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Muslim Refugees Face Love and Hate

Samuel Shropshire speaks at rally to welcome Muslim and Christian refugees in Bratislava, Slovakia. The rally was organized by Slovak Catholics and Muslim Voice for Peace & Reconciliation (MVPR).

Samuel Shropshire speaks at rally to welcome Syrian refugees to Bratislava, Slovakia. The rally was organized by Slovak Catholics and Muslim Voice for Peace & Reconciliation (MVPR). Working together we can accomplish great things for God and humanity.

Refugee Crisis and European Response

ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATHA German rescuer from the humanitarian organisation Sea-Watch holds a drowned migrant baby, off the Libyan cost May 27, 2016. The baby, who appears to be no more than a year old, was pulled from the sea after a wooden boat capsized last Friday. Mandatory Credit Christian Buettner/Eikon Nord GmbH Germany/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. MANDATORY CREDIT. TEMPLATE OUT.

A German rescuer from the humanitarian organisation Sea-Watch holds a drowned migrant baby, off the Libyan cost May 27, 2016. The baby, who appears to be no more than a year old, was pulled from the sea after a wooden boat capsized last Friday.  (Click photos to enlarge.) 

More than 1.3 million refugees had crossed into Europe by March, 2016. They came by land and sea. This influx of refugees sparked a crisis as countries struggled to cope with the millions of arrivals. It created division in the European Union over how to best deal with resettling people. While Sweden, Germany and Austria offered an immediate welcome, some nations gave way to right-wing extremists and racists, refusing to help.

While the vast majority of refugees arrived by sea, many chose to walk to freedom and safety, principally via Turkey to Greece and then Albania and northward! Most hoped to reach Western Europe to join relatives already resettled there.

Adding to the horror of the crisis was the number of deaths occurring at sea. Now, nearly two years into this crisis, refugee ships continue making the crossing, some sinking in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas.

And just this past week came a battered, blue-decked vessel that flipped over on Wednesday as terrified migrants plunged into the waters of the Mediterranean. The next day, a flimsy craft capsized with hundreds of people on board. And on Friday, still another boat sank into the deceptively placid waters.

Now another week and three sunken ships are again confronting Europe with the horrors of its refugee crisis, as desperate people trying to reach the Continent keep dying at sea. At least 700 people from the three boats are believed to have drowned, the United Nations refugee agency announced on Sunday, in one of the deadliest weeks in the Mediterranean in recent memory.

Most, attempting to escape war, terrorism, poverty and starvation in their homelands, are desperate to reach Europe, Canada and America, where they believe a new and better life awaits them.

Fear and rejection

A rally organized by the Slovak group Stop Islamisation of Europe and backed by far-right politicians

A rally organized by the Slovak group Stop Islamisation of Europe and backed by far-right politicians shouts “Refugees go home!”

But what they face in the West, in some cases, is extreme opposition based on misguided fear, anger and racism.

Since April 2015, the European Union has struggled to cope with the crisis, increasing funding for border patrol operations in the Mediterranean, devising plans to fight migrant smuggling, launching Operation Sophia and proposing a new quota system to relocate and resettle asylum seekers among EU states.

Individual countries have at times reintroduced border controls within the Schengen Area, and rifts have emerged between countries willing to accept asylum seekers and others trying to block their arrival.

According to Eurostat, EU member states received over 1.2 million first time asylum applications in 2015, a number more than double that of the previous year. Four states (Germany, Hungary, Sweden, and Austria) received around two-thirds of the EU’s asylum applications in 2015, with Hungary, Sweden, and Austria being the top recipients of asylum applications per capita. The main countries of citizenship of asylum seekers, accounting for more than half of the total, were the war-torn nations of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The conflict in Syria continues to be by far the biggest driver of refugees. But the ongoing violence in Afghanistan and Iraq, abuses in Eritrea, as well as abject poverty in Kosovo, are also leading people to look for new lives elsewhere.

According to the UN, there are more 60 million refugees in today’s world. And some nation’s are not at all friendly to these men, women and children who are seeking safety and a better life.

After Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary, came out last year against taking in refugees, the great majority of which are Muslim, Cyprus and other nations have also sought to block refugees from entering their nations.

Hate and religious discrimination

Shropshire addresses crowd of several hundred Slovaks who came to support the refugees coming from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dominik Smrek and Shropshire address crowd of several hundred Slovaks in Bratislava. They came to encourage support for the refugees coming from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some have sought to reject refugees simply based on their religious beliefs.

“We would seek for them to be Orthodox Christians,” Cyprus’ Interior Minister Socratis Hasikos told state radio. “It’s not an issue of being inhuman or not helping if we are called upon, but to be honest, yes, that’s what we would prefer.”

Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico also complained about the flow of refugees, setting an arbitrary number of “200 Christians” to be received.

Fico has taken a hard stand from the beginning, echoing far-right Polish leader Jaroslaw Kaczyński, Viktor Orbán and Czech President Miloš Zeman in an openly Islamophobic campaign against both the refugees and the EU’s attempt to redistribute the refugees.

Although the leader of a (nominally) center-left party, Direction-Social Democracy (SMER-SD), Fico has a history of nationalist statements, mostly against Roma (so-called “Gypsies”), which have landed him in trouble with his European allies in the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D).

Despite threats from S&D to censure him and his party, Fico doubled down by making various Islamophobic statements and threatening to take the EU to court over its refugee plan. He even went so far as to say that he wanted to put every Muslim in Slovakia under surveillance!

Slovakia’s most recent elections

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who railed against the refugees. His appeal to extremist groups in Slovakia failed to secure him a majority coalition in the Slovak parliament.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who railed against the refugees. His appeal to extremist groups in Slovakia failed to secure a majority coalition for him in the Slovak parliament.

These days we expect elections in East Central Europe to be bad news for liberal democracy. In 2014 Hungary re-elected its strongman Viktor Orbán, despite the fact that he had transformed his country into an narrow-minded democracy, and in 2015 Poland brought back Law and Justice (PiS), the party of Jaroslaw Kaczyński, who has been praising Viktor Orbán’s “Budapest Model” since 2011.

Surprisingly, Fico’s courting of right-wing groups did not help him in the Slovak general elections. Based on the results Smer-SD was the big loser of the election, winning just 28.3 percent of the vote, a loss of 16.1 percent compared to 2012!

Clearly this is not because of a lack of support for Fico’s anti-immigration positions within the Slovak population. Even before the refugee crisis hit Europe, Slovaks were among the least positive towards foreign immigration within the EU, and, given the various mass demonstrations during 2015, that situation has not changed for the better.

But the demonstrations did not just bring people together to voice opposition to Muslim refugees, they also gave a platform to a variety of far-right activists and groups. The most visible was Marian Kotleba, former leader of Slovak Brotherhood, a neo-Nazi party that was disbanded by the Supreme Court.

Kotleba has since bounced back, founding the extreme right People’s Party of Slovakia (ĽSNS), and getting elected governor of the Banská Bystrica Region in 2013. Kotleba and ĽSNS were very active and visible in the anti-immigration demonstrations in Slovakia and were rewarded with 8.0 percent of the vote (an increase of 6.4 percent) in the 2016 national elections. Even more shocking, ĽSNS was the biggest party among first-time voters, attracting a staggering 22.7 percent among 18 to 21 year olds!

What then should be our response?

In such crises, it is understandable that citizens are concerned about a mass influx of foreigners—especially when it involves hundreds of thousands of men and women of different faiths and cultures. After all, settling refugees in our communities exhausts our own governments’ resources, making it difficult to meet the needs of our own citizens.

But we people of faith have a higher calling to resist extremist politics when it is in opposition to immediate human need for compassion. We Christians and Muslims must respond as we believe Jesus and Mohammad (PBUT) would respond, encouraging their followers to assist helpless pilgrims and sojourners. There is a very famous Arabic statement in this regard, “The foreigner is blind even if he has eyes,” which indicates the vulnerability of the stranger and suggests that the stranger needs help and guidance.

What is it like when hundreds of thousands of men, women and children flee war? Watch the video below, and learn from the masses of Syrian refugees who are now making their way to Europe under the most difficult of circumstances. Watch and pray! And please give so Muslim Voice for Peace & Reconciliation can make a difference for Muslims around the world by encouraging an end to religious discrimination:  www.mvpr.org

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May 31, 2016 Posted by | Human Rights, Peace, Refugees, Religious Reconciliation, Terrorism, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

A Muslim voice for peace and human rights

Samuel Shropshire, founder of Muslim Voice for Peace & Reconciliation, addresses human rights and peace activists on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC (Photo: Suhaib Mallisho)

Samuel Shropshire, founder of Muslim Voice for Peace & Reconciliation, addresses human rights and peace activists on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC (Photo: Suhaib Mallisho)

MVPR announced in Washington, DC

Sam presents Diane Randall, executive director of the Friends National Legislative Committee with a copy of the newly published photo history The Heart of Mekkah by renowned photographer Khalid Khidr. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Sam presents Diane Randall, executive director of the Friends National Legislative Committee with a copy of the newly published  anthology The Heart of Makkah by renowned photographer Khalid Khidr. (Photo: Suhaib Mallisho)

Muslim Voice for Peace & Reconciliation (MVPR) made its debut on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, at a luncheon on Tuesday, April 7, 2015. “This was the public announcement of our human rights work,” says Samuel Shropshire, MVPR founder. “I am grateful for the advice and encouragement of all who attended.”

Shropshire was accompanied to Washington by Suhaib Mallisho of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Present at this important meeting were leaders from numerous humanitarian non-government organizations that are already advocating for human rights and world peace in the US capital.

Among attendees of the MVPR-sponsored luncheon, were Diane Randall, Friends Committee on National Legislation; Lisa Sams, Middle East Sub-Committee/Global Missions Committee of St. Albans Episcopal Church; Richard Parkins, Friends of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan; Stephanie Kinney, former diplomat with the US Department of State; Thomas Johnson, Companion Diocese of Jerusalem; Nate Hosler, Office of Public Witness, Church of the Brethren; Sayyid Syeed, Islamic Society of North America; Ambassador Warren Clark, Churches for Middle East Peace; and Raed Jarrad, Policy Impact, American Friends Service Committee.

Shropshire and Marina Buhler-Miko, acting MVPR chief operations officer, presided over the meeting.

“Washington, DC, is an important city. MVPR advocacy has found a lot of friends here,” Shropshire said.

Sam with Marina Buhler-Miko. Marina has agreed to serve as MVPR chief operating officer.

Sam with Marina Buhler-Miko at the Washington National Cathedral. Marina has agreed to serve as MVPR chief operating officer.

Shropshire says, MVPR will do its best to let the American people know that Islam cares about human rights and all peoples facing oppression and injustice. He says, “MVPR will collaborate with Jewish, Christian and other religious and secular groups that seek to relieve the world of human misery.”

“We are Muslim men and women who care about others, regardless of their faith tradition,” he said. “And in that capacity we will seek to ally with others who have the same mission to change the world for the better.”

Shropshire also met with Patty Johnson, Canon Missioner for Outreach of the Washington National Cathedral, and Grace Said, Chair of the Cathedral’s Palestine-Israel Advocacy Group.

Shropshire said MVPR is seeking to provide leadership in peacemaking and human rights, especially in the Middle East. He emphasized that political and religious reconciliation is of utmost importance since, today, many faiths have been divided and hijacked by radical elements.

Shropshire has been living in the Mecca Region of Saudi Arabia for the past three years. He believes that the Abrahamic faiths, working in solidarity, hold the key to solving many of the world’s problems.

“One thing is certain,” he says. “No one will gain from a violent war that seeks to pit Muslims, Christians and Jews against each other. Working together we can end the conflicts and find a better way.”

The history of human rights

There are more refugees in the world today as a result of war and repression than at any time since World War II.

There are more refugees in the world today as a result of war and repression than at any time since World War II.

Shropshire points out that today is an age that is striking in its unprecedented technological sophistication and many advances. “But unfortunately, the prejudices and inequities that have plagued the human race for millennia continue to exist, and are responsible in our day for untold human suffering.”

Throughout history, especially in the Middle East, there have been individuals who have stood up for the rights of others.

Shropshire insisted, “We must ensure that these God-ordained rights are guaranteed to all the world’s citizens? There can be no exceptions.”

Shropshire says there is a firm foundation that has been established for all mankind–beginning in the Middle East with Cyrus the Great’s cylinder and the Prophet Mohammad’s Constitution of Medina, followed by the British Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights as enshrined within the United States Constitution, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the eventual Geneva Convention that laid the groundwork for the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Here is some detail about each of these human rights documents in the order of their appearance:

Cyrus the Great and his Akkadian language cylinder 

The decrees Cyrus the Grreat made on human rights were inscribed in the Akkadian language on a baked-clay cylinder. It is the first known attempt to innumerate the rights and privileges of peoples.

The decrees Cyrus the Grreat made on human rights were inscribed in the Akkadian language on a baked-clay cylinder. It is the first known attempt to innumerate the rights and privileges of peoples.

In 539 BC, the armies of Cyrus the Great, the first king of ancient Persia, conquered the city of Babylon. But it was his next actions that marked a major advance for all humankind. He freed the slaves, declared that all people had the right to choose their own religion, and established racial equality. These and other decrees were recorded on a baked-clay cylinder in the Akkadian language with cuneiform script.

Known today as the Cyrus Cylinder, this ancient record has now been recognized as the world’s first charter of human rights. It has been translated into all six official languages of the United Nations, and its provisions parallel the first four Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

From Babylon, the idea of human rights spread quickly to India, Greece and eventually Rome. In Rome the concept of “natural law” arose, in observation of the fact that people tended to follow certain unwritten laws during the course of life, and Roman law was based on rational ideas derived from the nature of things.

Islam, human rights and the Constitution of Medina

The Constitution of Medina, also known at the Medina Charter, was created by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in the year 622 CE, it was the first written constitution in the Islamic world.

The Constitution of Medina, also known at the Medina Charter, was created by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in the year 622 CE, it was the first written constitution in the Islamic world.

To the surprise of many, another early attempt at formally enumerating human rights is the Charter of Medina, also known as the Constitution of Medina. It was drafted by the Islamic prophet Muhammad (pbuh) shortly after his arrival at Medina in 622 AD, following the Hijra (immigration of Muslims) from Mecca to Medina.

The charter constituted an agreement between the various native Muslims of Medina (the Ansar), the Muslim immigrants from Mecca (the Muhajarun), Jewish believers, Christian groups in Medina and even pagans, declaring them to constitute ummah wāḥidah (“one nation”). The Constitution formed the basis of a multi-religious Islamic state in Medina.

The Constitution of Medina was created to end the bitter inter-tribal fighting between the rival clans of Banu Aws and Banu Khazraj in Medina, and to maintain peace and cooperation among all Medinan groups for fashioning them into a cohesive society. It ensured freedom of religious beliefs and practices for all citizens. It assured that representatives of all parties, Muslim or non-Muslim, should be present when consultation occurs or in cases of negotiation with foreign states, and that no one should go to war before consulting the Prophet. It also established the security of women, a tax system for supporting the community in times of conflict, and a judicial system for resolving disputes. It declared the role of Medina as a ḥaram (“sacred place”), where “no weapons can be carried and no blood spilled.”

The Constitution of Medina serves as an example of finding resolve in a dispute where peace and pluralism were achieved, not through military successes or ulterior motives, but rather through an agreed upon mutual respect, acceptance, and denunciation of war – aspects that reflect some of the basic tenets of the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) own faith and commitment to God. These guiding principles of early Islam brought peace and stability to Medina. Religious pluralism and friendship and mutual respect were the law of the land!

A careful study of this document could help avoid many of the divisions and misunderstandings plaguing the world today. The principles embodied in the Constitution of Medina could easily be used to unite Muslims, Christians, Jews and peoples of other faiths.

The Constitution of Medina not only guaranteed the equal rights and protections of all citizens (Muslims, Christians and Jews), it spelled out the only conditions of what could be considered legal defensive just wars and the proper military conduct during the conduct of defensive war. (Offensive war was considered illegal and un-Islamic.)

Islam’s early contribution to human rights is best appreciated when viewed against the backdrop of world history as well as the realities of modern times.

As in all times, greed, prejudice and hate drive nations to war and conflict. Economic and social disparities have resulted in the oppression of poorer populations; racial prejudices have been the cause of subjugation and enslavement of people with darker skin; women have been weighed down by chauvinistic attitudes, and pervasive attitudes of religious superiority have led to widespread persecution of people with different beliefs.

“However, when considering the question of human rights and Islam,” declares Shropshire, “it is important to distinguish the divinely prescribed rights promoted by Islam from potential misinterpretation and misapplication by imperfect human beings.”

“Just as Western societies still fight against racism and discrimination, many Muslim societies continue to struggle to fully implement human rights as outlined in Islam,” he says.

The English Magna Carter

Magna Carta is one of the most celebrated documents in history. This document was signed in June 1215 between the barons of medieval England and King John.

Magna Carta is one of the most celebrated documents in history. This document was signed in June 1215 by the barons of medieval England and King John.

Magna Carta, meaning ‘The Great Charter’, is one of the most famous documents in the world. Originally issued by King John of England (r.1199-1216) as a practical solution to the political crisis he faced in 1215, Magna Carta established for the first time the principle that everybody, including the king, was subject to the law. Although nearly a third of the text was deleted or substantially rewritten within ten years, and almost all the clauses have been repealed in modern times, Magna Carta remains a cornerstone of the British constitution.

Most of the 63 clauses granted by King John dealt with specific grievances relating to his rule. However, buried within them were a number of fundamental values that both challenged the autocracy of the king and proved highly adaptable in future centuries.

Most famously, the 39th clause gave all ‘free men’ the right to justice and a fair trial. Some of the Magna Carta’s core principles were written into in the United States constitution in the form of the Bill of Rights and in many other constitutional documents around the world, as well as later in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.

The United States Constitution

The United States Constitution and Bill of Rights was ratified in 1787.

The United States Constitution with its Bill of Rights was ratified in 1787. It is the oldest constitution still in use.

The American democracy and its constitution is a foundation stone for a long tradition of human rights and personal freedoms.

Written during the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia, the Constitution of the United States of America is the fundamental law of the US federal system of government and a landmark document of the Western world. It is the oldest written national constitution still in use and defines the principal organs of the US government, describing the balance of powers of the legislative government (President, Congress and the Supreme Court), outlining their jurisdictions and the basic rights of American citizens.

The early establishment of American human rights laws was in no way perfect as slavery and discrimination against African Americans, Native Americans and other minorities would persist for decades, but the US Constitution would lay the groundwork for an evolving, more humane nation.

The Bill of Rights were incorporated as an important part of the US Constitution, protecting the basic freedoms of all American citizens.

These human rights came into effect on December 15, 1791, limiting the powers of the federal government of the United States and protecting the rights of all citizens, residents and visitors within American territory.

The Bill of Rights protects freedom of speech, freedom of religion, outlines the right to keep and bear arms, the freedom of assembly and the freedom to petition the government. It also prohibits unreasonable search and seizure on private premises.  “Cruel and unusual punishment” was strictly forbidden, and it outlawed compelled self-incrimination.

The Bill of Rights prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion” and prohibits the federal government “from depriving any person of life, liberty or property” without due process of law. In federal criminal cases it requires indictment by a grand jury for any capital offense, or infamous crime, guarantees a speedy public trial with an impartial jury in the district in which the crime occurred and prohibits double jeopardy.

France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789, is a major human rights document resulting from the French Revolution.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789, is a major human rights document resulting from the French Revolution.

The inspiration and content of this document emerged largely from the ideals of the American Revolution. The key drafts were prepared by the Marquis de Lafayette, working at times with his close friend Thomas Jefferson. In August 1789, Honoré Mirabeau played a central role in conceptualizing and drafting the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

The last article of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was adopted on 26 August 1789 by the National Constituent Assembly, towards the end of the French Revolution. It was the first step toward writing a constitution for France. Inspired by the Enlightenment, the original version of the declaration was discussed by the representatives on the basis of a 24 article draft.

The draft was later modified during the debates. A second and lengthier declaration, known as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1793, was written in 1793 but never formally adopted.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Eleanor Roosevelt reviews the Spanish version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Eleanor Roosevelt reviews the Spanish version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

With the end of World War II and the creation of the United Nations, the international community vowed never again to allow atrocities like those of that international conflict to ever happen again.

World leaders decided to complement the UN Charter with a road map to guarantee the rights of all peoples. The document they considered, and which would later become known as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was taken up at the first session of the General Assembly in 1946. The Assembly reviewed this draft Declaration on Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms and transmitted it to the Economic and Social Council “for reference to the Commission on Human Rights for consideration.

The Commission, at its first session early in 1947, authorized its members to formulate what it termed “a preliminary draft International Bill of Human Rights”. Later the work was taken over by a formal drafting committee, consisting of members of the Commission from eight States, selected with due regard for geographical distribution.

The Commission on Human Rights was made up of 18 members from various political, cultural and religious backgrounds.

Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, chaired the Universal Declaration of Human Rights drafting committee. With her were René Cassin of France, who composed the first draft of the Declaration, the Committee Rapporteur Charles Malik of Lebanon, Vice Chairman Peng Chung Chang of China, and John Humphrey of Canada, director of the UN’s Human Rights Division and preparer of the declaration’s blueprint. Eleanor Roosevelt was recognized as the driving force behind the declaration’s eventual adoption.

The final draft, presented by Cassin, was handed to the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1947, which was being held in Geneva.

The entire text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was composed in less than two years. At a time when the world was divided into Eastern and Western blocks, finding a common ground on several points proved to be a colossal task.

The unfinished work of championing peace and human rights

During the 20th century a number of great individuals have made their mark on human rights. Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton crusaded for women’s suffrage in the United States. Mahatma Gandhi in India was most effective in gaining India’s independence and championing the rights of Indian citizens. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, brought an end to segregation in the United States and Nelson Mandela was greatly used to dismantle apartheid in South Africa,

Many other men and women have stood up at various times, against all odds, to champion world peace and human rights. And, today, 21st century activists are answering the call.

