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
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…
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.
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”.
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.”
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 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.”
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
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.
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.”
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.
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
Brief Korean War history
The Korean War (1950 to 1953) was a war between North and South Korea, in which a United Nations force led by the United States was fighting alongside the South, and China, assisted by the Soviet Union, was fighting alongside the North. The war arose from the division of Korea at the end of World War II and from the global tensions of the Cold War that developed immediately afterwards.
The Korean Armistice Agreement is the treaty which ended hostilities between North Korea and South Korea. It was signed by U.S. Army Lieutenant General William Harrison, Jr. representing the United Nations Command (UNC), North Korean General Nam Il representing the North Korean People’s Army, and the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army. The armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, and was designed to “insure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.” So far, no “final peaceful settlement” has been achieved.
During the three years of war, South Korea had suffered 217,000 military casualties and more than 1 million citizens had died. North Korea had suffered 406,000 military casualties and an estimated 600,000 of its citizens had been killed. According to the US Department of Defense, more than 30,000 US troops died and another 103,284 were wounded. Thousands of troops are still classified as POWs or MIAs.
If we could push a button and end war on planet Earth we would no doubt do it. Such statistics as mentioned above are grim reminders that war is never a good response to disagreements and conflicts. We must find far better ways to negotiate a just and lasting peace.
Visiting the Demilitarized Zone
At the end of the World Peace Summit in Seoul, my colleagues, Dr. Sadig Malki from Saudi Arabia, and Bernard van Maele from Belgium, and I grabbed a taxi from in front of the Seoul Renaissance Hotel and took off for the Korean Dimilitarized Zone (DMZ) some 50 kilometers to the north. It is 250 kilometres (160 miles) long, approximately 4 km (2.5 mi) wide.
The name “Demilitarized Zone” is actually an oxymoron. It is in reality one of the most heavily militarized strips of land in the world. Occasional skirmishes and shelling still take place.
The DMZ cuts the Korean Peninsula roughly in half, crossing the 38th parallel on an angle, with the west end of the DMZ lying south of the parallel and the east end lying north of it. It was created as part of the Korean Armistice Agreement between North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, and the United Nations Command forces in 1953.
Our taxi attempted to drive directly to the Dora Observatory, but UN forces waved us away. We were told we had to go to a nearby location and transfer to a tour bus. The Dora Observatory is a large outpost overlooking the DMZ and North Korea. From the observatory, visitors can get an excellent view of the DMZ and North Korean towns and the mountains that lay beyond. This observation post was first opened to the public in January 1987.
Hundreds of South Koreans crowded around telescopes as they sought to get a glimpse of life in North Korea. Looking through a telescope, I didn’t see any sign of movement or life. I didn’t see any people walking around or any traffic on the streets.
It reminded me of my first visit to Berlin, Germany, in 1967. I was just 18 years old. I had walked along the Berlin Wall. On one side of the wall I saw the bustling businesses and tall skyscrapers of West Berlin. On the East Berlin communist side there was little evidence of economic growth or activity. It was as though I was peering into a time warp. Many buildings still lay in ruins from World War II.
DMZ invasion tunnels
At our first stop, Bernard, Sadig and I walked through a DMZ museum where we learned about the possibility of visiting a network of tunnels that had been dug by the North Korean military. We were told they are “invasion tunnels” that were meant to send infiltrating forces into South Korea.
According to one declassified intelligence report I read, it is believed that North Korea began digging the tunnels after then president Kim Il-sung issued the September 25, 1971, Combat Readiness Order. In that directive, Kim stressed the need to dig tunnels under the Demilitarized Zone, saying that “one tunnel would be more effective than 10 atomic bombs” and would thus be the best means of overwhelming the heavily fortified South Korean army.
Tunnel One was discovered in November 1974 in the Western Sector of the DMZ near Gorang-po. At an estimated length of 3.5 kilometers, it extends one kilometer south of the Military Demarcation Line that divides the DMZ. The walls and ceiling of the tunnel, 1.2 meters high and nearly a meter wide, are reinforced with concrete slabs. It has the capacity to move an entire regiment through it. The tunnel was lit with lamps connected to 220-volt power lines. Equipped with a narrow-gauge railway, rail cars and drainage devices were also found inside. This tunnel is located only 65 kilometers north of South Korea’s capital Seoul.
