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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Four facts about refugees the media ISN’T telling you…

There’s a lot of talk of refugees in the media at present but rather than presenting facts, what the tabloids present is predominantly anti-refugee rhetoricscaremongering and racist/Islamophobic discourse. As a result, many people are worried about the effect of refugees on their local communities and on a wider international scale.

The following statements represent typical “concerns” of certain sections of British/European society fed by the media:

“They’re claiming thousands of pounds of benefits.”

“It’s safe back home for them.”

“It’s just single young men coming over, never any women or kids.”

“We can’t possibly take anymore – why can’t any other countries take them?”

Sound familiar? Well, here’s four myths the media likes to peddle and the real truth that they’re not telling you:

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Speaks volumes doesn’t it! So, next time someone thinks they’ve got their facts right: set them straight! Embrace diversity, protect human rights and welcome your global brothers and sisters! 🙂

Statistics: UNHCR, The Refugee Council (2015)

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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)

“I just want to be seen as a normal human being and respected” – an interview with Palestinian-Syrian asylum seeker Khaled

IMG_1321.JPGI recently had the honour of meeting Khaled – a Palestinian-Syrian asylum seeker living here in Málaga.

Khaled – 44 years old – is a sculptor, previous owner of his own factory, trained psychologist and human rights activist active in Syria. Khaled used to live in Yarmouk (in the south of Damascus) in Yarmouk Camp – a refugee camp for Palestinians in Syria. Khaled is now living as an asylum seeker here in Málaga (southern Spain) after leaving Syria in November 2015.

As a Palestinian refugee in Syria and human rights activist, Khaled had a lot to say on the war, sectarianism, life as a refugee and life in Syria.

Human rights in Syria

Khaled is originally Palestinian and comes from a large family. His parents fled Palestine to Syria – where Khaled was born – when the state of Israel was created. For the last three years his nephew has been imprisoned in Syria for helping protesters in demonstrations which started in his city Daraa. They visited him after two years and he is now condemned to stay in prison forever. His brother with his wife, their little baby and mother-in-law are under embargo by the Syrian regime.

When I ask Khaled about campaigning with NGOs around human rights issues, he makes it perfectly clear of the oppression in Syria:

In Syria, there isn’t such humanitarian activism because it’s oppressed by the regime but there are lawyers who are active, such as Michael Shamas – he is a very very good man. […] There is also a famous humanitarian activist his name is Khalil Maatouk – he contributed a lot towards humanitarian issues in Syria but unfortunately right now he’s been imprisoned by the Syrian regime for more than two years. There are a lot of lawyers, a lot of activists but there activism is very limited because of the amount of repression.

Even being a family member of somebody who’s in prison or being associated with somebody who’s in prison makes you subject to harassment. In Khaled’s own words: “Society was highly manipulated with sophisticated political and social tools, for example there are 12 universities and there are 16 security departments around the universities.” However, people were “conscious”. The massacre in the city of Hamah in 1982 resulted in the death of 50,000 people. A lack of social media at the time has meant that this went largely unpublicised:

The people of Hamah so far are still scared, traumatised due to the experience they had. At that time it was Margaret Thatcher in government and […] the international community didn’t react at all.  [… ] All they had were economic sanctions – an economic embargo for a certain time.

Thanks to social media people have been able to raise awareness of human rights abuses – something Khaled did himself. However, people remain oppressed, threatened and scared.

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A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad among the rubbish in al-Qsair (10/02/2012) (Credit: Freedom House – Flickr – CC)

Syria and the Palestinian issue

What is particularly shocking regarding human rights in Syria is the way that Palestinian refugees are treated in Syria. When I asked Khaled about the approach of the government and if they had been welcomed it became clear that the government had an agenda. Whilst he found that Syrian people were originally welcoming on a social level, the government exploited the Palestinian issue:

[…]  Whenever they had economic problems, they would use the Palestinian issue as a justification to silence people. They would tell them […]: “We’re not providing you with enough jobs or with enough socio-economic solutions because we are contributing a lot to free Palestine” which is a total lie. They are not doing anything for the Palestinian issue. They convince ordinary people. They blame all their problems on Palestinians. […] The numbers of Palestinians in Syria are manipulated by the government […]. They claim that they have two million Palestinian refugees

According to The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, there are 526, 744 registered Palestinian refugees in Syria (and Palestinian refugees within other Arab states – see here for more information). Not only are Palestinian refugees limited in terms of future job potential but also in socio-cultural terms. This is an issue across the Middle East, when sadly one would expect brotherhood:

[…] Palestinians in Egypt […] don’t have the right to say “We are Palestinians”. They have been told, “As long as you’re here to have to say ‘I’m Egyptian'”. You don’t have the right to be Palestinian. And in Lebanon […] they are not entitled to do certain jobs. For example, you cannot be a doctor. They are limited; they have a quota. They can do only 70 specific jobs/professions.

