This afternoon I was blessed to be able to take part in the burial of a great man. Mirza Azmatullah Begg, known more widely as Azmat Begg, the father of former British Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg, died a few days ago in the early hours of Saturday 27 August in a hospital in Birmingham, UK.
At the burial earlier today, several former Guantanamo detainees and other prisoners were present. The presence of all these men in one place on one day was a miracle in itself, one that was unthinkable many years ago but one that the man buried today helped to make possible.
When I met Moazzam I said to him,
“Your dad was there for you during the most important moments in your life. Thank Allah that you are present here today at the most important moment of his life. Your dad has been buried today, proud of you and proud of the person you are today.”
After the burial, Moazzam addressed the mourners and said:
“I always dreaded, during the years that I was taken away and imprisoned in many countries, hearing the news one day that my father had died. Every night I prayed that I would not receive, like I saw many others receive, the news that my father had died. I am truly blessed by Allah to be able to be here today and bury my father.”
Uncle Azmat was known for the three years he spent from 2002-2005 campaigning for his son Moazzam to be released from Guantanamo Bay. During the course of his campaign he travelled all over the UK, addressed audiences and the media, frequently breaking down into tears at the plight of his son. He even travelled all the way to the United States where he gave a press conference outside the US Supreme Court in Washington DC.
My father, Ashfaq Ahmad, told me that Uncle Azmat was the inspiration behind my father’s own campaign to bring me home from prison.
Although I regret never having met Uncle Azmat in person, I followed Uncle Azmat on the television both before and after I went to prison in 2004. For me, one of his most poignant moments was during a 2004 BBC Panorama documentary that was made about his efforts to free his son.
At one point in the documentary, the BBC presenter Vivian White informs Uncle Azmat that the UK Foreign Office has just announced (in January 2004) that four British men are to be released from Guantanamo.
Uncle Azmat asks him, “Do we have the names?”
White replies to Uncle Azmat in a sympathetic tone: “Mr.Begg, I am afraid it is not the news you are looking for. It is not the news you are looking for.”
Upon hearing this, Uncle Azmat, full of conviction and hope, calmly replies to him: “Don’t worry. It will come one day.”
And, just as he was so sure of it, one day did it come, a year later in January 2005, when his son Moazzam was released from Guantanamo Bay and reunited with his family.
What makes Uncle Azmat remarkable is that on the face of it he was an ordinary person. He was neither a leader nor a speaker nor an activist. He did not have a long list of medals and achievements to his name.
But in his long life of 77 years, it was those three years in which he discovered his mission and his moment. It is for those three years that thousands around the world today remember him. And it is for those three years that I consider this man a hero.
There are times when the magnitude of the situation is so great that even heroes are afraid to stand up to the mission. It is precisely at moments such as this that ordinary men must go where heroes fear to tread.
Uncle Azmat must surely have departed from this world proud of the five sons he left behind, in particular his son Moazzam.
The word “Azmat” has many meanings in Arabic, Turkish and Urdu: glory, high reputation, distinction. But for me, one of the meanings of Uncle Azmat’s name sums up his entire life:
May Allah have mercy on him.