Take a few minutes to learn more. Watch this short United Nations video about the incredible history of human rights:

Sources: United Nations, Encyclopaedia Britannica, wikipedia.org, US Library of Congress, A History of England, Oxford Bibliographies, Notes in History, humanrights.com, Youth for Human Rights

July 7, 2015 Posted by | Geography, Human Rights, Interfaith, Islam, Mecca, Peace, Religious Reconciliation, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Heavy metal, Middle Eastern band of brothers!

Who knew heavy metal could promote peace?  But that’s just what’s happening as the Israeli band, Orphaned Land, and the Palestinian band, Khalas, have toured Britain.  They come from different countries.  They even write different kinds of lyrics. But they have shown how art has an ability to transcend lines that politics often can’t.

Who knew heavy metal could promote peace? But that’s just what’s happening as the Israeli band, Orphaned Land, and the Palestinian band, Khalas, have toured Britain. They come from different countries. They even write different kinds of lyrics. But they have shown how art has an ability to transcend lines that politics often can’t.

We’re constantly bombarded by implicit and explicit images of the relationship that Jews and Muslims supposedly have in today’s world. We are bombarded with the cliched reminder that we “used to get along” but recently have become enemies.

We’ve almost become used to it, accepted it as some sort of reality.

And, ironically, all these “interfaith” events can often cause us to feel even more disconnected. They just don’t seem as genuine as a true connection. It would seem the only people you would need to show such “unity” with is people you don’t get along with.

Which is why we need to look deeper. We need to look wider. We need to see that “unity” doesn’t mean press. It doesn’t mean “shows of support”. It means genuine connection and giving.

And the truth is that the world is scattered with that. The truth is that the press likes to say just one side of the story, likes to focus on conflict. But there is unity. There is connection.

All we need to do is look!

Listen as the tour leaders speak of their unity and message:

Sources: Sky News, PopChassid, metalinjection.net, The Guardian, alarabiya.net, cnn.com

March 26, 2015 Posted by | Arab lifestyle, Geography, Human Rights, Interfaith, Peace, Religious Reconciliation, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Myanmar and the Rohingya genocide

More than 2 million Rohingya men, women and children have fled the ethnic cleansing of the Myanmar military government. Few know or care about this modern-day holocaust.

More than 2 million Rohingya men, women and children have fled the ethnic cleansing of the Myanmar military government. Few know or care about this modern-day holocaust.

My interest and travel to Myanmar

Sam Shropshire discussed Rohingya persecution with Myanmar Buddhist leaders.

Samuel Shropshire recently discussed Rohingya persecution with Buddhist leaders inside Myanmar. (Click photos to enlarge.)

It was through my close friend Shafik Zubir, the mu’adhin (“caller to prayer”) at Taqwa Mosque in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, that I gained a strong interest in the fate of the millions of Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar (formerly Burma).

Shafik’s parents immigrated from Myanmar to Saudi Arabia in 1985. Shafik and his family have shared with me the plight of Myanmar’s Muslims. Now I find myself travelling to Myanmar to personally investigate the horrific genocide that has been committed against these noble people during the past century.

Approximately 1.5 millions Rohingya men, women and children remain in Myanmar. More than 2 million Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia, on foot or by boat, and from there have sought refuge in other nations. The death toll of those fleeing this modern-day holocaust is unknown, but it is, no doubt, in the hundreds of thousands.

Greater than 300 thousand Rohingyas now reside in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It has been my privilege to meet and speak with many of them.

A history of totalitarianism

Myanmar was ruled with an iron fist long before the current regime came to power. From the early 19th century until World War II, the insatiable machine that was the British Empire held sway over Burma. Before the British, there were the kings of old, who rose to power by eliminating rivals with claims to the throne.

Tracing the conflicts back to the 9th century, we find the Himalayan Bamar people, who comprise two-thirds of the population, at war with the Tibetan Plateau’s Mon people. The fight went on for so long that by the time the Bamar came out on top, the two cultures had effectively merged.

The 11th-century Bamar king Anawrahta converted the land to Theravada Buddhism, and inaugurated what many consider to be its golden age. He used his war spoils to build the first temples at Bagan (Pagan). Stupa after stupa sprouted under successive kings, but the vast money and effort poured into their construction weakened the kingdom. Kublai Khan and his Mongol hordes swept through Bagan in 1287, hastening Myanmar’s decline into the dark ages.

British colonialism

The British governor, left , and Burma's first president, Sao Shwe Thaik, stand at attention as the new nation's flag is raised on January 4, 1948.

The British governor, left, and Burma’s first president, Sao Shwe Thaik, stand at attention as the new nation’s flag is raised on January 4, 1948.

There’s not much known about the centuries that followed. History picks up again with the arrival of the Europeans – first the Portuguese, in the 16th century, and then the British, who had already colonised India and were looking for more territory in the East. In three moves (1824, 1852 and 1885), the British took over all of Myanmar. The Burmese king and queen were exiled to India and their grand palace at Mandalay was looted and used as a barracks to quarter British and Indian troops.

The colonial era wrought great changes in Myanmar’s demographics and infrastructure. Large numbers of Indians were brought in to work as civil servants, and Chinese were encouraged to immigrate and stimulate trade. The British built railways and ports, and many British companies grew wealthy trading in teak and rice.

Many Burmese were unhappy with the colonial status quo. A nationalist movement developed, and there were demonstrations, often led, in true Burmese fashion, by Buddhist monks. Two famous nationalist monks, U Ottama and U Wizaya, died in a British prison and are revered to this day.

World War II and early independence

During World War II, the Japanese, linked with the Burmese Independence Army (BIA), drove the British out of Myanmar and declared it an independent country. But the Japanese were able to maintain Burmese political support for only a short time before their harsh and arrogant conduct alienated the Burmese people. Towards the end of the war, the Burmese switched sides and fought with the Allies to drive out the Japanese.

Bogyoke Aung San emerged from the haze of war as the country’s natural leader. An early activist for nationalism, then defence minister in the Burma National Army, Aung San was the man to hold the country together through the transition to independence. When elections were held in 1947, Aung San’s party won an overwhelming majority. But before he could take office, he was assassinated by a rival, along with most of his cabinet. Independence followed in 1948, with Aung San’s protégé U Nu at the helm. Ethnic conflicts raged and chaos ensued.

Ne Win’s coup d’etat

On 2 March 1962, Ne Win again seized power in a coup d'état. He became head of state as Chairman of the Union Revolutionary Council and also Prime Minister. The coup was characterized as "bloodless" by the world's media. Declaring that "parliamentary democracy was not suitable for Burma," the new regime suspended the constitution and dissolved the legislature.

Since 1962, when the Ne Win government seized power in a military coup, Myanmar has been under the vice like grip of successive regimes that have ruled the country through oppression and fear.

In 1962 General Ne Win led a left-wing army takeover and set the country on the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’. He nationalised everything, including retail shops, and quickly crippled the country’s economy. By 1987 it had reached a virtual standstill, and the long-suffering Burmese people decided they’d had enough of their incompetent government.

By 1987 it had reached a virtual standstill, and the long-suffering Burmese people decided they’d had enough of their incompetent government. In early 1988, they packed the streets and there were massive confrontations between pro-democracy demonstrators and the military that resulted in an estimated 3000 deaths over a six-week period.

Once again, monks were at the helm. They turned their alms bowls upside down (the Buddhist symbol of condemnation) and insisted that Ne Win had to go. He finally did, in July 1988, but he retained a vestige of his old dictatorial power from behind the scenes.

The 1989 election

The shaken government quickly formed the Orwellian-sounding SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council), declared martial law and promised to hold democratic elections in May 1989. The opposition, led by Bogyoke Aung San’s charismatic daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, organised an opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). Around the same time, Slorc changed the country’s official name from the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar, claiming ‘Burma’ was a vestige of European colonialism.

While the Burmese population rallied around the NLD, the SLORC grew increasingly nervous. It placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and postponed the election. In spite of this and other dirty tactics, the NLD won more than 85% of the vote. Sore losers, Slorc refused to allow the NLD to assume its parliamentary seats and arrested most of the party leadership.

Aung San Suu Kyi: house arrest, release and election

Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi addresses her supporters from her house compound after her release from house arrest.

Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi addresses her supporters from her house compound after her release from house arrest.

Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and was finally released from house arrest in July 1995. She was arrested again in 2000 and held in her home until the UN brokered her unconditional release in May 2002.

She was rearrested in May 2003 and released in November 2010 by the military authorities. During her arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi continually refused offers of freedom in exchange for exile from the country and, despite an ongoing debate in the pro-democracy movement over future strategy, her stature throughout Myanmar remained strong.

In moves symbolic of the positive momentum in the country, in 2011 Suu Kyi left Yangon for the first time in eight years, and in May 2012 Suu Kyi entered the lower house of the Burmese parliament as an MP. Much more remains to be done, but the hope is that decades of isolation may be coming to an end.

Ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in the Arakan state

However after nearly 50 years of military rule, the apparatus of the state is entrenched in the fabric of Burmese society and as the pogrom continues in Arakan state, the back story provides unnerving evidence that systematic official behavior has lead to the current crisis.

Debris is scattered among the ruins of the Mingalar Zayone Islamic Boarding School in the Mingalar Zayone neighborhood of Meikhtila, Myanmar. (AP photo)

Debris is scattered among the ruins of the Mingalar Zayone Islamic Boarding School in the Mingalar Zayone neighborhood of Meikhtila, Myanmar. (AP photo)

What has occurred in western Burma has been described as a sectarian conflict between two communities who simply hate each other. This prognosis is demonstrably false, and a look at the situation in Arakan provides ample evidence that there is a systematic pattern, which in most cases would amount to crimes against humanity.

One element of this picture is the improbability of a “sectarian conflict.” Arakan (Rakhine) state has a population of almost 4 million, making the Muslim or Rohingya population less than quarter of the inhabitants, thus making a two-sided conflict highly illogical.

Further, the minority population has been controlled by the state to the extent that they are unable to travel between towns, renovate a mosque or even have a child or marry without a permit from the military.

The control of this population has long been perpetuated not just by uniformed military or Nasaka (border guard) personnel but also by quasi-civilian militias, as has been the case in much of the country. Indeed in Burma the ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) grew out of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA).

A Rohingya mother holds her child close as she flees persecution by boat.

A Rohingya mother holds her child close as she flees persecution by boat.

This organisation had perhaps its most notorious hour in 2003, when it attacked Aung San Suu Kyi’s convoy in central Burma. The authorities naturally tried to portray it as a clash between two rival political groups. However, only one side, the National League for Democracy (NLD), suffered 70 deaths and only one side’s supporters were arrested – also the NLD.

In the wake of the Depayin massacre, the US embassy dispatched a cable back to Washington entitled: “MOSQUE RAZED, PARAMILITARIES TRAINED.”