In Syria, even after 50 years they cannot vote or run as candidates in elections. Palestinian refugees are not even given citizenship. Khaled shows me his Syrian Palestinian refugee travel document. He’s legal but he’s not Syrian – and that’s the way the Syrian government wants it: “People are not aware of the issue of Palestinian refugees at all. It’s a structured aimed ignorance that the government wants everybody to forget about them. Moist of the people wonder that a Palestinian is doing here […]”. Any hope of a brotherhood of Arab states is a fail – which Khaled refers to as not fully fledged states but simply “gangs of mafia” who came to power with force after the former colonial powers of Britain and France quickly left. Yet despite all of this, Khaled sees himself as Palestinian-Syrian and Syria is his home.

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Yarmouk (Damascus) – (c) 2013 EC/ECHO/Dina Baslan (Flickr) (CC)

Sectarianism and conflict

Despite the obstacles facing Palestinian refugees in Syria, Khaled says he had a good life in Syria before the war. Khaled left Syria due to war. He – like the others feeling conflict and oppression by both ISIS and/or the Assad regime – is not seeking money, but simply peace, security and a better life. Khaled had been offered a way out of Syria when he participated in a language exchange with other Europeans but rejected this. Back in Syria he had a stable life, friends and family and in fact; he didn’t want to go. Post 9/11 he felt how anyone from “The East” was given the tag of “terrorist” – for every Arab, even those who are “tolerant or the most peaceful of people”. He enjoyed his life in Syria and was fully integrated into a society which boasted around 72 minorities – including the Alawi, Druze, Shia and Kurdish populations – in which everyone lived peacefully and cohesively. Yet such a  diverse rich nation became married by sectarianism – the most horrible of which Khaled confirms was of the Alawis who controlled the system. The “Godfather” was Hafed Al Assad:

Before he came to the regime, the level of or the ratio of corruption was a certain percent and when he came to power it became 98%. He got rid of anything to do with transparency or with fairness or justice and the government is literally just full of Alawis – people from his sect. […] There is corruption […] in different European countries, but the level of corruption in Syria and the Alawi system was so high.

Notwithstanding the vast religious diversity in Syria, this was not a religiously motivated conflict. Before the onset of war, around 10 families (not the Alawi population as a whole) were “taking advantage of this situation and taking advantage of their family member being in the regime” – including the al-Bayt family (equivalent to The Rothschilds). As a Palestinian refugee, Khaled did not witness sectarianism in mainstream schools as Palestinians were segregated from primary school until university. At university they were finally merged together. Khaled admits there was segregation but “it was hidden. People didn’t know. It was not expressed.”

Educated people outside of the elite introduced activities to try and combat such sectarianism and division. Khaled belonged to “Towasil” (‘Continue‘) – a group which would organise team building activities for people from different religious backgrounds, including walks in the mountains. This was a great “bonding” initiative to break down barriers between people. Even within the working class there were many initiatives but such sectarianism came to light with the outbreak of war which became further manipulated by the political system: “Bashar Assad is very intelligent in his game and he knew how to manipulate”. Going back to the sources of different sects, religious preachers did not preach unity. We all know in history how easy it is for differences – no matter how small or large – to be exploited for power and towards the oppression of others.

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Mazzeh 86 neighbourhood (23/11/2012) – a bomb went off in a mostly Alawite area according to the regime (Credit: Freedom House – Flickr – CC)

From protests to war

A politically corrupt system engulfed by a religious sect, economic and social inequality and a dictator able to manipulate sects and citizens against one another, stirred conflict within Syria, which was later marred by Islamic extremists. As socio-economic political demonstrations started, the government’s response encouraged protests to become a full scale revolution and war. Khaled was more than clear in his desire as a human rights activist to express the fact that the initial protests were not an attempt to overthrow the regime:

