More and More Civilians Are Being Killed In Our Name: Where Is The Outrage? - HuffPost Op-ed

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post on February 15, 2018

By Mehlaqa Samdani

Earlier this month, two U.S.-led airstrikes, including one that targeted a makeshift hospital in Al-Bahra village in Syria, reportedly killed dozens of innocent civilians including women and children. These bombings were the latest in over 10,000 coalition airstrikes in Syria and Iraq over the past year, where civilian casualties have increased by 215 percent. In Somalia, there has been a similar, dramatic increase in aerial bombings in America’s counterterrorism campaign that have resulted in numerous civilian deaths.

President Donald Trump’s racist remarks about people from “shithole countries” outraged Americans across the country. And yet, when innocent civilians are killed by U.S. drone strikes and aerial bombing campaigns in far-flung countries, nobody seems to notice. We as a nation, it seems, are more offended by racist rhetoric than we are by racist policies.

Read more here

 

THE ROLE OF FAITH LEADERS IN BUILDING INCLUSIVE COMMUNITIES - EVENT REPORT

BY RACHEL MASON

January 19, 2017

 From L to R: Reverend Corey J. Sanderson, Rabbi Justin David, Ms. Tahirah Amatul Wadud

From L to R: Reverend Corey J. Sanderson, Rabbi Justin David, Ms. Tahirah Amatul Wadud

 

Summary and Key Takeaways

On December 8, 2017, Critical Connections and Karuna Center for Peacebuilding organized the ‘Building Inclusive Communities: The Role of Faith Leaders’ symposium at Holyoke Community College in Holyoke, MA. The symposium explored the critical role of faith leaders in building inclusion both within their respective faith constituencies and in the broader community. It was the first in a series of conferences our two organizations shall convene in the coming months to explore the role various public sectors officials and civil society groups can play to promote diversity, pluralism and resilience.

Part I: Striving For Inclusion – Looking Inward

The Challenge: Most communities of faith strive to be welcoming places. But there are many who feel excluded from their faith communities due to experiences with or fears of encountering racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, differences in political ideology, or other forms of alienation.

Guiding Question:

How do we overcome barriers to building inclusion and diversity within faith communities?

Panelists:

Rabbi Amy Katz - Temple Beth El, Springfield/Longmeadow

Imam Rasul Seifullah - Al-Baqi Mosque, Springfield

Father Warren Savage - Diocese of Springfield

Moderator:

Rev. Marisa Brown Ludwig

Summary

The overarching themes that emerged in Part 1 were importance for faith leaders to model welcoming behaviors, actively reach out to newcomers and members of marginalized groups, and use their roles as educators to help others create welcoming spaces. Clergy have a very significant role in setting the tone for their communities: as Imam Seifullah pointed out, communities take on the character of the pastor, imam, or rabbi. So if the leader is not all-embracing, others will not be, either. When someone shows up, be welcoming. Smile, introduce yourselves, be engaging. Faith leaders need to condition their followers to do this. They can start by emphasizing how much we all have in common, while also pointing out that the diversity in the world that we do see is created by God – we are not meant to all be the same, and we all have something of value to give to the benefit of humanity. Father Savage concurred, adding that inclusivity begins with saying good morning to everyone you pass, whether or not they respond. He reiterated the need to “model a lifestyle that is compassionate, welcoming, nonjudgmental, and affirming of others.” He also emphasized the need to encourage people to firmly believe in their hearts that everyone has intrinsic dignity.

Rabbi Katz noted that most members of her congregation would say that they are an inclusive community and would say that they of course they want all people to feel comfortable in the synagogue, but she pointed out that there is sometimes a discrepancy between theory and practice. She recalled an incident in which a gay couple felt uncomfortable in a class she taught even though it did not seem like anyone was being outwardly rude. But members of marginalized communities may need more than just the absence of hostility in order to feel truly included, she stressed. This is where education can come in. As all three panelists suggested, it is important to take concrete steps to make sure that people feel welcome. The leaders cannot do it all themselves; they must educate others in their communities and convince them to join these efforts.

In small group discussions, the term “radical hospitality” was brought up to describe what must happen to make people feel included[1]. Another group brought up how much joy there can be in finding that you are an “insider” when you step into a new faith community. Making this happen, as several other groups discussed, requires strong leadership and a lot of work, as well as explicit conversations. We need to ask questions to challenge our usual ways of thinking and working.

Part 1: Key questions that emerged from small group discussions/Q & A session:

●      Who is being given the “microphone?” I.e., whose voices do we hear? Do we let marginalized people in our communities speak for themselves, or do the more privileged try to speak for them?

●      When a community is resistant to being inclusive, what is the nature of that resistance?

●      How can we help people to feel part of a tradition if they are not literate in that tradition? It is important for people to have a solid core sense of who they are. How do we educate people about their own faiths as well as others?

●      How do we balance the needs of a few against the needs of many? For example, if there is a congregant whose needs are taking up a lot of time, how do we make that person feel welcome while also establishing healthy boundaries?

●      How can we embrace a diversity of political beliefs?

●      How can we embrace neurodiversity[2]? Is that a different type of inclusivity? What about ableism? (tip: always use a microphone to include people with hearing difficulties).

●      Where are the opportunities to break out of a “one size fits all” approach to religious practices? For example, can Bar Mitzvah rituals be adjusted to meet specific needs of individuals or their families? Or can a more liberal and inclusive Muslim space be created outside the mosque to embrace LGBTQ Muslims without coming into conflict with religious laws?

Part II: Striving For Inclusion – Looking Outward

The Challenge: Prejudice due to racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia and transphobia is pervasive and exists within faith communities and also in the broader community.

Guiding Question

What is the responsibility of faith leaders in reducing intolerance and bigotry, whether that means addressing hateful views held by members of your own faith community or responding to bias-related incidents and troubling trends in the broader community?

Panelists:

Rabbi Justin David - Congregation B’nai Israel, Northampton

Rev. Corey Sanderson - Second Congregational Church, Greenfield

Tahirah Amatul Wadud - Muslim activist and attorney *and now also a candidate for Congress!

