Tuesday, July 22, 2008

OPINION: Western civilisation? What a good idea that would be ...

A journalist asked Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi what he thought of Western civilisation. Gandhi responded: "I think it would be a good idea."

This English-trained Indian barrister knew a thing or two about Western civilisation. He knew European colonial powers had claimed credit for many great ideas - religious pluralism, the rule of law and human rights.

Gandhi also knew that these ideas often weren't practised by their preachers. Before India achieved independence, Western civilisation had produced the Holocaust and the mass murder of Japanese civilians via two atomic bombs.

Gandhi also knew a thing or two about jihad. As a young lawyer practising in South Africa, Gandhi was given a copy of the Koran by a Gujarati Muslim client, as well as a first-class train ticket. After boarding the train, Gandhi was removed from the first-class carriage for being a coolie. This Hindu sat on the platform and opened up the Koran. He found verses calling on him to wage jihad, a just struggle, against oppressors.

From these verses was born the Natal Indian Congress and the anti-apartheid struggle. Prominent people of all faiths, including Muslims, supported that struggle.

Many were killed, tortured or imprisoned by the apartheid regime. One of them, Dullah Omar, was appointed by Nelson Mandela to be South Africa’s first post-Apartheid Justice Minister.

One wonders what Gandhi would think today of the abuse of the jihad verses by terrorists from groups like al Qaeda, who combine Islamic theology with the worst excesses of European nationalism to produce something resembling national socialism.

Muslim theocratic extremists abandoning terror and fighting real jihad? Now that would be a good idea.

While Bin-Ladin sits in his cave pontificating about conspiracies between "Crusaders" and "Jews" (and even "Hindus") to kill Muslim civilians, his followers are murdering innocent Muslim civilians across the world. Each week, a suicide terrorist in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq or some other Muslim country takes place, killing at least as many civilians as the 7/7 London bombings. It’s no coincidence that the first victim of the 7/7 London bombings was a devout British Muslim girl named Shahara Islam.

Of course, hypocrisy and double standards don't just exist in the Islamic world. The bin Ladens of the West, neo-conservative leaders who have the blood of Afghan and Iraqi innocents (not to mention American and allied soldiers) on their hands, are also throwing their principles out the door.

The treatment of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay is a classic example of where Western civilisation is becoming little more than abstraction. In his recently published book Torture Team: Deception, Cruelty and the Compromise of Law, international law professor Phillipe Sands, QC, exposes unethical Defence Department lawyers joining forces with neo-conservative politicians to produce the Acton Memo.

This document, signed by Donald Rumsfeld on December 2, 2002, enabled interrogators at Guantanamo Bay (and later at Abu Ghraib) to lawfully commit acts of torture in violation of Article 3 of the Geneva Convention.

The Canadian Government was recently ordered by a court to release video footage of one of its citizens, Omar Khadr, being interrogated at Guantanamo Bay. It isn't exactly pleasant viewing.

Khadr was 16 at the time the footage was filmed in 2003. He was 15 when first captured in July 2002 during a US raid in which his father was killed. After being shot in the back, he was taken to the notorious Bagram Air Base, where he was often brought to interrogation on a stretcher and denied pain medication. Canadians didn't have much sympathy for this child soldier.

The situation is complicated by the fact that Khadr's brother is currently before a Canadian court fighting US attempts to have him extradited to face terrorism charges. Stephen Harper's conservative Government is showing as much disdain for Khadr as former PM John Howard showed towards Australian detainees David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib. Khadr's lawyers hope release of the video may change all that.

Should a person accused of committing terrorism offences when a child be kept in such conditions? Some say that Khadr, whose father allegedly had strong links to al Qaeda and was a fundraiser for the terrorist network, is still dangerous. These people might like to view the video of Khadr's interrogation and watch this boy pleading for Canadian interrogators to help him.

They might also remember that he hardly had a choice in growing up in a household where his father espoused radical views, even encouraging Khadr's brother to become a suicide bomber. One can hardly expect a child to recognise his father's charities were in fact funding extremist groups.

No adult, let alone a teenager, should have to spend years in a steel mesh cage at Guantanamo Bay undergoing brutish forms of interrogation and detained without charge or trial until years have elapsed. The criminal justice systems of all civilised nations treat child defendants differently to adult ones.

When some Western countries condemn the likes of Robert Mugabe but are happy to commit human rights abuses against their own civilians, they simply confirm what Gandhi suspected all along - that Western civilisation perhaps really is just a good idea.

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and writer. An edited version of this article was first published in the New Zealand Herald on Tuesday 22 July 2008.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf