THE PARLIAMENT OF WORLD RELIGIONS – PATHWAYS TO PEACE THE WISDOM OF LISTENING, THE POWER OF COMMITMENT

(In anticipation of Toronto being considered as a possible venue for PWR in either 2017 or 2018, here is my personal experience from 2004)
THE PARLIAMENT OF WORLD RELIGIONS – PATHWAYS TO PEACE
THE WISDOM OF LISTENING, THE POWER OF COMMITMENT
Barcelona July 7 – 13, 2004
By Raheel Raza
“There will be no peace among nations without peace among the religious” Hans Kung
I had just finished performing my Jum’a namaz (Friday prayers) on the shores of the Mediterranean sea and as I looked around me, I was filled with the wonder of being here – a long way from my native Pakistan and my adopted home, Canada.
I was in Barcelona to attend the 4th Parliament of World Religions with two friends and partners in interfaith – Reverend Dr. Karen Hamilton, a practicing Christian, and Barbara Siddiqui, born in Midland as a Christian and now a practicing Muslim.
It was an unusual situation in many ways. Two white women wearing shalwar qameez were praying with me and a host of diverse Muslims, in a VIP tent set up by the Sikh community of Birmingham, England. We were joined by local media keen to see how-Muslims-pray (thank God men and women prayed together!). However they were thoroughly confused when a turbaned Sikh and some non Muslims came and joined the prayer. However this was interfaith at it’s best. The ad-hoc Imam said in his sermon “Humanity is one Community” and certainly at this point in time, anyone would agree.
The 2004 Parliament of World Religions was organized in partnership with the Universal Forum of Cultures – Barcelona 2004 (which runs from May to September) and in association with the UNESCO Centre of Catalonia. 8000 Religious and spiritual practitioners from all over the world converged to Barcelona to greet and meet each other in peace. 400 carefully selected seminars, workshops, performances and films were offered in the PWR program. They addressed three core themes: Sustainable development, Cultural diversity and Conditions for peace through spiritual practice, religious identity, and intra- and inter-religious dialogue. The Forum was supported by the presence of people like The Archbishop of Barcelona, Dr. Abdullah Omar Nasseef (President of the Muslim World Congress), Ela Gandhi (granddaughter of Mahatama Gandhi), Rabbi Henry J. Sobel (Chief Rabbi of Brazil) and many more.
What was I doing there? I’ve been dabbling in interfaith dialogue since I moved to Canada in 1989, but September 11th threw me into the heart of interfaith dialogue. Last year, I saw a call for papers for PWR and I immediately called my partners in interfaith dialogue, Karen and Barbara and said, “I’m going – are you coming with me?” They were thrilled at the opportunity. Of course the fact that the venue is Barcelona only added to our desire to be there. We worked together on a proposal titled “Keeping the Path Clear – Women engaging in Inter-faith, Inter-action and Inter-relationships”. By June 2004 we hadn’t heard back from PWR but we decided to go anyway. At the end of June, I was looking through the online program and I found our names – our proposal had been accepted!
For me, this was a journey from the heart. Whenever I read or talked about Muslim history, I used to imagine the rich Muslim, Jewish and Christian heritage of Spain when the three faiths lived in harmony and reached out to each other spiritually and intellectually. Here was a chance to promote that same essence of pluralism and I felt specially blessed to be chosen for this opportunity. It was only later I discovered how fortunate we were to be chosen from among the thousands of proposals that were submitted.
On our first day in Barcelona, Barb, Karen and I took the Metro to the Forum site. On the metro we met a South Asian couple wearing PWR badges and we chatted. As we exchanged names the lady said “so you are Raheel Raza?” I was a bit shocked. She was the Vice President of PWR and she knew me through our proposal, which she said she personally approved because there weren’t too many Muslim women presenters from North America. We were thrilled and humbled at the same time – to be invited to present along with theologians like Hans Kung, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Adolfor Perez Esquivel (the Portuguese writer), activists like Susan George and authors like Deepak Chopra – it was a gift.
The Forum site is a 30-hectare space next to the Mediterranean Sea and an extension of the waterfront that began with the 1992 Olympic Games. It was a sight for sore eyes and hearts. A sea of people in colors of the world. Dresses, voices, faces of diversity. The orange robes of Buddhist monks mingling with white dresses of the Sufis – everyone stopped and wished each other in peace, smiled and sometimes spontaneously hugged each other. This was beyond tolerance – it was embracing each other.
Throughout the Forum site there were 4 major exhibitions, 22 smaller shows, 400 concerts, 170 music groups, 60 street performances and 4 circuses. No matter where you went, there were interactive installations, markets, games and fun. Two permanent were remarkable: Voices and Corners Make Cities (photos). The event was hi-tech and well organized with hundreds of youth volunteers from all over the world.
Our trio caused some surprise – a yogi nun from America who had heard Shirin Ebadi speak at the plenary told me she had never met such strong Muslim women before and she hoped we would change the world!
Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 2003 stated in the opening of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, “human rights cannot be protected with bombs” and denounced the despotic behaviour of those “who ignore human rights and democracy with the argument of belonging to a different culture and shadow dictatorial regimes with religious and nationalistic arguments.”

In her address speech Ebadi defended that Islam is compatible with respect for human rights and democracy and showed her disagreement with the Islamic declaration of Human Rights. In her opinion, “if each of the 5,000 religions of the world made their own declaration this would be the end of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

She went on to state, “God has made human beings different but the ultimate goal of all religions is the pursuit of happiness and thus all religions can share the things they have in common.”

We attended as many dialogue sessions as we could, sometimes together and other times separately. But we always met for lunch at the same place – The Parliament by the Sea. This was a tent city set up on the seashore of the sea by the Sikh community of Birmingham, U.K. Here volunteers from the Sikh community ages 16 to 60 first welcomed people, then poured water on their hands, gave people headscarves and served lunch, drinks and water to almost 6000 people a day. They also invited participants to pray in their scared spaces tent. My longing for ‘desi’ food was quenched with pooris, daal, chawal and achaar.
Our presentation was slotted for Saturday July 10 at 11:30 and we arrived there early – nervous because we had no way of knowing how many people would attend. To our delight a trustee from PWR came to introduce our session and told us how important it was to acknowledge the work we are doing – wow we felt honoured. Our room filled up soon with diverse people including some Barcelona Muslims. Karen, Barb and I spoke about the work we do and why we do it. At the end of our session, we distributed little boxes with a Canadian maple syrup candy, a Canada pin and a message saying “Pray for Peace – Act for Peace” while we played a song called “People of the Boxes” from the CD “The Prophet’s Hands”. Later people came up to ask us questions. A man wearing an Arab dress and a kufi, came to me, blessed me for the work we do and to my surprise, had tears running down his face as he said, “you make me proud to be Muslim”. It wasn’t the only time in Barcelona that I felt touched to tears.
The same evening, the City of Barcelona has arranged for “A Communities Night” so that people of faith could meet their own communities in different parts of the city. Barbara and I went to Ramlas Raval and met the Barcelona Muslim community. There is a large Arab and Pakistani community active in Barcelona and the Imams of two mosques gave talks condemning violence and terrorism which was heartening to hear and even more heartening to hear that after the Madrid train bombing, people of all faiths had joined together in Barcelona and done candlelight vigils for peace. We then went and feasted on Pakistani food at the Taj Mahal Restaurant and had real ‘chai’ for the first time since our visit.

Next night, there was a Sacred Music concert at the Sagrada Familia (The Sacred Family) Cathedral, which is one of the most outstanding landmarks of Barcelona built by renowned architect Antoni Gaudi and still unfinished. It’s an awe-inspiring structure and this was the venue to the concert where ten religious traditions presented music, movement, meditation and chants. It was an unforgettable experience sitting under the clear skies, while the Cathedral resonated with the sounds of the Cor Gospel of Barcelona; Ang singing from India; Sheva, a Jewish-Muslim band with roots in Hebrew, Arabic and Tribal cultures and Ushaq – the rich musical legacy of the Sufi Mevlevi order. As the Sufis started chanting Allah Hu, there was a hush, and then a few people joined in and I trembled as I heard the more than half the audience chanting with the Sufis. The concert ended with 10 children of 10 traditions holding up peace lights.
And of course there is Barcelona – the City of stunning and unusual architecture. We spent a day touring the city on a typical on/off bus tour so we could wander. From the Place de Catalunya, we visited The Old Quarter, Guell Park, Montjuic, Palau Reial and went crazy shopping at the Poble Espanyol which is a Spanish village built in 1929 with full scale replicas of traditional Spanish architecture. Here I was able to stroll the streets and squares of Al-Andalus and Cordoba.
As the Parliament of the World’s Religions came to a close after a week of debates centered around commitments on the issues of religious violence, access to safe water, the fate of refugees worldwide, and the elimination of developing countries’ debts, religious leaders who convened the gathering deemed the event a success.

The Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religion’s Executive Director Dirk Ficca said that one fundamental difference between this gathering and others discussing the same subjects was that, “when people of faith commit to address religious violence and other pressing issues facing the global community they follow through. We make a commitment not only to the world, but out of a deeply rooted religious or spiritual conviction. That is what makes the Barcelona Parliament commitments so special, and why this year’s Parliament in Barcelona is going to make an impact.”

