Statement on Srebrenica Memorial Day 2017

July 11th is Srebrenica Memorial Day 2017. This year, we are recognising the 22nd anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica, during which thousands of men and boys were systematically murdered, simply because they were Muslim. It is vital to commemorate Srebrenica to take a stand against hatred and discrimination that targets groups based on their religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or any type of difference.

During the course of the conflict that took place in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s, between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped, and sadly in societies all over the world, including our own, there still remains a lot of stigma around sexual violence. This year, we are working with the charity Remembering Srebrenica to commemorate the genocide, and to reflect on the experiences of women in conflict. Remembering Srebrenica’s theme this year is Breaking the Silence: Gender and Genocide. This year is about recognising the strength and resilience of women who have survived conflict, standing committed to challenging sexism and gender based violence within our own communities. You can read more about this year’s theme on Remembering Srebrenica’s website.

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Ten years since the war in Bosnia ended with the signing of the Dayton peace agreement in November 1995, thousands of people are still deeply traumatised by the war. Here a woman cries for her sons and husband who were killed in the massacre at Srebrenica

It is now more important than ever for us to come together, no matter what our background, to celebrate diversity and to stand together in solidarity against hatred and discrimination. I wrote about the Srebrenica genocide in a previous post last year, which I urge you to take a look at. It is vital that we remember this tragedy in order to not repeat the mistakes of the past and honour the memories of the innocent men, women and children who were killed, just for being Muslim.

On the 11th of each month the Women of Srebrenica gather in the main square of Tuzla to stand in silent protest of their missing and dead men_Cl.jpg

On the 11th of each month the Women of Srebrenica gather in the main square of Tuzla to stand in silent protest of their missing and dead men

I hope you will join us in mourning the loss of those who died at Srebrenica, and reflecting on how we as individuals, groups and communities can come together to build a better future without hatred.

Salam, peace ♡

Text and images: Remembering Srebrenica

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The Sound of Silence – an open letter to Aung San Suu Kyi

Dear Aung San Suu Kyi,

You once famously said: “The true measure of justice of a system is the amount of protection it guarantees to the weakest“. Wise words indeed. Society has a responsibility to not only provide for its citizens but address social, economical and political inequality. So, bearing that in mind, I’d like to know why the Rohingya people are not included in your political system and sphere of beliefs – in the values of democracy you stand for and which you fought for so long to hope to make a reality in Myanmar.

Of course, one of the few things you are rumoured to have said is for foreign governments to stop referring to this group of people as “Rohingya”. Yet I’m afraid the issue is more serious than simple semantics… As you are more than aware, the Rohingya face social, economical, religious and political discrimination. They are not only denied citizenship – despite their long history and residence in Myanmar – but are subject to repeated racist/Islamophobic attacks by your own citizens including extremist “Buddhists” and worse of all subject to rape, torture and murder at the hands of your father’s military – an army you are apparently quite “fond” of.

The Rohingya have been referred to as “the world’s most persecuted refugees in the world” – a people subjected to genocide whom nobody seems willing to help. I’m quoting here the renowned international human rights organisation Amnesty International – an NGO which fought for your freedom and upholds the values you claim to believe in and stand for. Here you feature on their website in an article entitled: “15 inspiring human rights quotes” with the following words of peace:

Peace does not just mean putting an end to violence or war, but to all other factors that threaten peace, such as discrimination, such as inequality, poverty.

You’re a renounced figure of justice, peace and democracy worldwide. You’ve received many honours including the Nobel Peace Prize, Sakharov Prize, Rafto Prize, Jawaharlal Nehru Award, Order of Australia, US Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. You were also an honorary member of Nelson Mandela’s Elders. But now I ask you, what was this for? For what purpose? How can you sit back and remain silent when an entire group of people are being massacred?

I hate to cry “racism”or “Islamophobia” but what else is there? You’ve been challenged about this before and the result was a combination of rather astonishing angry backlash or vague excuses and often utter silence. One shocking incident was when you made an off-air comment about BBC Today presenter Mishal Husain following your interview together in which she asked you to condemn anti-Islamic sentiment. You apparently lost your temper, later stating: “No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim”. What a sad precedent this set…The Dalai Lama, the holy figure of Buddhism (a peaceful faith which you claim to belong to and shape your life by) has also called on you to address the issue – yet nothing…. You instead blame the reality of violence and “a climate of fear” on both sides (Muslims/Buddhists) with which you apparently “do not want to take sides“,  in addition to the fact that Myanmar is a slow growing democracy. However, the fact remains that the Rohingya community are overwhelmingly affected and this is your responsibility.

Firstly, it is up to you as a leader and politician to help build social harmony amongst groups and to condemn Islamophobic hate speech and hate crime in Myanmar. Extremist “Buddhist monks” are no better than ISIS/extremist jihadi preachers. Extremism is a human disease. It belongs to no religion. Any violence committed by any group is an atrocity. Yet sadly, secondly: we have moved beyond the shunning of Rohingya businesses and the lack of citizenship for this poor stateless group but to rape, torture, murder…and ultimately to genocide. Now is not the time to stay silent. It’s too late. You are already implicit.

Implicit is a strong word but at this stage you have blood on your hands. How can anyone, least of all yourself stand by and fail to even simply condemn such actions?! Do you not value these people or are you simply struck by fear? Fear has never held you back before. In your own book Freedom from Fear, you said:

Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure. A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man’s self-respect and inherent human dignity. It is not easy for a people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear. Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man.

Years of activism in the name of democracy and 15 years of house arrest…for what I ask? One Noble Peace Prize… for what outcome, for what legacy? Regardless of faith, ethnicity, skin colour, whatever it may be – we are all human. The Rohingya people – of YOUR country – deserve equality, freedom, democracy. They deserve life, family, religious freedom, freedom from sexual violence, freedom from poverty and economic and social discrimination. They deserve life, their dignity and above all they deserve you to remain true to your word and walk back from the path of silent hypocrisy you currently stand upon. They deserve you to recognise them as their social, religious, cultural and ethnic equal. They are your brothers and sisters who want to live a life a peace – a word you claim to stand for but of which no trace remains. Instead of peace lie the cries of the raped, the tortured and the grieving widows and family of those massacred at the hand of your government’s army.

It’s all over the media: how can a Noble Peace Prize winner stay silent? Your initial lack of action allowed such hatred to grow and your current silence implicates you as you fail to stop military violence. Protests are now taking place. So, I ask you: when you look in the mirror, when you lie in bed, when you wake up and when you pray – do you think of them…?

Your sister in humanity,

Elizabeth

Credits:

Feature image: European Parliament (CC)

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Mapping out Europe: The “ban the burqa” debate rages on

niqab-2Governments across Europe are talking about the “burqa” once again [in other words: banning Islamic face veils such as the niqab and burqa]. Although very few countries have officially banned the burqa in public places, many are starting to discuss taking this step in the future. […] The debate is heating up across Europe.

It’s become inescapable. Not a week passes by in Europe when Islam generally, and Muslims more specifically, are not dissected in the media or discussed in government chambers. One day it’s the strange Slovakian Prime Minister who feels he must  “protect his people” from Muslims. Another day, it’s the abominable Geert Wilders who wants to implement an outright “ban on the Quran” in the Netherlands. Now in France, a shocking report from the Institut Montaigne entitled “A French Islam is possible“, has sparked further tension.

While there is no case law on lip service, the ongoing European debate about Islam and those who practice it has centred in on one tiny piece of the puzzle: a piece of fabric called the niqab, the burka or the full-face veil. It has managed to inflame public opinion each year and has now entered into the legal arsenal of certain member states of the EU. Proof of this has been the unending debate about the “burkini” in France this summer. More recently, a YouGov poll in the UK showed that 57% of Brits interviewed were in favour of the burqa ban. That said, in other European countries, wearing the veil has never been an issue. So, which countries are hotly debating the burqa and which goverments have gone so far as to pass legislation against the burka?

Source: Café Babel – see original article for full interactive map annotations

In a study of Europeans aged 18-34, Generation What? interviewed half a million young people from 30 different countries. Respondents from 17 different countries said that it “did not shock them” to see “women wearing veils in the street or at work.” As only a small majority of respondents, this leaves us with the possibility that Europe may not necessarily become more tolerant of the burqa in the future.

Credits:

Article written by Matthieu Amaré and translated by Charlotte Walmsley (FR > ENG)

Image credits: Hani Amir (Flickr) (feature image), John Alcorn

This article was first published on  Café Babel (26/09/2016)

The biggest massacre in Europe since WWII – do you know it?