It started totally as a civil revolution, social, economic […] innocent, peaceful […]. Then the regime started oppressing […] shooting down the protesters. I was one of the participants in the revolution. I was arrested and held for four months. I was hit [Khaled shows where his missing teeth have been replaced with small dentures]. I was beaten and tortured. […] The intention of the revolution was not to overthrow the system but just to make major economic political reforms and it started first in Daraa […] What happened is because of the level of control of the system and using the security system to control every small detail in people’s lives. It got to the level that [nobody] would trust the other. They would always feel suspicious that probably one of them is a spy or works as a security agent. [..] Kids were kidnapped […] and their nails were cut off. They were tortured. When the parents went to […] bring them back, the security officials said “we are not going to give you your kids back, bring us your wives […] then we will give you your kids again.”. So people felt so humiliated, so oppressed, they revolted – they had to revolt.

As Syrians witnessed but the Tunisian Revolution, within the context of the Arab Spring, Syrians fought back against their own injustices. Khaled recalls how they symapathised with the people and supported the revolutions and toppling of the regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Yet what people may not be aware of is that before the Arab Spring and the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, there as the Rabi’a Damasq – the Damascus Spring:

In 1988/89 there was a left wing party started to develop and I was part of it. It was a communist party but it was also oppressed by the regime – a lot of people were killed. There were also individual cases and kidnappings. On an individual level […] it was  not recorded because there were no humanitarian NGOs at that time in Syria. A family member of mine was kidnapped 30 years ago. He disappeared. We know nothing about him up to now. This is in the time of Hafez Al Assad- the father of Bashar. When Bashar came into the system he was so young – he changed the constitution to suit his political ambitions. At that time there was a political uprising – the Rabi’a Damasq […] People protested against Bashar Al Assad because the way he took the regime was illegitimate – it was not constitutional. […].  Bashar […] waited until it calmed down then he kidnapped most of the people – the leaders of that movement against him.

Such family style dictatorships are spread across the MENA region – hotbeds of corruption and nepotism: “Rami Makhlouf [part of Assad’s mafia – his cousin from his mother’s side] makes decisions in every small detail. […] It got to the level that you couldn’t breathe without his consent.” This small family – in effect a “gang” – were “taking control over everything.” We’ve all heard the expression: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”- well all the more here. Khaled informed me about a sculpting competition in Damascus which he participated in. Those who stood a chance of winning were those who had contacts and knew people working within the system.

In other words, the reality was this: deep nepotism vs. frustration and inequality. We all saw how quickly such reforms led in to a full scale war. As the Syrians took the opportunity of the Arab Spring to start their own reforms, I asked Khaled if he believes whether the war would have started had there not have been an Arab Spring elsewhere: “The components and factors of the revolution were already there. Maybe it would have started but it would have taken a long time – longer”. Longer – in light of a deep prolonged conflict – is definitely what describes the sad reality of the crisis in Syria today…

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A house destroyed by a Syrian army tank shell in Al Qsair (25/01/2012) (Credit: Freedom House – Flickr – CC)

ISIS and Islamic extremism

One element intertwined with sectarianism and the war in Syria is the emergence of ISIS (a.k.a. Daesh). Khaled assures me that the revolution was purely political, social and economic but later exploited by Islamic extremists. What started as a legitimate movement later became an “extremist movement”. He is particularly keen to explain that ISIS is a result of the war not the other way round: “There is still a legitimate position but nobody cares about it and all that we see in the media are the extremist groups and now anything to do with such positions is labelled as extremism.” In fact, when I asked him if he expected the war to get this far, he explains how he didn’t and that it was with the involvement of extremist groups that the future started to look bleaker:

[…] As soon as Al Nusra and Daesh […] started rising I knew that it would get this way. The reason we had jihadi and extremist groups is because the international community and the West betrayed the Syrian revolution. They saw and they witnessed that the regime was oppressing the revolution in the most horrible ways. I even witnessed some of that. […] One of the parents saw […] their son being killed in front of them and then the body was used as a trap to get people to go there to pick it up. So you’d go and pick up that dead body – […] you’d be shot by a sniper and killed. There were even gang rapes where they [Alawi groups] would bring Sunni girls to a public place and rape them.

So you think that you were betrayed because the international community did nothing? How did they betray you?

Yes, it’s because of the negative and passive way in which the international community reacted. They didn’t even respond – they didn’t care about what was going on. They saw the videos, they saw the pictures but nobody wanted to support them so that’s how it got to the extreme level. The revolution was manipulated and they stared using Allah and the word of jihad – giving people hope.

