12 Simple principles to build peace in your community

If you switch on the TV news, open the newspaper or click onto a popular news website, there’s always news about a terrorist attack, war, ongoing conflict and a general lack of peace amongst different groups of people. In an increasingly globalised world, we should understand each other better, stand ever more united and strive for peace. Sadly, the truth is quite the opposite. There’s conflict in Israel/Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, all over the world in fact…

As individuals and citizens, how do we deal with this? How does this relate to us? How can we make positive changes to enable us to live in peace? Well, I’m not an expert in diplomacy or international relations and this is a blog not a thesis, so I’m not going to go into the deep depths of peace keeping and international politics, but I’d just like to reflect on a key few principles that we can follow to help make the world a better place. Inspired by a recent conference I went to on terrorism and peace building last March hosted by Uniting for Peace including President Vijay Mehta’s piece on “Ten Ways to Stop Terrorism”, here’s my take on community peace building.

Now, you may be thinking: “How can we honestly make a difference?” Well the reality is that change really does start at home folks! If we build strong united communities, we can fight hate crime, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia and take a stand against divisive politics. These are real issues which work their way up from the bottom. If we fight toxic narratives, common misconceptions and negative stereotypes, the media and politicians lose their power to drive communities apart, scapegoat groups and divide people. Ultimately, that’s where conflict starts and that’s what war is – a lack of peace, tolerance, understanding, compassion and ability to live alongside others…

Rule #1: Treat others the way you wish to be treated

The good old Golden Rule says it all: empathy, tolerance and peace. This principle teaches you to love yourself and love others. It spans cultures and faiths and is a universal age old concept which can’t fail! For information on the golden rule across various faiths see here.

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Rule #2: Listen to hear what others have to say, not to speak

Engage in dialogue with an open mind and the real will to listen to others. Only then will you be able to understand each other and build bridges. Change cannot happen and peace cannot be established if people are unable to communicate with others; to listen to their experiences and views and show empathy, understanding and compassion.

-Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.- --Stephen R. Covey (1).jpg

Rule #3: Accept difference of opinion

We all have different opinions and we may not all agree on the same things. Building compromise and mutual understanding is incredibly important. Sometimes we simply need to agree to disagree and recognise that there are different beliefs and forms of expression other than our own.

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Rule #4: Do not fight violence with violence 

Violence is never the answer. Peace can only be brought through free will, dialogue, empathy and forgiveness. Do not stoop to same level as someone who is violent and therefore continue the vicious cycle. This does not change anything.

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Rule #5: Fight extremism in all its forms

Do not categorise terrorism as a religious phenomena and single out or stereotype certain groups of people. Extremism is a human “disease” which can take many forms. All forms of extremism and hatred must be fought in unity as a community or else further division and conflict will arise.

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Rule #6: Accept that identity is fluid 

Any one person can have multiple aspects to their identity. Identity comprises many elements such as nationality, cultural-linguistic origin, age and religious beliefs. Identity can and does change, taking on many new forms and means of personal expression as we learn new languages, move home, adopt new beliefs, marry into a different tradition and experience life! Do not put people into a box. Avoid categorising people according to an us vs. them narrative and remember: we are all singular individuals with unique experiences. Such approaches and narratives are highly divisive and unproductive.

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Rule #7:  Avoid stereotypes 

Take people for the individuals they are. Avoid misconceptions, stereotypes and toxic narratives and get to know a person instead. This will avoid offence, misunderstandings and ultimately help you to create a real bond with others based on true understanding, empathy and trust. After all, no one likes to be judged – especially from the outside.

Stereotypes lose their power when the world is found to be more complex than the stereotype would suggest... (1).jpg

Rule #8: Approach the media with skepticism

Don’t just believe everything you see on the TV, in the newspapers or on the internet. Think objectively for yourself. Get to know the people and facts behind any story and don’t fall for media scapegoating. Stand united.