Twice as wide as Tunnel One, Tunnel Two was discovered in March 1975 in the Central Sector of the DMZ, about 13 kilometers north of the town of Cheorwon. Measuring two meters high and just over 2 meters wide, the arch-shaped tunnel is large enough to move heavy weapons like tanks, field artillery, and armored personnel carriers. More than 30,000 troops per hour could be moved through the tunnel into the South. It was bored through 3.5 kilometers of bedrock at a depth of 50-160 meters below ground. A spacious troop assembly area was carved out inside the tunnel. There were three exits from the assembly area leading to the surface.
Tunnel Four, which is located along one of the most strategic routes in the Eastern Sector, was discovered in March 1990 only 26 kilometers northeast of Yanggu. This tunnel is buried at an average depth of 145 meters below ground and measures two meters high and two meters wide.
Almost identical with Tunnel Two and Tunnel Three in size and structure, Tunnel Four goes just over 1 kilometer south of the Military Demarcation Line and is designed to infiltrate massive forces into the Sohwa-Wontong corridor, the major access route to the Yeongdong Expressway.
Down, down we go
Donning hard hats to prevent head injuries from hanging rocks, we boarded a small passenger tram, travelling some two kilometers and far beneath the surface into Tunnel 2. The tram had been built by South Korea to provide its citizens with a vivid account of the invasion tunnels that threatened the South.
The South Korean Defense Ministry still officially looks for tunnels as it believes there may be as many as 20 of these military corridors, but we are told the budget is small and tunnel hunters believe it is merely a token effort. As we move deeper beneath the DMZ a speaker system explains that North Korea has said the tunnels were not for invasion, but part of its “mining industry.”
North Korea officially declared Tunnel Two to be a coal mine. Comically black “coal” was painted on the walls by retreating North Korean soldiers to help prove this. There is no geological likelihood of coal being in the area, we’re told. “The walls are noticeably granite,” we’re told. “It is highly unlikely that coal would ever be found in such geological conditions.”
My great adventure—Tunnel Four!
We eventually surfaced from that tunnel, and I thought I was following Sadig and Bernard into an access channel leading to the much longer Tunnel Four.
Wondering how they had gotten so far ahead of me, I kept moving down the steep grade. There was no tram to ride in Tunnel Four. I kept on moving down, down the steep incline into the ground, walking about 2 kilometers. All the time I’m thinking, “Good grief! I’ll never make it back up this tunnel!”
Towards the end, I realized Bernard and Sadig were not ahead of me, and I was alone in this man-made cavern. I also realized there was no easy way out–not tram or elevator could be found. There I was some 120 meters beneath the middle of the DMZ! I eventually found myself peering through a hole in a door. There was a sign “Restricted Area!” That door, I was told later, led directly into North Korea!
I began walking back in the opposite direction, and after about 30 minutes I finally found my way back to that steep passage way leading to the exit. As I began moving slowly back up the steep two-kilometer incline, I heard a message blaring over the PA system: “Meester Sam. If you in tunnel back to bus! Go fast please! Bus leaving!”
I began running up that corridor, huffing and puffing and stopping now and then to lean on the rail to catch my breath. What a tremendous workout! I was wondering how many older men like me had died of heart-attacks alone down there!
When I finally made it out I was soaking wet from sweat. I practically crawled into the bus. Bernard and Sadig were relieved to see me while another 30 Korean tourists seemed a bit annoyed with an American who was holding up the bus. I apologized to all, bowing profusely. They in turn smiled kindly as Koreans do. And I thought to myself, “What an incredible adventure!”
DMZ–a wildlife refuge
Despite the posturing and the insults hurled across this narrow strip of land, the DMZ has become a haven for wildlife and plants in the region. “It’s kind of the irony of war,” said Hall Healy, chairman of the board of the International Crane Foundation, which has worked with researchers and locals near the DMZ on red-crowned crane conservation.