After the tragic events of WWII and the genocide of millions of Jews, Roma gypsies, homosexuals, political opponents, the handicapped and anyone else deemed “unworthy” under Nazi Germany‘s policy of extermination, the World said never again. Yet the sad reality is that the world continues to witness immense violence and the massacre of groups of people due to their political, ethnic, cultural and /or religious beliefs.

The fact is that last week witnessed the 21st anniversary of the massacre of around 8,000 young men and boys. What was the “reason” behind such killing?

They were Muslim

I attended a memorial evening showing the following documentary and was shocked. It retells events of 11th July 1995 – the day in which Bosnian Serbian forces entered the town of Srebrenica and massacred 8,100 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. This is the genocide of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in the 21st century.

This genocide of Bosnian Muslims is the biggest massacre since WWII. The documentary is really is worth a watch to get the facts behind the massacre and show just how it continues to affect families and the area it devastated.

What was left from this massacre – stemming from extreme nationalism and religious hatred – is the unearthed and scattered remains of these victims and heartache of the wives, mothers and sisters left behind. In some cases, generations were wiped out within one single family. Those in power sought “revenge” for the Ottoman domination – as absurd as that sounds. In seeking “revenge” and Serbian domination, they massacred thousands – raping women and killing their male family members.

In order to conceal their crimes, the Serbian forces scattered the remains of the victims across a variety of sites. If not painful enough, many families cannot fully morn the loss of their loved ones as they await for their remains to be found. Other families hold a funeral with what remains of their loved ones are left. Any sense of real closure is near impossible:

I can visit my loved ones. It is much harder for the widows and mothers who still haven’t been able to bury their loved ones.

Fadila Efendic, Srebrenica survivor

DNA sampling continues to be used to trace living relatives to the remains of the massacre. According to Valerie Hopkins of Al Jazeera: “About 1,000 people remain missing from Srebrenica, another 7,000 are unaccounted after the 1992-1995 conflict which claimed a total of 100,000 lives.”

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Remains of the victims are stored until they can be identified / pieced together – Image credit: Hifsa Haroon-Iqbal

Whilst families still struggle to come to terms with their losses, there is another crucial message that comes from such tragedy: whilst we said never again –  it happened. This massacre stemmed from a gradual process of demonisation and discrimination up until the point of genocide.

Dr Gregory Stanton, President of Genocide Watch, formulated the “10 Steps of Genocide” detailing how stereotyping, and minor hate crime can lead up the mass extermination – genocide – of a group of people. These stages go hand in hand with the series of events leading up to the extermination of Jews in Nazi Germany and massacre of Muslims in Bosnia:

  1. Classification: distinguishing “us” and “them”
  2. Symbolization: adding names and symbols for these classifications
  3. Discrimination: oppressing other groups in terms of legal, political rights etc.
  4. Dehumanization: denying the humanity of said group – equating them as “animals”
  5. Organization: arrests, torture, special army training, buying arms
  6. Polarization: driving people apart using propaganda
  7. Preparation: increasing hate propaganda, using euphemisms (e.g. objectives are for “counter terrorism” purposes or as “ethnic cleansing”), building armies/
  8. Persecution: formulation of “death lists”, segregating victims into ghettos, deporting victims to concentration camps, confinement
  9. Extermination: mass killings, rape
  10. Denial: burning of bodies, digging up mass graves, covering up evidence

Further information in how these 10 steps relate to the massacre of Bosnian Muslims, can be found in the NGO Remembering Srebrenica‘s latest publication which can be viewed online here. I really recommend reading this mini-book to get an overview of events past and present and to learn more about the NGO and how you can help. The fact that concentration camps were introduced post-WWII is simply shocking. Testimony of camp survivors is also available online via their website, including that of Subin Musić at Trbopolje Camp, Prijedor):

Men would be shot dead before us, and left to rot for hours. The smell was intoxicating. […] The women were systematically raped at Trnopolje. They were kept in a separate building to the men, but we could hear them.

The fact that such events happened so close to home for many of us and so recently – essentially breaking all “Western” conceptions and stereotypes of human rights and tolerance (akin to Orientialist discourse) – shows us once again that we all belong to one global humanity where hatred is widespread. We are no different from each other: we are capable of doing both good and bad. What this teaches is us is that: intolerance, negative stereotyping, “otherising” and scaremongering are found all over and they have serious consequences. All this can lead to discrimination, persecution and even genocide.

Communities must embrace differences and build a common foundation of tolerance, peace and understanding. If we look at the rise in media scapegoating of refugees and immigrants, the rise in Islamophobia and hate crime steadily over the last few years and in recent weeks since Brexit we must stand united. Remember the lyrics of the famous Groove Armada song:

If everybody looked the same
We’d get tired of looking at each other

Well, it’s true! Variety is the spice of life as they say. We should be proud of who we are but not exclude others. Discovering other cultures and languages and meeting new people is what life is about! Find the common ground and celebrate the differences that make us individual and unique. At the wonderful memorial presentation I attended last week by Hifsa Iqbal, Muslims and non-Muslims were reminded/witness to the following verse:

O you who have believed, let not a people ridicule [another] people; perhaps they may be better than them; nor let women ridicule [other] women; perhaps they may be better than them. And do not insult one another and do not call each other by [offensive] nicknames. Wretched is the name of disobedience after [one’s] faith. And whoever does not repent – then it is those who are the wrongdoers.

O you who have believed, avoid much [negative] assumption. Indeed, some assumption is sin. And do not spy or backbite each other. Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his brother when dead? You would detest it. And fear Allah ; indeed, Allah is Accepting of repentance and Merciful.

O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.

Qur’an (49: 11-13)

We were created differently and should embrace difference and treat each other fairly. Sadly, Srebrenica is not an example of tolerance, community and peace but instead demonising, Islamophobia, nationalism and ultimately death…

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Women left behind to remember the victims – Image credit: Photo RNW.org

Helping, learning and moving forward

So with the sad remnants of Srebrenica and in today’s context of increased levels of hate crime, intolerance and prejudice, what can and should we be doing to both remember the victims of Srebrenica and to ensure that this sad tragedy (like many others) does not repeat in any other form?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Host a memorial event
  • Teach children about the event and the importance of community cohesion
  • Donate to help towards the cause
  • Blog, tweet and raise awareness online
  • Check out the Remembering Srebrenica‘s website for ideas and make a pledge
  • Work towards relations in your community: join/form/become involved with interfaith groups, community centres and intercultural programmes
  • Stand up to racism/intolerance whenever you see it
  • Encourage victims of hate crime to report incidents to the police. Muslims can also contact Tell MAMA and The Islamic Human Rights Commission directly

Remember the past, learn from it and keep the peace!

Salam!

Credits / further information:

Feature image: Stefano Giantin

Hopkins, V. (10/07/2015) ‘Srebrenica: Unearthing loss‘, Al Jazeera

Remembering Srebrenica – further information, witness testimony and extra resources

Stanton, G. (2016) ’10 Stages of Genocide’, Genocide Watch

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“Things are getting worse day by day” – an interview with Uyghur Muslim “Mr X”

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An elderly Uyghur woman – Image credit: Sheila

In a recent post I mentioned about the oppression of the Uyghur Muslims in China – a minority who face economic, social, cultural, political and religious oppression under the Chinese government. Whilst China is not known by any means as a land of religious freedom, the plight of the Uyghurs is very much under-published. In this article, I’m going to expand on the Uyghur issue – the whos, hows and whys surrounding the issue – and share the Uyghurs’ story.

I’ve been fortunate to be able to interview an Uyghur Muslim living in exile from China to help give a real insight into the Uyghur crisis. He told me what it’s like for Uyghurs back home, including his family, and given me an insight into why the People’s Republic of China is targeting Uyghur Muslims. So here’s the background and his testimony.

Who are the Uyghurs?

The Uyghurs are one of China’s religious, ethnic and cultural minorities – one of 56 ethnic groups in China. The two main groups of Muslims in China are the Hui and the Uyghurs. There is a small number of Uyghur Christians but the majority of Uyghurs are Muslim. Overall, the Uyghurs constitute the largest non-Chinese group of Muslims in China today. They live predominantly in the North Western region of Xinjiang (translated as “new territory”). This area was formerly the free independent State of East Turkestan until the Mao Communist Party of China (CPC) took over the country in 1949 (see here for more information). In the 18th century, the area was also previously ruled under the Qing dynasty. Xinjiang borders Tibet, India, Russia, Afghanistan and Pakistan and its population is nowadays divided mainly between Uyghurs (45%) and Han Chinese (40%). Today, there are around 10.2 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang (according the latest available figures from China’s 2000 census).