Moderator: Rev. Melissa Carver Zeimer

Summary

In both the panel and small group discussions, everyone agreed that faith leaders – and ordinary citizens – have a responsibility to respond to intolerance and bigotry. The question, then, is how to do it successfully in an increasingly divided environment.

Rev. Sanderson began the panel discussion by acknowledging the importance of this topic. He noted that we all must be critical in thinking about what we have been taught. In the absence of meaningful interactions with people from different traditions, media and Facebook memes fill the gaps between us with ignorance, stereotypes, and fear. We need to pull together, interact with each other. We should not minimize differences – as noted in the first part of the day, differences are not necessarily bad. We need to increase religious literacy and familiarity with different traditions. He recalled a story about MLK Jr, who went to hear a speech about “Christian love” that turned out to be about Gandhi. Understanding that a non-Christian such as Gandhi could nevertheless be an  example of Christian love popped him out of his Baptist bubble. We need to do the same.

Rabbi David echoed the importance of not minimizing differences. He recalled seeing a commercial as a child, in which a grandfather teaches his grandson that he was prejudiced for referring to a child as his “Jewish friend” rather than just his “friend.” The predominant liberal world view at the time was to ignore differences. But that has changed (for the better). He shared some of his personal stories on the path toward understanding his own place in the power structure as a privileged white male. In his first year as a rabbi, he gave a carefully worded sermon about peace in the Middle East and was complimented on being “deft.” But by now he feels that it is important to be passionate and principled, not just deft. He can use religion and his role as a leader and educator to look outward and make the world a better place.

Ms. Amatul-Wadud brought a different perspective to the conversation, because she does not have a congregation, but she, too, repeated the call to address issues head-on rather than ignoring or minimizing differences. For her, social justice and interfaith work was born out of necessity, in response to anti-Muslim sentiment and issues regarding racism within Muslim community. She did not grow up with conversations about race, or any other uncomfortable topics, but she believes that it is very important to have those conversations. With her own children, she decided to start early and often. She and her daughter developed a way to speak with Muslim communities about the universality of the African American Muslim Community. This includes teaching all Muslims about the story of Bilal (a friend of Mohammed and a great muezzin, who was born into slavery and experienced racism), and including in American history classes the fact that 20% of people brought from Africa into slavery were Muslim, so that Muslim Americans know they have a legacy here.

With regard to accountability and risk taking, the general consensus emerged that faith leaders have an obligation to the texts and traditions of their faith–and also to social justice. Rev. Sanderson spoke of the triangular covenant between individual, God, and community. We are at a place where it is good to have values, faith, and spirituality, but we also have to do real work to live out those values. He noted that religious communities often have a mindset of needing to be cared for by leaders, so they may be hesitant to have clergy speaking on issues of justice in the larger community. But he believes that it is important to speak out anyway (and if you are fired, it probably meant that it was not a good fit anyway). The others agreed that there may sometimes be risks (including, as Ms. Amatul-Wadud pointed out, emotional vulnerability), but if you believe in justice, there should not be anything holding you back. Rabbi David claimed that the greatest risk is inaction. Faith leaders can tap into people’s spiritual curiosity and use their roles as educators to encourage greater action.

In terms of how to reconcile theological beliefs and secular laws, people often assume that theological beliefs will be more conservative than secular laws. But this is not always the case. As Rev. Sanderson pointed out, liberal Protestants (as well as other faith communities) have long had an open stance toward LGBTQ people; in this case, their religious belief in same-sex marriage was held back by secular laws for a while. Often religious ideals rise above secular laws, and in these cases we can try to influence local policies to be more rooted in compassion and forgiveness. As a positive example, there is a noteworthy restorative justice program in Greenfield that is grounded in the values of forgiveness and reconciliation, rather than just punishment.

Below are some of the questions, thoughts, and suggestions that came out in the small group and plenary discussion [note–several of these points were brought up in the first part of the symposium (looking inward) but thematically fit with the second (looking outward) and are therefore added here]:

Part 2: Key questions that emerged from small group discussions/Q and A session

●      Religions often get weaponized–how can this be prevented?

○      We need more religious literacy – not only of what our own traditions say, but also others. For example, even within the Evangelical world, there is a progressive movement – not all are fundamentalists like Westboro Baptists. Although the “old guard” is still present, one of the most exciting things happening in American religion now is a rising awareness that texts are not supposed to be used as weapons.

○      In addition: organizing and standing up and showing up are great counterpoints to how religious beliefs are exploited.

●      Many people spoke about the importance of forming interfaith relationships. But how can we welcome people of other faiths – especially religious minorities such as Hindus – without making them feel that we are trying to convert them? Several suggestions included:

○      We need to stick by people we invite to our communities, to shepherd them and introduce them around and defend them if necessary.

○      We must be welcoming while not neglecting differences. When visitors come into our communities, we also need to ask them about theirs.

○      College campuses can expand multi-faith components of their programming. For example, Mt. Holyoke has a Hindu prayer room. They also have frequent interfaith luncheons and other opportunities for students to learn about other faiths in non-threatening ways.

○      Faith leaders need to make sure that they are teaching children in their congregations to have a solid core identity, especially if they are in a religious minority. If they grow up knowing who they are, and have a strong connection to their own faith, being surrounded by more “mainstream” religious practices or symbols will not feel as threatening.

○      When we invite people into our communities for interfaith events, the focus can be on the common experience, eating food together, sharing traditions, feeling loved.

●      With interfaith relationship building: how do we dig deep, beyond one action or one event? What opens us up?

○      One suggestion was to work together on something ongoing and meaningful. For example, in Northampton the Beit Ahava Synagogue and the Florence Congregational Church are now collecting water filters for Puerto Rico (they have raised $47,000 so far). The two share a building, but in the past they did very little together. Now the minister and rabbi are working together with a new level of engagement. Relationship building has shifted, and feels deeper because it is based in caring and worrying about others. In a sense it is political work, not just religious work, because it is filling a gap left by government. That might be scary to some faith communities, but it is important.

○      Rev. Sanderson pointed out that especially with the younger generation, we are seeing a shift from beliefs to values. We can build upon shared values, across religious differences, for long-term engagement.

Key Takeaways from the Symposium:

●      It is our responsibility, both as members of faith communities and ordinary citizens, to step up in whatever way we can in the face of injustice, prejudice, and bigotry. Where can we leverage the organizing power of faith communities to rally around advocacy? In the past, some religious communities have been docile, but this past year has been a wake up call to become more engaged.

●      Remember that choosing to act or not act is a sign of privilege. Some do not have that choice: they could literally be killed or deported if they act. A related note that is important to address within communities is that we might still be gaining privilege from an injustice even when we act against that injustice.

●      To do this work effectively, we must examine and actively respond to internalized biases in our communities. There is a balance between looking inward and looking outward, different layers of work that we have to do together. Education is key, but so is action. We cannot let guilt lead to paralysis.

●      When we reach out to others: who are we leaving out, and why? The answer might vary for different communities, but we can all try to expand our reach as we embrace inclusivity. For example, anti-Semitism is often ignored or quickly dismissed. And some people who loudly protested the travel bans – defending the rights of non-Americans – have ignored the injustices to their fellow black Americans. Even at this symposium, there was almost no inclusion people of faith with a queer or trans identity. No one should feel invisible. How can we do better?

●      Radical love has to come into our theology. Reach out, form unlikely relationships, do not get caught up in a good/bad duality.

●      We must commit to interfaith relationship building for the long haul, and go deeper than scattered, disconnected events.

●      Never underestimate the importance of community. Many people believe that evil grows out of organized religion, but in general, community building makes us stronger. We need to build communities beyond Abrahamic faith and have more programming that creates opportunities for community.

●      We must learn about and learn from history – and our complicities – and apply those learnings to the present. For example, Central American immigrants working in our area are being deported by ICE. Our own government is doing divisive things to our society now that have parallels in the past. We must remember what happens when we do not speak up. At the same time, we also need to plan for what happens “after the revolution.” As people of faith, and as humans, we need to make sure the oppressed do not become oppressors. Remember that it has happened before.

●      We must connect the safety of ourselves and our own groups to the safety of others.

●      It is important to structure conversations in ways that do not provoke defensiveness. How do you move people with more privilege to a place of being allies, rather than backing them into a position of being the oppressor?

●      In dialogues with others, always ask “is there more?” Instead of sealing off knowledge bases, we need to extend our understanding that we are all in a web. We need to embrace the next level of conversation. Our hearts must be ready to hear.

●      We might not always agree on how to move forward. But even though violence is bad, conflict is not necessarily bad. There is a lot of work to do, both within our faith communities and across wider divides. The time to start is now.

This report was prepared by Rachel Mason. She is the Program Manager at Karuna Center for Peacebuilding. 

 

 

[1] “Radical hospitality” has been defined differently by different faith leaders and congregations, but generally implies going beyond just greeting newcomers. Many sources are available online with suggestions and examples.

[2] “Neurodiversity” refers to the idea that neurological differences expressed as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, etc, should be recognized and respected as much as other forms of diversity. “Ableism” refers to discrimination in favor of able-bodied people. It is often due to lack of awareness of the needs of others.

The Future of the Iran Nuclear Deal - A Backgrounder

January 11, 2017

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1. What could happen to the Iran nuclear deal on Friday?

The Iran nuclear Deal remains in peril as it is unclear how President Trump will respond to two key questions that have looming deadlines this week. Will the U.S. waive sanctions against Iran? And will the U.S. certify the agreement? Also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed between Iran, the U.S. and five other countries (UK, France, Germany, China, Russia), the Iran nuclear deal requires sanctions relief in exchange for Iran limiting its nuclear program. U.S. sanctions against Iran have remained in place since 1979—however, since the agreement was signed in 2015, successive U.S. presidents have waived sanctions every 120 days to keep the deal alive. If President Trump decides at the end of the week not to waive sanctions against Iran, he will violate America’s end of the agreement and trigger the unraveling of the Iran nuclear deal. The second question regards the deal’s certification, which is congressionally mandated and not part of the agreement itself. When the U.S. signed off on the JCPOA in 2015, Congress required that the U.S. president certify every 90 days that Iran met its obligations under the deal. The International Atomic Agency (IAEA) and the U.S. government have consistently certified Iran’s compliance over the past two years. However, in October 2017, the president decertified the deal saying it was not in American’s national security interest.  He left it to Congress to either ‘fix’ the agreement (by making restrictions on Iran’s nuclear capacity permanent) or re-impose sanctions on Iran. The deadline for Congress to re-impose sanctions on Iran lapsed in December and the ball is back in President Trump’s court.

2. What efforts are underway to preserve the Iran nuclear deal?

While nothing is for certain until an announcement is made on Friday, the AP is reporting that efforts by Secretary of State Tillerson, Defense Secretary Mattis, and National Security Advisor McMaster to keep the U.S. in the deal might bear fruit. They have for months tried to convince the president to keep the core agreement in place, while they work to ‘fix’ the nuclear agreement. Secretary Tillerson has engaged with congressional leaders to formulate legislation that would “punish Iran’s ballistic missile testing, alleged terrorism support and human rights violations.” According to the AP, as the Friday deadline approaches, Tillerson has tried to convince President Trump that there is enough activity in Congress to amend the agreement, and that if he keeps the deal alive for the next three months by signing the sanctions waiver on Friday, Congress could strengthen the deal by May. Meanwhile, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Corker (D-MD) and Senator Cardin (R-TN) have tried to come up with legislation that would make the review process associated with the Iran deal more palatable to the president—for instance, by adding a provision that prevents the need for presidential certification every 90 days. They recognize this is a constant irritant to the president, who has maintained that this is the “worst deal ever” and does not want to be the one to certify Iran’s compliance.

3. How might European signatories to the nuclear deal react if America reneges?

Since Trump’s decertification of the Iran nuclear deal last October, European governments have been less concerned with lobbying the U.S. and have instead reaffirmed their commitment to the deal directly to Iran. They have further indicated that if the U.S. decides to scrap the deal, they will rely on a European Union statute from the 1990’s that would allow European companies to continue to trade with Iran despite the potential re-imposition of sanctions by the United States.