Khaled is pessimistic about the war and whether it will even come to an end at all. He doesn’t believe that anyone intends to “come to a peaceful resolution” and is particularly conscious of the lack of action or “good intention” on behalf of the US and Saudi Arabia. In fact, Saudi Arabia is one of the countries supplying arms to ISIS.

The backing of ISIS by foreign nations is not the only shocking disappointment. What is particularly disturbing is the number young Europeans and non-Europeans travelling to Syria to join ISIS. Young, naive, bitter or misguidedly enthusiastic, these jihadists – young and old, male and female – believe they are entering an Islamic utopia or the land where they can fulfil their religious duties and make a difference for the Islamic ummah (community). The reality is that they fuel, support and even engage in rape, torture, slavery, murder and barbarity. Once you are these it’s very hard to escape. Even if you do, you’ve pretty much ruined your life and hopes of a future back home. I asked Khaled what would he say to young jihadists – young Europeans wanting to go to Syria. This was his reply:

Integrate into society – going there is not a solution. You’ll be treated like animals. You’ll be brainwashed. You’ll be dumped.

Indeed, your life is over. Behind the eyes of these lost souls or barbaric animals, they are dead inside. Being in tune with humanity, with Allah, with good; one cannot live such life. Muslim and non-Muslim communities need to engage and work back home and not keeping fuelling the fire back in Syria. Jihadists go, whilst refugees come for a better life. There could not be a simply clearer message. Khaled, like myself, believes that to defeat ISIS, you have to go back to the roots and know the causes: “It’s not an action – it’s a reaction” as Khaled so rightly sums up. Indeed, I agree with him that there are multiple factors – as is visible from the variety and diversity of its members. Where social economic hardship lies, lie the seeds to brainwash and manipulate young naive Muslims. One thing for sure, is that bombing Syria will not achieve anything – which Khaled affirms himself: “If the “solution” for extremism and terrorism is going to be just with bombing and such military interventions; well I don’t believe that this is a solution. It will never end”.

Whilst many Europeans are concerned about the threat of ISIS on European shores, as a refugee, Khaled is clear to reiterate that integrating and understanding individuals are key. He sees refugees frustrated and depressed with the six months waiting time for papers. Amongst cultural differences, new freedoms and social norms, he believes refugees’ talents should be “cherished” and assistance should be given to help refugees contribute towards the overall progression of society:

ISIS is an idea. It manipulates people through their fears – the fear of death. I didn’t come here to get cars, to get girls.

So for lack of a better word, you feel a bit dumped and isolated?

It’s a ghetto. In the Arab world, people are sociable. You’ve got your neighbours, you’ve got your family […]. So far I didn’t see any, but there is racism. In my case, because I’m conscious and aware of things; I could never be radicalised. In other situations, there are people who could even be a project of a terrorist.

As a refugee, Khaled has been looked at with suspicion but the idea of ISIS members coming over to Europe is simply scaremongering: “ISIS members would never come here. They have a better life than any European”. It has already been proven that videos with so-called refugees chanting “Allahu akbar” and rallies in the streets are lies as they are misrepresentations or the result of edited material. It is indeed jumping on the scaremongering wagon – just like the Cologne story as Khaled points out.

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ISIS (Credit: Day Donaldson – Flickr – CC)

From one country to another – Khaled’s refugee journey 

As originally Palestinian, Khaled’s journey is an interesting one. Khaled lived in Syria as a Palestinian refugee and was living in southern Damascus – an area under embargo by both the Syrian government and the Shia militia. There were only two ways to get out: either you go to security officials and gave information about the opposition (revealing names of people they would later shoot) or you bribe your way out. Khaled paid a million Syrian Lira to an army official to let him out. Once you’re out though, you face being killed or arrested by other security personnel. Khaled hid in Damascus for 12 days in the officer’s house before the officer took him to the airport and directly on to a plane heading to Algeria, where his mother had fled to before her son. One of Khaled’s brothers is also now living in Holland and another in Libya is hoping to leave with his son and daughter. Algeria as it stood was the only option open to Khaled offered by the security official. On the other end, other people weren’t as fortunate as Khaled. He told me about one of his friends who went missing:

Nerez Sayed is a Syrian journalist. He’s famous. I know him, he is my friend. I […] used to take photos and videos and upload them onto social media to raise awareness with the international community and to show the real picture […]. My friend tried to do the same thing . He hid for two months in Damascus. He was then kidnapped and arrested. I don’t know where he is now.

Khaled had managed to escape a war zone of oppression and misery. He told me that he felt like it was a “miracle” when he left Syria. Yet, he found the treatment and facilities in Algeria lacking. Just like the disappointment of Arab so-called Arab “brotherhood” regarding Palestinians, he was met with suspicion in Algeria: “I always felt under control in Algeria. My family was always under control. Always under suspicion. But not in your face.” His mother – aged 75 – had already been there for three years and “was not being looked after very well”. As a result they left – in his words – “to go to a better place, where there was a good health system , where we could lead a good life.” Feeling concerned about the Algerian government, he did not apply for asylum:

I didn’t even go to the authorities. I was worried. I didn’t feel alright. I know that the Algerian system is pro the Syrian regime. I knew that there was even cooperation between both armies.

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Khaled’s journey (Original map credit: Namelesss23)

So, a month after he arrived, Khaled and his mother crossed the border into Nador into neighbouring Morocco where they were met with hostility by the Moroccan security forces:

I hated the experience in Morocco because the Moroccan security officer treated us really badly and he was telling us: “What are you doing here? Why don’t you go back?” I even heard him talking about giving orders to one of his soldiers to just go and get rid of us [kill us]. I told myself: why doesn’t the world care about us? Our blood is no longer valued. Nobody cares about us. […] We don’t mean anything to the world…

From the hostility in Morocco, they left Nador and fled to Melilla – where they were then officially on EU soil and that’s where his Spanish journey began. After staying in a refugee centre in Melilla, he was later brought to Málaga –  where he is currently based.

Living as an asylum seeker in Spain and beyond

Khaled’s story is one of suppression and shock, yet survival. From the miracle of leaving Syria, where civilians had to eat cats and leaves to survive and the population faced political persecution, Khaled told me of his disappointment:

I’m totally disappointed with getting to Europe. I feel like I’ve lost 44 years of my life in Syria. I didn’t come here for money. I already had money in my country. I came here to be valued as a human being to feel safe to feel secure but unfortunately I still have to prove that I’m not a terrorist. I still have to always be under check and control. I still have to prove that I’m a human being. I thought that I would come here to contribute towards society, to be part of society – to be an active part of  society – but unfortunately in this so-called “developed European society” that made technology, that had The Renaissance, that had this and that – all that I see is total disappointment. […] I love Spain, I love Britain. I didn’t come here to beg or to ask for money – I just want a better life; a safer life, a peaceful life.

That is the reality of refugees and asylum seekers. Regardless of what the media says about the “boat people” and “(economic) migrants” and the stretching of our resources – these people are human beings who simply want respect, peace, security and stability – a life like many of us have. Khaled after his experiences in Syria and Algeria, came to Spain as the closet European country and a country which he loves, where he doesn’t feel “foreign” or “strange” as he finds Spain similar to his own country within the Mediterranean bracket. People take note of this. Syria is not a million miles away – it’s simply another country like ours. Spain is beyond similar to a variety of North African and Middle Eastern countries – except that in Europe we are offered a greater deal of social, economic, religious, cultural, and political freedom and security. What is sad is that Khaled found the Spanish authorities more welcoming than in other fellow Arab countries. However, despite the warm welcome, they are rather disengaged and apathetic here in Spain. His brother in Holland is very well integrated – but is engaged in doing so. His mother in Germany has not been affected by racism, but a friend in Eastern Germany has.

In terms of entitlements, he is provided with food, drink, a room he shares and €30 per month. When I asked him about the refugee centre where he stays, he confirmed that there is no prayer room but halal food is available for Muslims. So far, he states his experience is positive and he is happy with his treatment there despite the lack of engagement. Those living in the centre get on well and there is a sense of community among refugees and, Spanish people have been kind. The only obstacle is language which is hindering socialising with locals but there are four Spanish classes a week and Khaled also goes to another school. CEAR – the organisation which accommodates refugees here in Spain offers language classes as well as the governmental  Escuela Oficial de Idiomas (EOI) here in Málaga as well. Activities are run with refugees and Spaniards offering excursions around the city, yet when I ask Khaled who he spends most time with his answer is… himself. With his mother and sister in Germany, alongside other family members abroad – the life of a refugee can be lonely.