The media's the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that's power. Because they control the minds of the masses..jpg

Rule #9: Be careful of the language you use

Your choice of language, alongside tone of voice and intonation all convey a message. Make sure that that message is positive. Be mindful of the language you use, avoiding anything with misogynistic, racist, Islamophobic, homophobic or anti-Semitic overtones. Do not underestimate the power of language – for better or for worse! And remember, it’s not always what you say, it’s how you say it.

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Rule #10: Let go of the past

You can’t move on if you’re stuck in the past. Learn lessons but also learn to move forward for the greater good. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you agree with everything, it means you’re able to move on without grudges and resentment. Only in this way can communities heal and move forward together.

Inner peace can be reached only when we practice forgiveness. Forgiveness is letting go of the past, (1).jpg

Rule #11: Stand up for others – not just your own community

If we only fight prejudice and injustice against our own friends, family and community groups then we ultimately fail to protect the wider community and society as a whole. Discrimination, bigotry and prejudice know no boundaries. For a community to live in peace and harmony, everyone’s rights and freedoms must be respected.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist.Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.Then they came for the Je (1).jpg

Rule #12: Celebrate diversity: learn about and actively engage with those different to you

Learn about other communities, religions, nationalities and people. If you don’t learn about others, you’ll never understand them and therefore miss out on the opportunity to build bonds, friendships and common goals and interests. If you don’t know your neighbours, then how can you come together as a united community? Learn about other people and have fun. After all, diversity is what makes the world so interesting!

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So, there you have it. 12 simple principles to follow from the ground up to make the world a little more harmonious, understanding, tolerant and ultimately peaceful. Never think you can’t make a difference – you really can!

Salam!

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Misogyny in North Africa: My experiences as a British Muslimah

In a previous post I talked about sexism in the British workplace and in keeping with the theme of sexism, I’d like to talk about my experiences as a British Muslimah in relation to North African culture. I’m married to a North African man and I’ve travelled to, worked and lived in a variety of North African countries both pre- and post-conversion and before and after getting married. In this post, I’d like to look at the issues I’ve really noticed since converting to Islam and travelling to the region including first, second and third hand experiences of blatant discrimination, sexism, hypocrisy and misogyny that women in the area face. Now, I’m not saying these things happen across the board and I’ve certainly not included examples from very traditional circles but I’d like to talk about some experiences which I’ve found difficult, confusing, frustrating, upsetting and in some cases have made me feel utterly trapped and powerless – all of which are against (moderate) Islamic teachings. For more on the issue of sexism and Islam, see my previous post on gender jihad which has already touched on what is and isn’t Islamic when it comes to women and the unfortunate way some are treated.

Primarily, the overriding problem and any example of misogyny I can think of (mostly) seems to be related to the following overarching concept:

“A woman’s place is in the home”

First of all, not all women in the region are at home every second of the day. However this concept really underpins the problems I’ve encountered. It affects every aspect of women’s lives. There are many many women with jobs – most of the doctors I’ve met are in fact women and many women do hold roles outside the home. What’s more, women and girls can also enjoy being at home relaxing in their free time but the reality is that I’ve faced gossiping, backbiting and criticism for “leaving the house too much” (women sadly do this too folks!). Whilst on holiday, being busy organising and getting married and taking my father out so we could enjoy a holiday, I’ve been subjected to wagging tongues trying to control  my life. The manipulation of Islam to the extent that women are told they need to stay at home in safe places to extreme lengths (for obscene periods of time) is wrong and unhealthy yet it is used to perpetuate a deeply ingrained misogyny.

Inside the home: no need for a man’s input

On a practical level, this means that the home is the woman’s domain and most men don’t lift even a finger at home. The kitchen is out of bounds to male guests who may want to cook as the kitchen is for females – of all ages – and females only. No men allowed! Men generally will not learn to cook but will boil an egg, fry chips or make an omelette if hungry and their wife/sister/mum is not around. In restaurants however, all the waiters and chefs are male. It is generally seen as shameful for women to serve men in public but to serve men in the home is viewed as normal. If a man does cook, this will be kept quiet to save face.