For some, there is an even larger issue at stake—as one Iranian analyst put it:

“But this time around, the survival of the nuclear deal is no longer just about Iran’s centrifuges and sunset clauses. It’s about whether the EU will see the U.S. as a pillar of the liberal international order or as a fifth column seeking its demise. The nuclear deal has become the latest, and perhaps most consequential, international agreement or norm that the EU seeks to uphold and Trump seeks to tear down: from the Paris agreement, to the future of NATO, to the unity of the EU, to the funding of the United Nations, to the status of Jerusalem”.

The Ongoing Refugee Resettlement Effort in Western MA - An Interview with Kathryn Buckley-Brawner

 Kathryn Buckley-Brawner, center right, greets Jasimiyah Hussein and her sons Yousuf and Ayoob Al-Dulaimi, 26 and 20, all Iraqi refugees. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY PHOTOS)   

Kathryn Buckley-Brawner, center right, greets Jasimiyah Hussein and her sons Yousuf and Ayoob Al-Dulaimi, 26 and 20, all Iraqi refugees. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY PHOTOS)

 

By Leif Maynard

While it no longer occupies the front pages of the news, the refugee crisis in Syria—and refugee issues globally—still continue with force. The counts of both internally displaced Syrians and refugees abroad increased in early 2017 to a combined 11.4 million displaced people, according to recent UNHCR estimates. The ongoing nature of the crisis, so heavily reported on in 2015, cannot be understated. The war in Syria still grinds on, displacement camps in European and Middle Eastern host nations are only becoming more crowded, and violent hostility still haunts refugees at every step of their journey. 

Of course, the Middle East is not the only region stricken by war, forcing families to flee violence. North Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and now the Rohingya peoples of Myanmar are all part of the global refugee problem—the worst humanitarian crisis the world faces today. Given the current geography of the crisis, statelessness and displacement disproportionately affect Muslims, and hostile responses to accepting refugees in the U.S. and Europe has brought the prevalence of islamophobia and dire need for cross-cultural dialogue to the forefront.

In Western Massachusetts, the plight of refugees may feel impossibly remote and hopelessly enormous, that is until you meet a newly resettled refugee at your local grocery store. Through the work of a handful of refugee resettlement organizations in the area, our community has welcomed dozens of refugees since 2015—not a significant number in an international context, but life altering for every one of the families who can now reclaim their humanity in a safe and supportive community. 

To more deeply understand the continuing Western Mass refugee aid effort, we reached out to Kathryn Buckley-Brawner, executive director of Catholic Charities, the leading resettlement agency in the area. She explained the recent work of her organization, setbacks and successes in the Trump era, and how her faith guides her to help all human beings achieve the elemental human rights of basic dignity and freedom from violence. 

Critical Connections:  Please give an overview of your organization's work with refugees. Where are they predominantly from? What is Catholic Charities doing right now to aid refugees?

Kathryn Buckley-Brawner: 

Catholic Charities is a Refugee Reception & Placement Agency subcontracted through the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, one of the nine national voluntary agencies that are contracted by the State Department to resettle refugees. 

Our mission is to provide assurance so that refugees can travel to this country to build a new home of hope.  We meet and welcome them, assist them with finding a place to live, helping them acquire documentation and social benefits.  We provide ESL, employment services, cultural orientation.  Our Circles of Care, made up of residents of Northampton, help our caseworkers provide ongoing assistance, friendship and integration. 

Due to the unexpected halt in refugee entry to the US, we were able to settle 18 refugees in FY 2017.  We are serving Bhutanese, Iraqi, and Democratic Republic of the Congo families.

What has been one major recent triumph in your work with refugees? 

We just were successful in getting the head of household (single mom) of one of our families a job in less than 90 days, and managing to find ways for her to take care of her two children.  The Circle of Care, the school system, and the caseworkers worked diligently to put this all together in a way that would allow her to start to make her own way and build financial capacity and independence. 

What has been one major setback in your work and how are you overcoming the challenge? 

The halt of refugees being allowed to enter the country, particularly from Arabic speaking countries, has been our biggest challenge.  We were able to “stay alive” even though it is our first year in resettlement, by some fortuitous forethought.  All our caseworkers are cross-trained to serve in our other social service programs.  This means that we didn’t have to curtail staff.  Our concern, however, is for the 20 refugees that are still in our “assurance pipeline”.  There is not much that we can do from this end.  So we watch and wait and keep preparing.  We already have Circles of Care ready and anxiously awaiting the refugees’ arrival. 

Please share a story from your work with refugees that touched you personally.  

We are working with an Iraqi refugee family, a mom and two children, that has US ties (relative in the country). When we called the US tie to see whether they would accept the responsibility of assisting the family upon their arrival, we could hear screams in the background as the man who answered said the mom’s name. Softly in the background we could hear “my babies… my babies”. We came to discover that the one we were speaking to was the woman’s husband.  He and his parents (who the ones doing the screaming for joy) have been here since 2012.  With some luck the family could be reunited by the end of the year. 

How does your faith guide Catholic Charities’ mission of aiding refugees of all ethnic and religious backgrounds?  

Simply put we believe in the life, dignity, value, and worth of all God’s children.  We believe that all have the right to access those things needed for a decent life.  Among those rights are the freedom from fear, and the right to live.  We believe that we do not have the right to pass judgement on others based on race, color, creed, ethnicity, gender, etc…  Together these beliefs allow us to freely and gratefully serve those in need.  

In conclusion—How can members of the community best support and aid refugees?

Community members can: 

  • Help us educate and enlighten other communities and their members.
  • Speak out against policies that foment prejudice and close our borders to some of the most vulnerable people in our world.
  • Locally, encourage donations to Catholic Charities of gift cards to stores like:  Target, J.C. Penney, Sears, Wal-Mart, or Big Y and Stop & Shop. 
  • Locally, encourage donations to offset the first year’s cost of living for the refugee families, especially their rent by making a donation to Welcoming Refugees Resettlement Project.
  • Participate in a Circle of Care or volunteer to provide transportation for the families.

