Thursday, 21 November 2019

China's Muslim Concentration Camps Paint a Bleak Picture of the Future Awaiting the Hong Kong Protestors

What started in June as a series of peaceful demonstrations against Beijing’s growing exertion of its rule over Hong Kong has devolved into escalated violence between protestors and the territory’s police force.

The chants in favour of democracy and opposition to the Chinese Communist Party have now been replaced by violent confrontations, culminating with the police shooting and killing an unarmed protestor at point blank range on Monday.

The protestors’ core five demands, known as “Five Demands and Not One Less”, have remained the same since the protests began. But, until now, only one of them has been met – the withdrawal of an extradition bill which would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent to China for trial. The other four include the establishment of an independent commission to investigate allegations of police brutality and misconduct; the retraction of riot charges against arrested and detained protestors; and the implementation of full democratic rights for all citizens.

In other words, the citizens of Hong Kong are demanding less of Beijing’s rule and influence and more democracy. While there’s little doubt a great many of the territory’s citizens and residents have grown tired of disruptions caused by the protests – with some questioning the means and methods deployed by some of the protestors – it is also true that an overwhelming majority of the island is grateful that these protests resulted in the withdrawal of the extradition bill.

There’s also no denying that these pro-democracy and anti-Beijing protestors rightfully and understandably believe that they are fighting for their lives and the future of their families. In almost every conversation I’ve had with those attaching themselves to the Anti Extradition Bill movement, the words “Xinjiang” and “Tibet” have come up.

In particular, Xinjiang’s Muslim concentration camps loom large in the minds of those who live within touching distance of China.

In a revelatory article for The Atlantic, Zeynep Tufekci shared a summary of conversations he held with protestors on the streets of Hong Kong this week. “They talked about Xinjiang and what China had done to the Uighur minority,” he wrote. “I’ve heard about the fate of the Uighurs from so many protestors over the months. China many have wanted to make an example out of the region, but the lesson Hong Kongers took was in the other direction – resist with all your might, because if you lose once, there will be a catastrophe for your people, and the world will ignore it.”

Protestors in Hong Kong have also familiarised themselves with recent revelations regarding the depraved level of mass rape, torture, executions and other forms of physical and psychological abuse meted out by Chinese authorities to the Uighur minority in an systematic effort to eliminate their culture and indoctrinate them into vigorously adhering to the Communist Party’s ideology.

When the Washington Post published a Uighur woman’s harrowing ordeal in a Chinese concentration camp last month, it went viral in Hong Kong, particularly among the protestors. It told of how 2,500 prisoners, ranging in age from 13 to 84, were subjected to the brutality of the Chinese state. “They would punish inmates for everything,” Sayragul Sauytbay told an interpreter. “Anyone who didn’t follow the rules was punished. Those who didn’t learn Chinese properly or who didn’t sing the songs was also punished.”

Her accounts regarding the pack rape of both men and women not only drew attention in Hong Kong, but also globally. She told Haaretz: “While they were raping her they checked to see how we were reacting. People who turned their head or closed their eyes, and those who looked angry or shocked, were taken away and we never saw them again.”

Uighur activists have now documented nearly 500 Muslim concentration camps in Xinjiang, with Randall Schriver, the top Pentagon official for Asia, estimating that the total number of detainees is “likely closer to three million citizens” or roughly 25% of the total Uighur population.

“If we lose, Hong Kong will become Xinjiang,” Jackool, a 30 year-old theatre technician and protestor, told AFP in September.

There’s little doubt that if, or when, Beijing sinks the full weight of its gigantic force into Hong Kong, the present reality of Muslims in Xinjiang is the future that awaits pro-democracy activists on the island territory.

The Chinese Communist Party views Islam as a cancer that has the potential to threaten or disrupt its economic imperatives in the north-west of the country, which is also how Beijing views democracy in Hong Kong – an ideological threat that has to be eliminated at some point or another.

Xiao Qiang, director of the Counter-Power Lab at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Information, has said that the party views Xinjiang as its “frontline” testing ground for data-driven surveillance measures, which allow authorities to track the every movement of every Uighur every second of the day via GPS tracking devices, facial recognition cameras and DNA databases.

“China’s goal is to use these technologies to suppress dissent and to predict and snuff out any challenge to the ruling Communist Party’s grip on power,” observes The Washington Post.

While it’s patently obvious that protestors in Hong Kong are immediately focused on pressuring the Government into implementing democratic reforms, there is also little doubt of the mobilising affect China’s Muslim concentration camps are having on the territory’s eight million citizens.


Monday, 18 November 2019

India’s massive, scary new detention camps, explained

What would you do if the country you were born in, or the country you’ve lived in for decades, suddenly announced you had to prove your citizenship or else face detention and deportation?

This is the situation nearly 2 million people — most of them Muslims, some of them Hindus of Bengali origin — now find themselves in, because their names do not appear on India’s National Register of Citizens (NRC).

That citizenship list, published last month, is part of the government’s effort to identify and weed out what it claims are illegal immigrants in the northeastern state of Assam. India says many Muslims whose families originally came from neighboring Bangladesh are not rightful citizens, even though they’ve lived in Assam for decades.

