Tuesday 31 December 2019


When is a war crime not a war crime? When, according to British officials, that war crime has been given a makeover as a “charitable act”.

The British state is being asked to account for its financial and moral support for a UK organisation accused of complicity in the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homeland. So far, it appears determined to evade answering those questions.

The target of the campaign is the Jewish National Fund UK (JNF UK), which describes itself as “Britain’s oldest Israel charity”. Noting its role in “building Israel for over a century”, the organisation boasts: “Every penny raised by JNF UK is sent to a project in Israel.”

In fact, donations to JNF UK were used to buy some of the 250 million trees planted across Israel since 1948, the year when 750,000 Palestinians were forced out at gunpoint from their homes by the new Israeli army. Those expulsions were an event Palestinians call their Nakba, or “catastrophe”.

Afterwards, the Israeli army laid waste to many hundreds of Palestinian villages, turning them into rubble. Forests planted over the villages were then promoted as efforts to “make the desert bloom”.

Subsidised by taxpayers

In fact, the trees were intended primarily to block Palestinian refugees from ever being able to return to their villages and rebuild their homes. As a result, millions of Palestinians today languish in refugee camps across the Middle East, evicted from their homeland with the help of the forests.

JNF UK raised the funds for a parent organisation in Israel, the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF), which enforced the expulsions by using the donations to plant the forests. The Israeli state’s ethnic cleansing of the native Palestinian population was effectively disguised as a form of environmentalism.

Britain and other Western states appear to have accepted that barely concealed deception. They have long treated their local JNF fundraising arms as charities. JNF UK received charitable status in 1939, nearly a decade before Israel was created as a Jewish state on the ruins of Palestinians’ homeland.

The forests are still managed with money raised through tax-deductible donations in Britain and elsewhere. Since 1990, donations to JNF UK have been eligible for Gift Aid, meaning that the British government tops up donations by adding its own 25 percent contribution.

In effect, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian villages has been subsidised by the British public.

Backing from MPs

Britain’s continuing sanction of these crimes – and others – is being belatedly given scrutiny by human rights activists in Britain.

A campaign launched in 2010 called Stop the JNF – backed by various Palestinian solidarity organisations – has aimed to shame British officials into ending JNF UK’s charitable status.

The campaign gained parliamentary support a year later, when 68 MPs signed an early-day motion condemning the JNF’s activities and calling for its charitable status to be revoked. The motion was sponsored by Jeremy Corbyn, then a backbencher but now leader of the Labour Party, and attracted cross-party support, though no Conservative MPs backed it.

Nonetheless, the campaign has faced institutional resistance every step of the way. Over the past six years, appeals to the Charity Commission, a department of the British government, to intervene and remove JNF UK from its list of registered charities have been repeatedly rebuffed.

Rather than seeking explanations from JNF UK, British officials have largely ignored the evidence they have been presented with.

Trees ‘a weapon of war’

The campaign has highlighted one specific and egregious example of JNF UK’s work. The organisation raised donations to create a large recreation area west of Jerusalem called British Park, which includes forests, over three Palestinian villages that were destroyed by the Israeli army after 1948. A sign at the entrance reads: “Gift of the Jewish National Fund in Great Britain.”

Many of those who donated to the project, often British Jews encouraged to drop pennies into the JNF’s iconic fundraising “blue boxes”, had no idea how their money was being used.

The Stop the JNF campaign included testimony from Kholoud al-Ajarma, whose family was expelled from the village of Ajjur during the Nakba. Today, the family lives in the overcrowded Aida refugee camp, next to Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.

KKL-JNF planted trees at British Park on land to which Ajarma’s family, and many others, still have the title deeds. In doing so, the group violated the protected status of such lands in international law.

In her submission, Ajarma wrote: “It was British pounds that helped destroy my village. The Jewish National Fund is not merely planting trees. These trees have been used as a weapon of war, a weapon of colonisation.”

Israeli scholar Uri Davis has observed that the establishment of British Park “ought to be classified as an act, and as a policy, of complicity with war crimes”.

4,000 protest letters

The Charity Commission’s barrister, Iain Steele, conceded in a submission that it was possible the JNF had violated the Ajarma family’s rights by creating British Park on their land. Nonetheless, the Charity Commission has on two occasions refused to consider revoking JNF UK’s charitable status. Rather than addressing the merits of Stop the JNF’s arguments, the Charity Commission has evasively claimed that the campaigners, even the Ajarma family, are not affected by whether the JNF is registered as a charity.

In June, a commission official even wrote to the campaign with an astounding defence that appears to strip the term “charitable” of all meaning. He wrote: “In simple terms the test for charitable status is a test of what an organisation was set up to do, not what it does in practice.”

The commission’s apparent reasoning is that, so long as the JNF includes fine-sounding words in its mission statement, what it does in practice as a “charity” does not matter.

In April, Stop the JNF appealed the commission’s decision not to revoke JNF UK’s charitable status to the First-tier Tribunal. The judge, however, told them that neither Ajarma nor the campaign itself had a legal right to be heard. He concluded instead that only the attorney-general could overrule the Charity Commission’s decision. In October, the attorney-general rejected the campaigners’ claims without investigating them.

In an attempt to revive the case, Stop the JNF has submitted more than 4,000 letters of protest to the attorney-general, calling on him to reassess the organisation’s continuing charitable status.

A parallel call was made to the advocate-general of Scotland, which has a separate legal system.

‘Intense political controversy’

The JNF did not respond to questions sent by Middle East Eye about its role in planting the forests, its charitable status and other criticisms of its involvement with Israel.

The establishment’s apparent unwillingness to confront JNF UK’s historical record is perhaps not surprising. The JNF was one of the key organisations that helped to realise a British government promise made in the 1917 Balfour Declaration to help create a “Jewish home” in what was then Palestine.

Two years later, Lord Balfour declared that the colonisation of Palestine by Zionist Jews from Europe was “of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 [Palestinian] Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land”. Little, it seems, has changed in official British attitudes since.

Steele, the Charity Commission’s barrister, successfully urged the First-tier Tribunal not to get involved, arguing that it would be “drawn into matters of intense political controversy, for no obvious benefit to anyone”.

Surely, Ajarma and many millions more Palestinians would strenuously dispute that assessment. They would have much to gain should Britain finally demonstrate a willingness to confront its continuing role in aiding and comforting groups such as the JNF, accused of complicity in crimes against international law in historic Palestine.

As Stop the JNF organisers wrote in their own letter to the attorney-general: “These people [Palestinian refugees such as the Ajarma family] are not defined by the JNF as recipients of their charity, but they have human and legal rights which the actions of this charity unacceptably violate.”

Reminiscent of dark regimes

The campaign has not only focused on JNF UK’s historic role in dispossessing Palestinians. It points out that the JNF is still actively contributing to Israel’s own grossly discriminatory and racist policies – another reason it should be barred from being considered a charity.

JNF UK’s accounts from 2016 show that it has funded the OR Movement, an Israeli organisation that assists in the development of Jewish-only communities in Israel and the occupied territories.

One such Jewish community, Hiran, is being established on the ruins of homes that belonged to Bedouin familes. They were recently forced out of their village of Umm al-Hiran – a move the legal rights group Adalah has described as “reminiscent of the darkest of regimes such as apartheid-era South Africa”.

On its website, JNF-KKL congratulates “Friends of JNF UK” for supporting the establishment of nearby Hiran Forest. The JNF claims the forest will “help mitigate climate change” – once again disguising ethnic cleansing of Palestinians as a form of environmentalism.

Funding the Israeli army

JNF UK’s annual accounts in 2015 also revealed that it contributed money to the Israeli army under the title “Tzuk Eitan 9 Gaza war effort” – a reference to Israel’s attack on Gaza in late 2014, whose death toll included some 550 Palestinian children.

A United Nations commission of inquiry found evidence that Israel had committed war crimes by indiscriminately targeting civilians – a conclusion confirmed by the testimonies of Israeli soldiers to Breaking the Silence, an Israeli whistle-blowing group.

Equally troubling, an investigation last month by Haaretz reported that, under Israeli government pressure, the KKL-JNF has been secretly directing vast sums of money into buying and developing land in the occupied West Bank to aid Jewish settlers, again in violation of international law.

The funds were allegedly channeled to Himnuta Jerusalem, effectively the JNF’s subsidiary in the occupied territories, disguised as funds for projects in Jerusalem.

Veteran Israeli journalist Raviv Drucker observed that KKL-JNF was rapidly converting itself into a banking fund for the settlers. He added that its “coffers are bursting with billions of shekels [and] the settlers’ appetite for land is at a peak”.

Given the lack of transparency in KKL-JNF’s accounts, it is difficult to know precisely where the funds have come from. But as more than $70m has been spent by KKL-JNF over the past two years in the occupied West Bank, according to Haaretz, the funds likely include money raised by JNF UK.

In any case, research by Stop the JNF suggests JNF UK has no objections to making “charitable” donations to settlements in the West Bank. Its accounts record contributions to Sansana, a community of religious settlers close to Hebron.

Settlements are considered a war crime under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

No ‘duty’ towards equality

KKL-JNF is a major landowner in Israel. Under a special arrangement with the Israeli government, it owns 13 percent of Israel’s territory – often lands seized from Palestinian refugees. The arrangement includes a provision from 1961 that the primary aim of the JNF in Israel is to acquire property “for the purpose of settling Jews on such lands and properties”.

In 2004, KKL-JNF explained its role. It was “not a public body that works for the benefit of all citizens of the state. The loyalty of the JNF is given to the Jewish people and only to them is the JNF obligated. The JNF, as the owner of the JNF land, does not have a duty to practice equality towards all citizens of the state.”

In marketing and allocating lands only to Jews, the legal group Adalah has noted, the JNF in Israel intentionally rides roughshod over the rights of a fifth of the country’s population who are Palestinian by heritage.

In other words, the JNF is integral to an Israeli system that enforces an apartheid-style regime that prevents Israel’s Palestinian minority from accessing and benefiting from a substantial part of Israel’s territory.

Violating British law

This institutionalised discrimination has been made even more explicit since Israel last year passed the nation-state law, which declares: “The State views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value, and shall act to encourage and promote its establishment and strengthening.”

As the Stop the JNF campaign notes, British charities should abide by legal responsibilities enshrined in UK legislation, such as the 2010 Equality Act, which makes it illegal to discriminate based on “colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin”.

The JNF UK is clearly failing to abide by this core legal principle. It is operating in a foreign state where it has helped, over many decades, to fund activities that grossly violate both British law and international law. The evidence compiled by Stop the JNF indicates that JNF UK has itself been complicit in aiding the commission of war crimes, both in Israel and the occupied territories.

It has also given financial and moral succour to its parent organisation, which has crafted a system of apartheid that confers superior land rights on Jews over Israel’s Palestinian minority.

British taxpayers should not be subsidising institutionalised discrimination and crimes abroad – even more so when they are being dressed up as “charitable acts”.


Monday 23 December 2019

As a Muslim Mariam lives the 'five before five' — and finds meaning and balance as a death doula

"I collided head on with a truck, the car caught on fire. It was a huge emergency operation," says Mariam Ardati.

It was one of those car accidents "you think nobody could have survived."

When she crawled out of the wreckage of her car, Mariam was amazed to see that she didn't have a single scratch on her.

As a body builder, Mariam had considered herself invincible at the time — at the peak of her fitness.

The close brush with death turned her thoughts to what would have happened to her body under Islamic tradition if she had in fact, died.

"I walked away thinking, 'where would I have been buried? What would have happened to all my things?'"

After recovering from the trauma of the accident, Mariam says she walked into a funeral parlour and said, "teach me, show me what happens when someone dies".

The experience prompted a spiritual journey to reconnect with the Sunni Muslim faith she had grown up with.

"I was largely self-centred up until that accident happened," she told RN's Soul Search, "and it helped me find purpose and meaning."

For the last 15 years she has helped other people in the Muslim community through the transition from life into death — as a doula.

Mariam supports the dying and their families in the lead up to death, then leads the ritual care for the body of the deceased.

Mariam says women have always performed the final rites for other women.

She wants people to know that there is a range of jobs that family members can do to assist after their loved one has passed away.

Supporting the head, washing the body and brushing the hair are all meaningful ways to care for the deceased.

Mariam describes how she bathes a body an odd number of times, starting with three.

"The first wash is done with soapy water. The second is with clean fresh water. And the third is water that's poured over the body that's been infused with camphor."

Then family members will wrap their loved one in a death shroud that has been perfumed with incense.

"This is afforded to every Muslim that passes away," she says.

Mariam recalls a woman she worked with who didn't think she could enter the room where her mother's body was undergoing the ritual washing.

"She stood at the door of the mortuary and said, 'I don't think I can do this, this is just too much for me'."

Mariam reassured her that she could just watch.

The woman saw the water running, saw Mariam stroking her mum's hair and talking to her, offering prayers.

By the end of the whole process, the woman had taken over.

"I took a step back and watched her — with a lot of tears and a lot of emotion — go through each ritual in its entirety."

Mariam says seeing a daughter perform these last rites for her mother "as she's working through her emotions and coming to terms with her grief is such a powerful thing to witness".

She recalls many women who say, "I'm so grateful for the fact that I was able to honour my mother in that way," or "I was able to hold my sister one last time".

Muslim burial rituals have a "very human touch", says Professor Mohamad Abdalla, referring to the practice of men going down into a grave to lower a body in with their hands, sans coffin.

Mohamad is the director of the Centre for Islamic Thought and Education at the University of South Australia.

He explains that the body is positioned with the head facing Mecca, the traditional direction of prayer.

"With the soil of the grave they make a small pillow to lay his or her head," Mohamad says.

Three quarters of the way up the grave, small edges are carved out to hold several planks of wood.

"The soil is poured over the planks of wood, not touching the body of the deceased, essentially leaving about half a metre ... for the circulation of air for natural decomposition."

Muslim death ritual requires the body be buried as quickly as possible, which can be difficult in the event of a sudden death.

"It's an honour to bury the deceased within 24 hours," Mariam says.

She's referring to the belief that after death, the soul ascends and is given "the glad tidings of heaven".

When the two are reunited in burial, the soul shares that news with the body, remaining connected throughout the process.

Organ donation and autopsies can complicate the ritual and throw timing off.

"We do exercise our rights to object to an invasive post-mortem, as do other faiths and communities," Mariam explains.

"We believe that process is an undignified act."

However, there are alternatives for Muslims, for instance in the case of an unexplained or suspicious death, explains Mohamad.

"In the classical Islamic civilisation, autopsy was undertaken to understand the human body and blood circulation."

Beyond autopsy, medical procedures after death are technically allowed, because preservation of life is one of the most important objectives of Islamic law, Mohamad says.

He explains that as long as the donor or their family consents voluntarily, organs are not sold, and the organs are healthy, it is a highly virtuous act.

These are the things I wish I had known when my dad was dying. And some of them are things I intend to do now to prepare for my own death.
"But the minority viewpoint says a person has no right to dispose of their body as they wish, because it is a trust from God," he says.

Much of Mariam's energy is directed to increasing death literacy in the community — helping people become accustomed to the idea of dying.

She encourages the same open approach at home with her own children, in a "mother-daughter bonding exercise".

"I have cut my own [death] shroud, and I had my daughter by my side with the measuring tape saying, 'No mum, that's too short, we need to make it longer this way'."

Mariam sees her job as an opportunity to serve God through caring for other people.

"When you're living the life of a Muslim, you're living between two states," she explains.

One of those refers to "fearing retribution or the accountability of your sins", and the other is "believing in the hope and mercy of God"

Mariam says she looks for the balance between the two.

It's a sense of purpose that leads to an understanding that "your actions have consequences, and that you're part of a larger social context".

A Muslim is encouraged "to take advantage of what's known as the five before five," she explains.

"Your health before sickness, your life before you're overcome with death, your free time before you become busy, your youth before your old age and your wealth before you become poor."

Mariam says Muslims' relationship with God is "underpinned by the understanding that God is the provider of infinite love, compassion and mercy".