In the cable, one of the militia’s discussed was, “the USDP-affiliated ‘Power Ranger’ militia” that was receiving “rudimentary riot-control and military training.” One of its other jobs was to hold up the Americans in case of an invasion, while the government was “training a paramilitary ‘Peoples Militia’ in Arakan state to assist in putting down any general uprising.”

“Rohingya Muslims specifically, suffer from an aggravated, systematic, institutionalised form of persecution”

According to the cable, “Local officials on July 22 (2003) reportedly tore down a mosque in Sittwe, 70 miles SE of the Bangladeshi border, and arrested seven Muslims, one of whom subsequently died in custody.”

The dispatch goes on to explain that the mosque was demolished because the worshippers “made unauthorized improvements to the structure, resulting in the decision by local authorities to tear down the whole building.”

The embassy concludes that, “We frequently hear stories of pro-SPDC ‘fake monks’ allegedly inciting violence against Muslims to deflect anti-regime ire.”

Muslims around the world decry the genocide being committed against the Rohingya peoples.

Muslims and human rights organizations around the world decry the genocide being committed against the Rohingya peoples.

Dr Kyaw Yin Hlaing, who is now on the commission to investigate June’s violence in Arakan state, also notes this type of tactic being used. In 2008, he wrote in a US legal journal that:

“Before former intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt was dismissed and his intelligence agency disbanded, the junta could almost always uncover opposition groups that were planning to organise protests. In 1997, for instance, the junta became aware of monks’ plans to protest a regional commander’s improper renovation of a famous Buddha statue in Mandalay. Before the monks could launch the protest, a rumour emerged that a Buddhist woman had been raped by a Muslim businessman. The government diverted their attention from the regional commander to the Muslim businessman, eventually causing an anti-Muslim riot.”

He concludes that: “intelligence agents have often instigated anti-Muslim riots in order to prevent angry monks from engaging in anti-government activities.”

Given the uncanny resemblance of this case and the details surrounding late May’s ‘spark incident’, one must ask questions about the current government and the legitimacy of the reform process.

Khin Nyunt was not only adept at preventing anti-government actions, he was also good at neutralising ethnic insurgent groups and casually referred to the entire nation of India as “kalars” – a pejorative term used in Burma to describe Muslims and individuals of South Asian descent.

Government policy then was described as “pervasive and sometimes aggressive religious discrimination that favours Burma’s Buddhist majority.”

The world watches practically in silence

Obama called Myanmar to end discrimination against Rohingya people, urging in his strongest comments on the persecuted Muslim minority that the government grant them equal rights.

In November 2014 US President Barack Obama called on Myanmar to end discrimination against Rohingya people, urging in his strongest comments on the persecuted Muslim minority that the government grant them equal rights.

While the US embassy noted in a cable in 2005 that the UNHCR head at the time Jean-François Durieux described “the situation in northern Arakan as ‘shocking,’ with the GOB [government of Burma] in constant denial of the true situation. Although Muslims have some religious freedom in Rangoon, the GOB has a policy of ‘complete repression’ of Rohingyas in northern Arakan. He noted that Buddhist temples are ‘springing up everywhere,’ although he estimates the Buddhist population as only one percent of the population [in northern Arakan].”

If there is any doubt that there is systematic repression against the population, the US embassy noted that, “The military has effectively sealed the Rohingyas off from the world and keeps them at the bare subsistence level – it is an internment camp.” They further correctly forecasted that, “We should not assume that any future democratic government will accord these people their basic human rights.”

Needless to say, however, despite this and the accumulated evidence, the US government has lifted punitive measures against the Myanmar government.

The lack of civil rights is overshadowed, moreover, by the basic human indicators that have been thrust on the population by the government, as the US embassy noted: “Infant mortality is four times the national average (71 per 1000 births); 64% of children under five are chronically malnourished, and stunted growth is common.” Infant mortality then is roughly equivalent to that of Ethiopia, which is chronically affected by drought, and 80% of the population is illiterate with one teacher for every 79 students.

If this were not systematic, the discrepancies with other regions of the country would not be so severe. The government has been more than able to prevent freedom of movement for the roughly 850,000 Rohingya still in existence in the area, it would then seem that with one of the largest armed forces in Asia controlling the movement of mobs would be easy.

According to jurist Guy Horton writing in 2005, “the Rohingya Muslims specifically, suffer from an aggravated, systematic, institutionalised form of persecution designed to destroy them through exclusion, rather than assimilation.”

According to the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide: “…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Given that Thein Sein has attempted to off load the entire population onto the UNHCR, it is evident that he too is in favour of removing the population. With the well-documented government abuses against the population, there is not much of a case to suggest that what is occurring now in Arakan state is anything less than genocide.

Take a few minutes to watch this Press TV documentary account of the genocide being committed against the Rohingya peoples:

Sources: Joseph Alchin on DVB, Associated Press, VOA, wikipedia.org, BBC, presstv.com, New York Times, Al Jazeera News, Time Magazine, A History of Asia

March 19, 2015 Posted by | Geography, Human Rights, Islam, Terrorism, Travel | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Bangladesh responds to the Rohingya refugee crisis

Bangladesh--my first impression: so many people on so little land. It is like crowding half the US populations into a land mass the size of New York state.

Bangladesh–my first impression: So many people on so little land! It is like crowding half the US populations into a land mass the size of New York state.

I recently traveled to Bangladesh on an assignment to meet with Rohingya refugees who, for the past 30 years, have been fleeing persecution in their home country Myanmar. I learned a lot about the history of Bangladesh as well. The following is what I found…

Banglandesh history

Alexander the Great's weakened forces were no match for the Subcontinents war elephants!

Alexander the Great’s weakened forces were no match for the subcontinent’s war elephants! (Click on photos to enlarge!)

The early history of the Bengal region featured a succession of vast Indian empires, often accompanied by internal strife, and a struggle between Hinduism and Buddhism for dominance. Islam later made its appearance during the 8th century when Sufi missionaries arrived on the scene. Later, Muslim rulers paved the way for millions of new converts by building mosques, schools and social centers.

The first European power to arrive in India was the Macedonian army of Alexander the Great in 327–326 BC. Alexander appointed regional leaders in the northwest of India to govern in his absence, but his influence quickly crumbled after his armies were ousted from the Subcontinent. Later, trade between the various Indian states was established between the Roman Empire  and India by Roman sailors who had reached India via the Red Sea and Arabian Sea, but the Romans never established permanent trading settlements.

The spice trade between India and Europe was one of the main avenues of trade in the world economy and was the main catalyst for the period of European exploration. Indeed, the search for a shorter, quicker access to India led to the accidental “discovery” of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492.

British East India Company ships at dock in Calcutta, India.

British East India Company ships at dock in Calcutta, India. The ships carried spices, silk to Europe and Christian missionaries and missionaries to Asia.

Only a few years later, near the end of the 15th century, Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama became the first European to re-establish direct trade links with India since those of Roman times by being the first to arrive by circumnavigating Africa (1497–1499). Having arrived in Calicut, which by then was one of the major trading ports of the eastern world, he obtained permission to trade in the city from Saamoothiri Rajah.

Trading rivalries among the seafaring European powers brought other European powers to India. The Dutch, England, France, and Denmark all established trading posts in India in the early 17th century. As the Mughal Empire disintegrated in the early 18th century, and then as the Maratha Empire became weakened after the third battle of Panipat, many relatively weak and unstable Indian states which emerged were increasingly open to manipulation by the Europeans, through dependent Indian rulers.

In the later 18th century Great Britain and France struggled for dominance, partly through proxy Indian rulers but also by direct military intervention. The defeat of the redoubtable Indian ruler Tipu Sultan in 1799 marginalized the French influence. This was followed by a rapid expansion of British power through the greater part of the Indian subcontinent in the early 19th century. By the middle of the century the British had already gained direct or indirect control over almost all of India. British India, consisting of the directly-ruled British presidencies and provinces, contained the most populous and valuable parts of the British Empire and thus became known as “the jewel in the British crown”.

Sir Winston Churchill was a British prime minister and statesman who led the country to victory against Nazi Germany and the Axis powers in World War Two.

Sir Winston Churchill was a British prime minister and statesman who led the country to victory against Nazi Germany and the Axis powers in World War Two.

British colonialism and the Bengal famines

A series of deadly famines were to hit the Bengal region of India–the last and most devastating was in 1941. It struck hard, killing more than 10 million men, women and children.

True, Britain was preoccupied with its own national survival during World War II, but Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s callous response to the suffering of the Bengali peoples was shocking.

British imperialism had long justified itself with the pretense that the colonization of India was conducted for the benefit of the governed. However in his recently published book The Ugly Britain, Shashi Tharoor disagrees. He documents disparaging remarks that seemed to be foundational to the thinking of British economists and politicians throughout the colonial period.

In doing so, Tharoor dampens our western idolatry of the late Winston Churchill. He says Churchill’s conduct in the summer and fall of 1943, during the peak of the last great Bengal famine, revealed the man’s true character.

He quotes Churchill as saying in a war-cabinet meeting to the British Secretary of State for India, Leopold Amery, “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” Churchill went on to dismiss the horrors of the famine, blaming the famine, not on British policies, but rather on the Indians for “breeding like rabbits.”

Pedicabs still serve as a main means of transportation in the capital city Dhaka.

Pedicabs have replaced the man-drawn rickshaws during the past century. Pedicabs serve as a main means of transportation for most of the 15 million inhabitants in the sprawling capital city Dhaka.

Modern Bangladesh

The borders of the modern People’s Republic of Bangladesh were established with the partition of Bengal and India in August 1947, when the region became East Pakistan as a part of the newly formed State of Pakistan. However, it was separated from West Pakistan by 1,600 km (994 mi) of Indian territory.

Due to political exclusion, ethnic and linguistic discrimination, as well as economic neglect by the politically dominant West Pakistan, popular agitation and civil disobedience eventually led to the war of independence in 1971 and the founding of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.

After gaining independence, the new state would continue to endure food shortages and widespread poverty, as well as political turmoil and military coups.

The restoration of democracy in 1991 has been followed by relative political calm and slow economic progress; however, a third of this poor country annually floods during the monsoon rainy season, hampering economic development.

The population of Bangladesh is 142 million. That’s almost half the US population crowded into a land mass about the size of New York state.

Dr Rashid Malik (center) with his brothers and sisters.

Dr Rashid Malik (center) with his brothers and sister.

Dr. Rashid Malik and family

I am welcomed to Bangladesh by my Bangladeshi friend Dr. Rashid Malik and his wife Yasmin Malik, founders of Malik College in Atlanta, Georgia. This was my first visit to Bangladesh, so it was reassuring to be met by someone who was very familiar with this relatively new nation and its political goings on.

Rashid’s older brother Malik Abdullah Al-Amin (“Sadi”) is a judge in the Bangladesh Judicial Service. Sadi, his parents and the rest of Rashid’s family have played an important role in the formation of this relatively new nation.

