Tuesday 30 June 2020

Hadiths of the day; Do good

 Verily, God will not change the condition of a people until they change that which is within themselves." The Holy Quran, 13:11

The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: "Whoever sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then [let him change it] with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart - and that is the weakest of faith." Sahih Muslim

The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said: "Do not be people without minds of your own, saying that if others treat you well you will treat them well, and that if they do wrong you will do wrong. But (instead) accustom yourselves to do good if people do good and not to do wrong if they do evil." Al-Tirmidhi

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: "Shall I not inform you of something more excellent than fasting, prayer and charity?. . .It is putting things right between people." Sunan of Abu-Dawood

A person once asked the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) who is the best of humankind. The Prophet replied: "A person whose life is long and whose deeds are good." The Prophet was then asked which deed is best. He responded by saying: "That you should leave this world with the mention of God fresh on your tongue." Al-Tirmidhi

Thursday 25 June 2020

British Muslims held for two months in India claim religious persecution

Eight British Muslims detained in India for more than two months face criminal charges after getting caught up in a court case in which thousands of foreign Muslims are accused of violating the coronavirus lockdown.

The men allege they are victims of religious persecution by the Indian government, which is led by the rightwing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), known for its anti-Muslim agenda. According to a petition filed to Delhi high court on 20 May, their treatment is “tantamount to illegal detention”.

More than 2,500 foreign Muslims, from 35 different countries, are being charged in the case. Last week, the Indian government agreed to release and deport detained foreign Muslims but only if they accepted guilt for visa violations and “wilfully” disobeying lockdown orders.

“We haven’t done anything wrong. We don’t deserve to be treated like this,” said Shamsul, 39, an optometrist from Lancashire who had travelled to Delhi in March to attend an Islamic gathering.

Speaking by phone from the Delhi centre where he is being held, Shamsul added: “When you are locked away like an animal inside a room and you get treated like a piece of dirt, it mentally just breaks you completely.”

The UK Foreign Office has been accused by the men and their families of abandoning its own citizens to prejudice at the hands of the Indian government and of “caring more about diplomatic relations than the appalling human rights violations”.

In a statement, the FCO said: “We are supporting a group of British people detained in India. We are in close contact with prison officials and the Indian authorities to secure consular access for those who remain in detention.”

Most of the detained British citizens had travelled to India to visit the headquarters of a Muslim organisation, Tablighi Jamaat, located in the Delhi neighbourhood of Nizamuddin. They attended a gathering between 10 and 15 March, alongside thousands of Indians and other foreigners.

The day after the gathering ended a notice was issued limiting events in Delhi to 50 people to restrict the spread of Covid-19. Just over a week later, all international flights were grounded and a strict nationwide lockdown was imposed with four hours’ notice. More than a thousand visitors, both Indian and foreign, found themselves stranded in Tablighi Jamaat’s headquarters.

Documents show that Tablighi Jamaat had been given permission to hold the event. Other religious gatherings were still taking place around the country at the same time, including a Hindu religious ceremony in Madhya Pradesh on 20 March attended by 800 people, from where multiple coronavirus cases later emerged.

However, Tablighi Jamaat became embroiled in controversy after it emerged that dozens of attendees at the gathering had contracted coronavirus and then travelled back to towns and villages across India, or stayed in the Nizamuddin headquarters without following physical distancing.

Across India, a public campaign of hate began to build. Driven in part by anti-Muslim sentiment, Tablighi Jamaat was singled out and accused by Delhi police, BJP politicians and the media of not only conspiring to violate lockdown but also encouraging its Muslim congregation to fight “corona jihad” and purposefully spread the virus, something Tablighi Jamaat vigorously denies. Tablighi Jamaat’s leaders were arrested and face charges of culpable homicide and manslaughter for their alleged role in spreading coronavirus.

On 31 March, about 950 foreigners – including at least four British citizens – who were stuck in the Nizamuddin building were rounded up by police. They were told they were being taken into standard coronavirus quarantine.

Shamsul was among those detained. A lifelong follower of Tablighi Jamaat, he was making his first trip to India.

“After lockdown was announced in India I tried to get home but there weren’t any flights and the embassy was no help,” said Shamsul. “So I just stayed in Nizamuddin and when the police took us into quarantine I wasn’t worried. We all presumed it was normal procedure. We didn’t know we would never be allowed to leave.”

According to Shamsul, for the first 50 days the men were locked in their small rooms, shared between three people, for 24 hours a day. He said water regularly cut out for two days at a time, they were given no soap or toilet paper and were fed the same meal of rice and lentils every day, twice a day. He said their passports were taken from them, and then their mobile phones, under the guise of sanitation. When the phones were returned a week later, photos and messages had reportedly been deleted and sim cards were missing.

According to Shamsul’s accounts, and the court petition, the detainees were tested twice for coronavirus, and after the second test were all proved to be negative, but still were not released.

The detainees have since been shifted to more relaxed quarantine centres but remain locked up, and say they still do not have their passports.

At the same time in late March, at least four other British citizens who had been sheltering in mosques and buildings due to lockdown restrictions in other areas of India were arrested. Some had attended the Tablighi Jamaat gathering but had travelled out of Delhi before lockdown. Others were tourists.

Four remain detained, including Mohsin, a British citizen who is being held in a jail in Ranchi, Jharkhand, and another man, Thalha Siddique, from Bradford, who had not attended the Delhi Tabhlighi Jamaat gathering and is being incarcerated in Bhopal jail.

In a recent update given to his family by an FCO caseworker, who was denied permission to see Siddique in person, it was confirmed Siddique had twice tested negative for coronavirus. Siddique asked for the message to be passed to his family in the UK that “he loves them and misses them a lot”.

The men were held for over 50 days with no charges. It was only after a court petition was filed on 20 May, challenging the government for keeping 1,000 foreigners in “illegal detention”, that charge sheets were filed. In court, Delhi police denied the foreigners were even in custody. The case has since been expanded to blanket-charge more than 2,500 foreign Muslims.

“It’s targeting one religious group,” said Ashima Mandla, a lawyer representing the accused foreigners collectively. “Why were they held for two months with no charge, even after they tested negative for coronavirus? It is quite clear that was illegal detention and a clear violation of the constitution and the fabric of liberty.”

The next court date is 25 June. The accused have been charged with disobeying lockdown orders and violating their tourist visas by carrying out religious missionary work, even though no missionary preaching occurred at the Tablighi Jamaat gathering. However, a few days ago, the government added “indulging in Tablighi activities” as a specific tourist visa violation.

The Foreign Office has been accused of negligence by those detained and their families, who say they have had barely any contact from the British embassy except assertions that it cannot interfere in Indian legal matters. They say that letters sent to the office of the foreign secretary and minister for Asia have been ignored.

The wife of another British citizen from London who attended the Tablighi Jamaat event and is being detained in Delhi spoke of her anger and frustration.

“How is it that British citizens have been locked up for two months and the government say there is nothing they can do?” she said. “I find it so upsetting that the Indian government is using this pandemic to target and exploit Muslim people.”

“I can hardly bear it,” she added. “My daughter keeps asking ‘when will dad be coming home’?”


Tuesday 23 June 2020


How can we retweet #BlackLivesMatter with one hand while, in many countries in the region, we hold on to Kafala contracts with the other? Or, as British-Sudanese artist Rayan El Nayal phrases it, have the courage to post on Instagram, but not talk to our families about their continued use of the word 3abeed (Arabic for ‘slave,’ used colloquially to refer to black people)?

There’s a valid argument for the irony of our situation, how young Arabs could be ‘virtue signaling’—a far from perfect term itself—to appear woke and progressive on social media, while refusing to face what’s right at home. But there is also a more insidious voice that’s made itself heard, of Arabs trying to claim distance from the whole thing: in the vein of ‘let the US deal with its own problems.’ As if this does not directly affect us, as if Arab anti-blackness, both in the region and its diasporas, are not directly culpable.

“Dear amo, let it be known that the majority of white-Arabs are racist! I know it’s uncomfortable to read this amo. You might not be one of them. But listen! It’s in your homes, your movies, comedy, and your language, even in how your people would refer and regard us as 3abeed or aswad. It was never funny—and now we’re gonna talk about this.” – Remaz Khalaleyal.

From Morocco to Bahrain and every country in between, there’s no shortage of racist epithets normalised into everyday language. Yasmine Ghazzali, 23, a Moroccan graduate student, uses the example of la3b drawa, “which roughly translates to ‘black play’. It’s used when people playing around starts getting rough or hurting each other.”

And prototypically, one line of verse from legendary 10th-century Abbasid poet Al-Mutannabi has made its way into Arab (sub)consciousness as a veritable proverb, used at the drop of a hat. Originally written as part of an attack on Abu al-Misk Kafur, a black Egyptian vizier who did not award Al-Mutannabi the office he desired, the line reads: la tashtary al-3abd illa wal 3asa ma3aho—inn al 3abeed anjas manakeed, which translates into “Never purchase a slave without his stick…slaves are impure from birth.”

Over a millennium later, the use of the literal word for ‘slave’ in reference to blackness is still a part of our vocabulary. And yes, words matter. Language matters. Consider it the Political Correctness Police who ‘can’t take a joke’ or dare to take offence at people being called literal slaves. Because for one, ‘political correctness’ is really not the big bad Western-import wolf that we sometimes like to think it is.

More importantly, however, as should be clear by now, these words don’t exist in a vacuum. And even when they’re not immediately violent, when wielded against black people in the way they so often are, they carry very real threats.

Dani*, an African national in Saudi Arabia (who would rather not specify nationality), tells me the story of standing in line with their mother at a clothing store, when the boy in front of them left the line. “Once we reached the counter, this Saudi woman (the boy’s mother) started yelling at us, saying how disrespectful we are to have cut in line. She kept saying things like ‘wallah ara7alkom anto aslan ma taswoo shyy’ (‘I swear I’ll deport you, you are worth nothing.’)”

“None of the people standing even had the nerve to say something, because deep down, this is what they believe,” Dani continues. “That they are superior. They treat foreigners like they’re parasites. It is off the backs of foreigners that the Gulf has grown so fast, and yet we are still referred as 3abeed like we’re in the middle ages. I’m honestly so tired of the ignorance.”

Dani also tells me how they wish black people they grew up around would have taught anything other than: “don’t reply, you’ll get yourself in trouble,” a more than familiar sentiment in Gulf countries.

Charles*, 20, an African undergraduate student in Qatar who also wanted his nationality unspecified, says he was warned by older black students to watch what he says, and avoid getting on the wrong side of anyone. In his first week in the country, he tells me, two Qatari women called the police on him and two other African friends for walking behind them in a packed mall.

“I guess Karens exist everywhere when you’re black,” he quips. “There’s all the ‘I’ll get you deported’ jokes that people throw around. But you can never be sure as to whether these ‘jokes’ are banter or not, because their words carry power. For real, they know that they can get you deported. Because once it reaches the higher levels, you’re assumed to be guilty from the get-go.”


Monday 15 June 2020


Reporter: Malcolm, on your trip abroad, you said you sensed a feeling a great brotherhood and that conceivably you would be working toward integration in this country now, at least this is what you're reported to have said, do you have any comment on it?

Malcolm X: I don't think that I ever mentioned anything about working toward integration. If I recall I pointed out that while I was at Mecca making the pilgrimage, I spoke about the brotherhood that existed at all levels and among all people who were there on that hajj who had accepted the religion of Islam and I pointed out that for what it had done what the religion of Islam had done for those people over there despite their complexion differences that it would probably do America well to study the religion of Islam and perhaps it could drive some of the racism from this society as it has driven racism from the Muslim society.

Reporter: Do you think the current integration drive is aiming for this goal?

Malcolm X: Well I can't say that the current integration drive is aiming for that goal because it hasn't realized the goal in any state if they haven't even got integration right here in New York City you have worse integration problems in the North than they have in the South so if it doesn't work in...if you can't bring about integration in New York City, as international, cosmopolitan, up-to-date as it's supposed to be you'll never get integration anywhere else in the country.

Reporter: Malcolm, have your experiences with white skinned Muslims in Africa and the Middle East made you feel that relations between Negroes and whites who are not Muslims is any more possible?

Malcolm X: When I was on the pilgrimage I had close contact with Muslims whose skin within America be classified as white, and with Muslims who are themselves would be classified as white in America but these particular Muslims didn't call themselves white. They looked upon themselves as human beings, as part of the human family and therefore they looked upon all other segments of the human family as part of that same family. Now, they had a different look or different air or different attitude than that which is reflected in the attitude of the man in America who calls himself white. So I said that if Islam had done that for them perhaps if the white man in America would study Islam perhaps it could do the same thing for him.

Reporter: Malcolm, one of your more controversial remarks was a call for black people to get rifles and form rifle clubs sometime back, do you still favor that for self defense?

Malcolm X: I don't see why that should be controversial. I think that if white people found themselves the victim of the same kind of brutality that black people in this country face, and they saw that the government was either unwilling or unable to protect them that the intelligence on the part of the whites would make them get some rifles and shotguns and protect themselves. Now, Negroes are developing some kind of intellectual maturity too, and they can see that having waited upon the government to protect them has been a wait that has been in vain. So, any of them who live in areas where the government is not able to do its job, then we do have to get together and do a job of protecting ourselves.

Return from Mecca Press Conference at Hotel Theresa, Harlem, New York (May 21, 1964)

May Allah have mercy on his soul. El Hajj Malik El Shabazz (May 19, 1925 - February 21, 1965)

( Source: http://malcolmxfiles.blogspot.com )

Wednesday 10 June 2020

How a kidnapped aid worker who converted to Islam shook Italy

In November 2018, Italian aid worker Silvia Romano was kidnapped by gunmen linked to the Somali armed group al-Shabab in northeast Kenya. At the time of the attack, which left several people wounded, Romano was volunteering for an Italian NGO in an orphanage in the village of Chakama.

The news of Romano's kidnapping caused not only sadness and worry, but also controversy in her home country. Right-wing politicians and public figures, and some members of the public, accused the aid worker of "looking for trouble" by going to Kenya, and claimed she should have "stayed in Milan and helped people there".

They called her decision to go to Kenya as a volunteer aid worker an expression of "bravado" and claimed she was seeking attention. These accusations were countered by outraged liberals who talked of the "importance" of idealistic youngsters like Romano going abroad on voluntary aid missions, and helping those in need in other countries.

In the following weeks, the news cycle moved on and the discussions about Romano, and the work she had been doing in Kenya, slowly came to an end. 

Las month, however, Romano once again found herself at the receiving end of right-wing attacks, this time not only for going to Kenya and "causing trouble", but also for voluntarily choosing to convert to Islam during her ordeal.

The outpouring of Islamophobia and hate
On May 9, when Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced on Twitter that Romano had finally been freed, most Italians were overjoyed. Soon after, however, it was revealed that the aid worker had chosen to become a Muslim during her 18 months in al-Shabab captivity and that she had changed her name to "Aisha". This dampened the celebratory mood and led many on the Italian right to once again question Romano's motivations for going to Kenya in the first place. 

After Romano landed in Rome wearing a light green jilbab - a loose-fitting robe that covers the entire body and is often worn by Somali women - her conversion swiftly became the sole focus of right-wing Italian media outlets. They published "before and after" photos showing the aid worker's "transformation" and embarked on a quest to shed light on "the mystery surrounding the conversion": Was she forcibly converted? Was she brainwashed? Was she a victim of Stockholm syndrome?

"We have freed a Muslim woman," declared conservative daily Libero Quotidiano, as if only Christian Italian citizens, and not Muslim ones, deserve to be protected by the government of the country they call home.

"Islamic and happy. Silvia the ungrateful," read the front-page headline of an article by Alessandro Sallusti, the editor of Il Giornale. In the same article, Sallusti accused Romano of wearing the "jihadist uniform of the enemy" and claimed her conversion is as absurd as a Jew coming back from a concentration camp dressed as a Nazi.

Several right-wing politicians also used Romano's ordeal and conversion as an opportunity to promote Islamophobic views. The leader of the right-wing League party, Matteo Salvini, for example, framed Romano's kidnapping and conversion within an alleged clash of civilisations, and claimed that "Islamic terrorists" have won "the cultural battle in the name of the Islamic veil and conversion". Salvini's deputy, Alessandro Pagano, meanwhile, branded Romano "the new terrorist" during a parliamentary session.

The right-wing media's aggressive and accusatory coverage of Romano's release and conversion to Islam, coupled with prominent League politicians' hateful and discriminatory comments, exposed how entrenched Islamophobia has become in Italy.

But, Romano was not only targeted by these usual suspects. 

Some Italian feminists also attacked the young aid worker for converting to Islam and wearing "Islamic clothes". 

Prominent feminist historian, Nadia Riva, who in the 1980s was one of the founders of the influential and radical feminist group the Cicip & Ciciap club, for example, in a Facebook post referred to Romano as "a smiling woman in a green recycling bag". Claiming Romano's jilbab is a symbol of male oppression rather than an expression of her religious identity, she explained that she could not believe a woman would choose to dress that way willingly.

Many Italian feminists came to Romano's defence and distanced themselves from Riva's controversial comments. However, the fact that some prominent Italian feminists found it appropriate to attack a fellow woman because of what she chooses to believe in and the way she chooses to dress demonstrated how embedded is the idea of moral superiority in parts of the Italian and Western feminist movement.

Reproducing 'white saviour myths'
Italian liberals and the left wing openly condemned the hate Romano received for converting to Islam and celebrated her return home. Their response to the hateful right-wing rhetoric surrounding the aid worker's liberation, however, was equally problematic, albeit for different reasons.

In their response to the whole Romano saga, Italy's liberal media organisations and public figures tried to highlight the human side of the story, and celebrated her safe return home without any reservations. But in their undoubtedly well-intentioned celebration, they promoted deep-rooted and highly damaging stereotypes about Africa. They not only portrayed the continent as a savage and abandoned place, but they also implied Africans are in need of "white saviours".

Liberal newspapers published countless images showing Romano surrounded by Kenyan children, but did not attempt to preserve the privacy of these children as they would normally do with European ones. These images, and articles that accompanied them, were perfect reproduction of decades of "white saviour" myths, which talked of selfless Western men and women who travelled to Africa to "save" African children with no agency.

Italy's leading centre-left daily La Repubblica even published an article claiming Romano "was betrayed by the same village she wanted to save" - a claim that reaffirms baseless and damaging tropes about the ungratefulness of African people in the face of Western attempts to "save" them.

One of the most obvious reproductions of the "white saviour myth" came from best-selling author and vocal anti-fascist Roberto Saviano. In an article published in La Repubblica, and on his Facebook page, Saviano portrayed Africans - perhaps unintentionally - as people living in a desolated place who are in need of help and guidance from the West.

In his article welcoming Romano back to Italy, Saviano described the Kenyan children she worked with as "forgotten and abandoned" and claimed they will likely become al-Shabab fighters themselves in the absence of Western "saviours" like Romano. Ignoring Kenya's own fight against the armed group, he even went as far to say "a young European woman who arrives unarmed to stay next to the children" like Romano is the "great enemy" of such terrorist organisations. 

This narrative is not only problematic and simplistic, but also misleading and paternalistic. It presents a decontextualised image of the region and ignores the role Europeans themselves played, and continue to play, in the ongoing calamity in the Horn of Africa. 

Indeed, according to a study released in 2018, many of the orphaned children in Kenyan towns like Chakama will not go to Somalia to fight for al-Shabab, but will most probably move to nearby international tourist spots like Malindi, Mtwapa or Mombasa to try and make a living. There, the biggest threat facing them would not be the possibility of radicalisation, but being pushed into the sex trade. In these regions, it needs to be noted, the main clientele of sex workers are mainly European sex tourists, including Italians.

The Italian media's coverage also ignored Italy's past crimes in Africa. As newspapers and TV channels discussed the role Turkey played in the liberation of Romano, and claimed the country is now "the new master of the Horn of Africa", their nostalgia for those times when Italy had power over these parts of Africa was apparent. In these think pieces, of course, there was no mention of the disaster Italy's colonial enterprise caused in the Horn of Africa in the last century.

In the shortage of relevant thoughts and critical commentaries, one of the few voices out of the chorus was that of Somali-Italian writer Igiaba Scego, who took the opportunity to remind people, "Italians must be decolonised from their own colonial imagination. Even in language we carry too many legacies, not only of fascism, but of the typical rhetoric of the nineteenth century."

There is not much to be gained from questioning Romano's motivations for embarking on a volunteer aid mission to Kenya after her 18-month ordeal and safe return home. We should do everything we can to shield this young woman from the attacks of Italian right-wing media and politicians, who target her only because she chose to convert to a religion that they see as "the enemy". 

Nevertheless, we should also not ignore the damaging narratives that some liberal media organisations and figures utilise in their defence of the aid worker.

While we should reject Islamophobia - whether it comes from right-wing figures or renowned feminists - we should also challenge discourses that present millions of Africans as savages who need to be saved by altruistic Westerners.


Monday 8 June 2020

'He's Disabled,' the Caregiver Screamed. 'I'm With Her,' Eyad Cried. The Cop Opened Fire Anyway

A little before 6 A.M., Warda Abu Hadid, Eyad’s caregiver, also set out from her home in the Jabal Mukkaber neighborhood, headed for the Elwyn center. At about 6:10, Abu Hadid, 47, passed by the Border Policemen who were manning the security post at Lions Gate and entered the Old City. She had not walked much more than 100 meters before she heard shouts behind her: “Terrorist! Terrorist!” Immediately afterward she heard three shots. She rushed to the garbage room nearby, taking shelter behind the iron closet on its right side. Just then her ward, Hallaq, ran into the room in a panic and collapsed on the floor. A sanitation worker was sitting there, drinking tea.

The garbage room is an open space, not very big, with a few chairs for sanitation workers and a large container that reeked unmercifully this week when we visited the site. On the iron closet is a metal plaque with verses from the Koran, which has been here a long time. There were three bullet holes in the tin wall.

Abu Hadid noticed that Hallaq, lying on the floor, was bleeding, apparently from being shot in the leg by the Border Policemen as he fled. She later told Amer Aruri, of the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, that Hallaq lay there for between three and five minutes, wounded, before he was shot and killed.

The whole time she shouted, “He is disabled, he is disabled!” in Hebrew, and Hallaq shouted, “Ana ma’aha!” – Arabic for “I am with her” – as he attempted to cling to his caregiver for protection. It’s not hard to imagine what went through his mind in those last terrified minutes, as three officers ran into the room screaming, “Where is the rifle? Where is the rifle?”

The officers aimed their weapons at Hallaq. They were at point-blank range, standing over him at the entrance to the garbage room. Abu Hadid kept trying to explain that Hallaq didn’t have any sort of gun – he was only holding the surgical face mask that is required these days at the center, and rubber gloves – when one of the officers fired three shots with his M-16 into the center of the young man’s body, killing him instantly.

Suddenly the area was filled with Border Police, among them an officer who aimed her weapon at Abu Hadid’s head, ordering her to stand still while she subjected her to a body search. The caregiver, whose ward had just been killed before her eyes, was utterly distraught. She was then taken to the police position next to Lions Gate, stripped almost naked in a search for the nonexistent firearm, and then interrogated for three hours.

The officers wanted to know about Hallaq and the institution he attended. They then informed Abu Hadid that she would be taken for questioning to the notorious room No. 4 in the police station in the Russian Compound, in downtown Jerusalem. She balked, telling the police that she first had to call her director, which they allowed her to do.


Wednesday 3 June 2020

Coronavirus exposed the real reasons behind France's 'burqa ban'

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, France is faced with a paradox: It has just made the wearing of masks compulsory in certain public spaces, but maintained the years-long ban on Muslim full-face veils. This suggests, as the Washington Post recently noted, "if an observant Muslim woman wanted to get on the Paris Metro, she would be required to remove her burqa and replace it with a mask".

The French government made the use of face masks in public mandatory on May 10 in an effort to safely ease the country's strict coronavirus lockdown. More than 50 other countries, from Germany to Uganda, had previously passed similar laws and provisions to stem the spread of the virus and get people back to work.

While in most countries the discussion about compulsory face masks focused on the effectiveness of the measure, in France, where not long ago the government proudly stated that "the Republic lives with its face uncovered", this decision raised questions about the way the state defines French identity and values.

Face coverings started to be discussed in the context of French national identity for the first time more than a decade ago, during Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency.

In October 2008, the High Authority for the Fight against Discrimination and for Equality (HALDE), France's public watchdog group on discrimination, equated the wearing of a burqa to the "submission of women" in a ruling over an administrative decision that denied a woman wearing the garment access to the French-language classes that were required for her to remain in France. As it sided with the public authority that took the controversial decision, the watchdog said: "The burqa carries the meaning of the submission of women which goes beyond its religious scope and could be considered as undermining republican values presiding over the process of integration and organisation of these lessons."

The ruling laid the foundations for the perception that this religious garment is not only fundamentally anti-feminist but also foreign to French culture. It also ignited a debate on "republican values" which quickly transformed into a debate on whether Islam is compatible with the French Republic.

Just a few months after the publication of HALDE's ruling, as the call for the banning of all Muslim face coverings became louder across the country, President Sarkozy himself joined in the debate. 

In a State of the Nation address, the president claimed that face coverings worn by some Muslim women were not a "religious problem" but a problem of "liberty and women's dignity" and declared "the burqa is not welcome in France".

Sarkozy's words ignited another major public debate, with one side accusing the president of weaponising feminism and secular values to exclude Muslims from the French identity and the other emphasising the importance of protecting the nation's core liberal values.

While the few women in France who wear full-face veils were never included in the "burqa" debate, several prominent public figures - mostly men - passionately argued that no one would willingly choose to wear such a garment and that anyone wearing it was undoubtedly a victim of male oppression. Failing to realise the irony of denying women agency over their own bodies and outfit choices while trying to "save them" from gendered oppression, these people eventually convinced the country that all face coverings should be banned to protect women's rights and French values.

As a result, in September 2010, the French Senate voted in favour of a bill banning the concealment of the face in public spaces. In March 2011, weeks before the ban came into force, the government issued a new circular about the scope of the ban and offered some cultural justifications for it.

"To conceal the face is to infringe the minimum requirements of life in society," the circular stated. "This also places the persons concerned in a situation of exclusion and inferiority incompatible with the principles of freedom, equality and human dignity affirmed by the French Republic."

The circular, therefore, officially acknowledged a link between the way a person chooses to dress themselves in public and that person's place in French society. To be recognised as a French person, the circular affirmed, one has to show her face in public, as a confirmation of her commitment to the "common values" and "shared destiny" of the country.

This is why the French government's recent decision to make the wearing of face masks mandatory in public places raised questions. The government's move to make face masks compulsory while refusing to reverse the ban on Muslim face veils reaffirmed the conviction many already had that the so-called "burqa" ban has nothing to do with the incompatibility of face coverings with the French way of life and everything to do with the state's reluctance to include visible Muslims into the French national identity.

As millions of French people now participate in public life with covered faces without any issue, it is indeed clear that the French state banned Muslim face veils not to protect the values of the Republic, but to promote an assimilationist understanding of Frenchness that does not tolerate minority cultural expressions.

The coronavirus pandemic exposed the French state's hypocrisy about several other forms of behaviour, too.

For example, back in 2019, following an attack on the Paris police headquarters by a Muslim employee, French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner delivered a controversial list of potential signs of radicalisation to the French Parliament. Alongside innocent cultural expressions, such as wearing a long beard, he suggested that a Muslim person's refusal to kiss someone to greet them, as many French people usually do, could be a sign of radicalisation. Now, however, the state is actively encouraging citizens to refrain from kissing each other in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus. There is, of course, no suggestion that refusing to kiss someone can infringe the requirements of life in society.

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the extreme measures that were taken to fight it, showed that neither the wearing of face veils nor other forms of Muslim cultural and religious expressions, have ever posed a threat to the French way of life. It showed that the motivation behind the "burqa ban" was not to protect republican values but to prevent Muslims from being included in public life. The French state simply used cultural markers that are associated with "being French" in the national psyche to draw the contours of an exclusionary national identity.

Now that COVID-19 demonstrated that one can indeed participate in public life and remain "French" without showing her face or kissing acquaintances, the nation could do well to rethink the way it treats Muslims.


Monday 1 June 2020

Indian Muslims at the Forefront of COVID-19 Relief Efforts Despite Rising Islamophobia

In late March when India announced the lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, everything came to a grinding halt in the country of 1.3 billion people. Millions of migrant workers, students, and tourists got stuck in cities and towns far away from their homes. Most of the migrant workers earn daily-wages, so as the days passed they struggled to make ends meet. The needed succour but the government appeared to have abdicated its responsibility.

It was then that civil society groups of different shades came out to provide relief to the stranded migrant workers and their families. These included established aid agencies, political parties, community collectives, student initiatives, and religious groups. Everyone is helping in their own way and in some cases, the groups collaborated with each other to amplify the efforts.

But the way Muslims have responded to the crises is unmatchable. Muslim volunteers in India are at the forefront of the relief efforts to help the needy. They have set up community kitchens across cities and towns from North to South and East to West of the country. They prepare food and water which they feed to those either stranded or walking their way home.

These efforts are run from offices, community centres, homes, roadside points, and mosques where rations are collected and then distributed among the people in a coordinated manner. The volunteers have created WhatsApp groups for better coordination and make effective use of social media to mobilise the volunteers and raise funds for the relief work.

During Ramadan when Muslims were observing fast, numerous videos popped up on social media showing Muslim men racing to help the needy walking under the sweltering sun. Facebook and Tik Tok, the popular video-sharing app, is rife with videos showing Muslim volunteers supporting skull caps on highways handing out food and water packs to the migrants making their way home on foot, bicycles, buses or trains. They carry banners inviting the travellers to stop for a free meal.

The volunteer efforts have soothed the problems of the travellers amidst a mounting migrant crisis due to lockdown. Some estimates suggest that 170 people have died while they were trying to reach their destination during the lockdown. Most of the deaths happened due to accidents but some died of hunger and exhaustion.

Though the government has started special trains, the services are marred with problems like waiting in long queues, screening of passengers, and lack of onboard facilities which has forced many to take the arduous route – they ride bicycles or prefer walking hundreds of miles to reach their home as the uncertainty about work in future looms large.

People are tweeting out stories under the hashtag #MuslimSaviours to highlight the role of Muslims in alleviating the migrant crisis triggered by the lockdown.

There have also been numerous reports of Muslims coming out to help perform the last rites of their non-Muslim neighbours when their community members failed to do so because of the coronavirus scare.

In the city of Pune, Muslims donated around 50 thousand USD in charity to a hospital to equip itself for setting up COVID Intensive Care Units.

In the same city, a group of Muslim men are feeding fooder to the stray cows unable to satiate hunger in the lockdown. The cow is a sacred animal for Hindus and in recent years Muslims have been subjected to mob violence by Hindu extremists on the suspicion of cow slaughter.

However, Muslim generosity towards those in need of assistance has come amidst a renewed wave of hate crimes against Muslims including physical assaults, verbal abuse, open discrimination, and social ostracisation. They are being falsely accused of spreading coronavirus.

Hatemongers on TV speak of terms like corona-jihad and corona-bombs. This is the result of a vilification campaign systematically carried out by a large section of mainstream and social media against Tablighi Jamaat after their Nizamuddin Markaz in New Delhi emerged as one of the Coronavirus clusters. In several instances, people associated with Tablighi Jamaat have been subjected to violence both by mobs and police. In one episode the mob charged against a group of Muslim relief workers who were proving food to stranded migrants in the city of Banglore.

But what explains the reasons behind this generosity despite being subjected to hate and violence?

Syed Sadatullah Hussaini, a community leader, heads a Muslim organisation called Jamaat e Islami. While addressing the Muslims of the country in a press statement on the eve of Eid, he urged them to be ready for the service of humanity:

We must not get distracted by the negative propaganda unleashed by some sections of media against Muslims. We must communicate the noble and pristine teachings of Islam and focus on this task with complete confidence and concentration.”

Hussaini appealed to his community to “consider the problems of fellow countrymen” to be their problems.

In the city of Bhopal in central India, Hussain’s organisation is passing out food, milk, and sanitary napkins to the migrant workers walking home.

“We are happy at the tremendous and extraordinary social work done by our youth, elders, and women during the lockdown. We are proud of them and want the entire Ummah to emulate this practice to the extent that it becomes a part of their identity. Muslims must be seen as the benefactors and saviors of humanity and assets for the country.”