THE ROHINGYA CRISIS

By LEIF MAYNARD

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Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority residing in Myanmar, one of the 135 ethnic groups of the South Asian country. The majority of the estimated one million Rohingya are concentrated in the Rakhine State on Myanmar’s western border with Bangladesh, where they make up one third of the state’s population. The Rohingya have called the region home since the 15th century with the establishment of the Muslim Arakan Kingdom, and many more migrated to the region in the 19th century(1). “Rohingya” only came to use in the 1950s as a self-identifying term to promote political unity. Rohang is generally accepted to have originated from the word Arakan, and gya means “from” in the Rohingya language. In their very name, the Rohingya people assert their deep ties to the land that was once the Arakan Kingdom, land they are now being forced to flee.

For centuries, Myanmar’s dominant Buddhist groups and central government have persecuted the Rohingya minority, refusing to recognize their name and historical presence in the region. The roots of Burmese hostility towards the Rohingya can be traced to the era of British colonial control in Myanmar from 1885 to 1948. British policies in Myanmar favored ethnic minorities such as the Rohingya over the Burmese majority, and British forces imported large numbers of foreign laborers from India. Many Burmese regarded these policies as a deliberate effort by the colonial power to dilute their place in society after a long history of domination (2).Burmese Buddhist nationalism developed out of this environment of fear, and the Rohingya became the primary target.

How have they historically been treated in Myanmar?

In 1962, the nationalist military seized control of the newly independent Myanmar, institutionalizing ethnic hostility towards the Rohingya. Claiming the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, the government has denied them citizenship and documentation, effectively rendering the entire ethnic group stateless. A brief attempt to franchise the Rohingya in the 1990s collapsed under pressure from influential Buddhist nationalist groups (3). Since then, the Rohingya have lived under apartheid conditions enforced by the state. Rohingya must gain government approval to travel, marry, and have children, and face heavy restrictions on religious freedom, education, and employment. Rakhine’s status as Myanmar’s least developed region compounds the suffering faced by the Rohingya. 

These conditions, coupled with bitter religious tension between the Muslim minority and Buddhist nationalists, have lead to episodes of mass violence against the Rohingya. In 2012, after accusing two Rohingya men of raping a Buddhist woman, militant forces killed 280 Rohingya and displaced tens of thousands, many fleeing to Bangladesh(4). In 2016, after alleged attacks by Rohingya militants, the government increased its oppressive military presence in the Rakhine, inhibiting international humanitarian aid and advancing an agenda of “textbook ethnic cleansing,” according to UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein(5). Yet it has been the past few weeks that have consumed the Rohingya in the worst violence they have faced, and it continues today.

What led to the most recent conflagration? 

The underlying tensions between the Muslim Rohingya minority and Buddhist nationalists, as well as the squalid conditions of Rohingya refugee camps on the border of Myanmar, set the stage for the current outbreak of violence in the Rakhine State. In recent months, displacement camps have suffered severe water and food shortages coupled with “mass atrocities” inflicted by Burmese military security forces, according to the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK. On August 25th, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a militant Rohingya organization, launched an attack, killing more than 100 officers at military posts in the Rakhine. Rather than targeting the extremist group, the government has made no distinction between militant and civilian, torching villages and opening fire on civilian refugees(6).

The conflict has resulted in the greatest migratory and humanitarian crisis the embattled Rohingya have faced at any time in their history. According to an Al Jazeera article published on September 8th, more than 1,000 people have been killed since August 25th. The UN estimates more than 400,000 Rohingya—mostly women and children—have fled to Bangladesh to avoid the systematic military raids(7). Myanmar’s neighbors are struggling to provide basic services to the Rohingya already within their borders. Before the most recent event, Bangladesh hosted 400,000 refugees. Now, as tens of thousands of vulnerable Rohingya cross the officially closed border, the crisis threatens to further destabilize the region.

Is the Rohingya crisis primarily religious in nature or are there other factors driving the conflict?

While it is easy to characterize the conflict as soley rooted in religious intolerance, the importance of economic and socio-political factors in the crisis cannot be understated. Through the Rakhine’s history of severe economic underdevelopment, all populations within the region have felt economically exploited and neglected by the central government, leading the ethnically Burmese majority to regard the Rohingya as unrightful competitors for scarce resources, employment, and political authority. Instead of promoting unity and cultural reconciliation in the region, the military has backed the strong Buddhist fundamentalist faction to secure its own national interests in the resource-rich state, rather than the economic and political interests of the local population as a whole(8). Of course, the issue has religious undertones, but mostly in the context of the economic hardship of the Burmese majority resulting in the persecution of the more vulnerable ethnic minority, and the corresponding rise of Buddhist nationalism fueled by fear of political dilution by the Muslim Rohingya.

Where does Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi stand?

Long heralded as a global icon of moral democracy, the Nobel Peace laureate and civilian leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, has faced broad criticism for her lack of action and uncharacteristic denial of systematic human rights abuses against the Rohingya by the military. In 2015, with Suu Kyi’s victory in the first contested election for a civilian head of state in 25 years, many Rohingya were hopeful for change. These hopes have proved to be unfounded. The new government has neither offered any support to the Rohingya or tried to curb the ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the military and militant Buddhist groups giving rise to the current crisis(9).In recent comments to the media, Suu Kyi acknowledged the need to address the conflict in the region, and said that those who committed human rights abuses would face the full force of the law. Yet Suu Kyi, who practices Buddhism, has not condemned the military outright, and claims the international community has exaggerated the crisis, adding to ethnic tensions. 

To truly understand the Nobel laureate’s inaction, it is crucial to recognize the complex political predicamentSuu Kyi currently faces in her country, where the military still holds formidable power. As the first civilian premier of Myanmar in a generation, Suu Kyi must strike a precarious balance between military, public, and international interests to preserve Myanmar’s fledgling democracy. Those who defend Suu Kyi argue that any support for the Rohingya or condemnation of military actions against the minority could provoke a complete military takeover of the government, possibly resulting in full blown genocide in the Rakhine(10). Still, Suu Kyi’s denial of the factually reported severity of the conflict is alarming, and her decision announced Wednesday, September 13th, to skip the UN General Assembly meeting the following week prompted uproar from authoritative voices around the globe.