Rashid’s father, Advocate Abdul Wadood Malik, was a lawyer for the Supreme Court of Pakistan and continued in that position in the Bangladesh Supreme Court after Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan . His mother Momtaz Begum Malik is the former principal of a prestigious college in Bangladesh. Today members of Malik family can be found in various parts of the world: the US, Sweden, India, Kuwait, and the United Kingdom.

Rashid is very proud now to be an American citizen. He tells me, “I am now the president of Malik College in Atlanta. This is my family’s way of giving back to the USA for what America has done for us. In short, the USA has given much to us in many ways, to me, to Yasmin and to my children.”

Sadi and Sam prepare to board flight to far-south Bangladesh.

Judge Sadi Malik and Sam prepare to board a flight to far-south Bangladesh.

Travel to the far-south

Knowing of my interest in learning more about the history and persecution of Rohingya Muslims within the neighboring state Myanmar (formerly Burma), Judge Malik arranged flight tickets for Rashid, himself and me to travel south to Cox’s Bazar, on the Gulf of Bengal. In Cox’s Basar we were met by a private car and driver and taken south.

From Cox’s Bazar south are huge populations of Rohingya refugees who have fled persecution in neighboring Myanmar. A history of the Rohingya peoples and the cause of the appalling persecution will be discussed in detail in my next blog post about my travels to Myanmar and Thailand. Here we will address the issue of Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh.

UN Rohingya refugee camps

In many countries, when you reach the age of 21 you become an adult and must start to fend for yourself. But in the United Nations Dr. Rashid Malik, Sam and Kutupalong camp director Mohammed Ishmail. But 21 years after the Rohingya first started

Dr. Rashid Malik, Sam and UNHCR Kutupalong camp director Mohammed Ishmael.

Dr. Rashid Malik, Sam and UNHCR Kutupalong camp director Mohammed Ishmael.

arriving as refugees in Bangladesh, these desperately poor people are more dependent on aid than ever.

While these may sound like luxuries to an estimated 240,000 other unregistered Rohingyas living outside the camps and in the hills and local villagers in this poverty-stricken region, camp residents often lament the fact that their entire lives appear to be doomed to be living out as unsettled refugees.

There are mixed reactions to the official refugee camps.

Visiting the Kutupalong camp

“This is not life,” said Shaufiq Alam, a 30-year-old refugee in the Kutupalong camp. “I came 20 years ago. If I had been in the village I could have received a higher education by now. The camp situation is depriving us of our lives.”

The UN refugee agency is working to change that sense of powerlessness, but within tight operational constraints. It works closely with refugee-elected camp management committees, empowering them to mediate disputes and organizing women’s training and peace education workshops.

Rohingya men and women retrieve water

Rohingya men and women retrieve water from a Kutupalong camp well.

Refugees are also encouraged to participate in the day-to-day running of the camps. Bibi Begum, 30, helps to distribute food rations in Kutupalong every two weeks. Today she is in charge of sugar, stirring a sack sugar with her hand to loosen the grains before spooning precise portions into waiting plastic bags.

A widow with three children, she is one of seven incentive workers at the food distribution center who are given employment.

“I get 1,820 taka (US$22.50) per month. It helps with the children’s school supplies, and I can buy extra things,” she said. “Usually I make fishing nets for a living, but it is not profitable. I only made 1,000 taka after three months of work.”

The UNHCR vocational training is another important empowerment tool. While the refugees are not permitted to work or to sell things they produce, UNHCR seeks to keep them occupied while teaching them skills like carpentry, soap making and tailoring that they can hopefully use in the future.

At Nayapara camp, Hamida Khatun, a 40-year-old widow with five children, is busy making soap. “I wanted to earn some money so I approached UNHCR to put my name on the list,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for a month, learning how to mix chemicals and use the mould.”

am is greeted by children of the Kutupalong refugee camp.

Sam is greeted by children of the Kutupalong refugee camp.

Her job today is to cut individual bars of soap to make sure they weigh a consistent 150 grams each. “I am proud of my soaps,” she said. “I get 1,036 taka per month for six months. But it’s not enough. There are 14 people in my family – six are registered and get food rations, the rest are not registered and get nothing. The money helps to buy some extra rice, but it is not enough for extra blankets.”

When completed, Hamida’s soaps are taken to the Bangladeshi Red Crescent Society to be distributed in the camp’s Women’s Centre along with some underwear, clothing and other personal items.

The clothing items are made at the Nayapara Women’s Centre by refugees attending the tailoring class. “They are usually aged 15 to 25, and rotate every six months,” said one of the women in charge. “We teach them skills and keep them busy so hopefully they don’t get married off at a young age.

Economic disadvantages

A young Rohingya girl mingles along with tourists on a beach looking for ways to make money.

Looking for ways to make money, a lone Rohingya girl, 11, mingles with tourists on a beach.

Unfortunately, there are few prospects after the six-month training as most refugees cannot afford to buy their own equipment. Even those who manage to buy a sewing machine find it hard to get raw materials and to market their products. Without regular practice, their skills fade quickly.

In comparison, the more than 240,000 unregistered Rohingyas living outside the camps appear to have developed their own coping mechanisms over the years.

I am shocked at the sight of thousands of young children, 8 to 10 years old, wandering the roads or working in the markets, many without parents. The roadside markets are busy and these children have found informal ways to survive without government or UNHCR support. I am told that many have resorted to “sordid ways” of subsistence. I inquire further. It is said some of these Rohingya children are falling prey to human trafficking and heroin trade. Many of these Rohingya children have little or no knowledge of the Islamic faith that once guided them morally.

These problem lead one to believe that we need rethink how best to help these stranded refugees.

“The UNHCR is good at emergency response, setting up camps quickly in the hope that refugees can return in one to two years,” said Dirk Hebecker, head of the agency’s sub-office in Cox’s Bazar. “But when the situation gets protracted, we need to be able to adjust our strategies.”

He added that the international community should work with the Bangladeshi government to shift from focusing on just the two camps—which currently cares for only 10 to 15 per cent of the refugee population. He says the whole refugee population, including those outside the camps, must be immediately assisted if practical solutions are to be found to this long-running catastrophe.

Young children 9 to 15 years of age are seen wandering the streets. We learn that many of their mothers and fathers were killed in Myanmar or have died from disease and starvation during their exodus en route to Bangladesh.

In the following 5-minute video you will hear testimonies about the nearly 300,000 Rohingya refugees now living in Bangladesh.

Sources: Time magazine, wikipedia.com, British History Museum, A History of the Subcontinent, People’s Republic of Bangladesh, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, The Ugly Britain, theeastindiacompany.com, Rohingya News, The New York Times, BBC, The Guardian

February 12, 2015 Posted by | Human Rights, Islam, Travel, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

World Peace Summit held in Seoul, South Korea

More than 60,000 men and women from around the world gathered in the Seoul Olympic Stadium for the World Religions for Peace Summit. Among those attending were political and religious leaders and heads of NGOs from 150 nations.

More than 60,000 men and women from around the world gathered in the Seoul Olympic Stadium for the World Alliance of Religions for Peace summit. Among those attending were political and religious leaders and heads of NGOs from an estimated 172 nations. Thousands of cards are assembled in the background to image Roman Catholic Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales, of the Philippines, as he addresses the gathering.

Sam flashes peace sign at the opening ceremony of the World Peace Summit in Seoul.

Sam flashes peace sign at the opening ceremony of the World Peace Summit in Seoul.

A plea for world peace and an end to war

The three-day World Alliance of Religions for Peace (WARP) peace summit was held in Seoul, South Korea, 17 – 19 September. I was privileged to join several participants from Saudi Arabia. Our main goal in being present for this huge conclave was to network with other faith leaders from around the world. And that we did!

More than 60,000 people from 172 countries took part in the spectacular opening ceremony at Seoul’s Jamsil Olympic Stadium. (Be certain to watch the short video at the end of this article!) Just about all the world’s religions were represented, including the major Abrahamic faiths–Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

From the time we arrived in South Korea until the day we left, event staff were among the most hospitable I had ever met. Every detail regarding meetings, lodging, meals and transportation were meticulously well organized. These workers did their very best  at all times to make us feel comfortable and kept informed.

During the opening ceremony, event chairman Man Hee Lee urged global leaders to double down on their efforts to become “peace promoters and peace advocates.”

A congratulatory video message from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the spiritual leader of South Africa and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, attracted much attention. In his message, he said, “I would like to congratulate both Chairman Man Hee Lee and the members of HWPL for hosting the World Alliance of Religions’ Peace Summit. Thank you for delivering the message of peace and the cessation of wars to the whole world.”

Alexander Rutskoy, former vice president of Russia, said, “As a part of the world, a citizen of Russia and as a friend of the Korean people, I want to support this work, offering my experience and knowledge, declaring our common ways to build peace and uniting nations and traditions.”

Present was a diverse line-up of attendees that included former and current heads of state, prominent religious leaders, academics, government legislators, Nobel Prize laureates, as well as community, youth, and women’s leaders from every continent.

Sam with Omani religious leaders.

Sam with Muslim leaders from Oman.

Middle East well represented

There were numerous delegations from the Middle East. Egyptian Grand Mufti Shawqi Abdel Karim Allam was among the list of high profile speakers set to deliver an opening address, but he was unable to attend at the last minute and was replaced by Doha (Qatar) International Centre for Interfaith Dialogue chairman Dr. Ibrahim Saleh Al Naimi.

The Qatari official stressed the importance of dialogue in his speech, describing it as the only way to address conflict among communities.

Bahrain sent a 20-strong delegation from the Bahrain Association for Religious Co-existence and Tolerance (BARCT).

BARCT chairman Yousif Buzaboon told the GDN that his group is now considering the idea of hosting a similar event in Bahrain. “We would certainly like to see such an important summit that promotes peace being held in Bahrain,” he said. “Bahrain is sending a strong message by having such a large delegation at this summit. We are showcasing the achievements of our country and welcome activities that promote peace and empower youth.”

Yemini Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman championed the cause of peace and women's rights.

Yemini Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman championed the cause of peace and women’s rights.

Seminars and focus groups

Throughout the three-day event there were various leadership seminars and focus groups discussing regional issues and various methods of conflict resolution.

In recent years, peacebuilding initiatives have been on the forefront of leading a country’s economic, social and political strength, laying the foundation for development and conflict management. Sustainable peace can, however, present its own challenges as it calls for a nation to gather its utmost efforts across a wide range of activities.

Among important efforts are establishing security on a nation’s borders, providing assistance to refugees, organizing elections of new governments and financing programs towards the protection of human rights. Preventive measures and integrated strategies are greatly needed to assist in the development of best practices , especially in postwar recovery and reconciliation.

Tawakkol Karman from Sana, Yemen, a journalist and the first Arab woman and youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize winner, declared that the Arab Spring has seen a wave of liberation for women throughout the Arab world.  “Women are no longer victims,” she said. “They have become leaders. They are at the forefront of the demonstrations. We will share a role in all aspects of life, side by side with men.”

More than 100 thousands participated in the peace parade ending at the Peace Monument at the Seoul Olympic park.

The closing of the Peace Summit saw more than 100 thousand people rally in the peace parade which culminated at the Peace Monument in the Seoul Olympic Park.

