During September and October 2016, an MVPR peace mission team traveled from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to Washington, DC and Annapolis, Maryland and then on to Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Beaverton (Oregon) and Seattle. We met with churches and Christian groups and visited mosques, providing information about MVPR’s peacemaking efforts. Here is a short video produced by videographer Kienan Mamoun who accompanied our team.
Refugee Crisis and European Response
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
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
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
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
MVPR announced in Washington, DC
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.
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 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
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
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
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, 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 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 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
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
The King Abdullah Interfaith Center, 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.
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