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THERE IS NO HONOR IN MURDER

Huffington Post Blog – July 18, 2016

Qandeel Baloch, was a 26-year-old social media celebrity who had boldly decided to live “outside the box.” The box in this case being the parameters laid out by the majority of men in Pakistan dictating how much freedom a woman can have in their staunchly patriarchal society. She courageously pushed those parameters by publicly commenting on and challenging the restrictions placed upon women. Qandeel’s behavior was tame by our standards, but in the prohibitive society in which she lived, she was a true lightning rod. She dared to rebuke women’s subjugated position in Pakistani society and she was murdered by her own brother for doing so. He said that he “killed for honor” and has “no regrets,” because “girls are meant to stay at home.”

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan recently released a report noting that honor killings were on the rise. 1,096 Pakistani women were killed in honor-related attacks in 2015, which amounts to three killings per day. Globally, it is estimated that 20,000 women are killed in the name of honor each year. And these are just the reported cases.

Honor killing is a tribal custom wherein the honor of a village, a tribe, or a family lies in the body of a woman. As long as she follows the dictates of her family and abides by societal rules, she is considered noble. As soon as a woman decides to exercise freedom of thought or action, she is considered to have crossed the line – a line dictated by male members of her family. Once this happens, she is a marked woman, forever tainted and blood must be drawn in order to restore the family’s honor.

In 2016, the Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won the Academy Award for her film, “Girl in the River,” a documentary about honor killings. Obaid-Chinoy has called for an Anti-Honor Killing bill. However, this legislation will be difficult to pass in a country where according to a law based on Sharia, the family of a victim is allowed to forgive the killer. And, since most often the killers are part of the family as in Baloch’s case, relatives rarely even register a complaint. It’s a sickeningly vicious cycle. Other members of the family forgive the killer and he goes free, thus signaling to other men that they too can take lives without risk of prosecution.

In the Baloch case, almost as horrific as the actual murder was the social media reaction in which scores of Pakistanis applauded her killing and wrote that Baloch indeed needed to die as she was a ‘dishonorable’ woman. These killers go unpunished and they don’t even experience stigma in a society that considers their actions not only justified, but righteous.

Baloch had done the unthinkable. She had exposed the hypocrisy of Pakistani society, spoken out against abuse at the hands of her former husband and had the audacity to declare that she was master of her own body.

She also exposed the double standards of the Mullahs but perhaps her biggest mistake in the eyes of those who decided to snuff out her life, was the fact that she stood against patriarchy and misogyny in Pakistan. For this she gave her life.

We in the West are not immune to honor-based violence. In Canada, there have been 13 cases of honor killings since 2002. However a project was undertaken by grass roots activists to educate Members of Parliament by sending them a copy of the award winning documentary Honor Diaries. This allowed Parliament to host many round table discussions as well as invite testimony by women regarding the issue of honor-based violence. The result was Bill S-7, the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act which was passed in June 2015.

The bill raised the legal marital age to 16 and added forced marriage to the Criminal Code. It also strengthened the laws around polygamy, with an eye to preventing immigration by those who engage in the practice and making it easier to deport people who do. And, it toughened the rules around honor killings, so that the defense of provocation could no longer be used in court.

The global struggle to eliminate honor-based violence requires grass roots activism as well as strict laws put in place that will deter the perpetrators of such crimes. If we don’t act, this barbaric practice will continue. Us girls cannot stay at home.

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TO MY FELLOW MUSLIMS – SHOULD WE CELEBRATE OR COMMEMORATE?

During these last few days at the end of Ramzan, I contemplated sending out Eid Greetings as I always do. And it is during these odd nights in the last ten days of Ramzan that we as Muslims are supposed to reflect and see ourselves in the spiritual mirror.
So I reflected on what greetings I should send.
Should I send greetings to the families of Orlando victims who suffered mayhem and murder? Should I send greetings to the family and friends of Amjad Sabri in Pakistan? Should I send greetings to the injured of the Istanbul massacre? Or should I send greetings to the victims of Dhaka, Baghdad and now Medina?
Or are we too busy waiting for the Eid moon to be sighted by different sects so that we will never agree on one Eid and will end up celebrating two days?
What should we tell our children when we lavish them with Eidee and presents?
Should we tell them all’s well in the Muslim world or for once in our lives, having reflected, we build up the courage to tell them the truth? Should we tell them that going into the bedroom of an innocent 13 year old girl and murdering her in cold blood is not what Ramzan is about and neither is it the Islam of our Prophet (pbuh).
Upon deep reflection, this is where we stand today:
• This Ramzan is the bloodiest in my lifetime. Mostly Muslim upon Muslim violence.
• We are despised and ridiculed causing anger and frustration among the masses
• We don’t have the luxury of hiding behind Islamo-phobia, denial, conspiracy theories and political correctness. Rest assured this is OUR problem which we have created by more than three decades of deflection and defence, giving the extremists control of our faith and our narrative.
• We have two choices: either 1.6 billion Muslims, or even half of them or even a quarter – stand up solidly and reject violence and killing in the name of our faith OR
• We continue the denial and victimology that we have become masters of and let the mayhem and murders continue
If you are celebrating Eid, then Eid Mubarak to you and yours. I wish to commemorate the lives of those innocent people that have been lost during this holy month of Ramzan in acts of terror and murder.