What is being done by the UN and the international community?

For years, the UN has monitored the events in the Rakhine and produced reports characterizing the Rohingya as the most persecuted peoples in the world, with crimes against humanity perpetrated against them. However, the current crisis has resulted in unprecedented attention and criticism of the Myanmar government by the international body. Per the request of England and Sweden, two emergency Security Council meetings have been convened on the crisis in the past weeks; the second meeting on Wednesday, September 13th, resulted in a formal condemnation of the situation(11). Notably, Myanmar has completely denied UNICEF, Amnesty International, and all other major humanitarian organizations access to the Rakhine region, an action that prompted particularly furious criticism from UN officials. While the UN cannot reach the Rakhine directly, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance is currently implementing a $7 billion plan that will provide food, water, shelter, and healthcare to refugees in Bangladesh through December(12). The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has called the “dramatic tragedy” of ethnically motivated violence and exodus of Rohingya “completely unacceptable” and has urged the Security Council to do all in its power to prevent further escalation in the Rakhine and to aid the Rohingya(13).

While the U.S. State Department has voiced concern over the crisis in Myanmar, top officials have neither criticized Suu Kyi outright, nor acknowledged Burmese government involvement in the human rights violations taking place. They have also refrained from proposing sanctions for fear of destabilizing Myanmar’s fledgling democracy. Rather, the U.S. has mostly advocated for humanitarian aid. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, has called on the Myanmar government to lift the blockade against aid organizations  in the Rakhine(14). Ultimately, the international community as a whole has been slow to act on rebuking Myanmar’s military leadership.

How has the Muslim world responded to the Rohingya crisis?

Over the past three weeks, popular protests have erupted in Muslim regions through Asia and the Middle East, most notably in Jakarta, Indonesia, where a small bomb was thrown at the Embassy of Myanmar. A handful of prominent Muslim leaders have expressed solidarity with the Rohingya people. Malala Yousafzai said her “heart breaks” over the terror faced by the Rohingya, calling for her fellow Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to acknowledge and denounce military actions in the Rakhine. Pakistan and Malaysia, both Muslim majority countries, have urged Myanmar to hold those responsible accountable and intervene to resolve the conflict. Of all Muslim majority countries, Turkey and Indonesia have taken the most proactive stances condemning the crisis. Prime Minister Erdoğan of Turkey accused the Myanmar government of genocide, pledging Bangladesh financial support for humanitarian aid to refugees seeking safety in the country. Indonesia’s foreign minister traveled to Myanmar to speak with Suu Kyi and leading military general, Min Aung Hlaing earlier this month, beseeching them to work with the international community to secure the immediate safety of the Rohingya.Indonesia has promised to take in 150,000 Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh(15).

Another important angle of the Muslim response is that of extremist groups who have rallied to wage ‘jihad’ on behalf of the Rohingya. It was, in fact, the militant Rohingya ARSA who provoked the military, leading to the current crisis. There is evidence that this group is funded by independent Saudi donors(16). Already, Al Qaeda’s offshoot in Yemen has called for attacks on Myanmar. The possibility of an international extremist response was a critical factor in the strong responses of Indonesia and Turkey as a preemptive measure to curb radicalism among Rohingya. The Muslim response to the crisis in Rakhine highlights its intrinsically global nature and dire importance, not only in terms of the gross violation of human rights, but also the state of religiously implicated tensions worldwide.

What are possible steps forward?

Due to the decades-long oppression of the Rohingya, a plethora of reports issued by regional and international human rights agencies have been published with expert recommendations to the Myanmar government. Perhaps the most notable was the final report published in August 2017 by the independent Advisory Commission on the Rakhine State. The commission, chaired by former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, was convened last year under the auspices of Aung San Suu Kyi’s office and the Kofi Annan Foundation, and consisted of six local and three international experts. They were designated with the task of making recommendations to the Myanmar government regarding the deplorable conditions of all communities living in the Rakhine state. In its final report, the commission identified the long-standing structural issues that have contributed to the crisis and “which affect the Muslim population disproportionately”(17)–these include severe economic underdevelopment in the Rakhine, lack of transparency and commitment to ensuring a legal path to citizenship for minorities, and a history of violence in the region amplified by ineffective security operations and segregation. In addition, the commission recommended concrete steps to alleviate the suffering of various communities in the Rakhine, such as lifting the ban on media and humanitarian aid, providing a transparent path to citizenship and the associated rights to all peoples residing in the Rakhine, enacting the UN plan on socioeconomic development in the region, training security forces in human rights, and ensuring education and employment opportunities and inter-communal dialogue are provided without ethnic distinction(18). The commission also called on the Myanmar government to establish a national body to implement its recommendations. 

Such recommendations are realistic, if only the Myanmar government would commit to them. The depth of the religious, political, and economic divide in the country coupled with the military’s power have stymied any thought of real progress without tremendous outside pressure from the international community. Right now, when a short term solution is favorable to no solution at all, international pressure and rare unilateral action by the Security Council may be all that can curtail the suffering of the Rohingya, a people who can’t go home. 

 

How Do We Heal?

 Photo credit: VOA News

Photo credit: VOA News

By Leif Maynard

There is a certain kind of shock that follows an act of violence by an extremist group. In the case of Charlottesville, this shock stems from the realization of the widespread prevalence of these extremists. Through the attacks in Barcelona, we see how effective radicalization has become, and how it has a global impact. While these events are very different, both act as wake up calls to the division we face. In America, Charlottesville jolted those of us with the privilege of not encountering the hate and bigotry felt by marginalized groups especially.

How do we heal? What can we do to mend the ideological divides and racial discrimination so deeply woven into American society? It took immense pressure for Donald Trump to send out his 140 character call to “heel”. However, the differences between Trump’s message and the real healing that must occur go far beyond a spelling error. Healing does not mean what Trump seems to suggest: forcing together cracks in the American facade with duct tape to preserve the status quo. Healing means progress, and progress starts with acknowledging the problem, engaging in educated dialogue, and then taking action.

