A Jewish primary school in 1970s Birmingham produced a Guantanamo Bay detainee. Sara Wajid meets Moazzam Begg, now trying to build a new career after being released without charges
The harmonious multi-cultural nature of Moazzam Begg's school years in 1970s Birmingham is a heartening counter-narrative running through his autobiography, published last month.
Begg was abducted by US agents in Pakistan in the panicky months after September 11, suspected of being an al-Qaeda terrorist, seemingly on the basis of his British Muslim identity, his past trips to Bosnia and Chechnya to support Muslim causes and because he was found in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan establishing a girls' school. At the end of 2004, after a horrific stint at Bagram in Afghanistan and almost two years imprisoned in solitary confinement in Camp Echo at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Begg received some uplifting snippets of news from home, including a touching act of support from a childhood classmate.
"Mischa Moselle had not only remembered me, but also shown his solidarity after all these years. I hadn't seen or heard from him since 1979. He wrote to The Guardian: 'I feel it is impossible that this organiser of a charitable school in Afghanistan took away none of the liberal ideas imparted by the King David Jewish junior and infants' school in Birmingham.'"
In January 2005, Begg was released without charges. Speaking to me outside his former school, Begg delights in explaining how, as a boy, he happily wore a yarmulke (skullcap) at Yom Kippur celebrations with the approval of his liberal Muslim father, who had chosen the school deliberately: "I could eat everything in the canteen at the Jewish school." Later, at Mosley secondary school, he recalls: "I had to be quite careful about what I ate and felt marginalised. I was in a minority at both schools, but the kind of minority I was in at the Jewish school ironically was not as sensitive to me." Sociologist Paul Gilroy has described Begg's father's decision to send him to King David as an example of "convivial multi-culturalism".
In the 1980s, Begg was one of only 10 Asians in a year group of 150 at Mosley. The 37-year-old father of four says: "I look back at it with an amazing sense of nostalgia. I used to get along with the white kids. People would say things like 'Paki' sometimes, but you learned to give as good as you got. It helped my confidence. If I grew up in a predominantly Asian school, with no interaction at all with any of the other indigenous communities, I wouldn't know anything about them until my later life."
He joined an anti-racist street gang called The Lynx at the age of 15 after his brother was beaten up by local skinheads. Belonging to the gang of Kashmiri, Irish, Pakistani and black youths was empowering and bolstered his sense of British identity, but it affected his promising academic career badly and led to his arrest for fighting skinheads (the case against him disintegrated later).
"The first two to three years I excelled and enjoyed my lessons. But then my two favourite lessons, Latin and classical studies, were scrapped. I was in one of the top classes, but was becoming one of the worst performers because of lateness and playing truant. It was not so bad that teachers had to write letters home, but it was bad enough for my grades to slip - I only scraped by in my O-levels."
Setting up a girls' school in Kabul with your wife and family is a far cry from street fights with skinheads. "The whole process of my Islamisation was initially reactionary, but then I started learning about the spirit of Islam. Once I got married, had my own children and started to think about what I wanted for their education and upbringing, I remembered some of the 'loose' girls at school and wanted to protect my daughter from these types of influences. I was no longer a Lynx member or a young man going off on a rash trip to Bosnia, but a father thinking about these issues."
He met several former Lynx members in Birmingham in autumn last year at a friend's funeral. "Although most were settled, some were still getting into the odd fight. They were in touch with the Muslim street culture, which looked back at The Lynx with admiration. But their political views had been formed in the wake of the war on terror and in an ensuing atmosphere of Islamophobia. A couple were now practising Muslims, but the majority were not. They didn't have anything good to say about radical Muslim clerics, but, predictably, they all detested Blair and Bush even more."
Since returning to his family on the outskirts of Birmingham, where his children attend the local primary school, Begg has been busy writing his book and speaking publicly around the country about the issues raised by it. Once the book tours are over, he hopes to finally complete his law training and to work on human rights cases such as his own.
Enemy Combatant: a British Muslim's journey to Guantanamo and back, by Moazzam Begg with Victoria Brittain, is published by The Free Press, pound;18.99