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WHY IS THE GENOCIDE AGAINST THE YAZIDIS BEING IGNORED?

Last year our organization, The Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow hosted a rally at Queen’s Park in Toronto to protest the massacre of Arab Christians and especially the Yazidis in the Middle East by ISIS. We had sent the event invitation to hundreds of people including Churches and members of Parliament. To their credit, the previous Canadian government did send their representatives to speak and support us. There was a small turnout by Pakistani Christians who have also been persecuted, a sizable Jewish support group and a handful of Muslims. Churches and so-called human rights organizations did not show up.
This tells us a lot about our collective consciousness.
It also begs the question of awareness. I’ve just returned from a US speaking trip and while I was there I asked my audiences what they know about the plight of the Yazidis. I’m sorry to report 99% of the audiences knew nothing. And when I informed them, they were appalled and shocked. Rightly so.
In recent times, the atrocities against minorities in Muslim Majority countries have grown. This is evident mostly in the Middle East where the Yazidis have become a mass target for violence, rape and murder.
That the Yazidis are a peace-loving and private community is evident by the fact that they are an ancient people with their roots in Mesopotamia. They are few in number — perhaps a million in total and they just want to live and let live. But that is not to be.
This is not the first time the Yazidis have been attacked. Yazidis also suffered a genocide, when Turkey slaughtered about 350,000 Yazidis along with the Armenians 1914-18., a fact that the majority of Muslims are in denial about.
Today 500,000 Yazidis have been displaced in Arab lands, and they will likely never return to their ancestral homes in Syria or Iraq. Thousands of Yazidi men have been murdered and thousands of Yazidi women taken as sex slaves.
So where does this place us as caring Canadians with a mandate for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) Doctrine? Where does this place us as human beings with a heart and consciousness?
In a very sad position I’m sorry to say.
We can also question the government to the South of us who call themselves champions of human rights.
Nina Shea writes in National Review “Over the past five years of Syria’s civil war, the United States has admitted a grand total of 53 Syrian Christian refugees, a lone Yazidi, and fewer than ten Druze, Bahá’ís, and Zoroastrians combined.” If this is not shameful then I don’t know what is. And how many contenders for the White House are talking about this genocide?
We don’t have much say in US politics but we can address this issue in Canada.
Since assuming power in November 2015, the Trudeau government brought in to Canada 27,190 Syrian refugees of whom 15,355 are government-assisted refugees, 2,341 blended visa-office referred refugees and 9,494 privately sponsored refugees.
As compared to this, Senior officials of the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship confirmed on May 12, 2016 in their testimony to the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration that the number of Yazidi cases which are being processed are “small” totalling only 9 cases.
Among the Syrian Refugees who were brought to Canada are also many who had jobs and were working but in order to fill the election promise of a particular number, they were offered a move to Canada and who would say No?
While humanitarian efforts are laudable, Canadians must know and understand that while Syrian Refugees may be able to go back to Syria when things settle down, the Yazidis have no home to go back to.
Olivia Ward writes in an article that there are at least 15,000 in Turkey who would qualify as refugees. And although the more than 400,000 in Iraq are internally displaced from Sinjar and other locations, Ottawa could follow the example of Germany, which issued visas to 1,000 “most vulnerable” Iraqis, including the Yazidi girls and women who escaped Islamic State captivity.

The plight of minorities in the Middle East is compounded by various factors including societal intolerance. Many Syrian Christians are afraid to live in Muslim-dominated refugee camps run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) because they are targeted. Consequently, many of them do not register with the UN agency.
Religious persecution and intolerance are rampant in the Middle East and many Muslim-majority countries
PEW published data in February 2015 that highlighted religious intolerance in Muslim-majority countries. The report, titled “Latest trends in religious restriction and hostilities”, found that “social hostilities involving religion were highest across the Middle East and North Africa”
PEW measured intolerance on its Social Hostilities Index, comparing regions around the globe. According to the report, the Middle East “remained well above the global median.”
This only proves that the situation of minorities and especially Yazidis is at the level of a crisis and needs urgent attention by world powers. What we can do is continue to create awareness by keeping this crisis on the front burner, by lighting a fire under the feet of our elected representatives and by pushing for action by our governments.
To this effect, Rona Ambrose, leader of the Official Opposition and interim leader of the Conservative Party of Canada has tabled a motion in Parliament calling on the House of Commons to declare that ISIL is responsible for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity against ethnic and religious groups, namely, but not limited to, Christians, Yazidis and Shia Muslims in Syria and Ira