If you live in Assam and your name does not appear on the NRC, the burden of proof is on you to prove that you’re a citizen. The obvious move would be to dig out your birth certificate or land deed, but many rural residents don’t have paperwork. Even among those who do, many can’t read it; a quarter of the population in Assam state is illiterate.

You do get the chance to appeal to a Foreigners’ Tribunal. If they don’t buy your claim to citizenship, you can appeal to the High Court of Assam or even the Supreme Court. But if all that fails, you can be sent to one of the 10 mass detention camps the government plans to build, complete with boundary walls and watchtowers.

The first camp, currently under construction, is the size of seven football fields. Even nursing mothers and children will be held there. “Children lodged in detention centers are to be provided educational facilities in nearby local schools,” an Indian official said.

The government has indicated that it plans to extend the NRC process to the whole country. With so many people facing the threat of detention and, ultimately, deportation from the world’s largest democracy, the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom are all warning that this could soon turn into a humanitarian crisis of horrifying proportions.

If the detainees in the camps end up being expelled from India — and that is the government’s plan — this could constitute a wave of forced migration even greater than that triggered by Myanmar in 2017, when hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims were displaced. And in terms of the population detained, it may outstrip the number of people in China’s mass internment system, where an estimated 1 million Uighur Muslims are held.

So far, this looming crisis hasn’t gotten much mainstream attention. Before it escalates into a humanitarian catastrophe affecting millions, it’s important to understand exactly why this is happening.

To understand the roots of India’s plan for a massive detention system, we need to go back to the 19th century, when the British set up big tea plantations in Assam. Labor was in high demand and many people from Bengal, Nepal, and elsewhere were brought in to provide it. The local Assamese began to grow anxious about the loss of their culture in the face of shifting demographics.

Then, in 1947, the subcontinent was partitioned. As India and Pakistan were born amid bloodshed, many families rushed into what was newly becoming India — including many Muslims. The native Assamese increasingly resented the newcomers, who were, in their view, taking too many professional jobs and economic opportunities. And another wave of migration was soon to come.

In 1971, the territory that was then East Pakistan gained independence and became Bangladesh. Prompted by the bloody independence war, millions of Muslims fled Bangladesh for India, and many of them remained in Assam.

Simmering tensions boiled over into a massacre of Bengali Muslims in 1983; more than 1,800 were slaughtered. Although a peace accord was signed in 1985, it came at a cost: It included a commitment to create a method to identify people who came in after 1971. They and their descendants would all be considered citizens of Bangladesh, not India.

Plans were devised for a citizenship list, but it turns out sorting through millions of people’s paperwork is complicated, and no government was able to see the process through. But the rise of Hindu nationalism over the past several years — and a concomitant rise in anti-Muslim sentiment — added the pressure needed to make it happen. In 2013, India’s Supreme Court ordered that Assam publish an up-to-date NRC.

In 2018, the state government finally published a draft of the NRC. Four million people discovered they were not on it — including some high-profile Hindus of Bengali origin. Two lawmakers from Assam’s leading minority party, Maulana Badruddin Ajmal and Radheshyam Biswas, were left off the list.

After lots of public outcry and months of appeals, some people managed to get their names onto the NRC. Last month, the final draft was published, this time excluding 1.9 million names — mostly Bengali Muslims.

It’s impossible to know how many of them have been left off the list erroneously. But experts say plenty of them are probably rightful citizens who simply don’t have the documents to prove their status, not least because birth dates are a matter of guesswork in much of rural India and decades-old paperwork can be misspelled and hard to come by.

What’s more, some Muslims are noting how arbitrary the NRC’s determinations seem, and several are reportedly committing suicide because of the anxiety they feel over the citizenship list. As the New York Times reported:

Noor Begum, who lived in a small hamlet in a flood-soaked district, spiraled into depression after finding out that she and her mother had been excluded from the citizenship lists. Her father and seven siblings had made it.

It didn’t make any sense to the family: Why, if they all lived together and were born in the same place, would some be considered Indian while others illegal foreigners?

“Of course she was Indian,” said her father, Abdul Kalam, a retired laborer. “She used to sing Indian national songs at school. She felt very Indian.”

On a bright morning in June, Noor hanged herself from a rafter. She was 14.

“As human rights experts, we are right now saying this process has been arbitrary and discriminatory,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told me. She noted there are concerns that the Foreigners’ Tribunals may well go easier on Hindus than on Muslims who appeal their citizenship determination. Some lawmakers are pushing a Citizenship Amendment Bill, which would carve out exceptions for immigrant Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians — but not Muslims — left off the NRC.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi champions a hardline brand of Hindu nationalism known as Hindutva, which aims to define Indian culture in terms of Hindu history and values and which promotes an exclusionary attitude toward Muslims. UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet recently expressed concerns over “increasing harassment and targeting of minorities — in particular, Muslims.”