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Map of China and the North West region of Xinjiang (East Turkestan) – Image credit: www.futureatlas.com

The Uyghur are Turkic and are not ethnically, linguistically or culturally “Chinese”. As a Turkic group, they are more Central Asian than East Asian. As an ethnic group, they see themselves, like the Tibetans, as colonised by the Chinese. I asked Mr X how he defines himself in terms of nationality and culture and this was his response:

Many Uyghurs out of the country, they describe themselves as Uyghur from Eastern Turkestan. Since we still not get our independence, when somebody asks my identity, I will tell them I am Uyghur from Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China. So, culturally and nationally, I define myself as Uyghur with Chinese citizenship.

When East Turkestan was seized by China, the Uyghurs were promised autonomy but the reality is that whilst it is listed as an autonomous region, Uyghurs suffer repression. The Uyghur people want a break from what they see as Chinese colonialism. Some Uyghurs want a free independent State (East Turkestan), whilst others simply want more autonomy and greater cultural, linguistic, political, social, economic and linguistic rights.

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An elderly Uyghur man – Image credit: Uyghur East Turkistan

How are the Uyghurs oppressed?

Since the onset of the seizing of East Turkestan, the Uyghurs have been suppressed by the PRC and the situation is getting worse:

How long has the oppression been going on for?

Since 1949, [when] the Communist party took over the authority from the local government of Xinjiang, they haven’t stopped the oppression over Uyghurs and Tibetans. There was a period between 1987-1990s when Uyghurs were relatively free. In this period, many books related to their identity, history, culture and religion were published. The Holy Quran [was] also translated into [the] Uyghur language. There were not so many requirements for the Uyghur Muslims and the tension between Uyghurs and [the] government was not so bad. After 2001, especially the Urumqi Protest in 2009, the oppression became worse than ever.

My interviewee “Mr X” was born in a town in the Xinjiang region but moved outside of the area to study before later leaving China. He has been living outside of China since 2014 due to the human rights situation:

The major reason for living outside China is because of my own safety and desire of freedom. Before I left China, I was arrested twice by the Chinese authorities because of sharing some photos about Chinese oppression in China on the Chinese media while I was at University. After my graduation, my family [were] afraid of my safety, they sent me to Turkey. Here I enrolled at University for my master program. But, however, while I was in Turkey, Chinese authorities contacted me many times. Finally, I came to Germany and seek asylum here.

The Uyghurs are up against a wall of oppressive policies. Some of the injustices in Xinjiang include the following policies/occurrences:

Further (much more detailed) information on restrictions and human rights abuses can be found in the Uyghur Human Rights Project report, which also includes information about (the small number of) Uyghur Christians and their persecution.

I asked Mr X about the restrictions facing Uyghurs as the Chinese government sent mixed messages (lies) regarding Ramadan this year, following new coverage of the issue:

This year China declared there would be no restrictions in fasting Ramadan – and also wished Muslims a Happy Ramadan – but reports coming out since have stated otherwise. What is the reality?

[…] the situation of Uyghurs who living in Xinjiang is different with other Muslims live in other part of China. In Xinjiang, people who are government officers, students, teachers anyone who works in Chinese authority and State controlled companies can not fast. And, in the day time, students and workers are asked to eat and drink. Only these people who are working private company or self-employed like farmers and businessman can fast freely. But, other part of China, there is no rule like this.

In addition to these restrictions, Uyghurs also suffer from lower living standards and claim to suffer discrimination against Han Chinese migrants when looking for work.

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Kashgar (Xinjiang) – Image credit: Uyghur East Turkistan

Why are the Uyghurs facing such oppression?

Political, ethnic, socio-economic, cultural and religious factors have merged into a crisis in which the daily reality for Uyghurs is that they have no real freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion and no freedom to protest.

There are several issues surrounding the Uyghurs. The Chinese government sees three issues:

The Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in May this year criticised China’s treatment of the Uyghurs and “at times violent crackdown” of Uyghurs in Xinjiang: “In 2015, the Chinese Communist Party tightened its internal ideology, elevating the crusade against the three evils, particularly with respect to religious freedom.” The Chinese government has been “cracking down” on the Uyghurs due to – according to USCIRF – what they conceive to be these “three evil forces”: ethnic separatism, religious extremism and violent terrorism.

Independence, Islam and Islamic extremism

The Chinese government claims that “Uyghur militants” are “waging a violent campaign for an independent state” when in reality this are exaggerated lies used to suppress this religious minority. In relation to national/ethnic separatism, some Uyghurs want an independent state whilst some simply just want more freedom and autonomy. Clearly China wants to maintain control over the region. Experts have pointed out two key reasons for this:

  • Xinjiang’s rich natural resources (oil and coal) – which a developing China needs
  • Xinjiang’s location as a “buffer zone” bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan

Bearing this in mind, and the fact that Xinjiang is three times the size of France and makes up 1/6th of Chinese State territory, the Chinese government do not want to give up the Xinjiang region to allow Uyghurs to recover the State of East Turkestan.

Since 9/11 and the “war on terror” the PRC joined the US in waging a war on Islamic extremism and raised concerns about Islamist links and outside radicalisation from Afghanistan, Chechnya and Pakistan. The fear of outside Islamist influence seeping in e.g. from Al Qaeda and potential terrorism is (in their minds) a real concern for the Chinese State. Al Qaeda for example has stated that it wanted to “recover” East Turkistan for it to form part of an Islamic Caliphate. Over the years, China has therefore been “cracking down” on what it believes to be religious extremism and terrorism:

China has vowed to crack down on what it calls religious extremism in Xinjiang, and regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including videos and other material. But experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from Uyghur “separatists” and that domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence there that has left hundreds dead since 2012.

Source: Free Radio Asia (13/06/2016)

In 2014 for example, 32 Uyghurs were jailed for “spreading extremist content online and organising terror groups”, including building explosive devices. The Islamic extremist party – The East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) – was accused by China of being responsible for a suicide attack in Tiananmen Square in 2013 and whilst is does have branches active in Syria and has been deemed responsible for terrorist attacks by the UN and US, it is not listed on the US government’s main list of Foreign Terrorist Organisations. Regardless of its unfortunate presence (like all Islamist parties), Uyghurs insist the Chinese government exaggerates the threat posed by ETIM in order to justify “repressive security” in the region and US reports appear to back this up:

China does not always distinguish between legitimate political dissent and the advocacy of violence to overthrow the government, and it has used counterterrorism as a pretext to suppress Uighurs.

China’s government characterised Uighur discontent, peaceful political activism, and some forms of religious observance as terrorist activity […]

Source: BBC (01/11/2013)

 Up to 300 militants are said to have become part of ISIS and officials claim that Uyghurs “join ISIS overseas and return to take part in terror plots”. Raffaelo Pantucci, a researcher for the defence think that Royal United Services Institute, admitted that although Muslims from Xinjiang could have gone over Syria and Iraq to fight as part of ISIS, the idea of people being able to return was more unlikely:

Whether individuals are able to make the journey all the way back seems difficult, especially given the difficulty people from Xinjiang seem to have in getting passports. […] We have seen numerous reports of foreigner fighters getting executed for trying to leave, including groups of Uighurs […]

There sadly have been stories of Uyghurs leaving China and joining ISIS or becoming involved in extremism. Muhammed Amin, an 80 year old jihadist who is thought to be a Uighur from China, went to Syria to join ISIS. He is quoted as saying: “I was subjected to oppression In Turkestan at the hands of the Chinese […] for 60 years and when I saw my son killed alongside the Mujahidin […] in a video I resolved to make Hijrah.” As sad as it is, he appeared in ISIS videos. One can never justify any form of terrorism. However, jihadism is not synonymous with being an Uyghur and neither is extremism simply an “Islamic problem”. Sadly, jihadis – young and old – have run off to Syria from all over the world. Despite what Islamophobes think, ISIS is not synonymous with Islam and (moderate or “normal” for want of better words) Muslims – like the Uyghurs – who simply want to live their lives and freely practice their religion in peace.