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Life as an asylum seeker without your family can be lonely (Credit: daniMU – Flickr – CC)

With any luck, Khaled will be reunited with his loved ones in the not too distant future. As soon as he gets his papers, his dream is to work for a humanitarian NGO and help refugees perhaps in Germany or in Turkey. He already has several years’ experience in NGOs and I can see his passion for helping others. He needs to stay in Spain as he is hoping to marry his Palestinian girlfriend who is a refugee from Jordan living in Syria. She has no papers – not even a travel document to prove her identity. In the meantime, as he waits for his papers, he describes the experience of being an asylum seeker as boring on a day to day basis. In his spare time Khaled loves reading and downloads books on his phone.

As anyone would hope, his long term hope if for the war to end and to be able to return to Syria. Despite the anti-refugee pleas, he makes it abundantly clear that Syrians are not here not to drain the system: “I’m sure that if the war ends, the international community will be surprised by the Syrians – that they will not have to kick them out, that they will go themselves to their land, to their country to rebuild it and to help its progression for the better. Khaled does not want to be seen as a “victim”. As a Palestinian Syrian he has witnessed things many of us take for granted but all he wants is to be respected, to be seen and treated as a normal human being and to be a able to live a decent life:

I blame all this situation not just on the Syrian war but as a Palestinian; I blame it on Israel because they are the reason behind my family and I going to Syria – living as a refugee in Syria and then coming here, living as a refugee here. I don’t want any material compensation. I want emotional compensation because I felt humiliated [..] for the suffering, the frustration I felt. […]

Do you see an end to the oppression… of the Palestinian people in the near future?

No solution. I don’t like playing the victim role. I just want to be a normal human […]. Respected.

So there we have it – so many issues and it’s in our hands to help as much as we can.

Building bridges – how can we help?

Whilst we all hope for peace in Syria and (I would hope) freedom for the Palestinian people, in the meantime – what can we do to help? For those in a similar situation to Khaled and locals, what can be done to create a better environment? For those wanting to help refugees and asylum seekers in their country, Khaled suggests cultural exchanges – exchanging national dishes and languages. I’m a firm advocate of such activities. Even amongst a climate of racism and Islamophobia here in Spain, people love couscous. Look at how the Balti in Birmingham forged a new British culture in which British Asians are just as British as a family with no migrant history. Beyond socio-cultural exchanges, we can do a lot to help the crisis: “Raise more awareness, be more sympathetic, because they ignored it [the war] for a long time – this is how it ended up, people coming here, flooding in”.

If you’d like to help with the Syrian refugee crisis locally or internationally, here are some suggestions:

  • Volunteer with local, national or international refugee and asylum seeker organisations – lend your time and skills. There is a great need for ESOL teachers, translators/interpreters, immigration specialists and medical personnel
  • If you are a linguist: join Translators without Borders
  • If you are a medical professional: get in touch with Doctors without Borders
  • If you are a professional counsellor or medical professional: get in touch with bodies which offer health care for those who’ve suffered trauma. In the UK for example, try Freedom from Torture
  • Get involved with groups going over to and helping in Calais – or further afield. Info can be found via Google or searching via Facebook and Twitter
  • Donate to relevant NGOs working in your country or abroad
  • Take part in or start your own food or donation bank/collection including your family, friends and other members of the community to give to Syrian refugees within your own country or abroad (this could include money, clothes, shoes, toiletries, maternity and baby items, children’s toys etc.)
  • Raise awareness: blog, tweet, post, lobby, petition, join or build workshops, conferences etc. – raise your voice
  • Check out groups and pages such as Free Syria Media Hub (caution is advised due to the photography) sign their petition to stop the bombing
  • Start a language/cultural exchange or buddy scheme in your area to welcome refugees – swap English for Arabic or bring your own national dishes (be careful of halal food requirements etc.- halal meat only, fish or vegetarian dishes otherwise, no alcohol – particular caution should be taken to avoid all forms of gelatine)

To help the Palestinian cause:

  • See the above activities and suggestions – most of these are also worthwhile e.g. donating, volunteering, raising awareness

If you’d like to help Khaled:

  • Khaled is looking for donations of art materials (for sculpting/painting). For more information, including photos of his art work, see here

So, there’s lots we can do in practical terms, but something I’d like to finish with is this: talk, befriend and build bridges, respect differences. See the commonalities and celebrate positive differences! It’s what makes the world interesting! As we finished the interview, I asked Khaled if he had  a message for the Spanish government or European people and he definitely does! His message is one of  peace, community and social cohesion:

Just to understand refugees and to not see that the opposition in Syria is just jihadist  – there is a real neutral opposition. I believe that there should be more dialogue between the two sides- the East and the West. They need to find a common  ground for them both, to understand each other and to get closer.

