Never Trust the Artist; Trust the Tale: Cageprisoners and Iconography

              As a veteran of the sixties, I have lived through enough assassinations of black leaders to have felt physically ill when I saw this photo:

            It was posted with a headline: “Breaking News: Barack Obama is Dead.” What kind of political group would think this kind of thing is acceptable? Only one with very right wing politics.
            But, surprise! This picture didn’t come from the American far right. They prefer white racist iconography like this:
            An email with this picture was sent out last month by Marilyn Davenport of the Central Committee of the Orange County Republican Party. The caption said, “Now you know why no birth certificate.” 
            The picture of an assassinated Obama did not appear on a Republican or even a white racist website. It comes from the website of Cageprisoners in England.  (Note: you will no longer find the original May 9 picture and full article on the Cageprisoners website; the piece was cleaned up after widespread outrage. But a search for the headline or text below will turn them up.)
            Cageprisoners, which calls itself a human rights organization, has been adopted by Amnesty International as a partner and the voice of Guantanamo prisoners.
            The caption under the picture of Obama says, “American War Criminal Barack Obama has been killed by Pakistani security forces in the UK, Prime Minister Hasan Abdullah of Pakistan has said.” It describes a firefight in a compound, explains why Obama was targeted by Pakistan for assassination, and continues: “Pak­istani media reports said that the body was cre­mated at the stake to con­form with Chris­t­ian prac­tice of a dig­ni­fied bur­ial and to pre­vent any grave becom­ing a shrine.”
            The piece, meant as satirical treatment of the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, was written by Fahad Ansari, a London-based lawyer and researcher at the Islamic Human Rights Commission. Ansari is also the one who wrote Cageprisoner’s response to Gita Sahgal after she was suspended as head of Amnesty International’s gender unit. She was suspended because she went public with her concerns about Amnesty’s close relationship to Cageprisoners and its leader, Moazzam Begg, as quoted in the Sunday Times:
            “I believe the campaign fundamentally damages Amnesty International’s integrity and, more importantly, constitutes a threat to human rights. . . .To be appearing on platforms with Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban, whom we treat as a human rights defender, is a gross error of judgment.”        
            To Ansari, this accusation revealed that “an Islamophobic mindset exists even within those that the world looks up to as defenders of human rights for all. . . .  Perhaps she has bought into the US propaganda which was used to justify Beggs detention in the first place.”
            His recent jeu d’esprit on Bin Laden’s assassination provoked enough immediate controversy so that Cageprisoners had to issue a clarification
            “The idea of the piece was to highlight the immorality of extrajudicial killings to those who justify and celebrate the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. . . .Cageprisoners is a human rights NGO dedicated to due process and rule of law. We unequivocally condemn extrajudicial killings, regardless of who they are against. Indeed, the purpose of this piece was to highlight that very fact. . . .
            “It was clear that this was a satirical piece highlighting the fact that the episode raised many questions which were pertinent to the application of the rule of law and international norms and principles. It was not in any way as some have alleged a wish or notice of intention. This is a distorted reading of the article and reflective of the Islamophobic lens through which Muslim writers are seen.”
            A close reading of the piece, however, leaves room for doubt. In his Studies in Classic American Literature, D.H. Lawrence writes about the distance between intention and execution, and how often the story that is actually told may belie the purpose of the author:
            “The artist usually sets out—or used to—to point a moral and adorn a tale. The tale, however, points the other way, as a rule. Two blankly opposing morals, the artist's and the tale's. Never trust the artist. Trust the tale.”
            No one sensitive to tone could mistake the sheer delight in the Cageprisoners article at the idea that Obama— who “ordered almost 200 attacks in North and South Waziristan between 2009 and 2011 in which almost 2000 people were killed” —would get a taste of his own medicine. The author is unable to contain his glee at the idea of such revenge. And in fact, Ansari voiced similar sentiments in a 2003 article about Guantanamo in which he projected the following response to 9/11 onto a hypothetical Pakistani prisoner:
            “Let us try and look at this from the viewpoint of a Pakistani detainee. September 11 2001 – as you hear about the atrocities committed in the U.S., you cannot help but feel a little happiness that for once, the hunter has become the hunted. Yes, thousands of innocents perished in the attack but for once, the Americans will feel the pain and anguish felt by victims of American terror around the world from places as far apart as Guatemala to Iraq to Japan. As wrong as it may be, it is difficult to suppress the sentiment of justice being done.” 
            To more fully grasp Cageprisoners’ approach to the killing of civilians, look at this picture:
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            Who is this kindly looking man? Santa Claus with his beard dyed black? A neighborhood prophet?  No.  He is Anwar al Awlaki as pictured on the Cageprisoners website.
            Al-Awlaki, an American citizen, is al Qaeda’s chief English language propagandist, and a leader of its network in the Arabian peninsula. For more detail, see these blogs from August and November 2010.  Or google him. Or read his well known 2009 publication, 44 Ways to Support Jihad, available on many websites and as a pdf. 
            And, for a clearer idea of where Cageprisoners is coming from than you can get from their own disclaimers, read their website article on al-Awlaki and contrast it with other sources. Take, for instance, the Fort Hood massacre, in which Major Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist who had corresponded extensively with al-Awlaki first, shot 13 people and wounded 30 more. After the shootings, al-Awlaki posted a commendation of Hasan on his website (which has since been taken down) saying:
            “The fact that fighting against the U.S. army is an Islamic duty today cannot be disputed. No scholar with a grain of Islamic knowledge can defy the clear cut proofs that Muslims today have the right—rather the duty—to fight against American tyranny. Nidal has killed soldiers who were about to be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in order to kill Muslims. The American Muslims who condemned his actions have committed treason against the Muslim Ummah and have fallen into hypocrisy.... May Allah grant our brother Nidal patience, perseverance, and steadfastness, and we ask Allah to accept from him his great heroic act. Ameen.”
            In its article on al-Awlaki, when discussing the Fort Hood massacre, the Cageprisoners website does not refer to this statement or give any details about the shooting. It says merely:
            On the 5 November 2009 the “Fort Hood Shooting” happened. Nidal Hasan is said to have killed thirteen and wounded twenty-eight soldiers preparing to go to Afghanistan and Iraq.  On the 7th November 2009 Al-Awlaki is said to have posted on his website thanks for Hasan, a hero.
            This is the rhetorical method of the entire article; al Awlaki “is said” to have done this or that, the implication being that it is all innuendo and he is just another victim of persecution and Islamophobia. The article ends: "If you know Anwar Al-Awlaki, have any more information or simply want to help, then please contact Cageprisoners' Middle East caseworker:"
            How can such whitewashing of a man who openly, frequently, and on the public record has called for the assassination of civilians, be reconciled with Cageprisoners' claim that they “unequivocally condemn extrajudicial killings?”  
            One can, of course, claim anything. But as Thoreau once said, referring to the practice of watering down milk, “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.”
            How does Amnesty International hopes to retain any credibility while it continues its association with Cageprisoners?