Species that have dwindled or disappeared in some parts of Asia have found refuge in the DMZ. Sightings of rare birds, such as red-crowned cranes and white-naped cranes, are not unusual. Black bears, musk deer, and Amur gorals—a goat relative that lives in the mountains—also inhabit this heavily fortified area.
No videoing of the invasion tunnels is permitted, and in places no photos are permitted. I did find the following short video of one of the invasion tunnels on YouTube. It accurately portrays what we saw:
Sources: History Magazine, wikipedia.org, Republic of South Korea Ministry of Tourism, US Department of Defense, historylearningsite.co.uk, korea.net
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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….”
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:
Time with my family
It was a welcomed relief for me from the hot humidity of the Red Sea city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Our time together was wonderful, as we had not seen each other in more than a year. We enjoyed outings in the national park and visiting with family members in Košice and Poprad.
“Kenny” (our Schnauzer), Janulik and I enjoyed throwing the frisbee in the backyard of the bed-and-breakfast lodging. Kenny is absolutely wild about chasing a frisbee. He never got tired of chasing his flying disc. Just mention the word, and he goes into a frenzy. He was constantly begging for his red frisbee, which he wore out while I was in Slovakia. He would sit beneath the rack holding the frisbee, whimpering and begging for it.
I have read that chasing and catching frisbees is an exciting and physically demanding activity that “tests a dog’s intelligence, fitness and endurance.” It is apparently a natural extension of a dog’s “prey drive,” and many hunting and working dogs, like Schnauzers, pick up the sport with very little effort. “Kenny” is one of them.
In additiona, “Kenny” is a great companion for Janulik. He faithfully walks Janulik four times everyday!
A lot of changes!
Spišská Sobota and the nearby city of Poprad have changed so much since I was first here as a teenager in 1968. The dark days of totalitarian communism have given way to bustling commercial centers of shopping malls, restaurants and hype-supermarkets. The old, gray, cold hotels and buildings are now painted vibrant, cheerful colors. Historic villages and castles are now busy with tourists wandering about. By night the streets are brightly lit with flashing LED signage.
Some changes here have been rather shocking–like the price of gasoline. It costs over 100 euros (US $126) to say “Fill ‘er up!” Cars are driven as infrequently as possible. While the rise in salaries here in Slovakia has slowly increased, the overall cost of living has mushroomed. But there is one bargain still available to tourists, if you have the right connections. We found a modern, well-equipped bed-and-breakfast for just $10.00 a night!
Our favorite time everyday, was to walk through this historic village where the bed-and-breakfast was located–Spišská Sobota. Especially, around dinner time!
There are a lot of not-too-expensive, excellent cafes and restaurants. You can have a nice meal in one place, and easily walk across the street to a bakery or coffee shop for a great dessert.
My favorite dessert, as my family knows, is makovnik. It’s a large rolled pastry filled with a sweet poppy seed mixture. My father-in-law, Miloslav, presented me with two very large makovniks while I was there!
The Slovak King of Madagascar
As we were walking down the main street of the ancient town of Spišská Sobota I noticed a historic marker on one of the old houses. It read “Home of Zuzana Benyovska, wife of Count Maurice Benyovsky.” The dates pointed to the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that then included Slovakia.
Loving history, I began to wonder, who was this married couple? As I began to ask questions, it didn’t take long to get my answer, as my Slovak family and friends were very proud to tell the story.
Count Maurice Benyovsky was considered a great representative of the period known as the Age of Enlightenment. He was a leading figure during the development of transportation and world trade. He was an explorer of unknown regions, and a “Slovak-French colonel.” He would be known as the “King of Madagascar” and the first Slovak author of a best-selling travelogue, having been involved in the history of various nations.
After being captured while fighting for the independence of Poland, Benyovsky was deported by the Russians to the Siberian region of Kamchatka. There he organized his escape, commandeering a Russian sailing vessel. His voyage would take him to Macao. His was the first known voyage from the northeast to the southeast shores of Asia.
The King of France would eventually entrust him with an expedition to Madagascar, where he made friendships with the various warlords, uniting a major part of the island. Benyovsky, beloved by the local tribes, was conferred affectionately with the title of “king.”