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“HARDTALKING” MY WAY FROM EUROPE, UK TO PAKISTAN AND BACK

Europe has been in the news recently especially with the movement of migrants. I got a feel of this on my recent visits to Holland, Sweden and UK. There are huge problems facing this Continent and Europeans, both Muslim and non-Muslim are largely in denial about the issues. This was reflected in my conversations with Members of Parliament in Sweden and in The House of Lords in London.
I was invited to appear on BBC’s Hardtalk in May and based on the title of the show, it was challenging but also exhilarating and exciting as it got the adrenalin flowing and kept me on my toes. This was to discuss and debate my work with The Muslim Reform Movement. The interview aired on May 4, 2016 to mostly positive feedback and of course some critique. https://www.facebook.com/MuslimReformMovement/videos/518127338359519/
Some of the feedback is noted here:

I have just watched your interview with Stephen Sakur on BBC HARDtalk. Not only did you do a brilliant job staying calm amidst his bullying & constant interruptions (I often find him quite offensive!), you answered his questions so well, Raheel. I am proud to count myself a Canadian because of people like you who have the courage to stand up & speak out so eloquently about the hatred & racism we naively like to think do not exist here in Canada. Well done indeed! We continue to wish you the very best in all your endeavors you undertake so bravely.

Ms.Raza . I would like to congratulate you on a wonderfull inerview on BBC’S “hard talk”. As a 4th generation Canadian Christian man I was so excited to hear your stance on the issues discussed on Hard talk. You have very much ileviated my ” Islamophobia ” tendencies . Hearing your common sense opinions on sheria law , the nicab , and your stand to control the influx of Immigrants into the country at least to ensure sufficient screening was so encouraging! If only our current government would only addopt the same attitude I would have more hope in the future of canada. Please excuse the spelling errors and informal nature of this email as it is late and just wanted to contact you before heading to bed. I will be watching for you and promoting you in anyway I can. I will pray for your success in all your endeavors and most of all for your protection from those who would try to silence you. God bless.

While in London, I was invited to attend a session at The House of Lords, hosted by BASIRA and titled “Sharia Councils – Is UK Family Law Not Sufficient for British-Muslim Women?”
The event was attended by some powerful people in Parliament, along with academics, activists and lawyers mainly from the Muslim community. In the introduction to the panel, it was mentioned that access to justice for women is very important. It is in this context that the most powerful speaker on the panel was Baroness Caroline Cox, a Patron of Barnabas Fund. Baroness Cox has tabled a bill in the House of Commons to stop the UK Sharia Councils from becoming a parallel legal system. The bill, if passed, would make it a criminal offence for anyone to falsely claim to be exercising the powers of a court. In effect it would seriously curtail the spread of shari‘a courts of which it is now estimated there are at least 85 in the UK..
https://barnabasfund.org/news/Editorial-allowing-sharia-courts-is-the-thin-end-of-the-wedge-of-persecution-We-need-your-help?audience=GB

Sound familiar? Of course. We’ve been there in Ontario and I was able to speak to this on the panel.
What’s surprising is that while the discussion ensued about what is sharia and how this parallel system came about, there was very little open opposition to the idea despite the revelation that most Muslim marriages are not registered in the civil courts! A brilliant lawyer urged accountability for the Sharia councils but they eventually all end up being run by men with their own interpretation of Islamic law which does not benefit the women.

This is when the headlines of newspapers were full of the nominations for Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim Mayor of London. Emphasis was on his “Muslim-ness’ which to me is not the point. People can be for or against him but there needed to be an open discussion about his ideas and not his faith or ethnicity. Since then has was elected which is a major change in the landscape. However I would be interested to know his stance on reform. Is he a partner like Naser Khader of Denmark and the Mayor of Rotterdam or is he going to balance both sides and be an appeaser? Time will tell. I will celebrate the day a non-Muslim is elected Mayor in any Islamic City.

On the weekend we took a train to go and meet our newly adopted (of the heart) family. We had met a British woman of Pakistani heritage in January and heard her heart-rending story of being a victim of honor based violence. She has been targeted by her family and is in hiding. She has an 8 year old daughter who inquires about her mother’s family because she wants to know her grand-parents. So we offered to be her surrogate grand-parents and are now trying to get the family to Canada where they can live without fear.

While in London, we had an opportunity to meet with people at The Quilliam Foundation which is probably the world’s largest and most effective think tank today that is fighting Jihadist ideology from both a theological and social perspective. It was an inspiring to meet the young people who are working hard to bring about change.