            After I posted this, a friend wrote to ask my own opinion of extrajudicial killings, specifically that of Osama Bin Laden.
            I believe in the rule of law and think extrajudicial killings are a violation of human rights.  Bin Laden should have been captured and brought to trial, though it beats me where he could have been tried or by whom since Congress has not allowed even people from Guantanamo to be brought to trial within the US.  I think the same about al-Awlaki; he should be captured and brought to trial.
            Such trials, especially if they had testimony from Muslim witnesses and victims, would not only uphold the rule of law but be a valuable way of exposing what salafi-jihadis are really like.  They would also create an historical record, as did the Eichmann trial.  I would like to see members of the Bush administration be similarly tried for war crimes.
            Further, I would like to see the US join the International Criminal Court, so it could hand off some of these trials and internationalize them. But in order for this to happen, our political class would have to be able to give up the illusion that the US can run the world single-handed and with impunity.  In fact, the US cannot even keep its own economy afloat, partly because of an insane military budget.  But it is going to take a while before our politicians are ready to admit this.


Thank you for this. And I'm

Thank you for this. And I'm glad that there's enough freedom of expression on the Internet so that CagePrisoners can exhibit to the wider world what the organisation is really like. The easy option some would suggest is to ban such sites - I don't want it banned, precisely so that it can be challenged, as you have, so eloquently.

Copyright © Meredith Tax 2010. All Rights Reserved.