The closing ceremony included an hours-long Olympic-style show replete with fireworks, marching bands and celebrants. Korean theatrics created an emotional display of pomp and pageantry. At the end, many of us joined the Koreans on the field for photos and well wishes.

World peace parade

On the last day of the WARP Summit, a total of 200,000 people including summit participants, members of international NGOs and local citizens, participated in the “Walk for World Peace” near Seoul Olympic Park. This event, hosted by the International Peace Youth Group (IPYG), commemorated the final day of a successful “World Alliance of Religions Peace Summit.”

There were speeches by various youth leaders from many countries and all of them spoke of sufferings in their respective countries and the need for world peace to end the wars in their regions.

Chairman Lee said that world peace is attainable if all the leaders of various religions aggressively continue their efforts to attain world peace. He emphasized the role of religious leaders to encourage their communities to work closely together and also asked the media to promote peace messages around the globe.

Man Hee Lee welcomes participants to the Peace Summit.

Man Hee Lee welcomes participants to the Peace Summit.

Reservations and concerns

While I applaud the efforts of the World Alliance of Religions for Peace to have conducted this international Peace Summit, these efforts have seemingly been based on the leadership of one single man–Chairman Man Hee Lee.

In her statement lauding Man Hee Lee at the opening of the summit, Nam Hee Kim, chairwoman of the collaborative International Women’s Peace Group referred to Lee as “the Peace Advocate, heaven-sent for all humanity.”

In an “Action Plan” released to summit delegates it was said, “Leaders of religions around the world must join hands with the chairman of HWPL for the alliance of religions and frequently meet to achieve the unity of religions.”

Midway through the summit, Lee distributed a statement defending himself from accusations made by the conservative Christian Council of Korea (CCK). The CCK says Lee’s Shincheonji Church of Jesus and his organization Heavenly Culture World Peace Restoration of Light are “cultic.”

Lee himself denied that he had once claimed to have fulfilled the Second Coming of Jesus; however, several comments made by Lee at the summit were disturbing to me, especially his insistance that all delegates sign a statement that called for merging all religions into one single world religion. It read, in part, “Therefore, all religions must unite under God as one…. We pledge in the sight of God, all people of the world, and the Peace Advocate to become one under God through the unity of religion.… We hereby pledge with all reasonable endeavor, to take on this duty to establish peace and end all wars on this earth, and, as a united religion, to leave a world at peace….”

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Faith leaders from all major faiths and 170 nations met for discussions on war and peacemaking.

Faith dialogue very important

World peace is certainly a noble goal. And, without a doubt, dialogue among the world’s major religions and faiths is needed. Many of the conflicts and wars taking place today are caused by religious extremists who have hi-jacked faith for their own political purposes. Such is the case of ISIS (IS or ISIL) and other militant groups now committing horrible atrocities in the name of Islam.

During the past millennium we have seen such circumstances time and time again as even Christians annihilated Muslims, leading their warring military charges under the cross of Jesus in their Crusades to capture the Holy Land. War was conducted on numerous occasions by Catholics who sought to blot out the “heresy of Protestantism” or as World War II Nazis sought to destroy Judaism.

Such evil is also seen today as Israeli Zionists continue a 60-year war of ethnic cleansing, seeking to remove millions of Palestinian Christians and Muslims from the Holy Land or as normally peaceful Buddhists continue a slaughter of the Muslim minority in Myanmar.

The need for dialogue among peoples of faith is of utmost importance, but the it appeared that the predominant view of those attending the Seoul peace summit is that this should not entail eliminating any one faith group or merging all faiths into one.

There is a beauty in the diversity of faith and tradition. And as we met and discussed our beliefs with many faith leaders from around the world, one thing is certain: no faith on earth, based on its holy books, can justly call for the annihilation of innocent men, women and children who believe differently than they. Therefore, we must all do our part to stop the vicious conflicts and carnage being unjustly perpetrated today in the name of any religion or faith group.

Take a few minutes to watch the spectacular opening ceremony of the WARP Peace Summit in Seoul:

 

October 9, 2014 Posted by | Human Rights, Interfaith, Religious Reconciliation | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Visiting the King Abdullah Interfaith Center

KA Interfaith Center Vienna

Saudi Prince Saud Al-Faisal and faith leaders from around the world at the opening ceremony of KAICIID, November 2012.

The King Abdullah Interfaith Center, Vienna, Austria

Sam Shropshire with Fahad Abualnasr, chief of staff of KAICIID, Vienna, Austria.

Sam Shropshire with Fahad Abualnasr, chief of staff of KAICIID, Vienna, Austria.

It was my privilege to meet the first of September with Fahad Abualnasr, chief of staff, of the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) in Vienna, Austria.

KAICIID was founded to enable, empower and encourage dialogue among followers of different faiths and cultures around the world. The Centre is an independent, autonomous, international organization, free of political or economic influence.

The Founding States are the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Republic of Austria and Kingdom of Spain. They constitute the “Council of Parties” responsible for overseeing the work of the Centre; the Roman Catholic Holy See has been admitted as a Founding Observer to the Centre.

The Board of Directors comprises high-level representatives of the major world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism) and cultures. The Centre is headed by a Secretary General. An Advisory Forum of up to 100 members of other religions, cultural institutions and international organizations provide a further resource of interreligious and intercultural perspective.

Our discussion at the KAICIID Vienna offices

KAICIID’s mission, to facilitate interreligious and intercultural understanding, and enhance respect for diversity, justice and peace is reflected in the diversity of its staff from 19 countries, four continents, and a wide range of cultural and religious affiliations. Respect for diversity is a cornerstone of KAICIID’s recruitment policy.

The Foreign Minister of Austria, Sebastian Kurz, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Spain, Gonzalo de Benito Secades, and Reverend Father Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot of the the Founding Observer, the Holy See, signed the declaration during a Ministerial Meeting of the Council of Parties to the KAICIID Dialogue Centre in New York on 25 September 2014.

The Foreign Minister of Austria, Sebastian Kurz, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Spain, Gonzalo de Benito Secades, and Reverend Father Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot of the the Founding Observer, the Holy See, signed the declaration during a Ministerial Meeting of the Council of Parties to the KAICIID Dialogue Centre in New York on 25 September 2014.

My discussion with Fahad Abualnasr centered on current religious extremism among all faiths its resulting conflicts. We spoke of my work with Muslim Voice for Peace & Reconciliation and about the need for Islam itself to be known as a more vigorous partner in initiatives promoting world peace, human rights and environmental concerns, recalling that the founding document of KAICIID cites principles enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, especially, “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”–with emphasis on “human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.”

I was, indeed, blessed and encouraged to have learned more about the work of KAICIID and by meeting Fahad Abualnasr and members of his staff.

KAICIID statement condemns religious extremism

On 25 September, meeting at the KAICIID offices in New York, the foreign ministers of the Republic of Austria, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the Kingdom of Spain signed a declaration affirming dialogue as a path to lasting peace and social cohesion. This was in response to the current deplorable violence and humanitarian crisis in Northern Iraq and in Syria, as well as in other parts of the world. KIACIID hopes, with the combined support of all faith, to develop international solidarity n ending sectarian violence in various parts of the world.

The released statement said, “We condemn violent conflict in the world, more so violence committed in the name of religion, and call for an end to violent hostility. We deplore loss of life and commend those who seek to alleviate suffering, as well as those who strive to promote well-being, harmony and peace.”

The statement, as well, opposed the instrumentalization of religion to make war and strongly condemned “terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, committed by whomever, wherever and for whatever purposes.

Hate speech and extremism that incite violence and fuel prejudice were also singled out.

Enjoy this sand-art performance during the opening ceremony of KAICIID on 26 November 2012:

Sources: Ecumenical Review, Time Magazine, KAICIID.org

September 29, 2014 Posted by | Human Rights, Interfaith, Islam | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Considering Islam, terrorism and war

ISIS fighters rally in Iraq as they advance towards Baghdad.

ISIS fighters rally in Iraq as they advance towards Baghdad. This extremist Sunni group has announced plans to rule the territory it has carved out of Iraq and Syria in recent months.

Sam Dammam

During the past two years Sam has traveled to remote areas of Saudi Arabia, speaking with desert  Bedouins, city dwellers and government leaders. He has gained a remarkable understanding of Islam and the Saudi culture. (Click photos to enlarge.)

(Article last updated 7 February 2015, 11:01 pm)

Recently I received several questions from American friends. They are questions that have also troubled me since moving to Saudi Arabia two-and-a-half years ago. The questions: “When will Sunni and Shia Muslims stop fighting each other?” and “How can Muslims commit such horrible atrocities?” and “Doesn’t the evil of terrorism discredit Islam?”

A view from the heart of Islam

I have lived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for two-and-a-half years now. I’ve asked just about every difficult question that could possibly be asked, and I have actually been on the lookout for “extremists” to try to get a better understanding of what makes them think the way the do. So far I have found possibly one.

The Muslim brothers and sisters I have here are, for the most part, rational men and women who dislike bigotry, hatred and war. They simply want a nation that has a sound economy. They want good educations and prosperous futures for their children and grandchildren. However, they are quite concerned about how others outside the Kingdom view their Muslim faith.

As I answer the above questions, I do not intend in any way to excuse some of the obvious hatred and bigotry among peoples and groups who refer to themselves as Muslims. But in living here in the Mecca Region, the very heart of Islam, I have gained what I believe to be a valid perspective, having completed the grueling difficulties of Hajj with friends from our local neighborhood mosque, and having visited Mecca on many occasions and Medina once.

Also, millions of Muslim pilgrims from all over the world travel in and out of Jeddah every year on their way to Mecca, just 35 miles down the road. I mingle with them as they come and go. I have also developed friendships with some of the migrant workers resident in Saudi Arabia—most who are Muslim.

Lest we forget our own Western “Christian” wars

The American Civil War found brother against brother and Christian against Christian to end slavery.

The American Civil War found brother fighting against brother and Christian fighting against Christian in a war to end slavery.

While we are astounded at what we see every night on television, I can imagine that many Muslims of the 19th and 20th century must have asked these same questions when observing wars in the West.

One might consider the American Civil War, that pit Southern Christians who supported slavery against northern Christians who, for the most part, opposed slavery. More than 620,000 American combatants died, and there were more than 450,000 casualties among American civilian men, women and children.

In reference to that War Between the States, President Abraham Lincoln stated in his second inaugural address: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered.”

During the First World War and the Second World War “Christian nations” battled “Christian nations” for supremacy. It was a time when oligarchies made alliances with religious groups and political parties (fascism) for one political objective or another. Allied armies responded in force.

Even more recently we have had the Irish Republican Army (IRA) battling it out with the Presbyterian Orange Order of Northern Ireland. Countless kidnappings, murders, and bombings were carried out during the 1960s and 1970s. Homes were torched and innocent men, women and children were caught in the crossfire.

Today in South Sudan we find Christian militia battling Christian militia for power and control, and in the Central African Republic Chrisitan militias have taken up arms against Muslims. A UN report indicates the militias are guilty of ethnic cleansing.