I also had the pleasure of spending time with Riddhi Jha, producer of India’s Daughter, a documentary that was screened at the Honor Diaries hosted Censored Women’s Film Festival in November 2015. As an action follow up on the issues exposed in the film, they have set up an NGO called THINK EQUAL to promote a sense of equality between boys and girls from a young age.
We also had the opportunity to attend a symposium on “Let’s Talk Islamism” hosted by The Clarion Project in London. The idea is get Muslims and non-Muslims to dialogue about Islamism (political Islam) in a civil manner. In this respect, the symposium was very successful as we heard from a variety of voices, young and older. We met Mohammad Amin who is Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum in UK and Sohail Ahmed, a young ex-Salafi turned reformer who exposes the pitfalls of radicalization.

From London, I flew to Pakistan to see my brother who was not well. I always feel stressed and nervous while entering Pakistan which is sad as it’s my land of birth. I also remain very much under the radar. It’s like living in a bubble. However I had a great time because I never faced or saw reality and no one wished to discuss the real issues facing Pakistan so the conversation was light, the shopping was great, food was yummy, I met friends and family and felt spoilt and surreal as we all lived in an elitist bubble.

An acquaintance who is a General in the army came to visit. He showed interest in my work in interfaith dialogue, asking me if I ever ask Christians where Jesus is buried? He then went on to prove that while Muslims know where their spiritual leader is buried, Christians do not. My first reflex was to say that as soon as they stop killing and persecuting Christians in Pakistan and other Muslim lands, perhaps we can pose this question to them? But I refrained out of respect because that’s the way respect is practiced – you never question.
Reality hit when my BBC Hardtalk interview was aired on my last day. I gathered my family was glad I was leaving that day because I had taken the liberty of critiquing the Saudis and Wahhabism for ruining our faith. I was told there would be a backlash against this because every family has Wahabbis and Saudis hold the financial jugular vein of Pakistan ! We can’t shake the status quo can we? In a way I was also glad to be leaving because how long can one live with our heads in the sand?

And what happens when you speak out? You can talk about anything and get away with any crime in Pakistan, except the most crucial issue which is the plight of the people of Baluchistan. Sabeen Mahmud was shot and killed for bringing this issue to the forefront and now the brutal murder of Khurram Zaki, a human rights activist, a blogger and a religious scholar reminded me that living in a bubble is not justice or truth. When there is no respect for human life, then nothing else matters. In a column in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, Suleman Akhtar writes “He dedicated his life to keeping these voices resounding. He would light a candle, post a Facebook status, take up the megaphone at some square and appeal to us, arrange a sit-in, hold up a mirror to the authorities, etc. In any other country, a person taking part in these kind of activities would be called an activist. In Pakistan, a person doing the same would be courting death.”

On a positive note, highlight of my Karachi trip was to see my nephews who run their father’s advertising agency Adcom Leo Burnett sweep the PAS 2016 awards with nine awards for excellence. I am so proud of them. http://www.adcompk.com

Meanwhile back home in Canada, the news of forest fires in Fort McMurray, Alberta is front line news and breaks our hearts. However as true Canadians, everyone has come to the forefront to help. We hold the people who have lost their homes, in our hearts and prayers and rally to help out.

It was great to read an expose on Haroon Siddiqui by Tarek Fatah in his Sun column. He writes “Instead of falsely accusing others [Toronto Sun and PostMedia newspapers] of Islamophobia, perhaps [Haroon] Siddiqui should reflect on his own lack of contribution in fighting the forces of international jihadism. Perhaps the [Toronto] Star should as well, given its editorial policy of giving a voice to some of Canada’s most radical Islamist groups. Because at every opportunity Siddiqui and the Star have had to do so, including the reporting of his recent lecture in the Star, they have chosen the wrong side.” http://tarekfatah.com/the-toronto-sun-vs-the-toronto-star/

I am glad to be back home to continue the good fight!

