SUPPORTING THE RIGHTS OF ALL WOMEN TO BE EQUAL AND FREE – A REPORT FROM A TRIP TO HOUSE OF LORDS, UK

“We cannot continue with the present situation in which so many women are suffering in ways that would make the heroines of the suffragette movement turn in their graves.”- Baroness Cox

Last week I was invited to The House of Lords in UK by Baroness Caroline Cox to speak about Honor Based Violence and Sharia Courts in UK.
Baroness Cox’s Private Member’s Bill has been reintroduced into the House of Lords. The Bill – called the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill – seeks to address two interrelated issues: the suffering of women oppressed by religiously-sanctioned gender discrimination in the UK today; and a rapidly developing alternative quasi-legal system which undermines the fundamental principle of ‘one law for all’.
In an effort to increase support of the Bill, a new website has been launched by the not-for-profit organization Equal and Free Ltd. (http://equalandfree.org)
The work Baroness Cox is doing comes at a critical time in UK history where almost 100 Sharia courts exist, sanctioned by the government. As stories of abuse and misuse are emerging, many women are concerned about the future. Baroness Cox herself is an untiring advocate for the cause of women but has run up against red tape and some resistance.
I was invited to speak about the Canadian experience in Ontario when the notion of implementing sharia courts was defeated, as well as honor based violence.
The first session was attended by interested and supportive members of Parliament including Fiona Bruce MP, Lord Green of Deddington, Lord West, Viscount Bridgeman.
Lord Dholakia, Lord Elton and Lord Tebbit.
After I presented the story of the Ontario sharia debate, there were many questions about what can be done in UK. The situation in UK is precarious because the Sharia Councils are deeply embedded in the communities.
How did this happen and what are the results?
In her book Women and Sharia Law, a brilliant expose of the problem, Professor Elham Manea explores this question by building on her knowledge of legal pluralism in Middle Eastern and Islamic countries and by first-hand analysis of the Islamic shari’a councils and Muslim arbitration tribunals in various British cities. Women and Shari’a Law traces how support for legal pluralism evolved in the context of widespread racism and anti-immigrant sentiments leading up to the Race Relations Act of 1968. Through its focus on gender equality and women’s experiences, the book argues that the desire to resolve conflict, accommodate Muslim minorities, and reform a Euro-American-centric legal system developed into ‘The Essentialist Paradigm’. This is a post-colonial and post-modern discourse that treats people as ‘homogenous groups’, essentialising their cultures and religions, but disregarding individual and authentic voices. By meeting with the leading sheikhs―including the only women on their panels―as well as interviewing experts on extremism, lawyers, politicians and activists in civil society and women’s rights groups, the author offers a critique of legal pluralism, connecting it with political Islam and detailing the lived experiences of women in Muslim communities.
Most of the MP’s have been sent a copy of Manea’s book but the question on everyone’s mind is how to deal with the current issue at hand.
We heard from victims who are suffering because they were forced into a religious marriage with little or no information that they needed to register a civil marriage. After an abusive marriage when they want a divorce, they are in limbo because there is no record of a civil marriage and the religious leader refuses to acknowledge the marriage ever took place because he would be admitting to an offence. There are thousands of Muslim women caught up in this net of deceit and pressure.
In one case of polygamy, when the victim went to social services, they were told “you are Muslim so you should accept this!” Law enforcement will not intervene in many cases of abuse because they have been told not to meddle with the community.
These women are pleading for help.
After another meeting with Peers later that week as well as an in-depth meeting with organizations supporting women’s rights including Muslim Women’s Advisory Council and One Law For All, they came up with some ideas.
• While the law needs to be tweaked to change/revoke the bill that allows for a parallel set of laws, some urgent actions need to be put into place.
• The religious leaders need to be held accountable for all marriages they perform
• Public Service Messages in different languages need to be announced letting women know they have options
• Law enforcement needs to be trained to do the job without being politically correct
• Most importantly the government needs to take note and make this a priority

GROOMING AND SEX CRIMES
A separate event I attended was a conference hosted by MARIAS – Mothers Against Radical Islam and Sharia. This is run by Toni Bugle who was raped when she was a young girl and now she dedicates her life to mentoring and helping those who are facing similar issues and to help them tell their stories.
At this conference I heard the depressing and compelling stories of two women of Pakistani heritage who were victims of the Sharia courts and one white girl who had been groomed, raped and trafficked. I could not sleep that night. The sad part of their testimony is that neither mainstream law enforcement nor their own people did anything to help.
The Pakistani girl told me that in small, tight and (still tribal) communities of Muslim migrants in UK, if a girl decides to show independence or modernity, she is shunned by the community and treated as a loose, fast woman who can be used and abused. This story was heard over and over so these girls are caught between their own communities and the mainstream who have no desire to intervene.
Two days later there was a report in The Times about a Pakistani gang guilty of sex crimes. It referred to The Jay Report published by Alexis Jay in 2014 which validates stories of the victims. http://www.rotherham.gov.uk/downloads/file/1407/independent_inquiry_cse_in_rotherham
There is a lot that needs to be done at many levels. But the mandate of Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow i.e. Expose, Educate and Eradicate was much appreciated by the attendees and at least the first part is being addressed. I am humbled and excited to be part of making the world a better place for women.

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IS THIS ABOUT THE REAL ISLAMIC HERITAGE OR A WHITE WASH?

October has been officially declared as Islamic Heritage Month in Ontario after a Private Member’s Bill was tabled but now has been unanimously passed by Legislature.
Ontario Provincial NDP Leader Andrea Horwath says Islamic Heritage Month is an opportunity to eliminate Islamo-phobia and for Canada to celebrate and learn about the history of Islamic culture.
So let’s talk about Islamic heritage because it’s an important step towards educating Muslims and non-Muslims.
I’m curious to know if the following important historical event from Islamic History is being discussed and taught during Islamic Heritage Month.
October 12 is the day of Ashura which is the tenth day of first month of the Islamic lunar calendar called Muharram. This day is a tragic reminder of how the grandson of our Prophet and his followers (including an infant) were brutally slaughtered by fellow-Muslims for power and control. The small band of 72 people in Karbala, Iraq including women and children were deprived of water and while thirsty in the desert were killed, beheaded with the heads raised on spears, one by one while the women watched.
The universal message of the tragedy of Karbala is to expose hypocrisy and to uphold truth and justice. It stands as an example of good over evil; of justice over injustice; of truth over falsehood and of bravery over cowardice.
It’s an important message that needs especially to be heard today as we are faced with violence and barbarity in the name of our faith. The reason for the rise of groups like ISIS, Al-Qaeda and Taliban etc. is that we have sidelined one of the most important lessons in Islamic History for the sake of deflection, self loathing and political correctness.
Its time to lift the veil of hypocrisy, acknowledge our history and reflect where we went wrong.

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A TOUR OF EUROPE

(On September 25, I travelled with a group hosted by The Middle East Forum on a fact-finding mission to Europe. There were 33 attendees from Australia, UK, Canada and USA (academics, activists and ordinary citizens) and we spent two days each in Paris, Berlin and Stockholm. In each City we had a local guide, met government officials, organizations and civil society. The following report is not an opinion but based on facts. Names have not been used for reasons of security and privacy).