Under Modi, vigilante Hindus have increasingly perpetrated hate crimes against Muslims, sometimes in an effort to scare their communities into moving away, other times in an effort to punish them for selling beef (cows are considered sacred in Hinduism). And last month, Modi erased the statehood of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, which had previously enjoyed considerable autonomy over its own affairs.

Muslims form approximately 14 percent of the national population and more than twice that in Assam state. In the 2019 Indian election, one of Modi’s central campaign promises was that he’d get the NRC in shape and deal with the Muslim migrants in Assam once and for all. Other members of his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have used dehumanizing language to describe the Muslims there.

“These infiltrators are eating away at our country like termites,” BJP president and home minister Amit Shah said at an April rally. “The NRC is our means of removing them.” Shah has openly said the goal is to deport those deemed illegal immigrants.

“This is a populist way of doing things,” Ganguly told me. “It’s very similar to what you’re hearing in the US: ‘These people come and take away our jobs, our country doesn’t look like it’s ours anymore.’ It’s a narrative that often appeals to people facing challenges in securing jobs and supporting their families.”

Bangladesh for its part says it won’t accept the newly stateless people. As the foreign minister put it, “We are already in much difficulty with the [Rohingya refugees], so we can’t take anymore.”

So where will all these human beings go if they’re deported? Nobody knows.

To make matters worse, the BJP has said it plans to extend the NRC process across all of India. If that happens, we could be looking at the biggest refugee crisis on the planet. Already, the past few years have seen a movement of refugees around the world on a scale not seen since World War II.


Thursday, 14 November 2019

‘It shut all my doors’: how a Quebec law banning religious symbols derails women’s careers

Nour Farhat always dreamed of becoming a Crown prosecutor.

At 28, she is a newly minted lawyer with a master’s specialization in criminal law.

As a young woman of colour, her presence in Quebec courtrooms caught the attention of judges, other attorneys, even defendants – all of whom, she said, were happy to catch a glimpse of a rare non-white lawyer.

“In Montreal, they say that a third of people come from somewhere else, and you really see it in court. There’s a lot of black people, Arab people, Hispanics, and they were so happy to see me,” she said. After a year articling with the Quebec vehicle licensing bureau Farhat was hopeful for the future.

But the Quebec government dashed those dreams in June when it passed Bill 21, a controversial secularism law prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols by certain public-sector employees. Farhat wears a hijab, a non-negotiable item of clothing and expression of her Muslim faith.

“It really shut all my doors,” Farhat said of the law. “Five months ago I would have told you ‘I’m a future Crown attorney.’ I was so sure of my path. And now I’m like, OK maybe I’ll become an expert in insurance law?”

Farhat is just one of thousands of people whose careers have been derailed by Bill 21, which was rammed into law at 4am on a Sunday in June, after 16 hours of debate. She is watching closely as mounting legal challenges take on the discriminatory and possibly unconstitutional law.

The latest was filed last month by one of the province’s biggest school boards. Another challenge, also launched on a teacher’s behalf, is due back in court at the end of November. The law disproportionately affects the province’s education sector, where 74.5% of teachers are women.

 The law doesn’t touch [most Quebecers] one bit, but for me, it has disastrous consequences on my whole life

Bill 21 came after a protracted debate in Quebec over minorities’ rights to religious accommodations. The law prohibits people in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols at work, including police officers, lawyers, judges and teachers. Other public workers such as bus drivers, doctors and social workers must only keep their faces uncovered.

To further complicate matters, some established workers have been grandfathered into an exception clause that allows them to keep their religious garments and their jobs – as long as they don’t get promoted, switch to a different employer or move to another city.

The legislation doesn’t name specific religious symbols, and theoretically all symbols – kippahs, turbans, crosses – are equally prohibited. However, because the law specifically mentions face coverings, and because of longstanding and effervescent anti-Islam sentiment in the province, many Québécois agree the main targets are Muslim women.

The bill was passed against a backdrop of growing anti-Muslim violence in the province. In 2017, six Muslims were killed and 19 were injured in a Quebec City mosque shooting. In Montreal, police figures show 58% of hate crimes in 2018 involved Muslim victims. Muslims represent about 3% of the province’s population.

Since publishing an open letter against Bill 21 last April, Farhat routinely receives Islamophobic screeds by defenders of the legislation. But she is determined not to be silenced. “I have a voice. I will use it, especially when my own government doesn’t want me to,” she said.

Amrit Kaur, the vice-president of the World Sikh Organization, receives her share of hate mail, too. The 28-year-old recent graduate is a vocal opponent of Bill 21: she would have been a Quebec schoolteacher this year had she been allowed to continue wearing her turban.

Instead, Kaur reluctantly packed up her things and moved across the country to Vancouver BC, to accept a teaching position. “I had no choice. I think at this point in my life, I need job security,” she said.

Kaur argued that the law reflects a profound lack of understanding about religions like Islam and Sikhism.

“Keeping your faith hidden is very much a Protestant way of doing things,” Kaur said. “You need to understand that my faith, and the way I practice, doesn’t work like that. And you don’t have to be OK with it. You just have to accept that I have that right to live my life the way I want to live my life.”