The small minority of extremists aside, China refuses to accept the Uyghur’s grievances – cultural, religious and linguistic oppression – simply blaming violent extremism (we do not deny there have been violent incidents) and any non-violent protest becomes labelled as “inciting separatism”. The State’s notion of gaining “stability” through anti-terrorist measures to ward of future attacks is equitable to oppression. Uyghurs are labelled “terrorists” by the Chinese government yet state they are simply protesting their freedom when taking to the streets to speak up against their lack of rights. Whilst we cannot support violent attacks (see here for further information), other testimony gives light to oppression of Chinese security forces during peaceful Uyghur demonstrations and the fact that this label of terrorist is simply a label to excuse oppression. As a result, thousands of Uyghurs are now fleeing China. News reports told of Uyghurs trapped in Thailand who had fled for reasons of persecution and went on hunger strike begging the Thai authorities to not send them back to China:

If we were returned back to China, we will face physical and emotional torture, and be killed or sentenced to stay in prison for life,” wrote the group calling itself For Freedom. “Therefore, we announced a hunger strike and thought it would be better to die from a hunger strike while in here. We will continue our hunger strike until we are freed or relocated to a third country or till we die here. […] We are not criminals […]

Uyghurs who flee are evidently not economic migrants – something proven clear from laptops and large amounts of cash hidden in bags found on Uyghurs who had fled to Thailand who say they fled violence in Xinjiang which is blamed on extremists (see here for video footage). Uyghurs fleeing China were accused of heading to Syria and Iraq as jihadis whilst they say they were fleeing persecution on route to Turkey – a country with which they share linguistic and cultural similarities.

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Uyghur Muslims being sent back to China from Thailand (2015) – Image credit: Prachatai

Even being in contact with Muslims outside of China can see you labelled as a “terror suspect”. Although Mr X has left China he could still not reveal his identity. There are many Uyghurs who have fled to Turkey and for Uyghurs abroad, surveillance is a reality. Mr X cannot freely communicate with his family even though he is now living in Germany where he is seeking asylum:

When I was in Turkey, I kept contact with most of my friend and family. According to their posts on the Chinese major social media, WeChat, I felt they were living under a tight control. They never share posts and pictures about Islam, politics and history of Uyghurs. Many friends deleted me from WeChat after they learnt I came to Germany as they told me that police always check their phone and it may cause problem to them if police found some one in abroad from their phone. My brothers told me never call their phone and I can only contact with them via WeChat, which is highly controlled by government and my brothers think this is for their safety. Because my mom can’t use social media, I call her phone once a week. But, we only discuss about each other health, like “Are you good?”, “I am good”, she never let me talk about my life in Germany. Just yesterday, I asked her what did you eat for suhur in Ramadan, she closed her phone.

Surprisingly, the Chinese constitution does grant some form of “freedom of religion” but with restrictions as religion is under state control and regulated in mind of national goals (communist) and national security. Religion is viewed as a private matter and where deemed necessary the state can intervene. Yet, whilst no one can support terrorist and violent behaviour (which as explained, is a small minority of incidents and does not represent the peaceful Sunni Sufi-esque Uyghur Muslims), this cannot explain how demonising a whole religious group and prohibiting Muslims from following their religion in a peaceful manner every day through veiling, fasting etc. is in line with “proportionate” security measures. In addition, this refusal to accept the need for change risks radicalising others:

The state’s refusal either to acknowledge the legitimacy of ongoing grievances or to make structural adjustments, as well as its abusive policies and zero-tolerance toward dissent, will not encourage submission to Beijing’s rule. It will likely radicalize more severe resistance tactics in the vacuum of avenues for nonviolent action and the presence of moderate voices offering cognitive liberation.

Source: Michael Caster (2014)

It is important to remember that oppression and violent ideology can go hand in hand when people feel voicelessSome Uyghurs, who have been unsuccessful in gaining asylum in foreign countries and have been treated poorly, have later become radicalised.

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Urumqi (Xinjiang) – Image credit: Uyghur East Turkistan

Protests, violence and Han Chinese migrants

An important element to consider socially, culturally, economically and politically is mass communist Chinese culture. The Uyghur community have not assimilated by and large with Chinese culture and the Han Chinese. They (quite rightly) maintain pride in their religious, ethnic and cultural (non-Chinese) heritage but feel that to “get on well in life” they have to follow the Chinese policy of “forced assimilation“. Since the influx of Han residents to Xinjiang, cultural and socio-economic tensions between Uyghurs and Han have grown as, due to the influx of Han migrant workers in the region, apparent negative attitudes towards Uyghurs by Han residents and discrimination in relation to housing, employment and education, Uyghurs feel economically disadvantaged and that the influx of migrant workers is “diluting their culture” towards the (dominant) Han (Chinese) culture. Mr X was keen to state that Han migration to Xinjiang had resulted in social problems: an increase in unemployment and an “imbalance in terms of resources between locals and migrants”, amongst other issues. This migration is encouraged and led by the Chinese government:

[…] most of the Chinese migrants are organised and transported by the State from the other parts of China. Yes, there are many Chinese [who] came to Xinjiang through their own choice, but most of them are encouraged/cheated/forced to migrate by be provided with housing, a salary, transport.

Between 1949 and 2008, the proportion of Han in Xinjiang rose dramatically from 6.7 percent (220,000) to 40 percent (8.4 million).

Mr X

According to figures in a study on internal Han internal migration to Xinjiang, in 1945, 82.7% of the population of Xinjiang were Uyghur (the dominant ethnic group), whilst Han Chinese made up 6.2% (Chaudhuri, 2005). By 2008, the number of Han Chinese had risen dramatically to 39.2% – making the Han the second largest group in Xinjiang, secondly only to the Uyghurs (46.1% of the population) (SBX, 2010). Findings in this research, undertaken in Urumqi in southern Xinjiang, found that contrary to the majority of previous research into “state orchestrated Han migration” – deemed responsible for inequality amongst the Uyghurs – the Uyghurs generally had a higher income due to their generally high level of education. This goes against the generic trend that the Han are generally “better off” than the Uyghurs. However, such research in any case does not negate prior opinion/findings and the fact that there is an increasing gap in terms of development between eastern and western China and that migratory movements/trends are shifting towards west bound movement, including both “state orchestrated migration” and also “self-initiated migration“.

Migrants in any fair, non-discriminatory form should be welcomed and citizens should have the freedom to move and earn a living if they so freely choose or need to. However, there have been tensions forming between the two ethnic groups. It is crucial to first understand these socio-economic and cultural tensions to then understand their relation to unfortunate violent events between the State, security forces and both Han and Uyghur residents. On 5th July 2009, Uyghur citizens led (what were) initially small and apparently peaceful protests in the city of Urumqi (Xinjiang) to protest what they believed to be officials’ “indifference” towards the Uyghurs. Following a rape accusation (believed to be unfounded), two migrant Uyghur workers were killed by two Han citizens in another region in Southern China. News and rumours spread and Uyghurs believed more Uyghurs had been killed, causing the Uyghurs to blame the government of “indifference” (see here). China however blames the influence of Uyghurs living in exile abroad, Uyghur “rioters” and “ethnic separatists”. Rebiya Kadeer (President of The World Uyghur Congress) was accused of “instigating riots” by the PRC but strongly denies this, claiming that protesters were holding Chinese flags and demanding their civil rights and equality under the law. Sadly though, Uyghur gangs started to attack Han residents. Police began raiding Uyghur homes and detaining Uyghur residents, leading to a big conformation between Uyghurs and security forces as Uyghur women protested the detention of their sons and husbands.

Events took a turn for the worse as Han launched “revenge attacks”. Police finally intervened, letting off tear gas and arresting Han attackers. As a result many Uyghurs were saved but some witnesses claim that some police officers “just stood by”. The government actually later admitted shooting dead 12 Uyghur riotersUyghur exiles state that peaceful demonstrators were killed by the police. Information on 1400+ detained Uyghurs and those who died is lacking. Almost 200 people were killed during the July 2009 violent conflict. One witness stated: “an estimated 800 to 1000 people, most of them Uighurs, were shot to death during that one and a half hour period of time. For this reason, the Turkish Prime Minister compared this violence to genocide.”

Violence cannot be accepted by either locals (whether Uyghur or Han) or State authorities. However, when Journeyman Pictures travelled to Xinjiang in attempt to investigate violent incidents, they were met by constant State restrictions: allegations of a lack of “permits”, guards, surveillance and security checks. The reporter stated their team had been “harassed unrelentingly all the way. […] For people that live here, this is their daily life experience”. High security is a constant presence in Xinjiang. In a one-off chance to speak to Uyghurs themselves, they stated there was “no freedom” and speech of “equality” is simply “lies”.  An Open Democracy report on violent (unconfirmed) incidents in 2013, written by Henryk Szadziewski with the assistance of Michael Phillips from World Uyghur Congress in gathering data, states that 219 people died in Xinjiang in that year – most of which were Uyghur civilians killed by Chinese security forces. These incidents were listed in terms of cause as the following: ethnic confrontation (2), security measures (10), religious (7), unknown (5) and forced demolition (1).