If a husband works full time and his wife is at home with the kids, you’d expect that she would take care of domestic matters but that shouldn’t exclude men from helping out and taking responsibility. For women who work full-time – let’s not forget that we all need a decent standard of living and many many many girls go to university and want a job – she can generally not expect the housework to be divided. I’ve been told that women are apparently “happy” to have a full-time job and do all of the housework (and essentially have two jobs). Of course, if you live with in-laws/parents, there is help but domestic duties – cooking, cleaning etc. – are carried out by women/females only. ONE thing however: men will often do the shopping. Some markets are also off limits to women due to apparently “dodgy behaviour” in such areas fully saturated with men, which are deemed inappropriate for women. To be fair, by the sounds of it I’d not want to go but there’s something ironic there about only men being able to buy food that they’re never going to cook themselves…

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In the home, cooking is seen as a woman’s job – even if she works full time (Photo: Elizabeth Arif-Fear – CC)


Outside the home: ignoring women’s needs 

What does all of this mean outside of the home? As I’ve already explained, it means being judged based on your movements and being subject to gossip for being “outside the house too much”, even if you’re simply shopping, meeting friends, eating out etc. This concept of a women’s place being the home really does have much wider ramifications. It essentially dictates to society that the public sphere is male – in other words: “leave it to the males” as “things are best run by men”. This translates to needing men’s permission to do anything and women’s issues requiring male validation. Here comes the unfortunate dichotomy of public (male) and private (female) spheres. We’ve heard it all before but it’s true!

On a social level, I found this meant I was often excluded within my own personal circles – even when I was with men. Imagine you’re in a busy tourist agency and as the only female you’re ignored in a three person conversation. Out of respect due to culture/religion? Well…the man in question booking your trip is told you speak French in an attempt to include you in the conversation. You have to butt in and take charge in order to be included in your own activities, obviously feeling very very frustrated. Or, in another scenario: a male stops talking to his wife without a word of warning to hold a conversation with an incoming male. She’s the second class invisible third party…

This also means that facilities prioritise men and that there is a severe lack of public facilities for women. For example, the local coffee shop is the men’s “palace”. Yes, everyone needs a place to chill out with their friends or to get some time on your own but why are there no coffee places for girls? The Gulf for example has plenty of women-only facilities. The response is “girls belong at home” and “girls want to stay at home”. One question comes to mind though: all the time…? In terms of dividing public money, I’ve seen male sports facilities but nothing for girls. If money is an issue, why not scale down the buildings? It would appear that women don’t need and/or deserve a gym and that men come first. This is no trivial matter folks. If the public sphere is dominated with men, then half the population are both under- and misrepresented. If there’s a problem, the women tend to suffer and I have indeed found that it seems to put the women at a disadvantage. Imagine this: “illegal sexual activity” is going on in public toilets. What action is taken? The women’s toilets are closed. So, we have functioning male toilets but nothing for the ladies. Whilst the men have toilet facilities, ladies are left with nothing. Not exactly ideal during that time of the month…

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Local cafés: a men’s world… (Photo: Xuoan Duquesne – CC)

This leads to another point. The lack of female representation also means that the women are not only under-represented in terms of opinions and facilities but that women’s specific needs are not met. Who understands women better than women themselves? For example, going back to the topic of toilets – do not expect there to be a sanitary bin in a public toilet. If you need to dispose of used personal sanitary items you need to take a mini plastic bag and your own pads (no vending machines). This may sound like a small issue to some guys out there but it really shows a complete lack of thought and understanding of women and women’s needs. As a foreigner, when you’re faced with all the frustrating other “norms” and you’re missing simple basic sanitation facilities, it just gets too much!

Whilst there is plenty of room for women in the public sphere to shop and buy shoes, scarves, handbags etc. (no problem with that – I love shopping!), what about recognising their needs and giving them real outlets to have a voice? Even when buying underwear, you should also never expect to a female sales assistant. Lingerie is often sold amongst other generic items of clothing in clothing and accessory shops. I don’t know about you but I’d not want to buy intimate items from male sales personnel with no women around for sizing advice. Women need the care and assistance of other ladies when buying their undergarments. In short, women need to be more visible and taken into greater consideration.