Although not all Sikh women – or men – wear turbans, Kaur says that it was her personal choice to do so. “I had pressure from people saying, ‘Don’t try it, people are going to racist towards you.’ But I’m going to live my truth.”

Among the province’s chief justifications for the law is that it improves gender equality by freeing women from the constraints of oppressive religions. Critics say it targets women from religious and ethnic minorities who are already well-integrated into society, and damages their ability to earn a living and gain economic independence.

“Muslim women with government jobs – you don’t get more integrated than that. They speak French unless they’re teaching at an English school, they’re part of a union. They’re complying with all the rules and regulations,” said Robert Leckey, the dean of McGill University’s law faculty, who also suggested that those affected could demand compensation in court.

For someone like Farhat, who is just starting her career, the damages are near incalculable. She regularly questions whether she can stay and raise a future family at home in Montreal. “The law doesn’t touch [most Québécois] one bit, but for me, it has disastrous consequences on my whole life,” she said.


Monday, 11 November 2019

Why white supremacists and Hindu nationalists are so alike

Over the last few years, especially after Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 US presidential election, we have been witnessing the normalisation, and rise, of a white-supremacist, ultranationalist brand of right-wing politics across Europe and the United States. While the shift towards extreme right alarmed many across the world, far-right ideologues of the Trumpian era swiftly found support in a seemingly unlikely place: India.

Many members of the so-called "alt-right" - a loosely knit coalition of populists, white supremacists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis - turned to India to find historic and current justifications for their racist, xenophobic and divisive views. Using a specific, "white nationalist" brand of Orientalism, they projected their fantasies about a racially pure society onto the Indian culture and in response received a warm welcome from Hindu fundamentalists in India.

While an alliance between the Hindu far right and the Western alt-right may appear confounding on the surface, it actually has a long history, going all the way back to the construction of the Aryan race identity, one of the ideological roots of Nazism, in the early 20th century.

In the 1930s, German nationalists embraced the 19th-century theory that Europeans and the original Sanskrit speakers of India who had built the highly developed Sanskrit civilisation - which white supremacists wanted to claim as their own - come from a common Indo-European, or Aryan, ancestor. They subsequently built their racist ideology on the assumed superiority of this "pure" race.

Savitri Devi (born Maximiani Portas), a French-Greek thinker and mysticist who later became a spiritual icon of Nazism, helped popularise the idea that all civilisation had its roots in this Aryan "master race" in India. She travelled to India in the early 1930s to "discover the source of the Aryan culture" and converted to Hinduism while there.

She quickly integrated herself into India's burgeoning Hindu nationalist movement by promoting theories that support privileged caste Hindus' superiority over Christians, Muslims and unprivileged caste Hindus in the country. In 1940, she married Asit Krishna Mukherji, a Hindu nationalist and Indian supporter of Nazism who had praised the Third Reich's commitment to ethnonationalism, seeing commonalities between the goals of the Hitler Youth and the youth movement of Hindu nationalism, Rashtriya Sevak Sangh (RSS).

Devi worked as a spy for the Axis forces in India throughout World War II and left the country after the defeat of Nazi Germany using a British-Indian passport. In the post-war period, she became an ardent Holocaust denier and was one of the founding members of the World Union of National Socialists, a conglomeration of neo-Nazi and far-right organisations from around the world.

Devi still has a strong influence over the Hindu nationalist movement in India. Her 1939 booklet titled A Warning to the Hindus, in which she cautions Indian nationalists to embrace their Hindu identity and guard the country against "non-Aryan" influences, such as Islam and Christianity, is still widely read and highly regarded among Hindu nationalists. Perhaps not surprisingly, recently Devi and her theories have also been rediscovered by right-wing ideologues in the West and she is now considered an alt-right icon.

However, the current connection between far-right groups in the West and Hindu nationalists is limited neither to Devi's teachings nor the old myth of the Aryan race.

Today, the two groups share a common goal in eroding the secular character of their respective states and a common "enemy" in Muslim minorities. This is why they often act in coordination and openly support each other.

In the US, the Republican Hindu Coalition, a group with strong links to the Hindu nationalist movement in India, has been rallying behind President Donald Trump's controversial immigration policies, like the Muslim ban and the border wall. Trump's campaign strategist and prominent alt-right figurehead Steve Bannon once called India's Hindu-nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi "the Reagan of India".

Meanwhile, in India, a far-right Hindu nationalist group named Hindu Sena (Army of Hindus), which has been linked to a series of inter-communal incidents in India, has been throwing parties to mark Trump's birthday. The group's founder even claimed that "Trump is the only person who can save mankind."

In Canada, far-right Islamophobic organisations such as Rise Canada, which claims to "defend Canadian values" and combat "radical Islam", are popular among Hindu-nationalists. The group's logo even features a red maple leaf rising out of a lotus flower, which is often associated with Hinduism.