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WHY JANUARY 21 IS EMBEDDED IN MY HEART AND SOUL

January 21 which is my birthday will never be the same for me ever again. In 2016 on this date which is always a celebration, I found myself in Stockholm, Sweden for a series of conferences and seminars.
I was invited by an organization called GAPF which is essentially a commemoration for the memory of two Swedish girls Pela and Fadime. I had no idea who these girls were and it was a shock to hear their heart-rending stories. It was also a very important wake up call. January 21, 2002 was the date on which Fadime Sahindal was killed by her father and I will always commemorate her memory on this day. Why? Because Fadime is a symbol for the thousands of girls who are murdered in the name of honour all over the world but who we easily forget.
However thanks to the persistent and inspirational work of a Swedish woman of Kurdish heritage, Sara Mohammad, today everyone on the streets of Sweden knows the name Fadime.
Fadime Şahindal was opposed to her family’s insistence on an arranged marriage, and instead selected her own boyfriend. At first she kept the relationship secret, but her father found out about it. Fadime then left her family and moved to Sundsvall, where her brother found her and threatened her. She went to the police who advised her at first to talk to her family. She then turned to the media with her story, after which she turned again to the police and was offered a secret identity. By turning to the media Fadime managed to receive support from the Swedish authorities, but she had also made the “shame” of her family public. She filed a lawsuit against her father and brother, accusing them of unlawful threats, and won.
Fadime was scheduled to move in with her boyfriend, Patrick, the following month, in June 1998, when he died in a car accident. He was buried in Uppsala.
Her father forbade her to visit Uppsala, since he did not want her to visit her deceased boyfriend’s grave. Nalin Pekgul, a Kurdish-Swedish parliamentarian, negotiated a compromise in which Şahindal agreed to stay away from Uppsala and her father promised not to stalk her.
On 20 November 2001, the Violence Against Women network arranged a seminar on the topic “Integration on whose terms?”. During the seminar Fadime spoke in front of the Riksdag (Swedish Parliament) about her personal story.
On 21 January 2002, Fadime secretly visited her mother and sisters in Uppsala. During the visit, her father arrived and shot her in the head in front of her mother and two sisters. Confronted by police, he confessed and said to his defense that he was ill. Despite the confession, one of her cousins later tried to convince the police that he had killed her.
Her father was ultimately convicted of murder by a Swedish court and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Her murder sparked a debate in Sweden about immigrant integration and raised questions regarding Patrick’s death.
Fadime was buried in Uppsala.
Pela Atroshi’s murder in Dohuk, in Iraqi Kurdistan, was officially deemed an honour killing by both Iraqi and Swedish authorities. Pela was an intelligent and good-looking girl. When she emigrated with her family to Sweden in 1995, she took to Swedish ways – eventually leaving the family home in January 1999.

But after a time she missed her parents and six younger brothers and sisters and returned, agreeing to an arranged marriage in Kurdistan. It was a front – the men in her family had decided to kill her in their home town of Dohuk, northern Iraq, where honour killings were considered minor crimes, and where the Atroshi clan commanded immense respect.
Since Fadime and Pela’s murders, GAPF headed by Sara Mohammad and many Kurdish-Swedish volunteers have been lobbying to make Honor Based Violence a criminal offence and have a specific separate listing in the penal code for HBV. The work done by GAPF has resulted in the entire country becoming aware of the threat of honour killings for many more girls and women. Two men have also been murdered in Honour killings in Sweden so it’s not only women who are the victims of this barbaric practice.
GAPF has now made the month of January a month of commemoration for Fadime. I was invited to attend part of these events.
On January 19 I went to Västerås where there was a screening of Honor Diaries followed by Q & A. At every event local politicians and media were invited so that the murder could stay alive in the minds of people.
On January 20 there was a full day conference held at the Swedish Parliament in collaboration with political parties and 81 other organizations. Honor Diaries was screened to a room full of politicians from every party, law makers and the public. This was a very well organized event with open discussion and raw questions asked. GAPF put the politicians and law makers on the spot and recalled Fadime’s words when she had pleaded to Parliament to take note of what is happening to her and other girls. I spoke from the perspective on Canada.
On January 21, we had a very poignant and emotional day which we spent in Uppsala, which was where Fadime is buried. A park in Uppsala has been dedicated to Fadime. On a day where the weather was minus 20 and freezing beyond description, Sara Mohammad and her volunteers lit torches in the park and spoke about Fadime’s life. From there we went to the graveyard and laid wreaths on her grave and spoke at length about the importance of keeping her memory alive.
Then we went to the school where Fadime had studied and spoke to the students. A room at the school is now dedicated to Fadime where students are invited to come for discussion and debate.
At every event, including the outdoors, Fadime’s favorite song is played by live musicians or recorded.
All this is to say that nowhere else in the world do I see a commitment like I saw in Sweden. The Kurdish-Swedish women I met are firebrands and activists who do not stop at anything despite threats from the Islamists to hold back their words and their work. I have never met a person like Sara Mohammad who spends 18 to 20 hours a day on this work where she has dedicated her life to keeping Fadime’s memory alive. She has certainly succeeded in making me aware that we need to do the same in Canada.

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AND THIS IS HOW IT WAS IN 2015…..

