.”
Written by American author Meredith Tax, “Double Bind” is the first project of the Centre for Secular Space, an organization that Sahgal recently founded in London.
Sahgal says she is not fighting religion.
"I think there are two essential rights,” she says. “There is the right to religious freedom and belief and there is the right to freedom of expression. The secular space is the space where people can be free to exercise their faith but also criticize religion when it crosses into the public sphere."
There is no doubt that post-9/11, Muslims have been the target of extremists on the right and their human rights are under threat in the countries to which they have emigrated. Human rights campaigners have vigorously sought to shut down the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and end the practice of extraordinary rendition.
But in Sahgal's view, many Western human rights advocates have not been vigorous enough in campaigning against the significant minority of radical Muslims — many of whom are oppressed by their governments — yet whose own political activity leads to the curtailing women's human rights and other minority rights in the public sphere.
Sahgal says she started the Centre after encountering the double bind in her professional life. She worked for many years as head of Amnesty International's Gender Unit but found herself at odds with the organization over the case of Moazzam Begg.
Begg was Britain's most famous detainee in Guantanamo. Born in Birmingham, he became radicalized during the 1990s. Begg owned a Muslim bookshop in the city, well-stocked with Jihadi pamphlets. In the summer of 2001 he moved his family to Kabul and worked with the Taliban. After the US invaded the country, he fled to Pakistan where he was arrested in early 2002. After spending a year in detention at Bagram Air Base in Kabul, he was flown to Guantanamo.
Amnesty International campaigned vigorously for his release.
"His rights should have been defended and Amnesty was right to do so," says Sahgal. But that wasn't the end of the story. Released in 2005, Begg became a spokesman for his fellow prisoners still in custody.
His organization, Cageprisoners, worked directly with Amnesty for the release of all Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo. But in Sahgal's and others’ view, Begg has become the most articulate advocate for the Taliban in the West. His interviews with leading jihadists, like Anwat al-Awlaki, give credence to this view.
Sahgal had a major problem with Amnesty's close collaboration with Begg's organization in the fight to close Guantanamo. "Amnesty should not have promoted him as a partner and put him on platforms as a victim," she says. "If some of the views he expressed were to be expressed by a member of the National Front we'd consider them abhorrent."
Why didn't the ultimate liberal human rights organization, Amnesty International, hold Begg to the same standards? The double bind, in Sahgal's view, created a fear of seeming anti-Muslim.
Sahgal raised concerns about the Begg relationship internally at Amnesty. But in 2010, she went public with her concerns, was suspended by Amnesty and ultimately fired.
A grand-niece of India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Sahgal argues that Nehru's great struggle was to maintain a secular space in the new democracy so the nation's many religions could co-exist.
She was raised with these ideals of secularism and speaks about them with what could be interpreted as a religious kind of fervor.
"Secularism is not a religion," she says. "Secularism is the foundation stone of the modern idea of human rights. These rights begin with separating religion from public policy."
Sahgal set up the Centre with the help of friends, many of them secular Muslim women. "Secular Muslims have been battered by the war on terror," says Sahgal. "It's been a bonanza for Muslim fundamentalists and those who practice Muslim identity politics."
Britain's rapidly growing Muslim community makes up 5 percent of the UK population. London's population is 12 percent Muslim and they are the majority in London's East End.
Most British Muslims came from Pakistan and Bangladesh and still have family ties there. The community is not immune to the political currents in those countries and as jihadist Islam has grown in South Asia, it has had a profound effect on British Muslims.
Currently there is tension arising from events that happened 40 years ago in Bangladesh, or East Pakistan as it was known then. In 1971, Bengalis fought a bloody war of independence. In a foreshadowing of the civil war within Islam, independence fighters wanted to "create a secular state," explains Dr. Muzzam al-Hoque, a middle-aged immigrant from Bangladesh.
We met at a public meeting last week in London's East End where the fallout from that war was still shaking the community. Al-Hoque continued, "Bengalis were primarily secular and their rulers in Islamabad practiced discrimination against secular Muslims.” Human rights were curtailed. "Bengali language speakers suffered discrimination."
The Pakistani Army fought the independence movement with the help of ultra-religious Bengalis, members of the Jamaat-e-Islami. During the nine-month war, the army and Jamaat committed atrocities on an industrial scale. Up to three million people were murdered and hundreds of thousands of women raped.
Recently, a number of leaders of the Jamaat have been tried in Dhaka for those crimes and convicted. When one of them was given life imprisonment instead of the death penalty, young secularists took to Shahbag Square to demand the death penalty. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/feb/23/protest-death-penalty-bangla...
The meetings in London were a show of support with the secularists in Dhaka. There was anger that the death penalty was not being handed down to the convicted.
However, yesterday Delwar Hossain Sayedee, leader of the Jamaat during the conflict, was convicted and condemned to death.
The double bind is encircling Amnesty International again. The organization has raised questions about the fairness of the trial of Jamaat leaders. Young, secular Bangladeshis are beside themselves with anguish. They feel Amensty is once again bending over backwards to accommodate extremists while ignoring their own search for justice. Yesterday they held a demonstration outside Amnesty's headquarters to protest.
Gita Sahgal was there with the young protesters to show support for the "spirit of their struggle." But on this issue she also faces the double bind.
"I am completely opposed to the death penalty," she said.
But she is convinced that "secular space" is the only place to thrash these differences out.