MIGRANTS:
The main conversation in Europe is about migrants (mostly Muslim) and this is the topic all political parties are focused upon. Europe is heavily weighed down with the refugee crisis, which is not helped by EU porous borders. The entire concept of The European Union is under discussion.
France: In Paris we travelled along Boulevard La Chappelle and saw migrants living under the bridges. A small percent of these are Syrian, rest are North African, mostly Sudanese. Our guide took us to St. Denis (the former religious shrine of the French Catholic kings and now a pre-dominantly Muslim area). It was like being in the Middle East with hardly a white person in sight. Behind one of the oldest Church’s in France, is the office of the Muslim Brotherhood running under the innocuous name of Association of Cultural Muslims. The fallacy that these areas are ‘ghetto’ was removed as we saw good housing, roads and infrastructure telling us that the problem is not socio-economic but essentially a clash of ideologies and culture. These areas are called “the lost territories of France” with high levels of crime and drugs where police are hesitant to intervene. This is known commonly as “93 area” and all major Muslim organizations in France have their headquarters in the 93 area including Muslim Brotherhood and Tabligh.
Later we heard a French intellectual and philosopher speak. He almost cried at what he felt was the loss of French culture by the growing majority of migrants from other cultures who will not integrate, assimilate or respect the host heritage. He fears a new French civilization taking root which does not include ethnic French communities.
Berlin: Germany is reeling after Merkel’s decision although many Germans feel that they should take in migrants. In Berlin we saw a huge difference between East and West. West Berlin shows much diversity but in East Berlin you don’t see signs of Islamic tradition. The conversation in Berlin is about the future of Europe against a backdrop of Islam and there are many studies being done on the issue, including anti Semitism. In the 1920’s Berlin was a major city for Jews but the numbers are now dwindling due to the pull to go to Israel as well as fear for the future.
We visited the oldest mosque in Berlin run by the Ahmadiyya community who work closely with all levels of government and community. Their sermons are in German, Arabic and English and there is a move in Germany to ensure all Mosques have their sermons in German and that Imams coming from other countries must speak German. A problem specific to Berlin is the animosity and tension between Turks and Arabs, the Turks considered to be a more moderate community. There is also a problem with ‘clans or tribes’ where a family of 100 will live as a tribe close together and gang up against law enforcement if they come to investigate a crime. This is how ‘partial no-go zones’ are created as law enforcement is hesitant to enter these areas. A Salafist mosque was closed down for inciting hatred and killing of Jews.
Stockholm:
Sweden was the biggest shock. Our very Swedish tour guide as soon as he entered the bus said very clearly that he’s not very Swedish, which he takes to be a compliment. This was the attitude of most of the Swedish people we met except the politicians who are working to bring about change. The Swedes generally say that they don’t have a culture and that they have too much of a good thing so they must share. And share they do.
Sweden has taken per capita the largest numbers of immigrants and the consequences are over $50 b in costs plus 55 no-go zones. According to one report, in 2015 Sweden took 162,887 asylum seekers mostly from the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region which included 35, 369 unaccompanied minors. Largest numbers were from Syria and Afghanistan. If a person arrives in Sweden and says he is from Syria, he gets immediate refugee status and benefits.
The government has not helped the situation by placing for example 500 migrants in a small town of 150 Swedes. This is happening across Sweden where heritage buildings, hotels and old people’s homes have been turned into migrant centers with no move to educate and inform the host community or the migrants.
The pushback has been intense. Police want to resign because they can’t deal with the situation as in Malmo where large groups of migrants reside and there are serious problems of sexual assault, heckling white people and attacking women.

DOUBT AND DENIAL:
France: There are roughly 1.4 m Muslims in France with about 25% identifying themselves as ‘French Muslims’. We met local Muslim leaders who had invited a Rabbi to join them. The overall conversation was that all is good with no mention of the fact that 40% of French Muslims support sharia law. They bemoaned the fact that media paints them in a negative light but when pressed about radicalization in the youth, they confessed there are huge problems both in society and especially in prisons. After they felt comfortable (although they seemed to be speaking from a set script) they opened up and said that Imams are being sent from Turkey, Morocco and Algeria, they don’t speak the language and are paid by their own governments. The Institutes that train Imams are funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar (thus the thrust of Wahhabi influences on the Muslim populous) and the Imams are highly political. One of the Muslim leaders put this into perspective by saying “their bodies are here but their heads are in North Africa”. He confessed that they don’t know the social codes of the country they live in. He also pointed out that religious observance was increasing among French Muslims because of outside influences.
The Rabbi did not address the issue of rise of anti Semitism in Europe where Jews are leaving in large numbers. When the Muslim group was asked about this they said that they differentiate between Jews and Israel, confessing that the largest Al-Quds rally takes place in their area where thousands join in. We also met with a local priest who did not address the problems head on. Instead he mentioned that most Muslim kids go to Catholic schools and that all is good.
In Sweden there was a conference at which the a major Socialist politician was heard saying “there is no domestic Swedish Culture”