But for a person to earn that favour, she or he must live a life that's conducive to those values.

In death, Mariam sees our final transition as a deeply communal responsibility, one that she is humbled to be part of.

She says she's glad her own encounter with a near-fatal accident showed her that she wasn't invincible.

Rather, it gave her a sense of purpose and meaning.

"I didn't find that in the world of the living — I found it in the world of the dead."


Tuesday 17 December 2019

Toxic Masculinity


I really concurred with this comment on FB from brother Mohamed Ghilan.

With the increasing number of Muslim women speaking out against what they perceive to be not so much a double standard because that presumes sameness between men and women, but an injustice in terms of what's expected from them compared to Muslim men, we now have men pushing back and crying foul.

So this is to the males who wish to be men out there:

Some of you are asking for equalizing this calling out culture. If men are being called out to "man-up", then we should do the same with women to "woman-up". The problem with this is that women have been "putting up" with a lot from males that they didn't really have to put up with for a very long time.

What you think is "man bashing" doesn't even come in the same cosmic dimension to what a lot of Muslim women are subjected to up to our current times, even in the West where one would think they should technically at least have some means for recourse to get out of a bad situation.

It's a really sad commentary on how fragile some men's egos are that they can't even handle words on social media posts expressing the current situation many Muslim women are in. It also speaks to a blindness to the lived experience of a Muslim male and the things we take for granted.

This issue of toxic masculinity keeps coming up. In my view, if it's toxic, it's not masculinity anymore. The masculine and the feminine are Divine forces, and everything created exists as a product of the interaction between these two essential realities underpinning all of creation.

وَمِن كُلِّ شَيْءٍ خَلَقْنَا زَوْجَيْنِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَذَكَّرُونَ
"And of all things We created two mates; perhaps you will remember." [Quran 51:49]

I'd rather call it toxic male chauvinism. I prefer this term because the dictionary defines chauvinism as "excessive or prejudiced support for one's own cause, group, or sex." That's really what we have when we see Muslim males engage in vitriolic commentaries against Muslim women who did nothing other than penned a few words. If anything, that just proved the women's point. Otherwise, why would someone get so worked up unless it struck some nerve?

What is toxic male chauvinism?

It's to view women as nothing but sexual objects who can also serve as reproductive machines, and that's the purpose of marriage for you.

It's to use those analogies of the chocolate and the wrapper or a diamond hidden in a safe when you talk about the hijab because women are edible objects or precious stones to be hidden away in a safe for you.

It's to pontificate about the obligation for Muslim women to wear the hijab while you go out publicly in your undershirts (yes, they're undershirts no matter how many times you've been told they're not).

It's to look for a well-educated woman in your search for a spouse but you then bury her aspirations and personal dreams once she accepts you for a husband under the guise of "she needs to pay attention to raising the children".

It's to call being with your own kids "babysitting" when your wife needs to have free time for her own pursuits, whatever they may be, instead of calling it what it is: being a father!

It's to expect that your wife clean after you and wash your laundry.

It's to marry a woman and give her the impression that she's getting into a marriage when in reality you were looking for a maid...or let's call it what it is, a legal concubine.

It's to exploit your wife's spirituality, which is more powerful than yours, and use the Quran and Sunnah to coerce her into accepting the unacceptable. It's the ultimate type of gaslighting if you really think about it.

It's to talk about all your "rights" as a husband in a marriage, but conveniently ignore your responsibilities and her rights.

It's to deny your wife the right to have her own domain where she feels safe and secure with you and instead put her in the same house with your parents so she can take care of them and be their maid.

It's to fool yourself into thinking you're taking care of your parents by having them live with you when in fact you just shirked your responsibility and put it on your wife who is under no obligation to carry it out.

It's to view marriage as some sort of power dynamic between spouses and use the analogies like manager and employee to establish that you're the boss, rather than approaching marriage as a partnership between two individuals who are both equally but differently deficient and that they're coming together to help each other grow.

It's to turn a marriage into a battle of rights and responsibilities as opposed to a loving and caring union with mutual respect, recognizing that your wife is a full human being with her own intellect, thoughts, and ideas that don't always have to align with yours.

It's to question a woman's adherence to Islam when she brings these issues up and then let your tongue loose on her with whatever filth Iblees inspires you with.

It's to try and dismiss Muslim women by attributing their concerns and grievances to feminism or secular individualism or whatever ism you wish to throw at them in hopes of silencing this conversation because it's "not Islamic".

It's to ask for equalizing the call out culture and demand that women also be asked to "woman up".

I could keep going with this, but it's long enough already and I think you get my drift. According to the Quran, men are supposed to be in service to women. That's what Qiwama (قوامة) is. But somehow, somewhere, at some point, Muslim men flipped this.

We need to take a long and honest look at ourselves and be prepared to engage in the hard work of undoing whatever sociocultural conditioning we've been subjected to. This is especially so if you really want to follow the Sunnah of the Beloved ﷺ, which is not just about putting on a turban and growing a beard.

There are lots of males. Becoming a man is a rite of passage, and being a toxic chauvinist doesn't count.


P.S. If none of this resonates with you and it sounds foreign to your experience and the dynamic you have in your marriage, then it's not about you and you can safely move on. But recognize as you do move on that this is the reality for A LOT of Muslim women out there.

Monday 16 December 2019

‘Islam is a thorn in China’s side’: An in-depth interview on the Uyghur situation in China

Repression of the other or an extermination fantasy waiting to be implemented? A straight talk with German sinologist Aaron B. (name changed to maintain confidentiality), whose research field is Muslim identity in China, about the latter’s mass internment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Interview by Timo Al-Farooq, transcribed on December 6, 2019. Translated from German by the author.

Aaron, it is estimated that China has incarcerated somewhere between one to three million Muslim Uyghurs in its autonomous province of Xinjiang. To get straight to the point: is China Islamophobic?

China’s policies in recent years towards the Uyghurs can definitely be called Islamophobic. We need to be careful though regarding the numbers. There are about 11 million Uyghurs in China. Whether three million is a realistic figure I cannot say with certainty. Most sources speak of one million. But these numbers are all based on estimates. We don’t know how many internment camps there actually are. All we have to go on are satellite images and reports on the ground. There is no way to gain access to these camps.

Where exactly are these camps situated? Only in Xinjiang, the homeland of the Uyghurs, or also in other parts of China?

To my knowledge, most of these camps are in Xinjiang. It is China’s largest province area-wise; four to five times larger than Germany. A vast area, sparsely populated, with large tracts of desert and mountains. So there is sufficient space to hide these prisoners. For decades, China has also been conducting nuclear tests there by the way.

Last month, the New York Times leaked the so-called “Xinjiang Papers”: over 400 pages of internal Chinese documents that give insight into the repression of the Uyghurs, despite the fact that what is happening in Xinjiang has been an open secret for a long time. Non-Western media have often reported on the issue and heads of state like Turkey’s President Erdogan have routinely criticized China for its stance towards the Uyghurs. What new information has come to light via these leaked documents?

It’s kind of hypocritical that it took the media so long to be outraged. Like you mentioned, the issue has been known for quite some time now. What has changed though is that with the publication of the leaked documents we now have actual proof of what is happening there. The information might not be new, but it confirms much of what China has been suspected of doing.

What makes these papers interesting is their attention to detail. And that they show how within the Communist Party, especially among high-ranking officials who are responsible for what is happening in Xinjiang, there is disagreement on how to deal with the issue, how far the Chinese government should go, and how viable present Chinese policies towards the Uyghurs are.

Furthermore, these documents show who is ultimately responsible for these policies: President Xi Jinping and his circle of political intimates. And that these heavy-handed plans have been in the making for years, constituting a departure from previous Chinese governments. Two and a half years ago, Chen Quangho became the Communist Party Secretary of Xinjiang and rigorously began implementing Xi Jinping’s plans. The papers revealed internal speeches by Xi and high-ranking officials which show how high up in the party hierarchy this thing goes, and that it has been in planning for a long time.