Usually at the end of the year I pen my thoughts about travels and excitement, journeys to the center of my soul etc. However this year (2015) has been more serious than previous years – the tipping point was reached. These are the highlights and low lights of the year for me presented straight from the hip minus political correctness which I gave up a long time ago. In all 2015 was exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. As December 31 arrived, I had an early evening so I could rejuvenate body and soul to take on the fresh challenges of 2016 with a smile.
• From a film shown globally, Honor Diaries turned into a movement with many stunning and positive results. I travelled to almost 100 screenings all over North America speaking about the film to expose, educate and empower women and men as well as conducting workshops. In Canada every Member of Parliament was sent a copy of the movie and a law (Bill S-7) was passed about zero tolerance against ‘Barbaric’ practices. In some African countries as well laws were passed banning the practice of FGM. We were able to bring on Campus Ambassadors who are now working in their educational institutions to create awareness. Most importantly, Honor Diaries was screened in Muslim countries like Pakistan, Egypt and Tunisia with great feedback. The Arabic facebook page got more than half a million likes and the demand for screenings continues unabated.
• In November we hosted the first Censored Women’s Film Festival (CWFF) in Washington DC in collaboration with George Washington University. It was an extremely well attended and successful event where I had the honor and pleasure of meeting young activists and film makers like Leyla Hussein: Anti-FGM Activist, The Cruel Cut, Zainab Khan: President, Muslim American Leadership Alliance (MALA), Riddhi Jha: Associate Producer, India’s Daughter , Neena Nejad director of The Price of Honor; plus Aruna Papp, Charlotte Feldman-Jacobs, Gender Program Director, Population Reference Bureau, Janice Kovach: Mayor, Clinton, NJ, Leslie Jacobson: Chair, GWU Department of Theater and Dance and Dr. Mary Ellsberg: Director, Global Women’s Institute. We have stayed in touch looking for more ways to change the world for women so they can change the world.
• Other women who have taken up the battle against radicalization are also on the move. Qanta Ahmed, Shireen Qudosi, Asra Nomani, Salma Siddiqui, Supna Zaidi, Raquel Saraswati, Farahnaz Isphahani to name a few.
• Honor Diaries won many awards including the prestigious Free Speech Award.
http://us6.campaign-archive2.com/?u=6f33facd52316b5c258168da6&id=008ce60820&e=de48d41355

• In December we launched The Muslim Reform Movement at a press conference held at the National Press Club in Washington DC. Here we bonded with movers and shakers i.e. reform minded Muslims from America, Canada, UK and Europe.
https://www.facebook.com/Muslim-Reform-Movement-462078103964443/?fref=ts
• While we were in Washington, we heard the horrible news of the terrorist attacks in San Bernadino, where a woman was involved. For many of us this was the tipping point and it made us resolve to speak out against Radical Islamist terrorism without political correctness.
• In 2015 I visited Israel again and every time I go there I am amazed at the progress and development. This is a dynamic country with dynamic people from diverse backgrounds. I met Jewish Sufis who inspired me immensely.
• In May I was invited to speak at Tedx Amsterdam where I received a standing ovation for my talk from the heart. It just reinforced my faith in truth and justice
• Later in the year Trump made his offensive statement about Muslims being banned from USA. It got people talking and the Presidential debate in USA started focusing on this issues.
• One high light of the year was to meet Maajid Nawaz of Quilliam Foundation who was on a visit to Canada and took time to come and meet us. We spoke of common goals and it was heartening to find solidarity with others fighting the same battle of ideas.
• In the wake of San Bernadino, many Muslim organizations in North America decided to come together at a press conference to speak out against terrorism (dare I say they tried to copy us by using the same venue as the launch of the Muslim Reform Movement!). Even the ones affiliated with The Muslim Brotherhood and Wahhabism speak out against terrorism, but not ONE of them had the guts to categorically denounce armed Jihad and support separation of Mosque and State or support equal rights for all. Most of their rhetoric is to promote the victim mentality
• In Canada Syrian Refugees were welcomed with warmth and gusto which we all support from the humanitarian perspective and makes us proud Canadians. However there were also questions raised about the manner in which they were welcomed with Arabic songs and an immediately segregated area in which to pray. Some suggested it might help them settle better if they saw the reality of Canada which is not about segregation but integration.
• On the refugee issue, it’s important that along with the humanitarian cause, we should be cautious about screening as we know that along with those who genuinely need help, there are mercenaries who will use this as a way to get into the West where their subversive agendas can be implemented.
• A thought needs to be given to the Yazidis and persecuted Christians who have no home to go back to and need to be helped with the same zeal as others.
• The documentary By the Numbers, narrated by me, was launched early December and within two weeks it had more than two million views. The feedback was surprisingly positive from across North American including many Muslims . There were also disturbing responses which ranged from sublime to the ridiculous. One guy wrote “…and Allah will ask you “what the f—k are you doing?” I think to myself about his image of Allah……God help him. I also received a death threat from a UK vigilante group that acts like the Sharia police. However the knee jerk reaction of many shows that it hit a chord. We no longer have the luxury to live in denial and be victims as part of the multi-billion dollar Victim-ology and Islamophobia industry is trying to market to Muslims.
• The Islamophobia industry has also consistently targeted some of our friends and supporters who have helped give liberal, progressive Muslims a platform and a voice.

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