Islam–divisions and factions

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ISIS and similar extremist groups are un-Islamic. They do not represent Islam any more than the KKK represents Christianity.

One cannot think simply of Islam as a united faith where all believers are in agreement. Islam has many divisions and factions.

Greater than eighty percent of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are said to be Sunni. Among Sunnis are thousands of offshoots.

In recent years, some self-proclaimed Sunni leaders, like those of ISIS (also known as IS, ISIL or Daesh), have managed to organize radical militias, enlisting soldiers while amassing funding by pillaging towns, cities, businesses and homes as they pass through.

ISIS has a radical agenda of organizing a caliphate (an Islamic state) from parts of Syria and Iraq. Their leaders have ordered Iraqi Christians living within their proposed state to convert to Islam, pay taxes or die.

To say that these fanatical Muslims who lob grenades at each other shouting “Allah akbar!” (“God is great!”) are representative of all Islam would be like saying the IRA is a bona fide movement of the Catholic Church.

I don’t know a lot about ISIS, but I can honestly say that some Islamic hate groups are to Islam what the National Socialist White People’s Party (NWSPP) and Ku Klux Klan (KKK) are to Christianity. Fortunately, most Americans are keenly aware that the NWSPP and KKK are certainly not “Christian” in the traditional sense, but both racist groups do claim to represent “white, Christian America.”

Islam and illiteracy

It is unfortunate that millions of Muslims today, especially those living in poorer nations, cannot read or write.

While education of both girls and boys is promoted throughout the Muslim world, some Muslim populations have fallen under the influence of radical Islamists who have political objectives that are extra-quranic. They forbid the education of girls and endorse only principled Islamic texts for educational purposes.

While many of those who are illiterate are able to recite long passages of the Qur’an, I was surprised to find that some have no idea what they are reciting. While the Arabic of the Qur’an is beautiful, flowing wonderfully with sounds and syllables, it is an ancient language that many who recite it don’t understand. It would be like a Catholic quoting from the Latin Vulgate Bible–not knowing the meaning or nuances of the Latin sentences and words.

It has been pointed out to me by men in my mosque that there are many who are born into Islam and refer to themselves as “Muslim,” but they actually have no idea what it means to truly be Muslim. They have little knowledge of who Mohammad was and the principles for which he stood.

War is hell, and horrible atrocities happen in all wars–even at the hands of western forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, when radical Muslims who are politically motivated present themselves to be acting on behalf of God, the consequences can be disastrous. One man commanding a group of disenfranchised, uneducated, illiterate  followers can wreak havoc on a nation (eg Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al Shabaab in Somalia, ISIS in Iraq and Syria, etc.).

The Sunni – Shia differences

Sunnis (about 80 per cent of Muslims) and Shiites (15- 20 per cent) have waged deadly sectarian wars.

Sunnis (about 80 per cent of Muslims) and Shiites (11 – 15 per cent) have waged deadly sectarian wars.

Now we come to the historic Sunni—Shia divide.

I do not pretend to know all there is to know about what caused the evolution of Shia Islam and the succeeding Sunni resentment that followed. I have met a few Shia Muslims and have spoken with my Sunni Muslim friends about the matter. It appears that the battle is over something that happened nearly 1400 years ago; a deviation from the original faith observed by the Prophet Mohammad.

The Sunni branch of Islam believes that the first four caliphs (Mohammed’s successors) rightfully took his place as the leaders of Islam. They recognize the heirs of the first four caliphs as legitimate religious leaders. These heirs ruled continuously in the Arab world until the break-up of the Ottoman Empire following the end of the First World War.

Shia Islam, in contrast, teaches that only the heirs of the fourth caliph, Ali, are the legitimate successors of Mohammed. Shiites seem to be more mystical in nature—some paying homage and praying to Ali and his descendants.

In some Shia homes in Iran, one will find “icons” honoring Ali. Shiites make pilgrimages to what is believed to be Ali’s gravesite in Iraq. Some speak of the miracles Ali has performed on their behalf.

Sunnis compare such behavior to idolatry, and they believe that any form of idolatry is anathema and worthy of “hell fire.” Indeed, the Qur’an says that no one should worship idols or pay homage to humans or other created entities. Even pictures of the Prophet Mohammed are forbidden.

I have visited Mohammed’s tomb at the Nabawī Mosque (also known as the Prophet’s Mosque) in Medina. There are guards posted at Mohammad’s sepulcher to prevent Muslims from praying or paying homagevenerating the Prophet.

Protestant Reformation–wars and conflicts 

I find the Sunni-Shia divide to bear somewhat similarities to the great debate that took place between Protestants and Catholics during the great Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries. Protestants separated from Roman Catholics, debating similar issues. Reformation leaders like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli and others sought to eliminate many of the corruptions and accesses that were then present within Roman Catholicism.

Luther ignited the Reformation by posting his “Ninety-five Theses” on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. That church held one of Europe’s largest collections of holy relics. These religious relics had been gathered by Frederick III of Saxony. At that time, pious veneration of relics were said by Rome to give relief from temporal punishment for sins in “purgatory.” By 1520, Frederick had over 19,000 relics, purportedly “including vials of the milk from the Virgin Mary, straws from the manger of Jesus’ birth and the body of one of the innocents massacred by King Herod.”

ISIS is now destroying Shia, Sunni and Sufi mosques around Mosul. In this photo posted on a militant website that frequently carries official statements from the Islamic State extremist group, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, Shiite's Jawad Husseiniya mosque explodes in Tal Afar, Iraq.

ISIS is now destroying Shia, Sunni and Sufi shrines and mosques around Mosul. Iraq. In this photo posted on a militant website that frequently carries official ISIS statements, Shia’s Jawad Husseiniya mosque is demolished in Tal Afar.

As reformers allied themselves with kings and rulers vicious wars ensued between Catholics and Protestants. Horrible atrocities were committed. Many of the reformers were imprisoned, burned at the stake, beheaded, hanged or dismembered.

Conflicts between some Shia and Sunni Muslims continue today. ISIS is further advancing its radical religious agenda by destroying Shiite mosques and Islamic shrines around the ancient Iraqi city of Mosul, which they captured last month. Al Arabiya reported that the damage extends to at least four shrines to Sunni or Sufi figures, and six Shiite mosques in the northern province of Nineveh.

Pictures surfacing on social media showed the destruction, ISIS troops accomplished with explosives and bulldozers. They appeared on a militant website that was verified by the Associated Press as being an outlet  for official ISIS statements. The photos were posted under the headline, “Demolishing shrines and idols in the state of Nineveh.”

The vast majority of Shias and Sunnis live in friendship together side by side. They say it is security and stable economies their families need, not misguided extremists stirring up trouble.

I pray that peace and reconciliation between these two contending bodies of believers might be possible in the same way that eventual dialogue, appeasement and understanding have taken place between Protestants and Catholics during the past century. After all, Islam means to “voluntarily surrender” to the God of Abraham. It also implies “peace” and “safety.”

Current situation in Syria and Iraq

Millions of Syrian refugees have fled the civil war in search of safety, medical treatment, food and temporary housing.

Millions of Syrian refugees have fled the civil war in their homeland in search of safety, medical treatment, food and temporary housing.

I liken the present situation in Syria and Iraq to that of the former Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia had come into existence as a result of treaties at the end of the First World War. Serbia (which then included the present-day Republic of Macedonia), Montenegro, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia were forcibly joined, and after the Second World War these Balkan states were brought under Josip Tito’s communist dictatorship as the Iron Curtain of atheistic socialism descended over Central Europe.

After Tito’s death in 1980 and the subsequent fall of communism in 1989, the nation of Yugoslavia descended into anarchy and civil war. Today, the former Yugoslavia has self-divided along religious beliefs and ethnicity.

Now there are predominantly Catholic Christian states, Orthodox Christian states and Muslim states. All are now living peaceably and have expanding economies.

Many of the Islamic states of the Middle East were also formed after the downfall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. Their borders were drawn up by colonial powers (England and France). The secretive Sykes–Picot Agreement, officially known as the Asia Minor Agreement, defined their proposed spheres of influence and control in the Middle East. Dictators were essentially appointed and supported by various foreign powers, including the United States.

What is now happening in Syria and Iraq is, I fear, inevitable. People yearn for freedom and stable economies–better futures. Today we are witnessing the breakup of these “forced” states along religious and ethnic lines. In the case of Syria and Iraq, Sunni, Shia and Kurds are vying to have dominant influence hoping to form their own independent states.

The challenge for Arab states

KSA Hotspots MapHow will these conflicts that currently surround the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman affect the stability of these nations?

As I write this article, CNN is broadcasting that that Al Qaeda and another group new to me is planning attacks on Arabian Peninsula airports and shopping malls.

There is growing concern about Islamic extremism here and elsewhere. As well-publicized bouts of violence, from civil war to suicide bombings, plague the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, concern about Islamic extremism is high among countries with substantial Muslim populations, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center.

Lebanese, Tunisians, Egyptians, Jordanians and Turks are all more worried about the extremist threat than they were a year ago. Men and women living in Muslim states hold very negative opinions of well-known extremist groups, such as al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah.

Last evening, Prince Turki al Faisal, former Saudi ambassador to the US and former Saudi intelligence chief, was interviewed by CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour. (See posted interview at the end of this article.)

Prince Turki believes ISIS is a threat to world peace. He argued that the the major powers must come together to confront ISIS.

“Look how many American young people, French, English and other misguided western youth are joining the ranks of ISIS,” he said. Prince Turki says this is a critical matter that needs to be dealt with by western governments as well as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council states.

Prince Turki says the Muslim world basically wants to live in peace. He believes the kind of terrorist tactics being espoused by ISIS is foreign to the faith of Islam. He concluded his remarks on CNN about ISIS, “It’s a terrorist organization that has specialized in brutal killings, so it is a danger to the whole area and I think to the rest of the world.”

On August 7, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, said extremists are attempting to hi-jack Islam for their own evil use. He condemned Islamist extremists who he said have besmirched Islam by committing atrocities in the name of religion. The King’s comments were read August 7 on Saudi television, “It is shameful and disgraceful that these terrorists are doing this in the name of religion, killing people whose killing Allah has forbidden, and mutilating their bodies and feeling proud in publishing this.”

The ISIS call for a Sunni Islamic caliphate has little support outside the ranks of the organization. Muslim scholars and movements from across the Sunni Islamic spectrum have rejected the caliphate declared by the group, with the fighters receiving scathing criticism from mainstream Muslim leaders. Most recently the chief imam of Turkey has pronounced the ISIS caliphate as illegitimate.

Murder and wanton slaughter of the innocent prohibited

The Qur'an is clear on matters of war and condemns terrorism as worthy of hell.

The Qur’an is clear on matters of war and condemns suicide bombers as worthy of hell fire. The Qur’an provides rules for faith and practice for all Muslims.

All the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) agree that acts of aggressive behavior, especially when it involves murder and massacres of innocent men, women and children, are evil. There is no place within any of these faiths for suicide bombers and acts of aggression.