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Don’t expect to find sanitary towel bins in the ladies’ toilets… (Photo: Wrote – CC)


Public and private spheres: Male attitudes dominate

On a more serious note, the above really points to a deeply ingrained patriarchy that goes beyond an inability to go out for a coffee or find a female shop assistant when you want one (they do exist though btw!). No, what it means is that women have to accept the social standards set by men – which are hypocritical and clearly point to a double standard in favour of men. For example, divorced women are “a thing”. The stigma is decreasing from what I’ve heard and whilst divorce should never be taken lightly, neither should a woman be defined/pointed out as “divorced” in a conversation… A woman is actually “left on the shelf” when she’s “past her younger years” but for men this is not a problem. When a slightly older lady does marry, she is seen as a very lucky exception!

Such sexist double standards also translate to the way in which men feel they have the right to regulate women’s clothing, as well as overall general behaviour. Extreme interpretations of Islam have led me to be told I should not even talk on a mini-bus. Yes, women should remain modest but they do not need to (and must not) be silenced. Women in earlier Islamic years were scholars, teachers and architects – and still are! The men often shout and bellow down the phone but a woman cannot sit and talk on a bus. It also makes me so sad and angry to have to say this but some women and girls are forced to cover their hair and bodies. This is totally un-Islamic but happens. Parents and spouses have been known to force their daughters/wives to wear a headscarf (khimar/hijab) and other longer outer garments (jilbab). This is an insult to God, our right to free will and the women who freely choose to cover themselves in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries, risking Islamophobic hate crime and discrimination in the workplace, street and even within their families. Yes, sadly it works both ways. Some girls in the Muslim community also face difficulty in wearing a scarf or face veil. Why can’t women just be left to make their own choices? What is in the heart is personal.

If we look at men’s behaviour though, there are clear double standards and hypocrisies. Smoking is haram (forbidden in Islam) but many many men smoke. I’m not here to judge though. My point is this: fathers, husbands and brothers would have a fit if their daughters, sisters and wives started smoking yet they carry on and puff away…

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The home: “a women’s place” (Photo: Groundhopping Murseburg – CC)


Social brainwashing: male and female perpetrators

So, I’ve given you a few of my experiences and insights. When I’ve expressed some of my frustration and disbelief at these issues, my concerns have been acknowledged. Women themselves have agreed that this is down to culture, not religion. However, women – as well as men – also perpetuate these habits and enjoin in gossiping about women who “go against the grain” in perfectly moral, decent ways. The fact that some women acknowledge that restrictive norms are cultural (not Islamic) but also enjoin in or do not stand up to this this is what makes the reality of such misogyny really truly tragic. Many women have been brainwashed to follow these sexist norms which deem women and girls who are outside of the home more than deemed acceptable etc. as “behaving inappropriately” and the top end could seem them branded as “wh****”. By gossiping and backbiting away about the social activities of other women and girls, such females are “accepting” and keeping alive such outdated misogynistic values which can mean that any girl who does fight back or ignore these rules, risks her reputation and that of their family and ultimately her (and even her family’s) ability to marry and live a happy socially integrated life.

If you don’t believe in the poisonous power of social brainwashing in leading women to accept sexism and misogyny watch this video, showing one Algerian woman’s attitude to domestic violence. As you can see, women – as well as men – in believing in and accepting, rather than standing up and speaking out against these issues, are perpetuating sexist outdated and dangerous gender norms, stereotypes and even violence. From gossiping about women, to the very top end of the scale where some are even “happily accepting” domestic violence, it’s the same problem. On the one hand the report was made by an Algerian TV channel shows that awareness has been raised from the inside but if you watch the video, you’ll see that there is some severe social brainwashing and normalising of immoral sexist practices. Looking at the statistics in the video, domestic violence is a huge issue in itself, accepted by a large section of women.