POLITICIANS AND ORGANIZATIONS
France: Next year France heads into elections and the major election issues will be based on the question: what is the future of France? Will it have a multicultural identity or a unique French identity? Nicholas Sarkozy is making a comeback. Some of his measures are considered controversial e.g. pre-arrests which says that a family, friend of a terrorist should be put in to detention under the control of a judge.
There is an intellectual debate going on in France about Islam and Muslims. Olivier Roy says “It’s not Islam that’s being radicalized; its radicalization that’s being Islamized”. Other intellectuals and politicians warm of an impending civil war unless things change drastically.
The right and the left of the political spectrum are both using Islamism in Europe to further their political agendas. They are heard saying that they will restrict more migrants coming in, restrict welfare to the migrants, allow no more Mosques and Islamic schools and even ban halal meat.
So far the French have been resilient but if another terrorist attack happens, French society might lose its cohesion and implode. There are people waiting in the sidelines for this to happen and they will jump right in.
We had a meeting with the Ministry of Interior in which they shared with us their programs on de-radicalization and anti-terrorism. They have applied a new law against terrorism as well as created a hot line which has been very successful. Upon being questioned about the community’s response they said that they have had 5570 calls since this hot line was set up and some parents says they would rather their son be sent to jail than to go and fight with ISIS. This is based on the fact that hundreds of European Muslim and non-Muslim youth have left to join ISIS.
They also use help of a psychologist to counsel parents of wanna be radicals.
In terms of immigration, they have a new law that every immigrant has to sign a contract with the State that they have to attend Civilian Education Classes.
In Sweden political Islam came on the scene 30 years ago. We met with government officials, academics working on the issue of migrants and radicalization and an ex-Muslim Brotherhood operative. From their conversation we were told “Islamists work trans-nationally and Europe is their arena”.
According to their research and studies of the Muslim Brotherhood they find that MB have a project of “Islamization from Below” which is their reform for Muslims. This is what it looks like:
Focus on the Muslim Individual to a Muslim family to a Muslim government to a Muslim society and then a Muslim world.
Overall there is great uneasiness in Europe about Muslims and the French have listed them as:
ISSUES
• France has no Muslim past
• Efforts towards integration are failing
• Cultures are widely different and there is a clash
• In schools, parents impose their culture upon the majority
• Gender disparity e.g. women who won’t see male doctors
• Muslims don’t accept French history
• They are anti-semitic
• They have attacked women and butchers selling pork
• Messages from Mosques and Islamist Organization are based on hate
• Many want sharia law
SOLUTIONS:
• Reduce legal immigration and make greater efforts to stop illegal immigration
• Make it essential for migrants to learn the local language
• Refuse behaviours contrary to French values
• If an Imam says something contrary to these values, he should be deported and the mosque closed down
• Ask French Muslims to accept an ideology compatible with the 21st. Century
• Learn to be tolerant and live and let live without imposition
END NOTE:
(What I felt at the end of this trip is that there are major problems and everyone is complicit. Government, organizations, civil society, media and migrants. Unless there is a better understanding of the real problems and balanced measures taken to address them, Europe is like a powder keg ready to blow)

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BANGLADESH WAKES UP TO JIHADIST IDEOLOGY By Raheel Raza

In the wake of repeated terror attacks against bloggers and activists in Bangladesh, a fatwa by 1,01,524 Islamic scholars and clerics was issued this June. http://indianexpress.com/article/world/world-news/over-1-lakh-bangladesh-clerics-issue-fatwa-against-extremism-2861497
This comes at a time in the history of Bangladesh when there are discussions taking place about making it a secular country.
While there are many activists working within the country, they have great support from North American Bangladeshis. In fact they could not continue their work against extremism, if this support was not there.