In Britain, the National Hindu Council of Temples (NHCTUK), a Hindu charity, recently caused controversy by inviting far-right Hindu nationalist Tapan Ghosh to speak at the parliament. Ghosh has previously suggested the UN should "control the birth rate of Muslims" and said all Muslims are "Jihadis". During his visit to the UK, Ghosh also attended celebrations of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, with cabinet ministers Amber Rudd and Priti Patel, and met the former neo-Nazi leader Tommy Robinson.

On top of their shared Islamophobia and disdain for secular state structures, the destructive actions, protests and aggravations of Hindu nationalists and the Western far right are also very much alike.

In November, the government of the state of Uttar Pradesh, which is led by the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), proposed to build a statue of the Hindu god Ram in Ayodhya, where the historic Babri Masjid was illegally demolished by Hindu nationalists in 1992. Only a month earlier, the same government pulled off a massive spectacle, having a helicopter drop off individuals dressed as Ram and Sita at the Babri Masjid site to mark the start of Diwali celebrations.

The sentiment behind these apparent attempts to intimidate Muslims and increase tensions between communities was in many ways similar to the far-right, white supremacist rally that shook Charlottesville in 2017. The neo-Nazis chanted "You will not replace us" as they marched through the streets of Charlottesville.

The far right in the US, Europe and Canada - emboldened by the electoral success of ultra-nationalist parties and individuals across the globe - aspire for a future in which secular protections are abandoned in favour of a system that favours the majority and protects the "white Christian identity" that they believe their nations were founded upon.

Likewise, Hindu nationalists in India, empowered by the BJP's landslide election victory in 2014, and inspired by European ethnonationalism and fascism, reject the constitutional secularism of the Indian state, propose that India is fundamentally a Hindu nation, and insist that minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, do not belong in a "Hindu country".

Ever since the start of the normalisation of far-right ideas in the West, a surge in racist, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic attacks was witnessed across the US and Europe.

The same happened in India after Hindutva officially became the governing ideology in the country. Over the past few years, countless Muslims, Christians and low-caste Hindus have been persecuted, assaulted and even killed for allegedly killing cows and many Muslims were targeted for allegedly participating in so-called "love jihad".

But despite all these similarities, there is major a difference between Hindu fundamentalism in India and far-right movements in the West: the liberal reaction to it.

While liberals and leftists quickly united against the rise of the far-right, they chose to largely ignore the rise of Hindu nationalism in the world's largest secular democracy. Especially after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, the necessity of expanding the anti-fascist praxis to include all forms of racism, from anti-Semitism to Islamophobia, was emphasised by many. However, the opposition to Hindu nationalism has not yet been made part of the broader movement, despite the well-documented suffering of India's minorities under BJP's rule.

Instead, the idea that India is a "Hindu nation" is being accepted as a given by the majority of liberals. The fact that India's constitution defines the state as "secular" is being ignored, and Hindu nationalism is being presented as a benevolent movement despite ample evidence to the contrary.

White vegans in the West, for example, rejoiced over the decision by several Indian states to ban the consumption of beef, without bothering to understand what these laws would mean for Muslims and Dalits who had already been suffering at the hands of so-called "cow vigilantes". Animal rights and veganism advocate PETA has in fact gone further and berated vegetarians who consume milk in India for "supporting the beef industry", thus playing into the communal politics of food in India.

Hindu nationalism and white supremacy are the two sides of the same coin. For the global movement against racism, white-supremacy and fascism to succeed, anti-fascists across the world need to acknowledge and stand up to the Hind nationalism threat.

Hindus themselves, both in India and abroad, also need to take action and raise their voices against the abuses that are being committed in their names. One such organisation already exists for diaspora Hindus in North America: Sadhana. It is a coalition of progressive Hindus based in New York City, seeks to stop the use of Hindu thought for the purposes of misogyny, queerphobia, Islamophobia and white supremacy.

However, Hindu nationalism cannot be defeated by Hindus alone. People around the world who engage with and comment on the Indian culture on a regular basis, including sub-urban Yoga mums in the US and vegan activists in Europe, should educate themselves on the secular nature and diverse identities of India. They need to join the resistance against the oppression and abuse of the country's minorities and stop perpetuating the Hindu-nationalist myth that India is a "Hindu nation".


Thursday, 7 November 2019

"My whole life is guilt": The former extremist who disavowed his bigotry and converted to Islam

Richard “Mac” McKinney was filled with anger after 25 years of military service. He felt like something had been taken from him after he was injured in Iraq in 2006.

“I wanted to die in combat,” he told Salon. “Because the thing is that in this country, no matter what you did in the past, you come back in a flag-draped coffin, all your sins are forgiven. You’re forever known as a hero.”

Since what he refers to as his “destiny” was gone, he developed a shocking and disturbing plan: start a war of his own. In his hometown of Muncie, Indiana, there was an Islamic Center. He says he decided to bomb it. His mindset at the time, he explained to Salon, was this: “You’re going to take my war away, I’ll have my own.”