Dialogue matters–forming diverse human connections in the process of grappling with challenges is the foundation of society. In order to heal, we must educate each other, support those we find common ground with, and listen to those we don’t. Understanding is not agreement. You can detest the man chanting ‘white lives matter’, but it is important to hear him, understand why he feels disenfranchised and has resorted to hate, and exemplify the compassion you want in return.

Nuanced and widespread dialogue in communities will lay the foundation for sustained healing if we continue to expand such initiatives. And we must do so, for those who are directly affected by bigotry every day, and for the general health of the society that holds us all accountable to each other.

Leif Maynard is program associate at Critical Connections. He is a rising junior at Amherst High School, where he co-leads a group advocating for Syrian refugees. He is particularly interested in foreign policy and cross-cultural understanding, and is excited to work on promoting nuanced dialogue in the community.

The Orlando Massacre and a Note to American-Muslims

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By Mehlaqa Samdani

Critical Connections stands in solidarity with the LGBTQ community and extends heartfelt condolences to all those affected by the deadliest mass shooting in American history.

A note to American-Muslims:

Fellow American-Muslims, please don’t let the Orlando shooter’s religious identity consume and paralyze you. He never claimed to, nor does he, represent you so please do not act like he does. This attack is not about you–it is about the people who were attacked. It is about the LGBTQ community that was deliberately targeted. Please reach out to local LGBTQ groups and stand in solidarity with them as they organize vigils in your area. It is time to speak out against homophobia as we have against Islamophobia. People who stand as allies with the Muslim community do not necessarily do so because they believe in Islam or Islamic values—they do so because they believe in the civil rights of all Americans, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. It is time for us to engage in the same activism in support of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

Honest Conversations with our Muslim Neighbors

By Katherine Bruns (Guest Blogger)

The CT Council for Interreligious Understanding (CCIU), the Muslim Coalition of CT, and Hartford Seminary presented the seventh in a series called “Honest Conversations with Muslim Neighbors” on January 28th, at the First Church in Middletown, CT, hosted by the Middletown Refugee Resettlement Coalition, of which First Church is a member. It was a well-attended event with about 120 attendees, deftly moderated by Trinity College professor Dr. Janet Bauer.

The four well-spoken panelists represented the diversity of Muslim voices in our community. The list of their accomplishments and involvement in the community is extensive and beyond what can be included in this short blurb. In brief they were: Dr. Reza Mansoor, a cardiologist and founder and past president of the Muslim Coalition of CT; Linda Miller, an African-American Muslim, long-time Middletown resident and retired teacher and nurse; Dr. Feryal Salem, Assistant Professor of Islamic Scriptures and Law at Hartford Seminary whose research focuses on early Islamic thought and the Islamic scholarly tradition; and Maryam Bitar, a native of Damascus, Syria and senior at Trinity in the IDP (adult Individualized Degree Program) and volunteer with the city of Hartford’s Commission on Refugee and Immigrant Affairs (CRIA).

After each panelist gave a brief introduction they took turns answering hand written questions from the audience, presented by the moderator. In the beginning there was a minor, though jarring interruption from about eight protesters who had entered the church and had been quietly handing out pamphlets opposing refugee resettlement as well as some hate speech before the discussion started. A few were escorted out politely and deftly by the pastor of the church. The rest remained and stayed quiet. It was a sobering reminder of the reality our “Muslim neighbors” face daily.

Dr Mansoor, when asked what the biggest challenge was in negotiating interfaith dialogue, replied that poll after poll reveals that the favorability rating of Muslims after 9/11 continues to decrease despite the reality that 60% of the respondents claim they do not personally know a Muslim. He pointed out that 10% of US physicians are Muslim so rather than coming to the U.S. to try to harm, as opponents to (Muslim) refugee resettlement might assert, they represent a significant portion of the healing profession. In response to further questions about “Muslim culture” (there is no one culture! – all the panelists pointed out), Dr Mansoor said that the values in Islam are no different than values held dear by other religions and peoples. He believes that the current “clash” stems more from a lack of knowledge than from real differences. He added that Arabic words like jihad and sharia have “taken a life of their own” in the United States, and proceeded to give in-depth description of both words and how they are misused both by the U.S. media and by ISIS.

Dr. Salem, asked why more Muslim leaders haven’t spoken out against ISIS, responded that indeed they have and encouraged attendees to read both the “Marrakesh Declaration” (http://marrakeshdeclaration.org/about.html) and “Letter to Baghdadi” (http://www.lettertobaghdadi.com). She also pointed out that the media help this misperception by focusing only on negative news and headline grabbing sound bites. She answered many questions about male/female equity and said that the Qur’an clearly states that women are equal to men and, like any religious text, Qur’anic scripture is sadly either taken out of context or interpreted in the narrowest terms. When asked about the difference between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims, she gave an explanation but made it clear that current fighting in the Middle East (a Euro-centric term, she interestingly pointed out) is political in nature and gave a historical rundown to the current situation.

As the only American-born, and African-American Muslim Ms Miller brought an important lens to the discussion. She pointed out that non Muslims should not look at the very small minority of Muslims represented by ISIS, other terrorist organizations or extremist clerics and think they represent the vast majority of Muslims any more than she should have looked at the KKK in the 1950’s and 1960’s and let them represent all of white America. When asked about how communities could help welcome refugees she gave several suggestions including volunteering with refugee resettlement organizations, offering to volunteer at schools and simply being kind to immigrants who clearly “look different.”

Maryam was asked if she faced discrimination. She replied yes but that she just turns the other cheek. She pointed out that she is named after (the Virgin) Mary, who is revered in Islamic scripture according to Dr. Salem, and comes from a town in Syria not far from a village that is the last that still speaks Aramaic – the language spoken by Jesus. She answered a question about whether Muslim women could leave their houses unescorted by pointing out that she left Syria and flew all the way to the United States by herself in 2010.

It was agreed by all that fear, stemming from the ignorance of facts about Islam, has led to the current view of Muslims in the United States, and to the reluctance to welcome more refugees. The more “Honest Conversations” that can be had, the better.