These women are victims but will live on to victimise future generations of women and girls if things don’t change. Such men and women will be teaching their sons and daughters to carry and accept these practices. Misogyny in North Africa exists on micro and macro levels but remember this: no matter how small the incidents or examples are, do not underestimate the negative impact they can have on the lives of women and girls – it all comes from the same source…

Photo credits:

Babak Fakhamzadeh (feature image) (CC)

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So, you think human rights aren’t part of Islam? Well, here’s an expert opinion…

There’s a lot of talk surrounding the “incompatibility” of human rights discourse and Islamic teachings, from both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Obviously, I don’t believe that is true and that’s what this blog is about – spreading the message and raising awareness! I wanted to get an expert opinion, to really delve into the issue to show people out there what Islam really is all about and I’m delighted to have spoken with expert in Islamic theology and Human Rights Arnold Yasin Mol. Arnold is an academic at Leiden University (Netherlands) and lecturer in Islamic Studies at Fahm Institute. As such, he was able to provide a full insight on how Islam relates to human rights discourse past and present. Here’s what he had to say- you might just be surprised!

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VoS: What does “being a Muslim” mean?

A: In Islamic theology, this first of all is defined by the verbal declaration of the Shahada, the testimony of one’s acceptance of monotheism and Muhammad’s messengerhood. Everybody who has professed this, or is being brought up by parents who profess this, is technically considered a Muslim. […] There are beliefs upheld by certain [people] in the past and present which negate the Shahada in such a clear way that, at least from a Sunni theology point of view, they lay outside the fold of Islam. But the majority of schools and sects from the Sunni, Shia, and Ibadhi schools of thoughts are considered Muslim. Even though these schools can consider the other as mistaken or misguided in several issues, and therefore ‘not rightfully guided’, they do not reject their status as Muslims. This intrapluralism accepted in classical Islam is largely misunderstood by many Muslims today, so thankfully there are projects as the Amman message. Apart from this issue of label and identity, there is of course in each school an ideal concept of how a Muslim must believe and act. […] I generally summarise being Muslim as it is stated in Qur’an verse 3:18 which links monotheism to ethical activism. Being a witness of God’s oneness has ethical consequences, one is obliged to stand up for justice and goodness as these are all attributes of God Himself. 

VoS: What does Islam teach (or not teach) in terms of human rights?

A: Classical Islam divided beliefs, rituals, and social acts between falling under the rights of God (Huquq Allah) and human rights (Huquq al-Nass/Adamiyya). As Muslims, we try to fulfill the rights of God (belief and rituals, and public good) and of Man (personal human rights) as the Qur’an was revealed, according to classical theology, to pursue the welfare (maslaha) of mankind. As God is needless of His rights, He doesn’t need our beliefs or rituals, it means the fulfillment of His rights is a private matter between a person and God, between the Creator and His servant. But as humans do need rights to exist, the twelfth century theologian al-Razi says, these must always take precedent.

These concepts of Huquq were already formed in the 8th century, centuries before European thought developed their own concepts of rights. These Huquq were understood to be universal, whatever one’s creed, age, or mental state, and were central in classical Islam in their construction of law and ethics, but also theology. The question why God allowed polytheism and heresy on earth was explained through His radical monotheism, He doesn’t need creation for Himself to exist, so whatever creation believes does not serve Him. Fulfilling God’s rights in relation to belief and ritual is a matter of rational understanding and love for God, but any lapses in His rights He allows because of His mercy for, and independence of, creation. Humans on the other hand need their rights to be protected for them to exist fully, and so the main function of any society is to protect and sustain these rights. In classical Islam there developed a long list of human rights, but they all revolved around three fundamental rights: the right of inviolability (haqq al-ismah), meaning every life is sacred, the right of freedom (haqq al-Hurriyya), meaning the right to not be a slave, and the right of property (haqq al-Malakiyya). So, Islam acknowledges the concept of human rights, and the absolute centrality and precedence of human rights in both the political and religious sphere. Modern human rights declarations are the result of centuries of global theological and philosophical thought, and are not simply a Western project.