The papers also show that there are party cadres on the local level who think Xi’s policies towards the Uyghurs are wrong. Not because they don’t believe in the party’s ideology but because they believe that one is going too far and that the antagonisms and resistance against Beijing  will only increase if one starts throwing people into jail for no good reason. In the view of these critics, these heavy-handed policies will give the Uyghurs more reasons to commit terrorist acts and mistrust the Chinese government.

One relatively high-level party cadre refused to toe Xi’s line and had to pay a high price: he was tried and will now be thrown into prison. This shows how the power structure within the party works, especially with regards to the Uyghurs. This in my view also make these leaked documents interesting.

You mentioned the ideology of the Communist Party. What kind of ideology is this, where people are thrown into re-education camps solely for their ethnicity and their religious identity? What exactly is China’s beef with the Uyghurs? What have they ever done to the Chinese government to elicit such an enmity from the latter?

From China’s perspective, it has the “problem” that other nation states which have emerged from former empires have had: that China is highly diverse when it comes to ethnicities and cultural identities living within its borders. The Uyghurs have a strong independent identity. Throughout the 20th century, there were independence movements in Xinjiang and even phases where the Uyghurs were actually de facto independent. Uyghurs are Muslims, the majority of Chinese people are non-Muslim. Uyghurs speak a Turkic language. This kind of independent identity is not viewed as Chinese by large parts of the Chinese population and the government. Which is why there has been a long-standing tradition of separatism, and with it repeated conflict with Beijing.

What the leaders in Beijing cannot stomach is any form of separatism, and when you don’t pledge loyalty to the Chinese state. In Beijing’s view, the unity of the nation state is sacrosanct. Recent decades have seen separatist movements, riots and even terrorism in Xinjiang. 2009 was kind of a tipping point when there were uprisings and mass riots in Urumqi during which many Han Chinese were killed. Since then, there have been frequent terrorist attacks that have been credited to extremist Uyghur groups. Some of them have had links to Al-Qaida, etc. Beijing sees these developments as utterly troublesome and does not want the problem to escalate further.

Ideologically speaking, Beijing is simply wired in a way that it sees itself as the sole entity that is allowed to define what China is and who is Chinese. What the people are allowed to believe in and how to define patriotism is their decision, even if that means dictating to people how they can define their cultural identity and self-image.

Is the situation comparable to that of Tibet?

Partially yes. It is comparable to the extent that like Xinjiang, Tibet is part of China’s Western region, a vast area where until 20 years or so ago not many Han Chinese lived in. Economically and geo-politically, this area is unbelievably important to China. Especially from a historic perspective: Beijing views it as an integral part of China. So the more independent Tibetans and Uyghurs have tried to be from Beijing’s influence, the stronger Beijing’s counter-reaction has been.

As you know, the Tibet question was popular in the mid 2000s, especially in the run-up to the Olympics in Beijing. Now it is kind of dead and has been replaced by the Uyghur issue. But the origins are the same, namely that an overarching nation-state asserts a claim to these regions and that the indigenous people living there defend themselves against a Chinese takeover. That is the key commonality between Xinjiang and Tibet. De jure both are autonomous regions, de jure there is freedom of religion in China, but in reality the legal status and laws are not adhered to by the Chinese government.

Until recently, the Uyghurs did not have an international lobby like the Tibetans did in the U.S., epitomized by the luminous figure of the Dalai Lama. Now the Uyghurs are galvanizing more international attention. Remember that the Uyghurs are Muslims and not glorified as “peaceful” Buddhists by a West starving for esotericism like the Tibetans are. For the West, that automatically puts Uyghur separatism in close proximity to jihadism. Which is why it has been much harder for them to engender sympathy for their cause.

Would the Uyghurs actually be content with real autonomy or are they bent on the maximum demand of a fully independent and sovereign state?

That is not that easy to say. There are different views among the Uyghurs regarding the political status of their homeland. Of course there are Uyghurs who profit generously from the Chinese state. Furthermore, the Chinese economy in Xinjiang is booming. Especially for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the role of Xinjiang is highly integral. But the accusation of the average Uyghur is that only the Han Chinese, who are increasingly being resettled to Xinjiang by Beijing, will profit from these plans. It is they who hold all the cards in local politics and the local economy.

But these things are always dependent on the current political mood. I am worried that the current political rigor of Beijing towards the Uyghurs that is intent on making life for these people so hard, up to the point where normal everyday life is not possible anymore, will only exacerbate the rift between the two. I am not sure how the average Uyghur views China and the aspect of Xinjiang’s political status. In my own conversations with Uyghurs I have heard both positions, real autonomy and full independence.

The Uyghurs are not the only ethnic group in China who identifies as Muslim. What is Beijing’s attitude towards them and vice versa? Are they also maltreated in the same way the Uyghurs are?

Partially yes. For instance, Kazakhs in Xinjiang are also subject to enormous repression. In the re-education camps or however you wish to call them, you also have many members from the Kazakh minority among the prison population. Remember that Xinjiang shares a border with Kazakhstan, so there are many Kazakhs living in Xinjiang and many Uyguhrs living on the Kazakh side of the border. The networks that lobby for an independent Xinjiang have strong ties to Central Asia, also to the militant networks there. But naturally that does not justify randomly throwing people in jail like China is doing. But yes, Kazakhs in China are equally targeted by China’s policies.

There are ten ethnic groups in China that identify as Muslim, and the ones that have to suffer most from Chinese repression are the Uyghurs and the Kazakhs. The other ones – with exception of the Hui – are small in numbers. Demographically speaking, the two largest Muslim minorities in China are the Hui and the Uyghurs. The other ones are demographically not important or China does not view them as susceptible to separatism or terrorism. Which is why China’s primary focus is to counter a self-determined Xinjiang and an autonomous Uyghur self-image that says “We have our own traditions, we have our own history and language. Even though we acknowledge a common history with China, we stress our own independent history and our own separate identity.”

And it is Beijing’s primary focus to obliterate this autonomous identity and bully the Uyghurs into believing that they are through and through Chinese and that all the other aspects of their cultural identity are marginal at best. China does not want to obliterate Islam because it knows that is not feasible. China acknowledges its multicultural history and its diversity. But it sees it as troubling that Islam is a strong marker of identity, which is why it views Islam critically.

But that is also the fate of other faiths in China, like Christianity and Judaism. Especially Christians and Muslims who have been subject to stronger control in recent years and have always been victims of state repression. What Beijing is increasingly trying to do now is to adjust the theological ideologies of these faiths to the new ideological guidelines of the party, however hollow the latter might sound in our ears. Remember that if you hold a religious office in China, it doesn’t matter if you are an imam or a priest, you will be subject to a high level of surveillance and control and cannot speak freely. I have visited mosques in China where a sermon is typically started with something like “We have to love this country.” Practising religion in China automatically means having to be patriotic and to affirm one’s “Chinese-ness”. The government keeps a close watch on what is preached and taught in mosques.

Is China’s relation to Islam comparable to that of Russia? Like China, the former Soviet Union is also a world power with an atheist tradition, and has a large Muslim population and an ambivalent attitude towards Islam. Moscow is Europe’s largest Muslim city, but at the same time the Muslim community in Russia is subject to surveillance and general suspicion like in China. Is atheism the reason for this or are these still reactions to 9/11?

A little bit of both. The comparison to Russia is somewhat flawed though, as Russia  – at least in the eyes of the government in Moscow – is de facto Orthodox Christian. But with regards to Islam, there are of course striking parallels to China: separatism like in Chechnya for example as well as other separatist movements, some of them interfacing with terrorist movements and committing attacks.

The other parallel is that the Soviet Union collapsed, and that scenario is China’s nightmare. The unity of the country and its people is sacrosanct and is therefore China’s top political priority. It stands above everything else. Especially above human rights. China knew  – and this is also mentioned in the leaked documents – that the West and the Western media would sooner or later focus on the situation in Xinjiang and report on it, which would in consequence sully China’s image. But China is willing to endure these consequences in order to guarantee the unity of the nation state.