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Urumqi (Xinjiang) – Image credit: Uyghur East Turkistan

Not “Chinese enough” – Uyghur Muslims vs. Hui Muslims

The PRC wants political control. Where groups appear to have assimilated, hold no political aspirations and do not criticise the State, they are seen as less of a “threat” and are therefore unless less religious/cultural restrictions. This is visibly clear if we compare two different Muslim groups – the Uyghurs with the Hui Muslims.

Hui Muslims are ethnically Chinese and their language is Mandarin. Whilst the Uyghurs locally live in the Xinjiang area, the Hui are mostly located in the North West and inland. They also belong to the autonomous region of Ningxia – although they are more “spread-out” across China than the Uyghurs. Hui Muslims use Islamic texts in Mandarin Chinese and have adopted a more “Chinese identity”. Some Hui themselves are no longer Muslim and marriage amongst Hui Muslims and non-Muslims is also practiced – while this remains uncommon with Uyghurs (the Chinese State introduced incentives to encourage mix marriage between Han Chinese and Uyghurs). The Uyghurs, who are not Chinese (in ethnic, historical or cultural terms) and are “East Turkestani”, do not associate with being Chinese (they are not!). Uyghurs want to be able to maintain their culture, history and traditions – whether as an independent state or simply under the Xinjiang region. Erkin Alptekin, President of the World Uyghur Congress in Berlin, explains the colonialist Chinese policy: “The Chinese want to replace us with their own people as colonists, and assimilate those of us who remain, wiping out our culture.”

The link between religion and national-cultural identity is what makes a stark difference in terms of religious freedom. Hui Muslims enjoy a relatively free practice of Islam, in stark contrast to that of Uyghur Muslims. This year for example, the Chinese government announced that there would be no ban on fasting this year and opening hours of halal restaurants but the story is not so clear cut. Hui Muslims have been free to fast, whilst there are still restrictions in Xinjiang. Businesses in Xinjiang have been forced to stay open and those studying or working for the state cannot fast. According to Mr X, unlike the Uyghurs, Hui can freely: wear hijab, have beards, fast, publish books and have religious schools where Hui Muslims and their children can learn and teach about Islam and the Arabic language. All of these activities are “forbidden to Uyghurs” according to Mr X. Additionally, whilst going to perform hajj has become increasingly difficult for Uyghurs, an increasing number of Hui Muslims are going. In essence, the region of Ningxia with the Hui is of absolute stark difference to the experiences of Mr X:

Throughout Ningxia and the adjacent Gansu Province, new filigreed mosques soar over even the smallest villages, adolescent boys and girls spend their days studying the Quran at religious schools, and muezzin summon the faithful via loudspeakers — a marked contrast to mosques in Xinjiang, where the local authorities often forbid amplified calls to prayer.

In Hui strongholds like Linxia, a city in Gansu known as China’s “Little Mecca”, there are mosques on every other block and women can sometimes be seen with veils, a sartorial choice that can lead to detention in Xinjiang.

Mr X – when asked him about Islamophobia and other religious groups in China – explained that he didn’t think China was Islamophobic per se but that the problem is that the Chinese government sees political aspirations as a threat, i.e. the more political a group, the bigger a problem they are for the state and here lies the difference between different religious groups such as Hui and Uyghur Muslims:

Why do you believe the Chinese state is so anti-Islam? The State oppresses religion minorities […]. Do Muslims simply fit into this bracket of religious minorities or do you believe there is a higher level of Islamophobia within the government?

[…] firstly […] China is dominated by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the goal of communism is to wipe religion and class from the world. […] CCP […] sees every religion as threat to their authority. So, CCP’s […] major task is to control […] religion and force them to work with them.

Secondly, CCP [is] very afraid of people’s union that people may overthrow the government. CCP never allow their people including minority groups to establish political party and groups. So, they [are] afraid […] that people [may] come together by religions and rise against the authority. So, that is why they go on oppression on religious groups as well as political groups.

[…] I do not think that the Government is Islamophobic. […] There is a big difference between [the] Government’s attitude towards Uyghur Muslims and Hui people. The news about oppression on Muslims of China you heart actually is about Uyghur Muslims. Hui Muslims have better condition than Uyghurs. For example, they can open schools to learn Quran, Religion and Arab language. They can teach their children about religion and can freely pray in the mosque with their children and these are impossible for Uyghurs in Xinjiang. And, some Hui woman also can wear niqab which sees as symbol of radicalism in Xinjiang (there was a report about […] a man who has beard and a lady who wear niqab were sent to jail). The major reason of this because Hui Muslims are mostly like Chinese, they speak Chinese, [their] culture is Chinese, [they] looks like Chinese and they [are] loyal to Chinese government. But; Uyghurs are an independent nation culturally, ethnically and linguistically […] Uyghurs […] still struggle for their independence and identity.  That’s why government continues their oppression on Uyghur Muslims but not on Hui Muslims.

Raymond Lee, a specialist in Chinese affairs from the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, explains how the difference between religion and national-cultural identity is what constitutes how much religious freedom a group is granted and this is why Hui Muslims have greater religious freedom: “The PRC central authorities do not view their Islamic faith as a potential hazard to the government because most of them primarily identify themselves as Chinese. That is the reason why fewer religious constraints are imposed on the Hui people.”

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A Hui worshipper strolling through the courtyard of Daqingzhen Si, Xian (Shaanxi) – Image credit: Peter Morgan

China wants to maintain a good public image and trade with many Muslim nations yet as a State its main goal is political dominance at all costs. Comparing to other religious minorities such as the Falun Gong who have been severely persecuted, we once again see that if a religious group does not criticism the government, holds no political goals and is “loyal to them” then they will not face oppression, as explained by Mr X:

As far as I know, there are, of course, some Chinese are against with religion, especially with Islam. I always read posts from […] Weibo that humiliate Islam and Muslims. But, the Chinese officials normally do not care about these [sic] kind of information. And, there is no group or agenda of anti-religion that officially registered. But, there are some groups on the internet called themselves as anti-Islam warriors to humiliate Islam and its believers.

[…] in the past there were many Fa Lun Gong believers spread messages about anti-CCP dictatorship. So, they got oppressed by China. And, to the Christians, actually government didn’t carry oppression on these Christians who accepted government’s control, didn’t have any political background or goals and loyal to them (just like Hui Muslims).

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Urumqi (Xinjiang) – Image credit: Uyghur East Turkistan

Conclusions – where do things go from here?

Essentially, the role of religion in this crisis is not one of terrorism but one of national, socio-cultural identity intertwined with politics. China, in seeing how religion forms part of the Uyghurs identity (one different from typical Chinese identity), and in wanting a unified Communist state – wants to suppress the Uyghurs religious freedom in order to stem political growth and ethnic separatism. China wants Xinjiang – not an East Turkestan – and to do so has to demonise the “other” as terrorist and “water down” or simply control religion. When I first interviewed Mr X, I expected the oppression to be based on an anti-religious agenda. I was therefore shocked when I learnt how the Chinese government views the Uyghurs and what they consider the “threat” they pose to be:

Many of reporters believe that the problem between Uyghur and government is about religion or culture. I believe that actually [the] State’s biggest problem about is separatism. Even the government claims every violence attack by Uyghurs as terrorist attack, but the true is most of the attack caused by the highly oppression on the religion and culture above Uyghurs. And, the major reason for this because, most of the Uyghurs want claim their independence from China. And, this desire became stronger after Central Asian countries, which are owning the same root on ethnically and the same belief on religion, got independence from Soviet Union. To get this great goal, Uyghurs believe the culture and religion are most powerful weapon. So, since CCP take over the land from Uyghurs, Chinese government started to destroy the identity of Uyghurs on culture and religion to prevent the separatism movement. However, their oppression causes strong dissatisfaction and resistance.

In an article for Al Jazeera last year, Usaid Siddiqui wrote exactly the same thing:

It is erroneous to conclude that the Uighur crisis is solely religious. […] The Uighur nationalists’ desire for more autonomy has long been at odds with China’s centralization policy. If anything, Chinese authorities are using the ‘war on terrorism’ as a cover to demolish the Uighur people’s nationalist aspirations.

This scenario is the same as the Tibetan cause but in this case, as it is a Muslim cause, the Uyghurs have received less public sympathy. I asked Mr X if he felt there was any public sympathy for the Uyghur cause amongst other Chinese citizens or other people worldwide and he felt there wasn’t. For many Uyghurs, fleeing abroad is their only hope. Like many Uyghurs, Mr X left for a life of freedom outside of China due to the worsening situation and now lives in Germany. I was keen to see his views on the future and what he believes it may hold for himself and the Uyghurs in China:

Are things getting better or is it all simply lies?