However very few people are globally aware of the changes taking place in this country of more than 60 million people with about 90% being Muslim.

One individual who has been involved in his country’s changing face is Hasan Mahmud, who is Secretary General for The Council For Muslims Facing Tomorrow, based in Canada and member of the Advisory Board for The World Muslim Congress.
With support from Muslims Facing Tomorrow and minimal funding for a core team of 26 activists on the ground in Bangladesh, Mahmud has managed to make 25 villages free of radicalization and is working on 80 more. The thrust of this project is to provide villagers audio-visual material in their own language that debunks the myths of sharia and allows them to ask key questions of their Imams.

How did this come about?

Born in Bangladesh with a Masters in Biochemistry, Hasan Mahmud moved to Abu Dhabi in 1975 and worked as lab technologist chief technologist in a hospital. Hasan authored a book and docu-movies on Sharia law to create awareness in Muslim societies about the deadly impact of political interpretation of Islam. Mahmud says that as a human Rights activist he was never comfortable with Muslim women having fewer rights than Muslim men in many areas of life. He says he became aware of the problems with man-made Sharia while he was growing up in Bangladesh where Family Laws of Sharia are observed, and later during his 15 years stay in the Middle East.

While has was still in Bangladesh, he lived through the 1971 crisis, as East Pakistanis were an oppressed Muslim nation that started the war of independence against West Pakistan. West Pakistan, also a Muslim nation inflicted one of the most heinous genocides and mass rapes in the history of mankind. For Mahmud, it was shocking to observe that all the other Muslim countries supported West Pakistan, the oppressor, and not the oppressed. He says he clearly felt that either Islam was wrong or Muslims were. That was the beginning of his quest. Mahmud started searching for root causes of violence in Muslim societies. When he noticed that “not all Sharia-supporters are necessarily violent but all violent Muslims are Sharia supporters”, he realized there must be a connection between violence and Sharia law.

So Mahmud made it his quest to study Sharia Law for its strengths and weaknesses. After decades of in-depth research he found out that one of the major roots of violence in Muslim societies is political interpretation of Islam by Sharia law.

In 2000, Mahmud presented his findings at a conference in Amsterdam. His speech, full of Anti-radical Islamic references was highly praised. After the conference he realized that these references compiled from works of progressive Islamic scholars and the outcome of his extensive research which is crucial to defeat the radical ideology of Islam was not reaching the common Muslim. He says “while the work of these intellectuals and scholars are encapsulated in universities, books, TV shows, and conferences, the mass Muslim societies of the world are still captive to the messages of radical clergies from Islamic institutions. Majority of the Muslims have grievances against their own failed governments and the genocides committed by West on Muslims. These clergies take advantage of these grievances and offer Sharia Law as a divine alternate.”

Through the process of analyzing thousands of Sharia laws, he claims that it was clear to him that defeating radical Islam means overcoming the misrepresentations of Islam. He found it is possible to prove that many of those laws are in conflict with the Quran and Prophet and human and women’s rights. “Almost none of the Sharia believing Muslims read the Sharia laws itself. I was convinced at that point that once these common people are exposed to these conflicts, they will learn to oppose to it. I strongly felt that we must convey the scholarly work of Muslim intellectuals to the mass Muslim people. Back home where the vast majority of the population is not literate, reading books is not an option for them. The only way to reach them is through audio visual medium. So I decided to make movies with romantic genre that will catch their attention. The main objective of these movies was to show them the real laws with references. In my movies I quoted some Sharia laws and references to show how they violate Quran and Prophet.”