Looking ahead: Dr Mansoor welcomes youth to his Berlin Mosque on Sunday afternoon, February 14th for a “Youth Hang-out Day” (see the event calendar and contact info at www.berlinmosque,org). Further “Honest Conversations” will be held, including on February 21st in Suffield and March 1st in Windsor. Details will be available on CCIU’s website (www.ccfiu.org ) and Facebook page. In addition, the Wadsworth Atheneum, together with CCIU, will be presenting another Interfaith Film Series in March. (https://thewadsworth.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/2016-Winter-Spring-Film-FLyer-Web.pdf)

Righting Our Narrative

By Bernie Pelletier

On December 20th, 2015, Mr. John Larson, U.S. Representative for Connecticut’s 1st Congressional District convened an interfaith panel of 4 muslim representatives (2 imams and 2 heads of Islamic centers), a rabbi, and a priest for a roundtable discussion on tolerance and inclusion. The event took place at the Hartford Public Library and panelists included Rabbi Debra Cantor, B’nai Tikvoh – Sholom, Father Michael Dolan, Pastor of St. Margaret Mary’s Church in South Windsor, Imam Kashif Abdul-Karim – Muhammad Islamic Center of Greater Hartford, Mr. Abdul-Shahid Muhammad Ansari – Head of the Greater Hartford NAACP, Imam Mirzet Ef. Mehmedovic Bosnian American Islamic Center, Hartford, and Mr. Khamis Abu-Hasaballah, President of the Farmington Valley American Muslim Center.

Representative Larson moderated a passionate 2-hour session. He started off describing a similar meeting in West Hartford where Dr. Saud Anwar, former mayor of South Windsor and Representative Larson led a similar discussion. Larson started the session saying:

“Hate has no place in America. Though we have heard some alarming rhetoric in the wake of the horrific attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, now is the time for unity and tolerance, for voices of faith to rise above the fray. To that end, I am hosting a discussion with leaders in the Muslim, Jewish, & Christian communities to discuss interfaith partnerships and dispel some of the divisive rhetoric towards Islam.”

Larson’s first question seemed like a “softball” question: “If someone wants to learn more – where do they go for information?” But the question proved to be surprisingly hard to answer. The panelists suggested that interested people should visit a local mosque, find a trusted Muslim friend, find an authentic Quran with Arabic and English translation, contact the Saudi embassy for a free, and authentic Quran and read works by John Esposito. And yet, conversely, the panel cautioned not to read the Quran without a teacher who can provide the context and under no circumstances rely on “Google” searches because of the prevalence of deliberately misleading websites. The exchange underscored the importance and difficulty in countering decades of ignorance and deliberate misinformation to confound and confuse the uninitiated.

Larson made the point that some of the difficulty is as simple as language. He and others observed that Allah – is the Arabic word for God. In Arabic-speaking lands Christians, Jews, and Muslims – all use this term for their God. Yet – in the United States – many non-Muslims’ believe that Muslims worship a different God. Such basic misinformation makes clear the amount of work needed to be done.

All the panelists agreed with Father Dolan that one of the most effective ways to improve relations in the community is “to meet each other doing good”. There was also agreement amongst all panelists that given the tone of politics today, merely being inwardly-focused was not enough.

Rabbi Cantor spoke movingly of her synagogue where many members had lost family in the holocaust–they felt acutely the change in political climate and were therefore speaking out against it.

Imam Mehmedovic spoke of his life in Bosnia during the ethnic violence there. He recalled running through the woods when he was only 12 not knowing if he would live to the end of the day. When he got to the US as a young man, he felt safe – and focused on creating a mosque in the south end of Hartford. But now he felt strongly about reaching out to the greater community

Khamis Abu-Hasaballah described a very similar story. He emigrated from Gaza and like Mehmedovic felt safe and secure for a long time. Now he is working hard at the Farmington Valley Muslim Center to make it a welcoming place for all the faiths (and even atheists).

Imam Kashif Abdul-Karim and Abdul-Shahid Muhammad Ansari spoke of their shared experience as African-American Muslims. They spoke of the need to reach across religious and racial lines on issues of economic and racial justice. Working to understand and influence the media was high on their list of steps to improve Muslim- non-Muslim relations. Imam Abdul – Karim emphasized the need to “right our narrative”.

Representative Larson ended the session with a call to action. He requested those assembled to think of “zip code 06120”, the poorest zip code in Connecticut, as an opportunity to “right our narrative” by working together on the problems of poverty, racism, alienation, and violence. He noted that the media had been invited to cover this event – and that no members of the media were in attendance. This is the struggle we all face – to address a perception problem when the media selectively covers violence and confrontation and ignores outreach and dialogue.

It is appropriate to close with a famous quote from Rabbi Hillel “If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”

 

Muslim Guilt and San Bernardino

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By Mehlaqa Samdani

When three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic were brutally gunned down by a white, American extremist last week, as an American, I did not condemn the atrocity. Nor did I condemn every instance of a mass shooting that occurred over the past year in the United States by my fellow Americans.

Nor was I expected to.

And yet, I am expected to condemn the killings in Paris and will be expected to do so in response to San Bernardino because Muslims perpetrated these unconscionable acts. We will hear the popular refrains: ‘Where is the Muslim outrage? Where are the condemnations? After all, these heinous crimes were committed in the name of Islam.’ (Although it should be noted that the motive in the San Bernardino killings has yet to be established)

I am a dual citizen (Pakistani and American) and both my governments commit heinous acts in the name of their respective citizens and their respective ideologies. American citizens are not expected to condemn every single instance in which the U.S. government has killed innocent civilians in drone strikes in their name. Similarly, Pakistani citizens are not expected to condemn every military operation in the tribal areas that kills innocents in their name.

I refuse to perpetuate a double-standard.

I refuse to publicly condemn San Bernardino because by condemning only those acts where Muslims are responsible, I will reinforce the notion that those who perpetrate these horrors represent me in some way. I will reinforce the notion that Muslims are one entity and that if one person commits a crime, we are all responsible. I refuse to internalize the guilt that is collectively imposed on Muslim communities. Instead, I will continue to engage my fellow-Americans and fellow-Muslims in conversations that explore structural, political and societal causes for violence in our communities and collaboratively develop programs that address them.