An important message that I for one definitely agree with. Let us reach out and remember that we are all HUMAN. Khaled could be your brother, your father, your uncle, your cousin… You don’t choose where you are born but you can choose what you do in life -where you go and what you do to help others.

Salam!

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Ahlan wa sahlan! (Welcome!) (Credit: opposition24.de – Flickr – CC)

Acknowledgments:

I’d like to thank Khaled for taking the time to do this interview and I wish him all the very best in the future.

Thanks also go to my interpreter and all those who helped to arrange this interview.

Image credit:

Feature image – Chaoyue 超越 PAN 潘 (Flickr) (CC)

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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Torture and Transplants – China’s Bloody Secret

china-flag-1418969 (3).jpgWhen we hear about human rights, we often hear about China due to its poor human rights record. Whilst China is well known for a range of human rights abuses, its economy continues to grow and the State has been working on its international relations. President Xi Jinping visited the USA last September, followed by the UK in October and protesters drew attention to China’s human rights abuses. Indeed – it’s essential more than ever to bring China’s often bloody secrets (further) out of the closet.

One such ongoing issue that has been publicised but is not frequently in the media is that of China’s illegal organ harvesting. This tragic issue has many shocking elements: illegal imprisonment, torture, death, blood money, religious and ethnic oppression  in short… mass murder.

Organ transplants in China

China is the world’s second biggest organ transplant provider – with the USA at the top. However there are a variety of worrying factors regarding China’s:

  • High number of organ transplants: 10,000 per year
  • Incredibly low rate of voluntary organ donors due to cultural beliefs
  • Lack of a national organ donation or distribution system (supposedly until 2014)
  • Incredibly short waiting times: two to four weeks (according to 165 organ transplant centres)
  • Lack of laws allowing the use of organs from people who are brain dead or have undergone cardiac arrest
  • Lack of accountabilitytransparency and traceability according to the World Health Organisation‘s guidelines
  • Resistance to investigation
  • Duty to ethical organ donation which requires “voluntary and informed consent”

Sources: European Parliament (2013), Matas (2008)

In 1984, China introduced a law to allow transplants from executed prisoners. In 2005, Deputy Health Minister Huang Jiefu declared that 95% of organs used for transplants were sourced from executed prisoners (Sherif et al., 2014). However, following allegations of forced organ harvesting using imprisoned Falun Gong practitioners, Canadian human rights lawyer David Matas and former Canadian Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific David Kilgour were asked to investigate the issue by The Coalition to Investigate the Persecution of the Falun Gong in China (CIPFG) in 2006. Their report Bloody Harvest (2007) declared the allegations to be true: China is harvesting organs through the imprisonment of persecuted Falun Gong practitioners.

The anti-Falun Gong campaign

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Falun Gong (aka Falun Dafa) is a peaceful spiritual movement akin to Buddhism, founded in China by Li Hongzhi in 1984. It is now practised worldwide. In 1992, Falun Gong was officially recognised by the State and was given a permit to teach across the country. However, by 1996 problems began to arise with the Falun Gong movement and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) political and economic demands. Censoring and harassment later started and by 1999 the CCP started its campaign to wipe out the practice and banned Falun Gong. Practitioners were beaten and taken to detention centres and an anti-Falun Gong media campaign began. The reason? Whilst the CCP has labelled Falun Gong as an “illegal cult” (see this Chinese non-governmental anti-cult website as an example), reasons cited are “fear” and “jealousy”.

As one of China’s persecuted religious minorities, the Falun Gong face discrimination in regards to work, finance and education, destitution and are forced into labour camps and “education centres” – facing imprisonment, various forms of torture and death – including: forced labourbeatings, burning, water torture, rape and sexual assault, brainwashing and worst of all since 2000: the unwilling removal of their organs and death.

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Harvesting high price human organs

The Matas-Kilgour report was first published in 2006 – in which roughly 20,000 organ transplants are reported to have taken place (2007, Sharif et al., 2014). Their research across China included:

  • Evidence from organ transplant/information centre websites (later closed down)
  • Donor recipient interviews
  • Information on corpses of imprisoned Falun Gong practitioners with missing organs
  • Telephone calls to hospitals/transplant centres

The following is taken from a phone call to Director Song at the Oriental Organ Transplant Centre in Tianjin City (2006):

N: Her doctor told her that the kidney is quite good because he [the supplier] practises …Falun Gong.