No, things are getting worse day by day. Too many people left from the country in recent years and the control became more tighter than ever.

How do you see the future for your people and for yourself?

I am not very optimistic about the future of Uyghurs as I saw bad news from the media and Chinese social media. I don’t think the oppression will end soon. […] like most […] Uyghurs, I also desire an independent Uyghur state which based on democracy and freedom where our problem gets solved. Since this is like a day dream, I hope at least China become a democratic country and stop oppression and assimilation above [all to] Uyghurs. To my future, AlhamduliAllah I came to Germany and I live in freedom. But, I want to go back to my home if the situation gets better and there is no danger to my life.

As with an ever increasing number of Uyghurs living in exile abroad, Mr X has had to separate himself from his home, his friends and family. Even abroad, he is not free to express his identity and disdain for the Chinese State. Yet without hearing the voices of Uyghurs, the situation carries on and China buries more skeletons even deeper into its closet. For  experts such as Raymond Lee, who concludes that to stop the “intensifying” violence and worsening situation which is due to various short and long term factors (social issues, a rapidly changing society, ethnic cleavage and Islamic activism clashing with Chinese security), China must greatly improve Uyghur living standards and be more tolerant towards Uyghur Islamic identity rather than enforcing assimilationist policies:

[…] China should […] respect the Uyghurs’ Muslim identity not only in the cultural but also in the political sphere. Such a concession could pave the way for granting more autonomy rights […] . Next, Beijing should elevate the Uyghurs’ underprivileged status by improving their living standards, promoting Islamic values, and employing extensive preferential policies. […]  Beijing should […] construct an equal, respectful, and harmonious interethnic relationship between Han Chinese and the Uyghur minority. […] a democratic political institution is needed. […]

China is far from being a democratic political institution – that is something we all know – and its mass Communist State culture is one of united political, social and cultural identity with no form of difference, variation or individual expression. It does not allow for a truly multicultural model, which would provide a model of national political, social and intercultural co-identity based on a set of shared values including tolerance and diversity and collaborative shared history/future. The Chinese government does not allow for true minority rights. What is needed is greater rights and autonomy. For some Uyghurs, independence is the answer and their dream.

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Chinese police in Urumqi – Image credit: Dai Luo

How can we help?

Well, I believe the region should be free and go back to being East Turkistan but that is a different rather more political issue! In more immediate practical terms how can we help end the suppression of the Uyghurs in China itself?

There are a variety of ways in which you can help. As suggested by Mr X who is an online activist himself, you can:

Rebiya Kadeer (of WUC) has long fought for the rights of Uyghurs in China. She herself spent six years in prison in China before being granted leave to go to the USA for medical treatment, where she now lives in the USA with her husband. She has been twice nominated for the Noble Peace Prize and was the focus of the documentary “The 10 Conditions of Love” which looks at her life and work fighting for Uyghur human rights. This worth a watch and is a good introduction.

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WUC President Rebiya Kadeer and her husband Sidiq Rouzi – Image credit: Uyghur East Turkistan

For other news, you can visit: Radio Free Asia where there are a wide range of articles (as you will see in my list of resources below). And finally, here’s one final message from Mr X:

Please, do not forget to pray for us. […] happy Ramadan to my Muslim brothers and sister in the world.

So, please spread the wordre-blog, tweet, post and raise your voice!

Eid Mubarak and salam!

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Image credit: www.futureatlas.com

Acknowledgments

I’d like to thank Mr X for his participation and his openness in sharing his story and that of the Uyghur people.

I wish him, his family and the Uyghur community all the very best for the future.

Credits, sources and further information

Feature image: Uyghur East Turkistan

For a list of credits, sources and further information, the bibliography is available to download in PDF format

Ramadan Mubarak – how to support six humanitarian causes this month

Ramadan – the holy month of fasting for Muslims worldwide – is approaching. This is a month of religious devotion, charity and remembrance of those less fortunate than ourselves. Muslims abstain from eating and drinking (amongst other activities) during daylight hours in remembrance of the poor. For many of us, no matter hungry you feel, you know you will eat at sunset. Yet imagine not having anything to break your fast with. Imagine every day being a constant struggle. Many people – Muslim and non-Muslim – around the world are suffering due to poverty, natural disaster, war, persecution and much more. In your very home town, there may be those who go to work hungry, having fed their children but gone hungry themselves as there’s not enough food to go around. You may switch on the TV and thousands of miles away you may see starving refugees fleeing war. People carry on suffering and aid donations are all the more essential, both locally and internationally. Additionally, there are various Muslim (and non-Muslim) groups who continue to be persecuted, discriminated against and even killed. Whether victims of war or persecuted religious minorities, many face difficulty in finding safe shelter and in practising their religion.

So whilst Ramadan starts and we wish fellow Muslims “Ramadan Mubarak” (Happy Ramadan), let’s remember the following people and causes (in no particular order) and call one another to action.

1. The Syrian crisis

Muslims, Christians, Yazidis… millions of Syrians have and continue to suffer due to the Syrian crisis of civil war and religious extremism. Rape, torture, starvation, bombing…the suffering is ongoing. For the displaced Syrians still inside Syria, those living in controlled areas and the millions of Syrian refugees who have fled Syria, the situation in Syria is sad, complex and shows no signs of being resolved any time soon.

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Syrian refugee – Image credit: Bengin Ahmad (Flickr)

You can help by donating money and resources to provide aid both in Syrian and in refugee camps. You can also read more about Syria through my interview with Syrian-Palestinian asylum seeker Khaled – click here.

2. The conflict in Yemen

The Saudi bombings and the Sunni-Shia conflict in Yemen – already the poorest country in the Middle East – have led to more instability for this nation in which men, women and children are continuing to suffer. The war has been going on for over a year and so far more than 3000 civilians have been killed:

[…] the conflict in Yemen […] continues to take a terrible toll, with more than 3000 civilians killed, and 5700 wounded, since it began a year ago. If the violence and fragmentation continue, the people of Yemen face a very bleak future. The war has devastated an already weak infrastructure, with multiple attacks on hospitals and schools. It has opened vast opportunities for groups such as Al Qaeda and so-called ISIL to expand their grasp. Most tragically, the ongoing political unrest, violence and air strikes have created a massive humanitarian crisis. This could trigger refugee flows, further destabilising the region.

Statement by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (10/03/2016)

The lack of public uproar against the Saudi led bombings is deafening and shocking. Innocent children are starving and the world remains shockingly quiet.

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Air strike in Sana’a (11/05/2015) – Image credit: Ibrahem Qasim (Flickr)

To get involved and help innocent Yemenis:

  • Sign the following petitions calling to end the violence: Oxfam, MoveOn
  • Donate: your help can provide essential aid for the Yemeni people

For more information on the war in Yemen, see:

3. The Palestinian crisis

Palestinians face immense ethnic, cultural and religious discrimination, manifesting itself in great difficulties in attending school, water and electricity shortages and high rates of unemployment.

You can support the Palestinians in many ways:

  • Support the #CheckTheLabel campaign: make sure you check the label when buying dates to break your fast – pick dates from Palestine or elsewhere in the MENA region. You can order the campaign leaflets via the Friends of Al-Aqsa website to hand out at the mosque and raise awareness amongst fellow Muslims and interfaith activists when attending events etc. You can also share the message via social media – get tweeting, posting and sharing!

4. The persecution of Rohingya Muslims

Whilst the media has gone rather quiet, the persecution of the Rohingya people – “the most persecuted refugees in the world” – is ongoing. A report by The Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic (Yale Law School, October 2015) concluded that the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar constitutes genocide:

The Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine State have suffered serious and persistent human rights abuses. Myanmar authorities, security forces, police, and local Rakhine actors have engaged in widespread violence, acts of torture, arbitrary detention, rape, and other crimes causing serious physical and mental harm. The scale of these atrocities has increased precipitously since 2012. […] the majority of Myanmar’s Rohingya have been confined to villages in northern Rakhine State or internally displaced persons camps. […]conditions in both northern Rakhine State and the IDP camps are dire: Rohingya lack freedom of movement, access to food, clean drinking water, sanitation, medical care, work opportunities, and education. They live in conditions that appear to have been calculated to bring about their destruction. The acts committed against the Rohingya, individually and collectively, meet the criteria for finding acts enumerated in the Genocide Convention […]

Persecution of Rohinyga Muslims: Is Genocide Occuring in Myanmar’s Rakhine State? A Legal Analysis, p64

To help this persecuted minority, you can:

For more information, check out:

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Around 90,000 Rohingya’s live in cramped shelters in camps near Sittwe – the capital of Rakhine State – Image credit: European Commission DG ECHO (Flickr)

5. The oppression of Uyghur Muslims in China

China’s Muslim minority, the Uyghur community who live in the autonomous region of Xinjiang, have been facing increasing discrimination over the years. The Chinese State has banned face veils, forced certain shopkeepers to sell alcohol, introduced restrictions on beards and in the past banned fasting during the period of Ramadan. This year, the State has declared that there will be no restrictions regarding Ramadan – yet one can never tell given the secrecy and human rights abuses that go on in China.

