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.

We have committed the Golden Rule to memory; now let us commit it to life..jpg

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.

Peace if not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means. (1).jpg

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.

The key to the survival of liberty in the moden world is the embrace of multiple identities. (4).jpg

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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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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Why do we never hear so much about International Men’s Day…? Here’s why!

woman-704221.jpgIt’s International Women’s Day on March 8th. “Why do we never really hear about International Men’s Day?!” you and many others may ask. “If women and men are equal and human rights are universal then why do we have two separate days?!” others may profess…Well, you see the reality is this: human rights aren’t just a woman’s issue – they aren’t about men vs. women and are instead about universal rights as a global human issue. However, the truth of the matter is that such days raise awareness about different issues affecting the different sexes and as a whole women remain more vulnerable, more abused and at greater risk of exploitation than menInternational Men’s Day focuses on men’s health whilst International Women’s Day focuses on women’s achievements and calls us to keep on fighting the ongoing battle for equality.

That is the reality – women are not treated equally. The introduction of the United Nations Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) wasn’t to “prioritise women” – it wasn’t against the universal nature of human rights – it was to address needs specific to women and to fight against further abuses directly affecting women and girls. No one would deny that men are at risk (and in some cases at an increasing risk) of forced labour, sexual exploitation, poverty, abuse etc. but as it stands – women’s rights are a big issue that we still need to keep high on the agenda – and here’s a few reasons why…

Gender based human rights abuses

  • Reproductive rights/maternal healthcare – women need adequate access to contraception, pre- and post-natal care and facilities. According to the UN Population Fund: “[…] 830 women still die every day from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth. This is about one woman every two minutes”. Along with the right to life and health, States have to additionally ensure women’s/girl’s access to education and privacy (see here for more information).
  • Literacy rates – a lack of education and poverty go hand in hand and women remain severely disadvantaged due to economic, social and cultural barriers:

774 million adults (15 years and older) still cannot read or write – two-thirds of them (493 million) are women. Among youth, 123 million are illiterate of which 76 million are female. Even though the size of the global illiterate population is shrinking, the female proportion has remained virtually steady at 63% to 64%. (UNESCO)

  • Worker rights – women worldwide face battles with maternity pay, lower wages and access to employment (beyond simply being underrepresented in politics and business) due to discrimination and in some cases may face sexual harassment. The reality is this: “women make up 40% of the global workforce, yet make less than their male counterparts in every country on Earth” (ILRF).

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  • Poverty – many of the inequalities and lack of care women face regarding reproductive health, education and work rights perpetuate further injustice. This isn’t simply having inadequate access to  bras and sanitary protection:

While both men and women suffer in poverty, gender discrimination means that women have far fewer resources to cope. They are likely to be the last to eat, the ones least likely to access healthcare, and routinely trapped in time-consuming, unpaid domestic tasks. They have more limited options to work or build businesses. Adequate education may lie out of reach. Some end up forced into sexual exploitation as part of a basic struggle to survive. (UN Women)

  • Sex trafficking – women are most affected by human slavery. This may involve forced labour but is most often forced prostitution. This is increasingly affecting men but women are still the main victims of sex trafficking (see here for more information). Women trapped in poverty may be offered “a way out” through the promise of a job in another country and find themselves trapped and “in debt” –  abroad, raped, beaten,  alone and scared.
  • Forced marriage – women and young girls  (children!)  are forced/sold into marriage.  1 out of every 9 girls under the age of 15 in the developing world is married.
  • Domestic violence – whilst men are also victims of domestic violence and other forms of domestic abuse (emotional, spiritual and financial abuse for example), it’s important to educate others about this. Women are still more likely to be victims of domestic violence.

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  • Rape – rape occurs within marriage (forced or non forced marriage), it can also be date-rape, forced prostitution or violent crime by strangers but it is also a weapon of war used to humiliate, control and physically, psychologically and emotionally abuse women and girls:

In Liberia, which is slowly recovering after a 13-year civil war, a government survey in 10 counties in 2005-2006 showed that 92% of the 1,600 women interviewed had experienced sexual violence, including rape. (UN Office of The High Commissioner (OHCHR))

  • Acid attacks – Acid attacks are a means to control and humiliate women. Perhaps she rejected your proposal, perhaps you don’t think she’s modest enough, perhaps you were jealous… Whatever the reason, wherever the place – they constitute a severe physical and physiological trauma and the worst part is that they aren’t rare . In the UK the number of hospital admissions for cases of acid attacks has almost doubled in the last 10 years.
  • Honour killings – Women aren’t only being abused by their partners sexually, physically, emotionally, spiritually and financially but are also being killed by their own families. Every year, 5,000 honour killings are reported worldwide (UN). Brothers, fathers, uncles, even mothers commit murder to maintain the “honour” of the family and thus the female relative’s blood is on their hands and her life is lost (see here for more information).
  • Female genital mutilation – across the women and young girls are having parts of their genitals cut and removed in order to control their sexuality, preserve their honour and thus increase their eligibility for marriage. This practice causes immense psychological and physical trauma and can even result in death. See my article on female genital mutilation for more information.

So, there it is – a brief summary of some of the discrimination and abuse that women face worldwide. In reality, whilst every human is endowed with civil, political, cultural, economic and social rights; women face a greater variety of barriers due to discrimination and differing needs – for example regarding reproductive rights and health care. Many factors go hand in hand. If a girl is married too young due to cultural customs and does not receive adequate health care, if a family is poor and struggling, she will no longer go to school and will stay at home caring for the family. As such she may not only be limited regarding work opportunities but in fact living in a cycle of poverty where she remains vulnerable to sexual exploitation and further physical and psychological harm.

While human rights are universal, putting this into practice in relation to women’s needs and the discrimination they face, requires fighting for women’s equality as a specific issue. Feminism and women’s rights movements are not about advancing women to a status above men but simply to the same position as men – which in itself is a still a position in a world of injustice. International Women’s Day is a day for the world to recognise women’s achievements and to remind us to fight for women’s equality against injustice.  We’re not one single sex but we are one humanity. It’s fundamental that men become more involved in the fight for women’s rights. Men, women, girls and boys must fight against injustice for each and every one of them. Equality is the end goal. Men and women are different. Reproductive rights is just one evidence of this but we are equal; equal in dignity and equal in humanity.

Salam!

Image credits:

Megara Tegal (Flickr) (CC) (feature image), Alexandra Loves (Pixabay) (CC), Carlos Lorenzo (Flickr) (CC), Gregory Kowalski (Flickr) (CC)

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