Song: Of course. We have all those who breathe and with heart beat…Up until now, for this year, we have more than ten kidneys, more than ten such kidneys.

N: More than ten of this kind of kidneys? You mean live bodies?

Song: Yes it is so.

Source: Matas and Kilgour (2007)

After being imprisoned, Falun Gong prisoners undergo specific medical tests (unlike other prisoners). When required they are “taken to surgery” – still conscious and under a low level of anesthetic Falun Gong prisoners’ organs are removed. Medics then place the bodies in a boiler/incinerator to remove all traces – the victim could be alive or dead at this stage. There have also been other cases of corpses being “collected” by so-called ” relatives”.

Confessions from medics and their families confirm claims involving Falun Gong practitioners and other persecuted minorities. Former Uyghur surgeon Enver Tohti declared he removed the organs of an executed Uyghur prisoner in 1995:

A moment later there were gun shots. Not one, but many. […] An armed police officer approached us and […] pointed to a corpse, saying ‘this is the one’.

[…] our chief surgeon [..] told me to remove the liver and two kidneys. […] we took the body into the van and removed his liver and kidneys. An operation to repair an organ is very difficult and takes a very long time to do, but this […] was an operation of extraction, so it was easy and quick.

Falun Gong and other persecuted minorities share the same fate. Not only have Falun Gong practitioners suffered but Uyghur (Muslim) and Tibetan prisoners have also been victims of forced organ transplants as well as House Christians (European Parliament, 2013).

Donor recipients were originally high ranking officials and their family members. Nowadays however, anybody from within and outside China with enough money can buy an organ. In 1996, The China International Transplantation Network Assistance Centre in Shenyang City advertised the following prices on its website (http://en.zoukiishoku.com/):

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Source: Matas and Kilgour (2007) – website archive

National and overseas donor recipients from countries such as Taiwan are paying for nothing more than state murder with huge revenues.

Although Matas and Kilgour (2007) acknowledged the potential difficulty in proving or disproving the allegations due to a lack of corpses, freedom of speech in China and information from the State, their conclusion from their research was that the allegations were true. Author Ethan Gutmann in his 2014 book “The Slaughter” declared that between 2000-2008, organs were harvested from: 65,000 Falun Gong practitioners and 2,000 – 4,000 Uyghurs, Tibetans or House Christians and Kilgour has confirmed that human organ trafficking in China is ongoing today.

In 2014 China claimed to have introduced a new computerized system including organs of both voluntary donations (following a Red Cross scheme introduced in 2010) and those of executed prisoners but this excludes prisoners of conscience and the fact that China had previously declared it would stop using organs belonging to executed prisoners (Sharif et al., 2014).

Human rights abuses

China is abusing a number of universal human rights, including: the right to lifereligious freedom and freedom from torture. Whilst the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – supported by China – is not legally binding, some of the very few international human rights conventions that China has ratified and consequential legal violations are:

These conventions establish a variety of rights including: freedom from torture and “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” (ICESCR, Art.12).

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The ongoing campaign

Despite investigations, reports and the ratification a number of human rights conventions, 15 years later this tragedy is ongoing. So what can we do to stop this brutality? Well for starters, how many of your friends, family members and acquaintances know about this shocking reality? The first time I heard about it myself was in London in China Town just a few years ago. There is a mountain of information online and various NGOs involved in research and campaigning such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and the organisation Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting (DAFOH) who launched a petition to the United Nations in 2013.

To take action, you can:

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  • Raise awareness – blog, Tweet, share, give a talk, street campaign
  • Sign the Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting petition to the UN
  • Sign the Friends of Falun Gong petition to the US Secretary of State (US and non-US residents)
  • Sign the Stop Organ Harvesting in China petition (US residents only)
  • Donate your time/money to relevant NGOs

It’s crucial that Falun Gong practitioners, Muslims, Christians and Tibetans be free from persecution. The Tibetan struggle is ongoing, religious discrimination and persecution is increasing towards Uyghur Muslims and House Christians and the issue of forced organ harvesting has not disappeared even if the media remains rather quiet.

Get signing and get shouting!

Salam!

Sources and further information:

*Images from FreeImages.com shares under a Creative Commons licence

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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