How you can help:

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Men praying at Id Kah Mosque on Eid al Fitr – Image credit: Preston Rhea (Flickr)

6. The war in Ukraine

If you’d like to help towards the crisis in Ukraine you can:

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Image credit: Guido van Nispen (Flickr)

So there’s six causes that we are all aware of and of course there are many other worthy causes, many groups facing persecution and many more campaigns and petitions. This is simply a brief guide to current urgent and perhaps not so well publicised causes which we can all help towards.

So – brothers and sisters in Islam: Ramadan Mubarak!

And to all readers: check out the tips and get going!

Salam!

 

Image credit:

Feature image: Amila Tennakoon (Flickr)

Prophet of Peace – #notoislamophobia

The IRA, the Klu Klux Klan, Zionists, Buddhist extremists…terrorism does not discriminate. Terrorism is not a religion, a culture nor a community… It’s simply a disease – a disease of the heart and mind which latches onto poverty, ignorance, the marginalised, arrogant, naive, extreme, intolerant, vengeful, close minded and hateful.

Islamophobia is on the increase and it’s a sad state of affairs. What’s also a sad state of affairs is ISIS and terrorism – terrorists who claim to speak for Islam. One does not excuse the other. People need to know the truth about Islam and Muslims need to be able to practice their faith in peace.

Increasing Islamophobia

To see the rise in Islamophobic speech and hate crimes we only need to look at the current state of socio-political affairs and keep up with current events to see:

  • Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric
  • Vandalism and pig remains at mosques
  • Muslims being physically and verbally abused in public

There has been a sharp rise in Islamophobia in the USA and Europe since the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the latest shootings in Paris and California. Ibrahim Hooper – spokesman for The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) – recently told Al Jazeera:

“….anti-Muslim bigotry has moved into the mainstream. In previous spikes, like after 9-11, Islamophobia was on the fringes of society.”

In the UK, The Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) which is based in London and investigates hate crime, recently launched a new study entitled: “Environment of Hate: The New Normal for Muslims in the UK”. Some of their findings are shocking – you can find out more via their video. Since such unfortunate developments, hate crimes against Muslims in the UK are now being listed within their own category – just like anti-Semitics attacks. This is a  welcome development and will aid monitoring and campaigning.

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ISIS is not Islam

Whilst many people do not equate Islam with terrorism, there is still talk of: “Not all terrorists are Muslim but all terrorists are Muslim”. Many know this is utter rubbish to put it mildly but if the rise in Islamophobic attacks and the US presidential elections are anything to go by – there are still widespread misconceptions.

Islam is about spirituality, worship and good deeds. Islam in Arabic means submission/surrender (to Allah (God)). Contrary to what ISIS advertises – jihad is primarily about a Muslim’s inner spiritual struggle and striving to obey Allah and purify one’s soul: to do good, be honest, hold your tongue and anger, oppress your ego, selfishness and bad thoughts/desires (your nafs). This is jihad al nafs  “the greater jihad”:

“By the soul and (by) Him who made it perfect, and then inspired it to understand what is wrong and what is right for it. Truly is successful the one who purifies (his soul).” (Qur’an, 91: 7-9)

Muslims are taught to respect other humans, to strive for goodness and justice. Peace, hope, mercy, honesty, truthjustice – these are the values of Islam. When facing oppression Muslims are allowed to defend themselves but never more than necessary:

“Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress. Indeed. Allah does not like transgressors.” (Qur’an, 2: 190)

“Allah will not be merciful to those who are not merciful to the people.” (Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) – Bukhari 6941, Muslim 2139)

“Verily, Allah is only merciful to His servants who are merciful with others.” (Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) – Bukhari 1224)

Islam does not condone terrorism or the killing of innocent civilians. In fact, there a strict set of rules which Muslims must obey – as the following graphic shows:

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In response to Muslims and Islamophobes regarding the killing of innocent civilians, Talk Islam have produced a wonderful video about the Prophet Muhammed and the teachings of Islam to reiterate these points: “Nothing to do with my Prophet“. It’s really worth a watch.

Solidarity and spreading the peace

Despite the rise in hate crime and Islamophobia, I’m also happy to say that there have been many wonderful gestures of solidarity, including:

  • The Twitter campaign #youaintnomuslimbruv following a stabbing incident in London
  • Michael Moor‘s – “we are all Muslims
  • Non-Muslim women wearing headscarves in support of Muslim hijabi women for World Hijab Day
  • One lady who has  been wearing a headscarf in protest of Donald Trump’s recent comments

So there you have it. It’s not all doom and gloom but it is crucial that things change. Muslims and non-Muslims:

  • Build bridges: talk to people, get involved
  • Educate: correct people’s misconceptions
  • Stand up to Islamophobia and hate crime

Show the Trumps, Daesh members/wannabes of the world and haters what peace and Islam is.

Salam!

For more information see:

The Islamic Human Rights Commission (information and reporting hate crime)

The Qur’an (Arabic with English translation)

The 99 Names of Allah

10 Islamic Rules of War

10 Reasons Why We Need Human Rights

This 10th December is Human Right’s Day – marking the date when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted in 1948. It’s often been said that many of us take our rights and freedoms for granted. The term “human rights” has become a bit of a “buzz word” amongst the kind of people who love to add their comments to Daily Mail articles or on Facebook articles: “Oh not the EU and human rights!” What springs to their mind is: “terrorist extremists sponging of the state along with their families” or “we’re bending over backwards for minorities”.

Well that’s not what human rights are. Human rights offer us safety, freedom and protection. Here’s ten reasons why we NEED human rights legislation, courts, lawyers and campaigners. Of course, there are hundreds of thousands of reasons and cases but here’s a few to get us going (in no particular order).

1. Slavery, human trafficking and sexual exploitation

Forced labour, imprisonment, prostitution and human trafficking are grave issues. Slavery may have already been abolished but it’s still going on today – WORLDWIDE. According to the West Midland’s Police (UK):

Human trafficking is the most profitable crime in the world, second only to drugs. It is also a growing crime in the UK with victims exploited in four main ways – forced labour, sexual exploitation, domestic servitude and benefit fraud.

One recent new story is of Karla Jacinto – a victim of human trafficking who was lured away at the age of 12, having already been subjected to sexual abuse since the age of five by a family member. Karla was forced to work as a prostitute in Mexico and was eventually rescued by police in 2008 as part their anti-trafficking work. She confesses she was raped 43, 200 times. The horror is unimaginable.

2. Violations against freedom of speech, expression, assembly and association

lmagine living in a country where you’re unable to express your own personal and political beliefs, unable to go on peaceful demonstrations, unable to “hold an opinion”… No protesting the Syrian war, no protesting benefit cuts, no having your say… Worldwide, it’s happening – China, Venezuela, Crimea, the USA even… Take Venezuela as an example – 2014 was quoted as being “the worst year for freedom of expression” with 350 cases and 579 violations (the highest figure in 20 years) affecting journalists and those working in the media as well as members of NGOs, human rights activists and civilians:

As far as the attacks and threats against journalists and photo journalists went, the report indicated that the majority came while covering public protests. These acts of aggression included beatings, pellet shots, tear gas attacks, detainments, the confiscation of cameras and cellphones, the destruction of audiovisual and photographic material, and intimidation.

This is not an unfamiliar site if you switch on the TV news and do some research.

3. Torture, arbitrary arrest, detention or exile and restrictions against freedom of movement within and outside your own country  

Following online and offline activism – peaceful protests, blogging online, newspaper journalism, political activism – human rights defenders and regime opponents or those simply in the wrong place at the wrong time could end up being locked up and subject to torture (physical, emotional, sexual and spiritual abuse/neglect) including sexual assault and malnutrition. There’s also the case of those who are never brought to trial – whether guilty or innocent of their supposed crime(s).

Let’s take Guantanamo Bay as an example. May inmates have even never been taken to trial, are subject to torture and continue to protest their innocence. The latest news story was that of Shakeer Aamer. Shakeer was imprisoned in Guantanamo for 14 years without trial and subject to torture. Shakeer always protested his innocence – he was detained when working in Afghanistan for an Islamic charity. He was recently able to return home to the UK to be with his family. For the first time in his life he was able to meet his youngest son – aged 14.