Then one day, his seven-year-old daughter came home from school with a story. “She said this lady came up to pick up her son and she was dressed as a Muslim woman. Long robe, hijab . . . and she was telling me this because she knew [I] had been overseas and seen a lot of stuff and maybe [I] knew where she was from or something,” he said. “I went off. Started cussing . . .  I flipped out. I didn’t want my family around 'those people.' The infamous bigoted statement: 'those people'. And it was the look on her face. It’s like she was even wondering if she still loved me or not.”

He decided to visit the center — not to engage in violence, but to learn more — after that conversation with his daughter, which he describes as "a moment of clarity."

“And this guy in the shoe room, an African-American guy [who] used to be a pro basketball player back in the ‘70s,” McKinney said. “He says, ‘Can I help you?’ Because he knew I was totally lost. I said, ‘Yeah, I want you to teach me about Islam.’ He said, 'How long you got?’ I said, ‘I got about two hours.’ He goes, ‘We’ll give it a shot.’”

That began McKinney's journey to converting. Now he's Muslim and a former president of the Islamic Center he once wanted to attack. McKinney’s story appears on an episode of Josh Seftel’s webseries “The Secret Life of Muslims,” which was nominated for an Emmy in 2017.

Seftel told Salon McKinney's story “is the kind of story that I believed could reach a broader audience.” It ended up running on CBS Sunday Morning a week after the Christchurch mosque shooting in New Zealand.

“A week before they were going to run it, Christchurch happened, and I think there was a moment where it was, ‘Should we run this or not?’ But they felt like it, and we all felt like, it was so relevant,” Seftel told Salon. “And so it aired the week after Christchurch and got a huge reaction, huge response. Mostly positive.”

Salon sat down with McKinney at Original Thinkers to learn more about how this turnaround happened. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

I’d like to hear more from you about where you grew up and what led you to join the Marine Corps.

I grew up in Cincinnati. My parents were divorced, lived with my mom, and my grandparents. When I was 12, I actually moved with my dad because I had disciplinary problems. I went to school when I wanted to go to school and that kind of thing, and then I was with my dad and I ended up getting involved in drugs and stuff. When I turned 16, 17 years old, I ended up running away from home, and lived on the streets for a few months. Then I moved in with my aunt and uncle in Indiana, in Lawrence, Indiana, which is right outside Indianapolis. And long story short, I got expelled from high school for dealing drugs.

For dealing drugs?

It was ’85, ’86, you could still join the military with certain waivers. You just had to meet the criteria. I met the criteria, so — I lied, but I met the criteria — and that was it. I’m glad I did it, but I don’t understand how a person with a problem with authority, on their own, makes the decision and joins the Marine Corps. But I knew that I was either going to end up in prison or dead and I needed to get out of there.

What was your time in the Marine Corps like?

I joined the Marine Corps in 1986. I got out in ’93, so it was about seven and a half years. Got out after my second tour to Somalia. I decided that being 25 years old and already a three-time combat vet, I needed just do the civilian thing. So, I did.

Problem was that I was what was called a “grunt” that wasn't specially trained. I had a GED, which I got while I was in the Marine Corps, because I never graduated high school, but I didn’t have a trade. The trades I had, me and my buddies would sit around after missions a lot of times, we’d say, “Man, there’s only three things I can do in the civilian world. That’s be a drug dealer, a pimp or a hitman for the mob. I don’t know anything else.”  I don’t blame the military for that because I got the job I wanted [as a Marine] but that job just didn’t convert to the civilian world. I blame myself a lot for that.

I got out for two years, got a laboring job, and just had enough. I’d been through too much, seen too much, done too much, I walked off the job right into the Army recruiter’s office, “When does the bus leave?” And I joined the Army. I was in the Army for about six years, got out, went to the Reserves, decided, “OK, we can still be in the military, let’s try the civilian thing again. I’m a little older now, maybe a little more mature.”

Shortly after that crazy people decided to fly planes into buildings, so the rest of it was all active duty, which I was happy about. I ended up with 25 years of service total.  And I didn’t want to get out. I wanted to stay in, but because I was injured in Iraq, they medically retired me.

Then you arrive back in America. How do you then start plotting to attack an Islamic Center?

When I was forced to get out of the military, my hatred for Muslims increased.

When I talk about hatred, I try to get people to understand what that really means. It’s not like your son or daughter [saying] “I hate broccoli.”

The example I use in trying to define my hatred was when I was in Bosnia in ’04, I had my own interpreter. I was an operator with psyops unit. And one of the jobs that I get called to do would be giving radio interviews, PR stuff. I had my interpreter.

We came up with this little idea; we would hold hands during the interviews. She’d squeeze my hand when she wanted me to be quiet, and then she’d squeeze my hand when I could talk again. We took a lot of teasing for that. She was a younger girl, she was very pretty.

But the thing is that she was a Muslim.

Just because she was Muslim and came from a Muslim family, my friends would ask me, “Man, you like [her], right?” “You know what, I do man, she’s been good to us bro, she really has.”

[What I thought, though, was] I’d make sure she goes quick, but she still got to go because she’s Muslim. So when you can talk about your hatred being so deep that you’re willing to take the life of someone you actually care about, that’s hate.

What changed in you?

Within eight weeks of me stepping foot in the Islamic center the first time, I became a Muslim.

