If forgiveness is all, then politics can be labelled a Christian enterprise.
For years the Irish Republican Army (IRA) waged a terrorist war on the British State and on the Protestant Unionist population and their militant organisations in Northern Ireland.
Then Tony Blair’s government brought the leaders of the IRA, implicated individually in several acts of terror and murder, into peace talks with the leaders of the Unionist parties and under what is known as the Good Friday Agreement, held elections to form a joint government of Northern Ireland.
The constitution they worked out gave the minority Catholic population a guaranteed share of seats and ministries.
Today one of the leading ex-military leaders of the IRA, Martin McGuiness, now the deputy chief minister under the power-sharing agreement with the ex-virulently, anti-Catholic Democratic Unionist Party led by Ian Paisley, delivered a speech asking Catholics to regard the Protestant population, on whom he personally waged war as their Irish brothers and sisters.
O tempora, O mores! One may, of course, see it not quite as Christian reconciliation and forgiveness but as the pragmatism that has been British policy for centuries.
They didn’t forgive Joan of Arc or make her Queen of Orleans, but they did learn to live and make trade deals with George Washington and republican America, and nearly two centuries later with an independent Indian subcontinent.
Still later, and more remarkably, with the government of Kenya’s first Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta whose Mau Mau had been fought till a wind of change blew through Africa, as terrorists. The wolf lay down with the lamb, and now a former lamb (victim at the time, but now turned wolf) threatens to sue the British government for massive damages alleging that he was tortured with their consent.
He probably, not undoubtedly, was. Abdel Hakim Belhadj has emerged today as the leader of the Libyan revolution in Tripoli. Seven years ago, Blair and other leaders in the West were trying by diplomatic means to bring the rogue, potentially nuclear regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi to see sense and stay out of the nuclear club.
They made peace and bargained with the formerly antagonistic Gaddafi. The past, incidents such as the Libyan bombing of the Pan American passenger flight over Scotland, would not be forgotten, but left to rest.
Gaddafi’s Libya would be embraced as internationally decent. Gaddafi agreed and Libya was friends again. Part of their extended friendship was the contact between the Gaddafi regime and Britain’s MI6.
The man in-charge of this liaison in Britain was one Sir Mark Allen. In the last few months as the rebels in Libya closed in on Tripoli and took control, yard by yard and painfully, of the Gaddafi regime’s compounds and offices, they discovered documents perhaps deliberately left open to call their attention to them.
Belhadj, now commander of operations in this sweep on Tripoli was shown letters sent to Gaddafi’s secret police by Sir Mark Allen. The letters referred to Belhadj who had been part of a militant outfit with connections to al-Qaeda.
In 2004, Belhadj had been captured as a terrorist by western agents and was, with the polite and ready complicity of MI6 and Sir Mark, sent to Libya and delivered to the Gaddafi regime who wanted custody of a man they regarded as a dangerous enemy.
Belhadj, now triumphant in Tripoli, says he was tortured for information by Gaddafi’s goons and points the finger at MI6 for what the Americans call his “extraordinary rendition”. MI6 and the then Labour foreign secretary Jack Straw now claim that they had sent him back with an assurance from Gaddafi that he would not be tortured.
In addition, they said they sent two of their officers to Libya to ensure that Belhadj had not been tortured. Belhadj admits that the agents did visit him and that he indicated to them without speech, as he knew his cell was bugged, that he had been tortured.
The Brits now have to claim that they had transferred this terrorist with clean consciences. It was rendition, but it didn’t have the euphemistic ‘extraordinary’ tag. One may think, and I do, that accepting that sort of assurance from Gaddafi’s regime is like accepting an assurance from the Philistine armies that if they captured David he would be fed grapes and supplied with 72 virgins.
The British government can justifiably claim that it assisted the rebels under Belhadj to capture Tripoli and virtually triumph over Gaddafi.
But the old algebra of one’s enemy’s enemies being one’s friends doesn’t seem to automatically apply in this case. Belhadj, with running a revolution and participating in the transition to democratic rule still on his hands, has found the time to threaten to sue MI6 in the British courts.
He has first of all asked for an apology. This puts the British government in an awkward position, like the ‘have you stopped beating your wife?’ question.
If they apologise to cement the bonds between an eminence who may emerge as an important member of the new Libyan regime, they will have admitted complicity in torture.
The present head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, has said publicly that the organisation is against torture of any sort and in any circumstances and would not use it even if it was likely that information thus gained would stop an act of terrorism.
We’ve come a long way since Joan of Arc.
(Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London The views expressed by the author are personal.)