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VoS: Certain Islamic preachers state that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for example is a “kafir document” and non-Islamic. What would you say to such statements?

A: Modern human rights declarations are the result of centuries of global theological and philosophical thought, and are not simply a Western project. The UNDHR of 1948 was set up by an international team of theologians, philosophers and jurists. Earlier pre-WWII international treaties had been signed by the Ottoman caliph, and contemporary post-WWII treaties have been developed and signed by almost all Muslim countries. The language of these treaties apply Western judicial terminology and structure, but their contents are mainly universal and developed by international councils. So to view these treaties as simply non-Islamic or as secular products is false. Also the idea that modern human rights is in conflict with the “Sharia” is also false, as what Sharia is is determined by the science of Fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence]. And Fiqh was historically always in development, and always took human welfare and rights as its central concern.

The problem with the discussions on Islam and human rights is mainly that the latter is viewed as an alien concept, and the former as fixed and non-dynamic. The 19th century colonisation of the Muslim world, and the development of these colonies into nation states, has created a both a suspicion of Western discourse and a detachment with the humanism of classical Islam. Also 19th-20th century western Orientalism, whereby Islam was viewed as inferior and barbaric, has turned into Islamophobia whereby modern human rights are used to criticise Islam and Muslim societies. All of these historical trajectories has distorted the discourse of Islam and human rights. Classical Islam constructed its own human rights discourse from the start, and used it as both criteria and objective in Fiqh, meaning their understanding of what Sharia is was always related to the protection of human rights. Interpretations that caused human harm (mafsada) and derailed human welfare (maslaha) were not considered truly Islamic.

The Sharia is not simply “what a certain texts says”, but has a hierarchical structure whereby the upholding of human rights were seen as part of the highest objectives of the Sharia itself, and all other interpretations are subject to these higher objectives to sustain a coherence. Interpreting the Sharia in relation to human rights is what classical Islam has always done. And these rights were based on the Qur’an and Sunna [example of Prophet Muhammad, pbuh], but were also seen as universal both in scope and acceptance among other religions and cultures. Modern human rights are an international project, they are a result of human reason (aql) and nature (fitra) pursuing human welfare, and are therefore legit criteria for interpreting the Sharia.

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VoS: I personally believe that parents, mosques and communities need to engage more with human rights issues and especially encourage their children to defend human rights from a pluralistic perspective. Do you agree? Do you think that Muslim youth need to engage more with the issue of human rights beyond political debate or is this a simple over-generalisation?

A: Yes, human rights was, and is, the main concern of the Sharia – human welfare is why the Qur’an was revealed. This central concept must return in the main Muslim mindset. How these rights are defined and constructed is an international and ongoing project, and it is vital that Muslims remain part of this project as Muslims, and not simply as representatives of Muslim majority nation states. Muslims are now important minorities in several western countries, and the centrality of human rights in both their identity as citizens and as Muslims is vital in their emancipation as minorities (i.e. fighting discrimination and Islamophobia) and as the representatives of Islam (i.e. Islam’s mission is to pursue human welfare).

VoS: So how can young Muslims learn more about and engage more in defending human rights?

A: The history of human rights discourse in classical Islam (the Huquq) must become more accessible through both publications and its return into general Muslim discourse (Friday Khutbahs [sermons], lectures etc.), and the history of modern human rights. In this way, they can see the resemblance between the two, and how these are a logical extension of the other. Islamic theology was a theology of rational ethical monotheism, it was a humanistic theology, but today this humanism has been lost. It must be rediscovered both through a return to studying classical Islamic sources, and a rethinking of how that classical humanistic mentality would redefine Islam today.

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So remember folks: what Muslims do doesn’t always represent what Islam is!

Salam ♥

Credits and acknowledgements:

I’d like to thank Arnold Yasin Mol for all his time in taking part in this interview and to wish him and his colleagues all the very best in their work in shaa Allah.

Images:

Matthew Perkinscrystalina (featured image) (CC)

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