And that, even me looking back now, I was like, “There’s no way. There’s no way.” Even if I didn’t hate them, eight weeks? Come on. Because this is totally different than anything I’d been brought up with.

I really never really considered myself a Christian, but as a kid I went to church camp, did Bible studies, played on church softball team. I was pretty well-versed in the whole Christian society thing.

There were two verses of the Koran that changed me.

And that was?

One was: “To kill a human being is to kill all humanity.” It’s like you kill all of humanity. So, if I was to kill this person over here, it’s like I wiped out that whole human race. But to save a human being is to save all of humanity. And that’s what started the change.

It’s unclear to me what happened with the FBI and how you were able to move through that.

Still be here and not locked up somewhere?


With the FBI, it was actually after I had already disposed of everything. Didn’t need it anymore. I’m a Muslim, I don’t need the stuff. I’m not going to hurt anybody anymore. I have no desire to hurt anybody. I just want to go up and hug everybody. I didn’t have anything. But I started telling my story to people, because I thought it was a story that needed to be told. And I think my story might help people a little bit.

The FBI showed up and we talked. I didn’t hold anything back. Told them exactly what it was and exactly what I’m doing now. I explained things to them and I told them what I was doing now and I told them I’m here to make peace. Of course, the investigation went on. They had to do what they had to do. And of course, there’s no explosives to be found, there’s no evidence, so case kind of got closed.

So, you were sharing the story with your friends at the Islamic center?

I didn’t tell them anything until like six months after I became a Muslim.

What was it like, confronting everyone at the Islamic center when they realized what you had once been planning?

I was actually over at [a friend's house], having dinner with them and a bunch of other members.

I said, “I really have a confession to make to each and everyone of you. And I want to apologize in the same sense, or in the sense because I consider all of you family now.” And I told them. And it hurt me to say. I actually cried when I told them.

There were a few [members] that were skeptical.

As the word got out people started saying, “Oh, OK. Now he’s on the other side."

Did you feel guilt at any point?

I live with guilt. My whole life is guilt.

How do you believe people should — and this is a big question — be treating people who hold that hatred that you used to hold?

It’s become fashionable to hate.

We have to find a way to overcome that ignorance. And it’s the people who don’t live in that world anymore — or never did, or whatever — that need to lead that fight.


Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Muslims are well-integrated in Britain – but no one seems to believe it

In Britain today there is a mismatch between how non-Muslims often perceive Muslims and how Muslims typically perceive themselves. This disconnect is down to a tendency by non-Muslims to assume that Muslims struggle with their British identity and divided loyalties. These concerns were challenged a few days ago,in a report by the University of Essex that found Muslims actually identify with Britishness more than any other Britons.

This study is just one of several recent studies that have consistently found that Muslims in Britain express a stronger sense of belonging in Britain than their compatriots. Consider the following examples:

• 83% of Muslims are proud to be a British citizen, compared to 79% of the general public.

• 77% of Muslims strongly identify with Britain while only 50% of the wider population do.

• 86.4% of Muslims feel they belong in Britain, slightly more than the 85.9% of Christians.

• 82% of Muslims want to live in diverse and mixed neighbourhoods compared to 63% of non-Muslim Britons.

• 90% of Pakistanis feel a strong sense of belonging in Britain compared to 84% of white people.

Those who work closely with Muslim communities will attest to the integrated position of British Muslims and that despite frequent exoticisation, British Muslim lives are much the same as any other citizen's. British Muslims also appreciate their ability to practise their religion in Britain without the type of subjugation that fellow Muslims are subjected to under despotic regimes in several Muslim-majority countries. Even though negative depictions may encourage people to imagine Muslims as similar to the 7/7 bombers who struck seven years ago this week, your average British Muslim is much more likely to be similar to a confident Amir Khan, a bubbly Konnie Huq or a hardworking James Caan.

There is, quite frankly, no major issue of Muslims not wanting to be a part of British society. But there is an issue with the common but unspoken xenophobia pervasive in British society that casts Muslims as outsiders. That is why despite Muslims repeatedly pledging their dedication to Britain, a consistent spattering of polls show that many non-Muslim Britons still view Muslims as a potential enemy within. Consider the following examples:

• 47% of Britons see Muslims as a threat.

• Only 28% of Britons believe Muslims want to integrate into British society.

• 52% of Britons believe that Muslims create problems.

• 45% of Britons admit that they think there are too many Muslims in Britain.

• 55% of Britons would be concerned if a mosque was built in their area.

• 58% of Britons associate Islam with extremism.

The minority of Muslims in Britain who do view Britain with contempt – as indeed, we must recognise there are some – frequently explain their disaffection as a result of being labelled as outsiders and told they do not belong. Thus, the inability to appreciate British Muslims as typical citizens can actually create the very atypical citizens that are feared in the first place. Muslims want to be part of British society but their marginalisation may lead to some retreating to the margins.