The Chinese constitution has freedom of religion written into it. China knows of its religious and cultural diversity and has – at least on paper – routinely emphasized that it will defend and safeguard them. But in reality it has rarely done so. Islam is alien to many politicians in Beijing, not to say a thorn in their side. But I wouldn’t go so far as to characterize this as an extermination fantasy. China views Islam as a problem because it suggests cultural differences and a hybridity that does not simply say: “We are Chinese, we follow the party.” These people derive their sense of identity from other things as well. And that is disturbing for the leaders in Beijing.

What can Germany and the EU do to stop China’s maltreatment of the Uyghurs? I can understand if a West that is increasingly dependent on China is reserved in its criticism of China and only pays lip service to human rights there. But what about rich Muslim states like the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar that co-signed a declaration in support of China’s anti-Uyghur policies? Why would they feel the need to do that?


But is profit-seeking really the reason? Can’t a state like Qatar, the richest country in the world thanks to it’s abundant natural gas reserves, afford to not do business with China, especially if it sacrifices its own Muslim brothers and sisters in the course?

I am not sure how much something like religious brotherhood factors in when it comes to trade and doing business. But with regards to Germany: we know that China is an “Unrechtsstaat” [literally: a state without rule of law, the nearest English term would be “rogue state”]. Chancellor Merkel travels to China every year, I’m not kidding, every year, I think she has been to China 14 times during her tenure. She always meets with human rights activists, whoever they might be, says one or two things in order to show that she is ideologically behind them, and that’s that.

When you are in Shanghai where every second car is a Volkswagen, you quickly realize where Germany’s profits come from. China’s rapid economic growth did not happen on its own, but through intensive economic cooperation. Germany does massive business with China, it is our biggest trading partner together with the United States. That is something the German government is not willing to give up. Which is why Merkel always tries to have her cake and eat it too whenever she says “Yes, we always say that China should respect human rights.” But at the same time we don’t sanction China or isolate the country politically. Germany profits off of the economic cooperation with China so much that this will always have primacy over human rights considerations.

What can we therefore do? I think it is a positive development that we are talking more and more about this and are therefore creating political pressure. As a sinologist, I am constantly shocked with regards to how little people know about China and that it seems to completely bypass them as to how significantly China will shape the 21st century. And I’m talking about all our lives. Which is why I would wish that there would be a stronger public awareness for the human rights situation in China, and with it for the situation of the Uyghurs, and that increased awareness is followed by political consequences.

Is it really possible to take concrete measures if we are economically – and therefore also in terms of Realpolitik – so dependent on China? What kind of government would we need in Germany and the EU in order to put pressure on China?

One that really takes human rights seriously. But remember that we as Europeans need to get our own house in order first. With all that is happening with Europe’s closed-border policies and the refugee issue, one cannot say that these developments sound like an honest commitment to universal human rights. Therefore I don’t know if the current EU and German governments can be trusted with putting pressure on China regarding its treatment of the Uyghurs.

Aaron, I thank you for your time and words.


Friday 13 December 2019

Dear Mark Zuckerberg: Facebook Is an Engine of Anti-Muslim Hate the World Over. Don’t You Care?

DEAR MARK Zuckerberg,

What happened to you?

Back in December 2015, you spoke out loudly and proudly against anti-Muslim hatred. “I want to add my voice in support of Muslims in our community and around the world,” you wrote in a post on Facebook, two days after then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump announced his plan for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the country. “After the Paris attacks and hate this week,” you added, “I can only imagine the fear Muslims feel that they will be persecuted for the actions of others.”

The headline in the New York Times? “Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook Reassures Muslim Users.”

Yet here we are in December 2019. Four years later, you and Facebook have gone from reassuring Muslims to amplifying hate and bigotry against us. You have allowed what the actor Sacha Baron Cohen recently described as “the greatest propaganda machine in history” to be used to target and persecute some of the most vulnerable Muslim communities on Earth.

I’m talking of course about the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. In March 2018, the chairman of the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, Marzuki Darusman, told reporters that social media companies like yours had played a “determining role” in the violence, having “substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict.”

“Everything is done through Facebook in Myanmar,” added Yanghee Lee, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Myanmar. “I’m afraid that Facebook has now turned into a beast, and not what it originally intended.

You know all this, Mark. Your company has, basically, admitted to it. In November 2018, your own product policy manager, Alex Warofka, acknowledged that you and your colleagues at Facebook had not done enough “to help prevent our platform from being used to foment division and incite offline violence” in Myanmar.

And what have you done since? Warokfa claims Facebook has “improved proactive detection of hate speech in Myanmar.” Yet Matthew Smith, the founder of Fortify Rights, a human rights nonprofit focused on Myanmar, disagrees: “Facebook has a lot of work to do,” he told me. Yes, your company has appointed more than 100 new content reviewers for Myanmar, but there are more than 20 million Facebook accounts in the country and, as Smith argued, “efforts to date are not enough to tackle the misuse of the platform.”

“It’s not clear that the senior leadership fully understands the gravity of the situation,” he said. “The company should be thinking about reparations for Rohingya and other initiatives to end and remedy the harms.”

How about India’s Muslim minority communities? Does their fate keep you up at night, Mark? If not, why not? In October, a report by the nonprofit activist network Avaaz accused Facebook of having become a “megaphone for hate” against Muslims in the northeastern Indian state of Assam — where nearly two million people, many of them Muslims, have just been stripped of citizenship by the far-right Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Another report, by the South Asian human rights group Equality Labs, found “Islamophobic content was the biggest source of hate speech on Facebook in India, accounting for 37 percent of the content,” as Vice News noted in June.

You haven’t said or done anything about any of this. You have, though, repeatedly met with Modi — the world leader, incidentally, who has the highest number of Facebook followers! You even introduced your parents to him. I wonder: Will you be introducing your parents to any of the Indian Muslims who have had their WhatsApp accounts deactivated by Facebook in the wake of the Modi government’s lockdown in Kashmir?

How about the Muslims of Sri Lanka? When members of a Colombo-based advocacy group called the Center for Policy Alternatives came to your company with multiple examples of inflammatory and Islamophobic videos and posts on Facebook — including a post declaring, “Kill all Muslims, don’t even save an infant” — the New York Times reports that nearly every complaint of theirs “got the same response: the content did not violate Facebook’s standards.”

A call to kill all of Sri Lanka’s Muslims, spread through your platform, doesn’t bother you? Doesn’t shock you?

Let’s not forget the Uighur Muslims in China, either. More than a million people have been locked up in concentration camps across Xinjiang province, where they have been beaten, tortured, and raped. Yet BuzzFeed News reported in August on how “Chinese state-owned media is running ads on Facebook seemingly designed to cast doubt on human rights violations” against the Uighurs.

Are you OK with Facebook helping cover up what experts are calling a “cultural genocide” in Xinjiang?

THEN THERE’S THE U.S. In May 2018, a detailed report by the Southern Poverty Law Center explained how “anti-Muslim content finds a home on Facebook.” A more recent investigation from Reveal found that while “Facebook has removed groups tied to white nationalist organizations … the social network continues to host groups that are openly hostile to Muslims, such as ‘DEATH TO ISLAM UNDERCOVER.’”

Again, Mark, you know all this. You do. You can’t plead ignorance. You recently hosted Farhana Khera, of the civil rights groups Muslim Advocates, at your home in California. Khera says she told you “about the pain and suffering that Facebook is causing Muslim communities, here in the United States and around the world.” Did her personal testimony not affect you?

Then again, you previously hosted Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson, who once called Iraqis “semiliterate primitive monkeys,” and Daily Wire founder Ben Shapiro, who has falsely claimed the majority of the world’s Muslims are “radicalized.” Last month, you also had a secret dinner with President Donald Trump and refused to disclose what you discussed with him. (What a difference four years makes!)

Meanwhile, The Guardian revealed this week that two Muslim members of Congress, Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., “have been targeted by a vast international operation that exploits far-right pages on Facebook to inflame Islamophobia for profit.” The Guardian’s revelations “show how Facebook has failed to stop clandestine actors from using its platform to run … hate campaigns” and how these online Islamophobes have “operated with relative impunity.”

You must be aware of how social media hatred has real-world consequences, right? Patrick Carlineo, who pled guilty to threatening to assault and murder Omar in November, spent years using your platform “to taunt Muslims, attacking them with racist slurs and saying he wished he could confront a group of Muslim politicians with ‘a bucket of pig blood,’” according to The Guardian.

Facebook moderators in the U.S. didn’t lift a finger to stop him. Is it any wonder that Omar agrees with me that you’ve helped put a target on her back?

The sad reality is that, across both the developed and developing worlds, Muslim minority communities are being demonized, targeted, and attacked by far-right nationalists. And these far-right nationalists are being aided and abetted, whether directly or indirectly, by self-styled liberals in Silicon Valley. By Facebook. By you, Mark.

Is this really how you want to be remembered? Not as the founder of a company that brought together 2 billion people online through funny memes and friend requests, but as the founder of a propaganda machine that helped incite and organize the mass killing of hundreds of thousands of Muslims?

What happened to the Mark Zuckerberg of December 2015 who told his Muslim employees that he would “fight to protect your rights and create a peaceful and safe environment for you”? Who told the rest of us that “as a Jew, my parents taught me that we must stand up against attacks on all communities”?


Thursday 12 December 2019

Turkey's ancient tradition of 'Paying it forward'

At my local bakery in Göztepe, near Kadıköy on the Asian side of Istanbul, everything is made on the premises in a wood-fired oven tucked away at the back. Any space not taken up by the 1,200 white loaves they produce a day is filled with baguettes, rolls, rye, multigrain and cornbread, as well as cakes, biscuits and pastries. Amidst the constant flurry of customers, I’ll sometimes see the owner give someone a loaf of bread without any money changing hands. At other times a customer will pay for two loaves of bread but only take one.

Is there bread on the hook?

In many Western countries, it has become common in recent years for people to hand over money for an extra cup of coffee or a filling meal when they pay for their own, to be held at the counter for a person in need. In Turkey, this seemingly modern idea of “paying it forward” goes back centuries. It’s called askıda ekmek, and it relates specifically to paying it forward with bread.

Askıda ekmek, which means “bread on a hanger” or “suspended bread”, has its roots in Islam, the dominant religion in the country. It works like this: you go to a bakery and pay for two loaves of bread but only take one. On paying for the bread, you tell the person who takes the money that one of them is askıda ekmek. Your contribution is bagged and hung together with others so when people come in throughout the day and ask, “Askıda ekmek var mi?” (“Is there bread on the hook?”), they can take a loaf for free.

It’s not clear exactly when and how the practice of askıda ekmek started. Although there are similar, more recent traditions in other countries, like the Italian practice of “caffè sospeso” (“suspended coffee”), askıda ekmekis is strongly tied to the local culture and religion. History professor Febe Armanios, who focuses on Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle East and food history at Middlebury College in Vermont, US, explained that askıda ekmekis “a custom rooted in Ottoman times and is tied to the concept of zakat, the Muslim pillar of faith that focuses on various acts of charity”. There are five pillars of faith in Islam, and followers must fulfil them all to lead a good and moral life. The zakat requirement can be met by giving money or provisions.

The giving of ekmek (bread) is of special importance in Turkey because in Islamic belief, bread sustains life and the protection of life is sacred. “Bread … is absolutely critical to eating and is representative of hunger-satiation/starvation-desperation,” Armanios said.

In Muslim hadiths, the collected sayings of the Prophet Muhammed, bread is nimet, a blessing sent from God. If a piece of bread accidently falls to the ground it must be picked up immediately before placing it somewhere higher. Some people kiss it before doing so to further demonstrate their respect. Plain white bread is baked twice a day in Turkey and every meal is accompanied by a basket full of sliced fresh loaf. Leftovers are never thrown away; when bread goes stale, it’s made into French toast and breadcrumbs. I often see plastic bags containing old bread hanging off fences along my street, placed there for people to take either for themselves or to feed animals.

Ottoman sultans used this respect for bread to legitimise their rule and garner loyalty. According to Armanios, it was believed that a well-fed populace is an obedient one and far less likely to revolt if prices of food staples such as bread were kept in check. Market regulators, called Islamic muhtasib, policed the sale of bread to control the price and ensure cheap fillers weren’t used in place of flour (even today, bread prices are determined by the government). The Ottomans also encouraged those who could afford it to provide for those in need. But tradition has always been that when carrying out zakat obligations, the poor should not be embarrassed by having their identities revealed to the donors and vice versa.

Early on, in traditional Islamic societies, this was achieved by placing sadaka taşı (charity stones) in mosque courtyards. In his 2014 paper, associate sociology professor Ensar Çetin of Nevşehir Hacı Bektaş Veli University in Nevşehir, central Turkey, described them as “stalagmites… transformed from ancient porphyry columns with cavities [in] which to leave money. There [were] also cavities [in] the walls. It’s a model designed not to offend poor people so the giver and receiver remain anonymous to one another.”

Let us help people who live on the streets who cannot afford bread

These days, sadaka taşı have been replaced by websites with online zakat calculators, run by charitable foundations that rely on donations to help those in need. Individuals can calculate exactly how much money they should donate, traditionally 2.5% of their wealth. Askıda ekmek has gone online, too, with yemek.com, a popular Turkish website featuring daily recipes, asking readers to nominate neighbourhood shops promoting askıda ekmek. Their aim is to transform it from a local neighbourhood activity into a national resource listing participating bakeries, using the call to action, “Let us help people who live on the streets who cannot afford bread”.

One man has taken these technological advancements a step further. In 2012, Oğuzhan Canım read about bakeries in Kırıkkale, 80km east of Ankara, promoting the practice of askıda ekmek so more bakeries would participate. It made him think about ways to scale the custom in order to reach more people. Canım knew there was limited government aid for university students in Turkey and that there weren’t enough bursaries, scholarships and food grants to go around.

His solution is a social enterprise called Askidanevar (What’s on the Hook?), the first in Turkey to combine the concept of askıda ekmek with the reach of social media platforms. The idea may be innovative, but the aim is very simple: to connect university students in need to the companies that want to support them.

Askidanevar targets students because Canım believes they’re the future of Turkey. He wants young people to have the opportunity to read poetry, engage in the arts and pursue goodness, and become complete, well-rounded individuals. This way, he believes, they’ll not only succeed in their studies, they’ll also pay it forward and contribute more to Turkish society and the world, through a culture of sharing.

This holistic approach isn’t unusual in predominantly Muslim societies. The community or group takes precedence over the individual and the well-being of all is paramount. It’s normal in Turkey for individuals to look out for others, be it family, neighbours, colleagues or even strangers, in the belief this improves things for everyone.

Askidanevar maintains the askıda ekmek spirit of anonymity. Students only identify themselves when they upload their university cards on signing up. Once they’re members, they can click on a “Take” button to get a code to use for a free meal from a range of participating restaurants. With another click, they get the chance to receive books, magazines, theatre and concert tickets and other items by sharing or retweeting posts from Askidanevar. Companies click on a “Give” button to leave their details and information of what they’re offering.

Around 150,000 students are currently registered with Askidanevar, using around 500 donated food coupons each month. Since the social enterprise’s inception seven years ago, it has helped around half a million individuals, the majority in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, Turkey’s three biggest cities.

One student member I spoke to, Tuğba, learned about Askidanevar via Instagram. “Last year” she told me, “I started… university and did not meet new people [or] new friends. During a summit, which I went [to] thanks to [the] Askıdanevar ticket system, I [made] friends”.

For Tuğba, receiving a ticket to a summit at no cost, had an impact on her life beyond that one event. It made her new friends and gave her a sense of belonging at university, of being part of a new community; something she didn’t feel before.

At the heart of askıda ekmek – whether that’s leaving a loaf in a bakery or helping students access opportunities outside their studies – is an ethos of helping people, with no expectation of reward or recognition so that recipients maintain their dignity and improve their lives.

In a world divided by the pursuit of individual profit and torn apart by conflict, as Tuğba said, “That is amazing”.


Tuesday 10 December 2019

There was a time when Muslim women in India not only prayed in mosques, they even built them

Almost 800 years to this day, Delhi Sultanate ruler Razia Sultan carved out a piece of history. In fact, two. The first was, obviously, being elevated to the throne in the early 13th century and becoming thereby the first woman to rule over Delhi.

The favoured daughter of Iltutmish, Razia rose to the throne ahead of half-brother Muiz ud-din Bahram. At that time also the ulema initially opposed her candidature. She was sincere, wise, adept at administration and capable of leading the Sultanate in a war. The only handicap she faced, according to them, was her gender.

However, as she enjoyed the confidence of her father Iltutmish, she defied the odds to claim the throne. The other feat was notched up with her ascension itself. In the run up to assuming control of the Sultanate, she went to Quwwatul Islam Masjid in Mehrauli, said to be the first mosque of North India. She did so on a Friday when the mosque would have maximum worshippers; and sought the support of the devout for her claim to the throne.

Importantly, she did not call herself Sultana, the feminine of Sultan. She referred to herself as the Sultan. With her address at the Quwwatul Islam Masjid, Razia not only blazed a trail for other women to go to masjid but also to build masjids. The khutbah too was read in her name, the first time ever in India’s recorded history.
She used to travel without a veil and used to ride horses and elephants. It is believed that she used to go to mosques and madrasas. Her patronage of khanqahs and madrasas is well known, especially the one that was associated with Minhaj Siraj Juzjani, the author of Tabaqat-e-Nasiri. He was considered a Sheikh-ul Islam under Razia Sultan.

Muslim women had things pretty good in medieval times. Politically, they were taken into confidence by the emperors who consulted them at every stage. The stories of Noor Jahan, who wielded great control over the Mughal king Jahangir, are also well known to need reiteration. The founder of the Mughal dynasty Zahiruddin Babur too is said to have consulted his women, his mother, his wives and daughters, before venturing out for a battle.

In Delhi, we have the 16th century Khairul Manazil Masjid built by Maham Anga, the foster mother of the greatest Mughal ruler Jalaluddin Akbar. The Khairul Manazil Masjid, built in 1561 by Anga, is said to be the first mosque in Delhi to be commissioned by a woman, the same woman who was virtually the ruler of the empire in the early years of Akbar, as the Mughal scion was too young to fulfil the responsibilities of an emperor.
Though there is little historical evidence to prove if Anga herself came to attend the prayer sessions here, what is proven beyond doubt is that she was instrumental in the construction of the mosque. Incidentally, many Mughal princesses after her undertook the construction of mosques as an act of piety without necessarily visiting the mosques for daily prayers.

In the case of Khairul Manazil, Anga hired the services of her trusted relative Shahabuddin Ahmad Khan, who was also a minister of the empire. The mosque’s central arch has an inscription that clearly reveals that the mosque was built by Maham Anga. The mosque had a madrasa attached to it, probably funded by Anga herself for Islamic education of children.

At around the same time, and also during the age of Jahangir and Shah Jahan, we have Mughal miniatures showing them riding horses and moving around without a veil. Often they dictated their nikahnamas and incorporated conditions like monogamy, no instant triple talaq, or investing in themselves the right to divorce through Talaq-e-tafweez.

They continued to build mosques, madrasas and sarais. According to some historians, they also graced the mosques, at least on special occasions like Eid, or when a new emperor took the reins of the empire, and had the khutbah read under his name as a sign of legitimacy.

Though there is little documentary evidence, it is fair to believe they offered prayers in the mosques if one looks at the architecture of the Sultanate and the Mughal period closely.
For instance, there is a Tughlaq era mosque in Wazirabad in Delhi. The mosque has an elevated chamber shielded by lattice walls. There are some historians who believe it was meant for the kings. However, as the kings usually entered from the main gate, called the Shahi Darwaza, it is fair to believe it was meant for the royal women who entered and departed from such a gate after offering their prayers at the mosque.

Most historians believe that in the Wazirabad Masjid, the place behind the lattice walls was reserved for women worshippers. Men prayed in the main hall and women in their own specified section, behind the lattice walls.

Similarly, if you go to Bengal, there in Hazrat-e-Pandua we have Adina Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India. Hailing from the 15th century, it is a much bigger mosque than Quwwatul Islam Masjid. The prayer chamber here is elevated with a lattice wall and a raised mihrab, a semi-circular niche.

Many mosques in medieval India can be said to have been graced by royal women, and even those from the families of nobles. There is no single piece of historical evidence to show that women were prohibited from going to the mosques, and there is no record of ulema issuing a fatwa against the entry of women into mosques.

Not just mosques, women went to Sufi khanqahs and dargahs too, and are said to have participated with great zest in singing Sufiana Kalam. From the early 13th century when Qutubuddin Aibak laid the foundation of the Mamluk dynasty to the time of the latter Mughals in the 18th and 19th centuries, women were consistent in their patronage of khanqahs.
As most dargahs and khanqahs had mosques attached to them, it is fair to conclude that women would enter them as the Sufis did not express any rigidity. For instance, Nizamuddin Auliya held out for musical gatherings or samaa, and was able to convince the Sultanate rulers too of the same, despite stiff opposition from the Hanafi scholars of the age who believed music to be haram (prohibited) in Islam.

Inside the mosques, we find no clear markers prohibiting the entry of women beyond a certain stage.
It all began to change with the decline of the Mughals and the coming of the British. As conservatism was the order of the day, women began to be excluded from both mosques and cemeteries. They were not allowed to enter the mosques for spiritual elevation. They were denied the right to offer prayers at the grave of their near and dears ones in the cemetery.

All along, women continued to go for hajj. In medieval as also modern times, women were never denied the right to go on hajj where, like men and women from other countries, they established prayers in both Makkah and Medina, where they went to the last resting place of the wives of the Prophet as also his companions. Yet, when they came back home, a different kind of Islam ruled their lives.

Call it the impact of the local culture, but this Indianised form of Islam meant women could build mosques or take part in financing them, but could not offer regular prayers inside them. Today, women cannot go for prayers to the mosques that their fellow women built hundreds of years ago.

The most conspicuous case being of the famous Fatehpuri Masjid in Old Delhi, where the local residents cannot recall any occasion when women gathered to offer prayer in a group, or the Taj-ul-Masajid in Bhopal. It is the largest mosque in India, but it has not been able to spare a room or hall for women. The biases are more pronounced today than at any time in the Islamic history in India.


Thursday 5 December 2019

UK chief rabbi owes us Palestinians an apology

The chief rabbi of the United Kingdom has weighed in on the row over alleged anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.

Writing in The Telegraph this week, Ephraim Mirvis claimed that Zionism is not separate from Judaism as a faith. He astonishingly implied that no one can have a view on this except Jews and Zionists.

So much for open debate and discussion!

He further claimed that “Zionism is a belief in the right to Jewish self-determination in a land that has been at the center of the Jewish world for more than 3,000 years.” The reality is that not all Jews agree with his definition, let alone non-Jews.

A survey of British Jews by City University London last year shows deep disagreement on the term, with 41 percent not taking up the political identifier “Zionist.” Thirty-one percent identified as anti-Zionist or non-Zionist, while 10 percent said they were unsure.

The survey also found that the number of British Jews who call themselves “Zionist” dropped from 72 percent in 2010 to 59 percent in 2015.

Muslims have a strong attachment to the cities of Mecca and Medina – and of course to Jerusalem – but should all Muslims have a right to move to Saudi Arabia?

And what about Christians? Where was Christianity born? The answer is in historic Palestine. Should all Christians have a right to go and live there?

The chief rabbi and Zionism both ask us to accept that only Jews have a right to determine where they live and never mind the impact of their demand on whoever already lives on that land.

In his article, Mirvis astonishingly fails to mention my people, the Palestinian people, even once. His anger with the left has unfortunately left him ignorant of our plight.

To the chief rabbi, we are invisible.

He did not once acknowledge our existence on the land, our own unshakable connection to it or that it was and still is our home – whether for those living in historic Palestine or in the diaspora.

We are in the diaspora because of Zionism.

The chief rabbi implies that we cannot disassociate Zionism from Judaism – by implication accusing all Palestinians who oppose Zionism – as indeed we do – of anti-Semitism.

This is why Ephraim Mirvis is wrong, with the greatest respect to him, to conflate the two – a religion and a political ideology.

Palestinians do not have a problem with Jews – or with any other group – wanting to live in a state or entity of their own.

However, Zionists chose a land with a people, not an empty land for their state. That is the key issue here. In 1948, 750,000 Palestinians were violently driven from their homeland to make way for the realization of Zionism’s goal, and since then millions of Palestinians have been deprived of their most fundamental rights.

As British Palestinians we abhor all forms of racism including anti-Semitism. We will stand with our fellow citizens who follow the Jewish faith in striving to eradicate the scourge of all racism in this country, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

However, we will not accept the conflation of Judaism and Zionism to label us and those who support our legitimate right to self-determination in our homeland as anti-Semites.

The chief rabbi owes us Palestinians an apology for this conflation which suggests we are anti-Semites. Zionism owes us much more than an apology for our dispossession.


Wednesday 4 December 2019


Akon is an unlikely superstar, according to Akon himself. He bets there's a good chance no other Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper has been a St. Louis-born Senegalese with a given name like Aliaune Damala Bouga Time Puru Nacka Lu Lu Lu Badara Akon Thiam.

The early years of his career were spent in semi-obscurity, writing and producing records for other rappers. But here we are in 2019, and Akon has become a household name. Even if you don’t regularly sing his nostalgic 00s bops into your hairbrush, chances are you’d still be familiar with his humanitarian missions in Africa.

Earlier this week, fans were let in on the secret to Akon’s success.

Ditching the dance floor, Akon took to the stage at the Sharjah Entrepreneurial Festival, tracing his journey from "car thief to pop star and entrepreneur" to the 2,000 people in attendance.

“Always perfect your craft," he explained. He added, however, that "sometimes things happen when you don’t want them to happen, and when God wants it to happen. And I think that’s a side that entrepreneurs dismiss – the spiritual side of your goal, or the spiritual side of your success.”

“It makes you ask the question: what is success? Is it fame or fortune? Does that measure what success means to you? Or is it faith?” he questioned. “For me, real success is faith. If God is not smiling upon me, I am not successful. I don’t care even if I have a billion dollars in the bank. And what good am I if have a billion dollars sitting in the bank in the first place?”

He credited his Muslim faith for allowing him to step back and reassess his career trajectory even when he was a rising star in the music industry, stating that it was his spiritual mindset that mapped out his plans for the future as a successful humanitarian entrepreneur.

Hinting that his motivations truly lie in reaching the hereafter, he revealed, “I don’t believe in having that much money sitting away without applying it to changing somebody’s life. Now I may not make a million dollars out of that transaction, but I may get a few good credits to go to paradise. I am cool with that.”


Monday 2 December 2019

Q&A With Asma Shuweikh, The Muslim Hero Who Defended A Jewish Family

We caught up with Shuweikh over the phone on Wednesday morning. The stay at home mother of two lives in Birmingham; on the fateful day of the tube ride, she was in London visiting family.

The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Why did you decide to intervene on the tube?

I decided to intervene because it was a very disturbing situation — the fact that he was talking to the children, and looking at the children and explaining to them that they’re not really Jewish people, and that they are going to be slaves — and I thought that was really, really uncalled for, honestly.

I’ve got my own two children — I’m a mother, and I’m also a practicing Muslim, and as a practicing Muslim, you have to speak up to injustice. If you see someone who needs help or someone that’s in trouble, especially when you’re going about your daily life, it’s your duty as a Muslim — and as a mother and as a British citizen — to go out of your way to help.

Who modeled this for you in your life?

My model was definitely our prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. He did not accept any of this kind of intolerance toward ethnic minorities. He had friends from other faiths, from the Jewish faith and the Christian faith.

I mean, this is what Islam teaches us, but obviously it never gets shown in the media. This is what normal Muslims believe in but it does not get portrayed that much — which is why I decided to talk to people and explain it to them so that they understand what it’s really like to be a proper Muslim, and really a proper citizen as well, and even human being really. We should not accept anything like that.

My mum always told us to stick up for yourself and don’t allow people to discriminate against you for who you are. And I have to be an example to my children as well. They live in a multicultural society, so we have to show them how, because they’re the future.

Have you ever been harassed in public yourself?

Yes, when I was growing up, I was spat on, and people used to pull off my hijab. At that time, the Muslim community was less well known and there weren’t as many Muslims around so it was quite difficult. It’s not as bad now, but especially with what’s going on with Brexit, we still get a lot of attacks, slurs, racial aggression towards us. And when someone does say something like that to me, I do have to talk back, I do have to say something. It’s my character, really; I’m not the type of person who stands for anything like that.

That’s one reason why I spoke up on the tube: I did get a flashback of that day when that had happened to me. I thought, if you don’t want someone doing that to you, why would you allow it to happen to somebody else? Especially with children, it’s a very sensitive situation. If I was with my children on the tube and someone did that to my kids, I would like somebody to come up and say something.

On the tube that day, it wasn’t just me. There were other people who stepped in — the person who was filming stepped in between the man arguing and the victims. Another man tried to stop him, too, and he got a bit aggressive with him. And after both the family and I left the train, somebody else confronted the man and was having a bit of a discussion with him.

Did you tell your children about what you did on the tube?

Yes, of course I did, I had to. My son is still too young to fully understand what’s going on, but my daughter does. She was asking me questions: What did you do? And I always instill that kind of character in my children. I have to tell them, when you see something like this, you should not be quiet or allow people to discriminate against you or say anything bad to you. Stand up against what’s wrong in a respectful way.

I tell them that’s how to be a law-abiding citizen and a good Muslim, which is how our prophet, peace be upon him, taught us to behave in society — to coexist with other religions and other races.

Do you think the attacker actually took in anything you said?

My main purpose was to try to calm him down. I didn’t really want to reason with him. I think that speaking to him in a very calm manner, and getting kind of on his level so he doesn’t feel like I’m attacking him, was probably what made him calm down.

He attacked me as well, but you don’t see that in the video. After the camera switched off, he came up to me and got into my face and my personal space, and I just panicked. Then I told him to back off and I said you need to keep your distance, that I was just trying to help so this doesn’t escalate. He attacked my religion. He attacked what I was wearing. I didn’t expect any less, to be honest. I knew that if I was going to talk to him, that he was going to turn on me. But at least I didn’t have my children with me, while the other man did, so his situation was much more sensitive.

I don’t believe you can change somebody’s mind, if they’re very firm with their beliefs. But you can try to make them understand that that kind of behavior is unacceptable.

You later reunited with the father from the tube. What was that like?

It was lovely. I was thinking about them after I left the train, hoping they were okay. I had been in a rush to visit my friend in hospital, but I made sure the situation was quite calm before I left.

He brought me a lovely bouquet of flowers, we sat down, talked about our experiences, our backgrounds, what kind of food we like. I asked him about how his children and wife were doing. It was wonderful chit chat and I said it would be nice to keep in touch and he said he would.

Has the publicity changed your life at all?

Oh yes definitely! Anyone who knows me knows that I am not the type of person who likes the spotlight. I’m not very into social media and I didn’t have a Twitter account until my friends told me the video had exploded. A friend sent me a link and asked, Is this you or is this your look-alike? I said, No that’s me! I couldn’t believe it.

I had no recollection that someone was filming the incident. But I’m glad that they did film it, because at least now we can use it as a positive to help everyone to get together and be more understanding of one another’s background and faith.

When have you ever seen a story like this? You haven’t. Usually you see only the negative things about Muslims in the media, so if something positive happens, we should push it forward — especially because this wasn’t just any family; it was a Jewish family. There’s this kind of speculation about Muslims, that they don’t like Jews — which is wrong! It’s a completely wrong statement. It’s not true at all.

This is a positive thing, with me being a British citizen, me being a mother, me being from an Arab background. And also the other side of the story: that father is a human being, a Jewish person, and a British citizen, too. It balances everything out.

My message is that everyone can learn to coexist in a multicultural society. I think everyone should take time out of their lives to meet people from different backgrounds, not just believe what they see in the media. Befriend them. Meet the Jewish community, meet the Muslim community, meet the people who are passionate about their religion instead of just assuming what they believe and who they are.