Mahmud wrote a book about his findings “What Sharia Says and What We Do” in his native language (Bangla). The book is translated in English with the name “How Sharia Hijacked Islam”.

But he also realized that villagers are not educated. So he started using the visual medium. A true fusion of feature film and religious documentary, Mahmud’s movies are perhaps one of such few initiatives in the world today. When these films were shown at the grassroots level, the response was overwhelming. In Bangladesh the “Radical Free Village” movement of Muslims Facing Tomorrow exceeded his expectation. He felt that this movement is creating enlightened societies and villages where the peaceful interpretation of Islam reigns over violence and misinterpretation. The presentation of references through story-telling was so powerful that by now many Imams and Alims of village mosques are in support of the project. In some of the docu-dramas (as Mahmud calls them) Mahmud has acted himself and made on a shoe-string budget, he uses ordinary Bangladeshis who can speak the language. Mahmud truly believe, if it works in Bangladesh, it will work everywhere in the globe.

In Mahmud’s movies lots of Sharia law are quoted so that common Muslims, while they enjoy the romantic story, get educated about how Sharia law violates Human and Women Rights, the Quran and Prophet. Some of the movies, subtitled in Arabic, Turkish and Malay, are shown in Islamic conferences in Mumbai in India, Dallas in US, Oxford University campus in UK and at the International film festival in California.

Mahmud speaks about his research and claims “The institution of Sharia is very vast, deep and complicated. There are more than 6000 laws in each of Hanafi and Shafi manual. One needs to connect the important laws to related Hadeeth (in many cases there are too many, often contradictory) and Quranic verses. Next is to consult the voluminous Tarikh Al Tabari or Asbab E Najul to get the context and the purpose of those verses. Then there are contradictory “explanations: of different scholars/imams etc. Therefore, it is indeed difficult for common people to engage in such research.”
Mahmud finds that Muslims are made to believe that Sharia law is Allah’s Law created from Quran, Prophet’s Sunnah (Hadeeth), ijma (consensus of scholars) and Qiyas (personal reasoning of scholars). “However”, he says “the reality is, there were about 11 sources from where Sharia comes. Quran has about a dozen laws and Hadeeth, another few dozens. But, each of Hanafi and Shafi manual has 6000+ laws. Obviously, these are man-made laws. Most Muslims are not aware of this fact.”

Mahmud believes that people in the West know Islam through the behavior of the Muslims and not from the Islamic scriptures. Muslim’s brutal behavior over the years in the name of Islam on women, non-believers and Muslims is the root of West’s fear and disgust about Islam. So the push against Sharia law in the West is natural and inevitable. Moreover, the concern is not only some Sharia laws but also the spirit of global domination by the institution of Sharia law. It is almost impossible to change that spirit. The West is yet to develop a process of combating the institution of the Sharia law. In other words, they only diagnose the problem but do not have the prescription. This is why MFT’s project of “Radical Free Village” is so important to reach the West and the world.

The world’s is occupied by ‘Hot’ violence in the name of Islam such as beheading, suicide bombing, burning, enslaving, mass-murder (ISIS killed 250 Christian women in a day for refusing to be sex-slaves) etc. But the ‘Cold’ violence of Sharia law also must be realized and resisted. In ‘Cold’ violence of Sharia law there is hardly any bloodshed but it silently victimizes millions, mainly Muslim women.

Mahmud concludes “Faith in some laws destroy more than wars do”. Manu’s law in India and past atrocities by Christian churches in Europe are far worse than Sharia law. But for Muslims it’s essential that they know what Sharia law is and what it can do when mis-used for nefarious purposes.

Links:

http://hasanmahmud.com/index.php

https://www.facebook.com/hasan.mahmud.161446?fref=ts

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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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