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4. Asylum seekers

You’re fleeing religious or political persecution, torture and death, war, genocide – no safety, no peace, no security, no home… You’re a political opponent, a victim of war, a persecuted minority… British Red Cross figures from 2014 state that 52% of the worlds refugees come from four countries – with the numbers of people per country as following:

  • Syria:3 million
  • Afghanistan:7 million
  • Somalia:1 million
  • Sudan:670,000
  • South Sudan:508,000

The conflict in Syria has been and continues to be devastating, as in various other countries with ongoing conflict. Some asylum seekers however flee their countries for fear of their life due to political oppression. There are many stories – for example that of Berthe Patricia Nganga from Congo Brazzaville who fled her country in 2003 and was granted leave to remain in the UK in 2011. Berthe and her family were subject to political persecution.

“[…] being an asylum seeker is not an easy life.  I was a paediatric nurse in Congo Brazzaville, working in the local hospital and in my mother’s chemist. She was killed by the government because she didn’t support them. Then in 1998, my husband fled the country, because he was part of the opposition party too. […]People were after me […] so I had to get away.”

Once a refugee arrives in a host country, they can legally apply for asylum. Whilst seeking asylum, you cannot work but you are not “illegal” or undocumented (see further asylum seeker myths here). There are many more cases. Those at risk and in danger deserve a safe home. #refugeeswelcome

5. Discrimination and unequal protection before the law 

Restrictions of any humans rights based upon race, ethnicity, religion, etc. include:

  • The situation of the Roma and their (lack of) rights and provisions regarding housing and education in Romania.
  • The rights of the Rohingya in Myanmar and their lack of citizenship as just one example.

6. Violations to the right to privacy

There’s been a lot of concern concerning government “snooping” and anti-terrorist measures. Recently, an EU court declared that The National Security Agency is “violating the privacy rights of millions of Europeans”.

7. Divided families

At this very moment across the UK, Europe and worldwide, (potential) husbands, wives, mothers, fathers and children are separated – with their right to marriage and family life violated – due to visa restrictions. They are Divided families – Skype families. There’s an array of families who are divided due to financial restrictions. In the UK for example you need to earn minimum £18,600 (excluding added “fees” per each child) to be eligible to sponsor your spouse to come to the UK. Third party sponsors are not permitted and property and job status are not taken into consideration (there are exemptions however if you are a carer or disabled). For many, marriage is the odd holiday the couple can afford, text messages, phone calls and Facebook, Skype and What’s App time.  Many children are separated from their mommy or daddy.

8. Restrictions on religious freedom

Many religious communities worldwide are not free to practice their religion and follow their religious and spiritual beliefs. One example is China’s Muslim minority – the Uighur Muslims in the autonomous region of Xinjiang who have felt the increasing level of religious restrictions. Last Ramadan, government workers, teachers, professors and students were “banned” from fasting and “banquets” were held to “test” if Muslims were fasting or not. Women are also banned from wearing face veils, men are not permitted to have beards and shopkeepers are forced to sell alcohol.

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9. Inadequate social provision/recognition of disability

Due to the global economic crisis, government budgets have tightened – including the lowering of social security provisions. There has been a lot of concern concerning welfare provisions in the UK and a series of deaths (including suicide) of vulnerable adults. The UDHR underlines the right to an adequate standard of living and security including food, clothing, social and medical care – outlining cases of unemployment, disability and old age etc. (Article 25). Whilst many countries have no social security systems and/or a lack of care, it has been confirmed  by the UN that the UK has violated the rights of disabled citizens. In fact, figures from the UK Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) state that:

Nearly 90 people a month are dying after being declared fit for work.

The figures are truly shocking. The State is obliged to care for and protect its citizens.

10. Child soldiers and child labour

Children should be in school, enjoying their younger years. According to the UDHR, they are entitled in minimum terms to free (compulsory) elementary education (Article 26). Children do not belong in war. Children are being used as spies and suicide bombers in Afghanistan and soldiers in Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic (to name just a few examples).  In addition, although the number has decreased, there are 168 million children worldwide working in child labour.

So there we have it – ten of just many reasons why human rights legislation, courts, protocols and campaigners are essential. So, what can you do to help you may ask?

  • Sign online petitions, blog, tweet and and right letters (see my article about Amnesty International’s Write to Rights Campaign this month)
  • Organise talks and events
  • Fundraise and donate to NGOs
  • Volunteer your time and skills within NGOs
  • Join local and university human rights groups to collaborate together
  • Start a career in human rights – become a human rights lawyer, campaigner, fundraiser etc. or you could lend your skills to bodies and organisations through other professional means – translation, interpreting and journalism to name just a few roles.

Research your cause, brainstorm, design your strategy and make a set of goals. Get out there or online and spread the word and raise awareness! Happy campaigning folks!

Salam!

For information on human rights law see:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The European Convention of Human Rights

The United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime

Convention on the Rights of the Child

The Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict

Image credits:

Images are shared under a Creative Commons licence

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Trump Supporters – #visitamosque

1914890_652143878515_4679132_nRight-wing Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump last month, when asked in an interview, declared he would be in favour of special security measures for Muslims in the US: ID cards and a database in which they’ll be on record…Yellow stars spring to mind…

Hearing this reminded me of the not so distant ideas of Nazi Germany. While in no way whatsoever am I comparing the Jewish Holocaust and the tragedy that the Jewish community suffered to such current events, the situation is this:

Muslims have been identified as “troublemakers”, “a cause for concern” and Trump’s comments are singling out a community en masse.

Trump expressed his concerns for the need for surveillance and security in the fight against terrorism. Visually singling out the Jews by making them wear a yellow star in Nazi Germany wasn’t due to apparent “security concerns” – it was due to a deep seated prejudice and blatant scapegoating of religious-cultural community by a lunatic fascist. Whilst in the US and worldwide, there have been an unfortunate series of terrorist attacks committed through ISIS which all citizens (both Muslim and non-Muslim) need to be protected from, beneath the surface however, this suggestion was not innocent of discrimination and Islamophobia. The idea of Muslim ID or a database still “otherises” an entire community.

In relation to Islam, in an interview with Al Jazeera Trump said:

“We’ve heard it over and over again. The word  Islam means peace. As Muslims we have been commanded to live in peace and respect our neighbours. Islam teaches that the killing of one innocent person is the killing of all mankind.”

Trump claims to recognise the meaning and worth of Islam and how it doesn’t represent terrorism but it doesn’t sound like he’s very convinced to me or even ready to stand with Muslims: “We’ve heard it over and over again” sounds somewhat tiresome, disinterested and disengaged. As a Muslim I’ll repeat – such teachings of peace are true Islam. The facts don’t change and what’s also true is that as a functioning loyal member of European society, I – just like the majority of Muslims – pose no risk to society and the same goes for American Muslims. No community should be posed as a “risk” or “security concern” and singled out just for being who they are. It’s been stated this community’s fundamental beliefs are peace, kindness and respect and to do doubt otherwise is revealing of further ills in society.

Since receiving online criticism via a series of tweets by Muslims in the US, Trump has dropped the idea. Yet, the problem still remains: intolerance and Islamophobia. Just check out these figures on Trump supporters:

-58% of Trump voters think thousands of Arabs in New Jersey celebrated the attacks of 9/11

-53% of Trump supporters are in favor of a national database of Muslims

-49% of Trump supporters want to shut down the mosques in the United States

Trump supporters are apparently uncomfortable with American Muslims and aren’t familiar with the concept of religious freedom. They certainly aren’t well informed or engaged with the Muslim community.

Islamophobia (as well as anti-Jewish sentiment) is  on the rise – including sporadic Islamophobic attacks on members of the public such as women in headscarves as “visible victims” proudly fulfilling their commitment to God and exerting their rights to freedom of religion. Well, I’m proud to be a Muslim and I’m proud to be British. I’m proud of my faith and the freedom it offers me and the US as a democracy should not discriminate through religion. In the current climate, different communities need to work together – not become (further) divided.

So to Trump, I say:

#hijabismyID 

And to Trump supporters, I say:

#visitamosque – go see the peace in action: engage, discuss, talk to Muslims, ask for a guided tour around the mosque. There was an initiative not so long ago in the UK, plus other lovely news stories such as that of a lady at a rally in the US who was met with a hug by a Muslim lady and later visited a local mosque – taking home a copy of the Qur’an in English. Build bridges, not hatred. It’s not fair on Muslims and it’s not going to beat terrorism.

Salam!

*Images from FreeImages.com are re-published under a Creative Commons licence