Abrahamic believers today are of one of two opinions. Some seek to avoid conflict and war all together, declaring themselves pacifists or conscientious objectors. They refuse to fight under any circumstances.

The overwhelming majority consider “just war” appropriate when confronting an agressive enemy that is invading, killing their fellow citizens, and destroying their cities, businesses, farmlands and homes.

In Islam, the Qur’an makes the  following clear:

Suicide is forbidden.  “O ye who believe!… [do not] kill yourselves, for truly God has been to you Most Merciful.  If any do that in rancour and injustice, soon shall We cast him into the Fire…” (Qur’an 4:29-30).

The taking of life is allowed only by way of justice (i.e. the death penalty for murder), but even then, forgiveness is encouraged.  “Nor take life – which God has made sacred – except for just cause…” (Qur’an 17:33).

In pre-Islamic Arabia, retaliation and mass murder was commonplace.  If someone was killed, the victim’s tribe would retaliate against the murderer’s entire tribe.  This practice was directly forbidden in the Qur’an (2:178-179). Following this statement of law, the Qur’an says, “After this, whoever exceeds the limits shall be in grave chastisement” (Qur’an 2:178).

No matter what wrong we perceive as being done against us, we may not lash out against an entire population of people. The Qur’an admonishes those who oppress others and transgress beyond the bounds of what is right and just.  “The blame is only against those who oppress men with wrongdoing and insolently transgress beyond bounds through the land, defying right and justice.  For such there will be a chastisement grievous (in the Hereafter)” (Qur’an 42:42).

Harming innocent bystanders, even in times of war, was forbidden by the Prophet Muhammad.  This includes women, children, noncombatant bystanders–even animals, trees and crops.  Nothing is to be harmed unless the aggressor is actively engaged in an assault against Muslims.

Listen to this interview conducted from Jeddah last evening by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour with Saudi Prince Turki al Faisal.

Sources: CNN, CBS News, Arab News, wikipedia.org, Saudi Gazette, New York Times, The Huffington Post, Aljazeera Internatioanl News, National Post (Jordan), islamicity.com, answering-islam.org, Al Arabiya News

July 2, 2014 Posted by | Human Rights, Islam, Religious Reconciliation, Terrorism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Praying to the God of Abraham

Left:  Muslim pray at the Kaaba in Mecca. Right: Jews praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

Left: Muslims pray at the Kaaba in Mecca. Right: Jews praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Both pleading to the God of Abraham.

Praying to Abraham’s God 

Sam, Shafik and Muhammad in front of the holy Kaaba in Mecca.

Sam, Shafik and Muhammad in front of the holy Kaaba in Mecca. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Last night I was invited by three Muslim friends to join them in the holy city of Mecca.

I took this photo (above left) of my Muslim brothers praying at the Kaaba (a worship place built by Prophet Abraham). It reminded me of another photo (above right) I had seen of Jews praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem (the foundation stones of the worship place built by Prophet Solomon).

These stone buildings are not objects of worship. They are merely places to focus one’s attention on the one and only God of the universe.

We must remind ourselves that both Jews and Arabs are genetically descendant from Prophet Abraham. They are “cousins.” They both pray to Abraham’s God.

Jesus’ teaching on prayer

As I joined hundreds of men and women in making the ritual tawaf (the prayerful circumambulation of the holy Kaaba), Scriptures came to mind reminding me that disagreements, no matter how difficult, must never lead to hatred. Hatred has no place in true faith.

While I praised God for his loving kindness, I tearfully prayed as the great Messiah Jesus taught us to pray, “God, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven… and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

The context of Jesus’ prayer in the Gospel of Matthew, known to Christians as “the Lord’s Prayer,” outlines a heartfelt appeal to all of us (men and women) who make a public show of prayer. We are in essence told to humble ourselves in our relationships with others;  seeking not to offend but rather to make amends.

Praise to the God of Abraham

In many Christian congregations (especially the Methodist), congregants stand and sing the hymn “The God of Abraham Praise.” This old hymn has an interesting background

One night in 1865, the English hymnist Thomas Olivers was attract­ed to a service in a London Jew­ish syn­a­gogue where he heard an inspiring soloist, Le­o­ni, sing an an­cient He­brew mel­o­dy. His baritone voice was filled with deeply profound emotion. Olivers was im­pressed and immediately was moved to write a hymn to the same tune. The re­sult was the hymn, “The God of Abra­ham Praise.” This hymn is actually a par­a­phrase of an an­cient He­brew yig­dal, or dox­ol­o­gy:

The God of Abraham praise,
who reigns enthroned above;
Ancient of everlasting days,
and God of love;
Jehovah, great I AM,
by earth and heaven confessed:
I bow and bless the sacred Name
for ever blessed.

Films you should see

There are a number of award-winning films that have been released during the past few years that help one to understand what’s behind the conflict between Israel and Palestine–the heart of the Middle East crisis.

Below you will see the closing scene from a great film Language of the Enemy (2008) about the Israeli occupation of Palestine and its resulting calamity. In the film an American Jewish university student falls in love with a Muslim Palestinian doctor. The young man is tragically killed by Israeli soldiers. This scene depicts the heart-rending despair separating Jews and Arab Muslims. It ends with an agonizing cry “Abraham!”  If you haven’t seen this movie, get a copy and watch it.

I also highly recommend the award-winning films The GatekeepersFive Broken Cameras and the recently released Omar.

Unless we feel their pain we will never understand their suffering. Please join us in praying and working for peace and reconciliation in the Middle East. Our collective hope and faith is in Abraham’s God

September 13, 2013 Posted by | Human Rights, Religious Reconciliation | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jeddah’s awe-inspiring Al Makkiyah mansion

The Angawi mansion in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is a center for study and dialogue.

The Angawi family mansion in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is a center for friendship and learning.

Al Makkiyah Carter

Former US President Jimmy Carter and US consulate staff listen as Dr. Sami Angawi speaks about Islamic art, science and history at Al Makkiyah. (Click photos to enlarge.)

Leaders come to Al Makkiyah

One of the most interesting private residences in Saudi Arabia is the home of well-known architect and historian Dr. Sami Angawi. Al Makkiyah mansion attracts leaders and visitors from around the world.

Angawi is an expert in Islamic architecture and is also outspoken about his faith, Islam. The house serves as a meeting place for individuals and groups seeking to communicate Middle Eastern culture to peoples and groups on other continents. He believes, however, that extremists are attempting hijack Islam. He and other Muslim leaders hope to maintain Islam’s core roots—balanced and moderate and more tolerant of people’s differences.

Angawi is known for his activism–especially his strong views about historic preservation in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Many significant sites of Islam have been destroyed under direct orders from radical religious leaders in an effort, they claim, to prevent idolatry or because of what they consider to be,the veneration of gravesites or relics. (See my story “Grandmother Eve’s grave.”)

Public lectures and concerts

The Angawi house is a cultural haven in Jeddah where his family and friends regularly host lectures, concerts and timely discussions, often on a weekly basis.

The design of this residence combines modern construction techniques with traditional crafts such as Turkish mosaic and Moroccan zillij. Red Sea coral reef stone, desert sandstone, marbles and granite are utilized throughout the exterior and interior.

Old-style natural ventilation techniques minimize the need for air-conditioning even at the peak of hot Arabian summers. A computerized drip-watering system feeds thousands of hanging plants that are an integral feature of both the central internal courtyard and the exterior ground and roof gardens.

The Islamic principle of sitr (ensuring privacy for neighbors as well as inhabitants of the house) is accomplished by using traditional rawasheen bay windows and intricate hand-carved Hijazi woodwork over the openings.

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Al Makkiyah will serve as the main campus of the Al Makkiyah/Al Mediniyah Institute for cross cultural studies.

Bridging nations and faiths

For decades Saudi Arabia has been generally considered a somewhat closed society, eager to protect its own traditions from external cultural influences.

While preservation of traditions is of great concern to Dr. Sami Angawi, his desire is balanced with a passion for building bridges between nations, cultures and faiths.

His architectural designs assert the importance of his HIjazi heritage with the common cultural heritage shared by both western and Islamic societies; believing that a “clash of civilizations” need not lead to misunderstanding, but rather friendship, trust and peace.

This concept of balance, known in Arabic as mizan, is the essence of Islamic tradition and of many of the world’s religious beliefs. The aspiration of Angawi to reflect this historic principle in his life and work is important. It has made him a leader in building bridges between the Middle East and the rest of the world. “More balance can be achieved through respect for the past,” Angawi says. “In our Al Makkiyah mansion, modernity and tradition, privacy and openness, stability and dynamism are equally represented to generate harmony.”

Hijazi culture influences the modern world

Dr. Sami Angawi shows guests the expansive inner courtyard of Al Makkiyah.

Dr. Sami Angawi leads guests through the expansive inner courtyard of Al Makkiyah.

Angawi is the founder of the renowned Hajj Research Center in Mecca and also the Amar Center for Architectural Heritage. He has dedicated his life to preserving the history and architecture of Islam’s holy cities of Mecca and Medina; encouraging dialogue about Islam and cross-cultural collaboration and understanding between institutions and universities worldwide.

Angawi’s Hijaz ancestry can be traced back to the Mecca region along the central Red Sea coast. It is his lineage, dating back to the time of the Prophet Mohammed, that has formed his religious thought. “The Hijaz,” he says, “is the site of Islam’s holy places and the melting pot of the Muslim world. Millions of pilgrims from all over the world have traveled  annually for centuries to the region, enriching it with their traditions and ideas.”

Respect and compassion

Angawi believes that respect, solidarity and compassion are human values and inspiring principles for every culture and all faiths. “Being aware of these intrinsic similarities and stressing them is the only antidote to fear, bigotry and ignorance.”

In a 2011 interview with Arab News, Angawi said, “Al Makkiah represents a seed. I wish that one day we could have thousands Al Makkiyahs and establish a ‘United Nations of people,’ regardless of their race, color or beliefs.”

When Arab News challenged his concept as being Utopian, Angawi said he finds inspiration in water. “It is a powerful element, stronger than rocks, steel and diamonds. If it doesn’t reach the sea, water changes its status and comes back in other forms to achieve the goal.”

Al Makkiyah/Al Mediniyah Institute

Dr. Sami Angawi is now gathering an international board of intellectuals, activists and businessmen to create his legacy–an international institute offering degrees in Islamic history and science, the Al Makkiyah / Al Mediniyah Institute will provide courses in Islamic history, architecture and science.

The institute at Al Makkiyah will house Angawi’s more than 100 thousand photographs, drawings and writings about Islam and the two holy cities Mecca and Medina. The school will be a collaborative educational experience, providing American, Canadian and European students the opportunity to research Islam on location in the Hijaz–right where the faith has advanced over the past 1400 years.

Here’s a short video describing the Al Makkiyah mansion:

Sources: Arab News, wikipedia.com, Saudi Airlines, CNN, History of Architecture, BBC, Harun Yahya TV

August 25, 2013 Posted by | Archeology, Human Rights, Jeddah History, Music, Religious architecture, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments