Friday, November 30, 2012

Ambivalence of Muslim solidarity

Sumanto Al Qurtuby (Jakarta Globe)

 Every time the Israeli-Palestinian conflict re-emerges on the stage of global politics, Muslim groups in predominantly Muslim-populated countries like Indonesia, but also in the West, the United States included, organise events — from small gatherings in mosques or Islamic centres to large-scale fundraisers. 
Some mobilise the masses to condemn Jews or Israelis (and usually also the Americans, seen as masterminds behind the conflict). Others urge international agencies, including the United Nations, to help resolve the seemingly endless clash between Arabs and Jews. 
On many websites, furthermore, Muslims post pictures of Palestinian victims and “Israeli savagery,” neglecting casualties on the part of Israel. Many Muslims, moreover, continue to solely blame Israel for the bloodshed, while ignoring violent acts committed by Hamas. 
Such “global Muslim solidarity” also occurred when Rohingya in Myanmar and Moros in Mindanao (Southern Philippines), among others, were marginalised and persecuted by non-Muslim regimes. 
Certainly, there is nothing wrong with such solidarity. Each people and religious grouping has the right to select those it wants to assist or endorse. 
And urgent appeals are indeed needed to help and support — intellectually, politically and financially — the victims of violence and the oppressed worldwide, including the Palestinians, Moros and Rohingya, who the UN describes as among the most persecuted people in the world, with over 80,000 now without shelter and protection from the recent violence in Myanmar. 
Notwithstanding Muslims’ notable assistance benefiting their “imagined” religious brethren, one question remains unanswered: why do they so passionately support the Muslim casualties, and not, for instance, Jewish victims? 
Instead of Hamas, why do Muslims solely blame Israelis for the aggression and brutality? Why does such “religious solidarity,” or whatever one calls it, only occur when Muslims have been the object of oppression of non-Muslim groups such as those of Palestine (by Jews), Mindanao (Catholics), Myanmar or Southern Thailand (Buddhists), India (Hindus) and Bosnia (Orthodox Serbs)? 
Importantly, why doesn’t such similar Islamic solidarity come into view when Muslim communities have been the targets of persecution and injustice by Muslim regimes? Examples abound, like the case of the Kurds (in Turkey, Iraq, Syria), Darfur (Sudan), Shiites (Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan), Sunnis (Iran), Ahmadis (Pakistan and Indonesia), etcetera. 
Despite the fact that Islam and the Quran oblige Muslims to reach out to those in need, regardless of their ethno-religious backgrounds, why do most Muslims choose silence when confronted with Muslim extremists and dictatorial rulers maltreating and discriminating against ethno-religious minorities in, to name just a few examples, Egypt, Bangladesh and Iran? 
It is obvious that for some Muslim groups the primary question is not “who are the victims?” but rather “who are the perpetrators?” 
It is more about “the oppressors” rather than “the oppressed.” 
Romanticising and using double standards, some call for “global Islamic solidarity” simply because the persecution of Muslims is committed by non-Muslims or actors they mistakenly dub “infidels” (kuffar). 
Such “exclusivist religious solidarity” misreads the historical dynamics and socio-political backgrounds of inter-group conflicts, overlooks the facts of inter-religious coalitions for global peace and reconciliation, misunderstands the diversity of societies, and reveals the opportunism of extremists and conservative Muslim political leaders who draw populist support by blaming non-Muslims. 
It is worth noting that, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, Arabs (mostly Muslim) make up some 20.4 percent of its population, and these people mostly identify themselves as Arab by nationality and Israeli by citizenship. It is not surprising then that there are Israeli Arabs (or Arab Israelis) who serve in the Israel Defence Forces. 
Moreover, there is also a sizable non-Muslim minority in the Palestinian territories, including Druze, Samaritan and Christians from various denominations. In fact, Palestine is the birthplace of Christianity. The conversion process to Islam began in the seventh century when Muslims captured Palestine. Studies also illustrate that a majority of the Palestinian Muslims are offspring of Christians, Jews and other earlier dwellers of the southern Levant. 
But apart from this, there are more facts contributing to the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including Jewish opposition against Israeli authorities. There are many anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian Jews and organisations worldwide, including rabbis, activists, and academics, as discussed in David Landy’s illuminating 2011 book “Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights: Diaspora Jewish Opposition to Israel.” An Irish-Jewish academic and former chair of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Landy himself has an activist background. 
Moreover, despite the support of some “right-wing” Christians, there are also Christian activists and peacemakers calling for Palestinian liberation and who oppose Israeli policies. These include Palestinian Archbishop Elias Chacour, who has long been working to promote reconciliation and peace between Arabs and Israelis. 
Given the historical complexity and dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is quite inaccurate to simply dub it Muslim-Jewish violence. Rather, it is a war between extremist factions in both Palestine and Israel. 
The global Muslim solidarity movement, thus, will be more meaningful and successful if it uses “human solidarity” as its basis, instead of a religious-based discourse. 
Whoever suffers and is in need of support, deserves to be given a helping hand — whatever their religious affiliation and ethnic background. Isn’t the very fundamental teaching of Islam to be rahmatan lil ‘alamin — a blessing for all humanity? It is the job of Muslim activists to bring this universal message down to earth. — Jakarta Globe
* Sumanto Al Qurtuby is a co-founder of the US branch of Nahdlatul Ulama and a research fellow at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Govt unjust to Muslims too, says report

Both Muslims and non-Muslims face discrimination from Malaysian authorities in the practice and propagation of their beliefs, according to a UK-based study.
The study, conducted by international human rights organisation Equal Rights Trust (ERT) and local rights group Tenaganita, found that Muslims who express beliefs not approved by “official interpreters of Islam” face discrimination from the state and federal government due to provisions in the constitution.
“In the Malaysian context, the belief that only the religiously learned (the ulama) are entitled to opine on religious matters in Islam has created a culture of taboos at the expense of the right to freedom of religion without discrimination,” said a report from the study.
“Today, those Muslims who do not follow the officially sanctioned religion can face persecution.
“As Sunni Islam is the officially accepted branch of Islam in Malaysia, any other forms, practices or schools of Islamic thoughts are vulnerable to being classified deviant.”
The government maintains an official list of 56 sects of Islam it considers deviant and a threat to national security. The list includes Shi’a Islam.
“The government, upon approval by a Syariah court, may detain Muslims who deviate from accepted Sunni principles and subject them to mandatory ‘rehabilitation’ in centres that teach and enforce government approved Islamic practices,” said the report.
In the case of non-Muslims, it said, Article 11 (4) of the Federal Constitution had been used to place discriminatory restrictions on the religious freedoms of Christians, including the freedom to propagate their beliefs.
Article 11(4) states that “state law and, in respect of the Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur and Labuan, federal law may control or restrict the propagation of religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam.”
This article was used against Christians to ostensibly prevent them from proselytising to Muslims and threatening the supremacy of Islam in Malaysia, the report said.

“Laws prohibiting the proselytisation by non-Muslims were reportedly used by the Selangor Islamic Religious Department to suppress the activities of the Damansara Utama Methodist Church,” it said.
“In 2009, nine Christians were arrested by Malaysian police at Universiti Putra Malaysia … for allegedly trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.”
Article 11 (4) is also the basis upon which state laws have prohibited the use of words and phrases by non-Muslims, the report revealed.
“The Malaysian government has banned the use of the word ‘Allah’ by other religions, on the basis that Muslims would be confused by the use of ‘Allah’ in other religious publications.”
This led to the 2009 seizure of 35,000 copies of the Malaysian-language Bible, which the government finally released two years later on condition that each copy was stamped with the phrase “Not for Muslims”.
Non-Muslims continue to be prohibited from using the word “Allah” pending an appeal made by the government over the High Court’s decision in 2009, which granted a Catholic organisation the use of the word when referring to God in its newspaper.
In February this year, a concert by Grammy-award winning US singer Erykah Badu was cancelled because a publicity photograph showed her with a tattoo with the word “Allah” in Arabic.
Non-Islamic religions also face obstacles in establishing and maintaining places of worship, the report said, citing the destruction in 2006 of several Hindu temples, some of them almost two centuries old.
“In 2007, authorities demolished the 100 year old Maha Mariamman Hindu Temple in Padang Jawa, Selangor, and reportedly assaulted its chief priest.