Upon his return to France, he attempted to build a fleet of ships for overseas trade, but business was not his gift. Having failed at commerce, this man of adventure and travel never gave up.
While in France he had developed a close friendship with the US Ambassador Benjamin Franklin who in turn introduced Benyovsky to US General George Washington. Benyovsky became a general himself in the American revolutionary army. He fought in major sea battles during the American war for independence. In 1796 he would be killed in battle alongside the French. His travel memoirs were published in London in 1790.
Benovsky’s wife Zuzana later, with the assistance of Benjamin Franklin, returned to her home in Spišská Sobota.
Slovak cuisine and the “miracle suit”
Slovakia is known for its excellent cuisine. Svíečková with potato dumplings (knedliky) is a one of my favorite Slovak dishes and one of the most popular Slovak meals. It is sirloin beef prepared with vegetables, spiced with black pepper, allspice, bay leaf and thyme and boiled with thick double cream. Pour that over the knedlíky, and you have a scrumptious meal fit for a king!
Being in Slovakia for just a couple of weeks, and knowing time was of the essence, I tended to eat as much as I could! But then, all of this delicious food presented a big problem. My business suit “shrank”!
Seeing I was having difficulty buttoning my suit, my wonderful Jana insisted on helping me find a new suit. We looked all over the nearby city of Poprad, going from one shopping mall to another, in and out of men’s apparel shops. Nothing fit me properly. Top too small. Pants too long. And there was no time for alterations. I told Jana, “It’s impossible to find a nice suit in Slovakia. Just forget it.”
But Jana never gave up. I got a phone call from her one morning. She was so excited. “You have to come try on this suit! It has your name on it! And it’s 50% off!”
She picked me up, and we were off to the Prior department store. That suit did, indeed, have my name on it! It bore the factory tag marked “Samuel.” Apparently this Slovak clothing factory assigns a name to every suit they make.
And, of course, when I tried it on that suit was a perfect fit!
Goodbyes are always difficult. Jana and Janulik work and live in Slovakia. I am working in Saudi Arabia. It isn’t the best arrangement, but I hope to return to Slovakia in just 4 months. We spend time together, almost daily, on Skype and via the internet, sharing the latest news and asking questions. I hope to never be away so long from Slovakia again.
Jana, Janulik and “Kenny”!
The memories of you
Are engraved within my heart.
Nothing in this world
Can ever tear us apart! ~ Daddy
Here’s a great, short video showing the beauty and splendor of the Slovak Republic–a little nation of great faith, history and castles, high mountains, culture and very hospitable people. Take a few minutes to watch it!
Sources: BBC History Magazine, wikipedia.org, historyorb.com, slovakiopedia.com, youtube.com, discdogg.com
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
I accepted the ice bucket challenge on behalf of my 14-year-old friend Andrew Stevens who lives with his parents Angelo and Nancy Stevens in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The event was staged in the historic Al Balad district of downtown Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
It was more than 100 degrees and humid in Jeddah at the time, so the ice and cold water were actually a welcomed relief!
Andrew lives with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS), a severe form of epilepsy. LGS, also known as Lennox syndrome, is a difficult-to-treat form of childhood-onset epilepsy that most often appears between the second and sixth year of life, and is characterized by frequent seizures and different seizure types. LGS is often accompanied by developmental delay and psychological and behavioral problems.
Andrew made history in 2011 when he was finally allowed entrance to his Northern Virginia school accompanied by his service dog “Alaya.” While the Epilepsy Foundation of Virginia applauded the school board for allowing Andrew into school, it released a statement saying, “We continue to urge the school system to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.” Apparently many schools do not.
Andrew’s story has been featured at avarious times on NBC News, the TODAY Show and in the Washington Post.
Contributions to assist families living with LGS and other forms of epilepsy can be made online to the Epilepsy Foundation of Virginia. Your generous help will be greatly appreciated.
God bless you, Andrew! We love you and pray for you! Thank you for all the good work you do for men, women and children living with epilepsy!
(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
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
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
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.”
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
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.
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
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
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