If the myth that Muslims in Britain will not integrate is allowed to be propagated, it will only lead to the continuation of a harmful cycle whereby greater distrust and animosity is sown. The results of this can be devastating. Last Sunday marked the three-year anniversary of the Islamophobic murder of Marwa El-Sherbini by a far-right attacker, a crude example of an inability to accept that Muslims are at home in Europe. This intense rejection of Muslims is increasing across Europe, which is especially disturbing considering that a significant number of the far right would consider armed conflict against Muslims, as the case of Anders Breivik revealed. In Britain, we have seen several far-right plots that seek to undermine the presence of Muslims in British society, such as a recent arson attack on a mosque in Stoke-on-Trent. Clearly, there are weighty consequences to the dismissal of Muslims as fellow British citizens.

While politicians may claim that multiculturalism has failed, there is a strong case to be made that it operates successfully every day when Britons of different faiths, ethnicities and backgrounds convivially co-operate alongside each other to make the nation what it is today. Muslims are integrated, feel at home in Britain and are quite simply as British as the next person, even though this does not quite match the sensationalised cynicism that some enjoy indulging in. This rather unexciting conclusion is actually rather exciting as it lays to bed many of the unwarranted concerns that are held about British Muslims.


Friday, 1 November 2019

As Kashmir’s blackout continues, they wait for word of their son

The ashes are cold in Umar Bashir Naikoo’s domed bread oven, and his family is desolate.

More than two months ago, the 14-year-old boy was seized from his village home here in the middle of the night, bundled into a police van, and driven away, according to his sister.

Since his father’s death, Umar, a newly fledged baker, had been the family breadwinner. But this fall, all his mother knew of her son’s whereabouts was that he was in jail 1,000 miles away, under a law allowing detention without charge or trial for up to two years – a law that prohibits the detention of minors.

“He used to feed the family,” said his mother, Saleema Bano, sitting with other relatives in a dim room of their home last month. “Only Allah knows how he is now.”

Now, after a habeas corpus petition established Umar’s age, the court has ordered his release – though his whereabouts are unclear, amid monthslong restrictions on communications within Kashmir and with the rest of the country. But his family’s experiences highlight the deep suspicion and frustration pent up in Kashmir today, particularly between residents and Indian police, that has dramatically deepened since summer.

A ‘closed-door’ impeachment process: Three questions.
Umar is one of an estimated 4,000 people arrested in Kashmir after the Indian government stripped the partially autonomous region of its special status in early August, provoking violent protests in the Muslim-majority area – including, his family claims, many youth held illegally under the controversial Public Safety Act (PSA).

Government officials say that more than 300 people were booked under the law, and many transferred to jails outside Kashmir, but that several of those detained under preventive custody have been released.

“The detentions are being constantly reviewed. People will continue to be released,” Jammu and Kashmir government spokesperson Rohit Kansal said at a press briefing on Oct. 12.

The government in New Delhi has defended the move to revoke the long-troubled territory’s status as a step to boost the economy, and quell decades of unrest and insurgency, stemming from many residents’ desire for independence or union with Pakistan.

Of the thousands of Kashmiris arrested, most were listed as “stone pelters and other miscreants,” according to a Reuters report. In recent years, a generation of young Kashmiris brought up amid the conflict have become increasingly active in showing their support for separatist rebels: attending protests, lobbing stones at soldiers, and attempting to protect militants. Security force tactics such as firing pellet guns, which have blinded scores of people, have further soured the mood toward Indian rule.

On the evening of Aug. 7, Umar was hard at work in the small bakery he had set up earlier this year, making piles of flatbread ahead of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. He went to bed after supper, only to wake up to odd noises at 2 in the morning.

As he stumbled out of his bedroom he found soldiers and policemen ordering all men in the house to go outside, while his sisters and mother were huddled into a living room, according to his sister Gousia.

“What is your name?” a soldier asked Umar. As soon as he gave it he was whisked away, while the house rang with cries and wails.

Relatives said he was taken for no reason, but the fact that the police were looking for him suggests that they suspected Umar had taken part in protest rallies and perhaps thrown stones at Indian soldiers.

It has been more than ten weeks since his family last saw Umar, in the central jail in Kashmir’s capital, Srinagar, where dozens of families come every day in search of their arrested relatives.

“One of his teeth was broken when we met him,” recalled Gousia. “We took some clothes for him … but the officials said black clothes were not allowed” because of the color’s association with protests. “Next day when we went to see him we were told he’d been shifted to Varanasi jail” in Uttar Pradesh, 1,000 miles south, subject to a PSA detention order.

No member of his family could afford to visit. But they filed a habeas corpus petition in a Srinagar court, supported by a certificate from Umar’s former school bearing his birth date. The district magistrate, who had signed the PSA order, questioned the validity of the certificate, but a court-ordered inquiry confirmed his age. On Oct. 15, the government announced it would drop charges against Umar, and he will be released.

“The inquiry report proved that he was a minor and he can’t be jailed under the PSA [Public Safety Act],” says Mir Shafqat Hussain, who represented the teen in court. “Now, he has to be brought back from the jail and the family would have to receive him.” But even he does not know whether Umar has indeed been released, or where he is.