Rehman Chisti: How mainstream Islamic teaching can help to hold the Taliban to account

19 Sep

Rehman Chishti is MP for Gillingham and Rainham, and previously served as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief (2019-20).

The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban has raised serious questions about the rights of religious minorities, women, and others under its rule in Afghanistan – and its interpretation of Islam. As the Prime Minister has stated, we have to judge the Taliban by their actions, not their words.

As someone from a Muslim background, whose father, uncles, and grandfathers were Imams, religion and faith are a central part of my life. This was reflected during my service as the UK Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, when I worked with colleagues to challenge the persecution of individuals based on their faith around the world.

In fact, faith is an integral part of many people’s lives across the globe, especially in the Middle East and Central and South Asia region. According to a Pew Research Center report, 84 per cent of the world’s population claim to identify themselves with a religion. In my view, if we don’t understand religion, including the abuse of religion, it will be even harder for us to understand the world.

Having had the honour of working as an adviser to Benazir Bhutto, the first female Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and first female head of state in the Islamic world, from 1999 to 2007, I know full well the strong and inspiring leadership role that women can play in Islamic nations. Islam has a rich tradition of inclusivity and respect which we must put forward and be proud of. In fact, we can see examples of strong female leadership in Islam throughout history, both in the distant and near past.

Muslim women have always played a crucial part in society as rulers, jurists, businesswomen, scholars, and benefactresses. Khadija, the Prophet Muhammad’s wife, was not just his companion, but a businesswoman in her own right; Aisha bint Abu Bakr, another of the Prophet’s wives, became a brilliant scholar and tutored many men.

We can also see this in Shifa Abdullah, one of Prophet Muhammad’s companions, who held a leadership role in supervising transactions in the marketplace of the Islamic empire’s first capital, Medina. Or with Rabi’ah Bint Mu’awwad, an eminent scholar and jurist of Islamic law in Medina who taught famous male scholars. And with Fatima al Fihri, a Muslim woman who founded, in 859, what is today the oldest continuously operating university in the world, al-Qarawiyyin University in Fez.

In more recent times, we can look of course to Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, but also to Bangladesh: this country, which has the world’s fourth-largest Muslim population, has had a female prime minister for nearly 28 of the past 30 years.

Khaleda Zia, the country’s first female Prime Minister, and Sheikh Hasina, the incumbent, have been two of the country’s pre-eminent political leaders, and have overwhelmingly held the office of Prime Minister since 1991.

In Europe, Atifete Jahjaga served as the first female President of Muslim-majority Kosovo, from 2011 to 2016. During her time in office, she fought against extremism and radicalisation, fostered reconciliation between religious and ethnic groups in the country, and hosted a key International Women’s Summit.

Of course, there are divergences on theology in Islam as there are in every faith. But as set out above, Islam’s past and present has at its heart the values of all other faiths: respect, inclusivity, and tolerance. It is this version of Islam that we must champion.

As I set out to the Prime Minister last week in the House of Commons, he should call on the 57-member state Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to ask Al-Azhar, a widely respected and leading institutional authority on moderate Islamic thought, to issue a statement confirming the rights of religious minorities and women in Islam.

The Taliban in Afghanistan claim that they will rule within the confines of Islam. A statement from an institution such as Al-Azhar will let the world judge whether the Taliban’s actions are indeed in line with the teachings of Islam.

In my recent meeting with the Kuwait Ambassador, Al-Duwaisan, the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps in London, who has served in his role for nearly 30 years, he was very supportive of calling on the OIC to ask Al-Azhar to set out the inclusive approach to the rights of women and religious minorities in Islam.

On this occasion therefore, when we have the support of Muslim-majority countries, I would urge the Government to move forward urgently with this proposal. Al-Azhar is a hugely well-respected institution across the globe, founded over 1000 years ago. Recently in 2019, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar jointly signed with Pope Francis a Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, and when the UN Security Council held a session to discuss anti-terrorism, al-Azhar was the only Islamic institution invited to take part.

If we are to build an inclusive society and world, we must all play our part and that means setting out the true virtues and values of our faiths.

Garvan Walshe: Behind the return of the Taliban is the not-so-hidden hand of Pakistan

2 Sep

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party

As the rout in Afghanistan came to its shameful conclusion, most of our focus turned on ourselves. It was a war of necessity, provoked by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and a defeat of choice.

The speed with which the Afghan army collapsed surprised many, but cannot have caught out people who knew how dependent it was on air support. Once American technicians and advisers left, it is hardly suprising that morale in the Afghan security forces, not particularly high in any event, fell away completely.

Our tactical failures have been compounded by the moral consequences of defeat. We’ve abandoned thousands of Afghans who helped the Western mission there, and millions who depended on it for the protection of the most basic human rights, including the women who are now left to rot under the Taliban’s systematic regime of misogyny. The shame belongs to us because we failed to win.

The United States excepted, which has its Special Immigrant Visa programme, we, the countries who sent thousands of soldiers over there 20 years ago, now outdo ourselves in wourking out how to meet the letter of the Refugee Convention while letting the minimum number of unarmed Afghans actually arrive to our shores. Have we become so befuddled by loudmouthed populists that we are unable to find it in our hearts to offer them sanctuary, and in our heads to work out how they can become part of our society?

Much of this has been entirely avoidable. Far from doing our best in an extremely difficult situation, we piled errors upon each other. I won’t list them here, but think it’s important to focus on one which has been particularly fateful: the failure to address the Pakistan dimension at the highest political level.

We intervened in an Afghanistan that had spent decades at war. It had become a battleground between the Soviet Union to the north and Pakistan to the south. Though Pakistan had itself taken an Islamist turn under Zia ul-Haq, the Soviet involvment drew in the United States, and the rivalry with revolutionary Iran drew in Saudi Arabia to support the anti-Soviet Mujahideen, Pakistan’s interest was more geographical than ideological.

Since losing the Western half of itself to Bangladeshi independence, Pakistan’s policy has been driven by the fear of another disastrous war with India. Its overwhelming focus has been on what it calls “strategic depth”, by which it means the ability to retreat to the mountains around the Afghan frontier, in order to wait out a numerically overwhelming Indian advance.

For Pakistan, which was aligned with the West, this clearly needed a friendly, not a pro-Soviet, Afghanistan. The alliance and cultivation of radical Islamic fighters, in which Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence (ISI) was instrumental, and which would later become the Taliban, was born.

Though Pakistan was formally a close American ally, operated American military equipment, and agreed to allow the United States access to Pakistan for its mission against Osama bin-Laden, it has spent the last two decades playing both sides. It is no coincidence that Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, nor that the Taliban leadership continued to live semi-openly even in Islamabad’s suburbs.

The Taliban were simply too important to Pakistan, because of their role in Afghan politics, to abandon. Indeed, rather than abandon them, it seems that Pakistan has tolerated and, most likely, enabled the funding and equipping of a large force responsible for the deaths of 2,500 Western troops and 45,000 of their Afghan allies.

All this is known in professional circles, but is largely missing from the public debate about the Afghan war, which imagined it as a two-way contest between Islamist rebels, and a Western-supported Afghan government – as though Afghanistan could be insulated from its geographic environment.

In public, though not necessarily in private, it was given less prominence than the mission to eradicate opium production and, after Bin Laden was killed, our attention waivered to the more immediately pressing eruption of Isis.

Addressing the Pakistani dimension would not have been easy. Pakistan faced its own Islamist insurgency on its own side of the Durand line. Imran Khan’s government is weak, and the ISI highly autonomous. Pakistan’s interest in stability on its northern frontier is legitimate, but we had an equally legitinate interest in their not using the Taliban to do so.

Now we’re paying the price for our neglect.

Benedict Rogers: Amendments to the Government’s Trade Bill can help Britain stand up to genocidal regimes

7 Dec

Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch, co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.

Sixteen year-old Khalida lay prostrate on the floor of her bamboo hut in a refugee camp. She could barely even lift her head when I entered. She had been shot multiple times and left for dead, hidden among hundreds of corpses. At least 300 had been killed in her village alone, she told me, including her father, two sisters and a brother. Her 18-year-old brother Mohammed had escaped before the attack and returned only when it was safe to do so. Amidst the carnage and corpses, he found his sister, still alive, and carried her to Bangladesh.

Khalida was a victim of a genocidal campaign against the Rohingyas that forced over 700,000 people to flee across the border to Bangladesh, left thousands were killed, unknown numbers of women and girls raped, babies and children thrown into fires and villagers lined up and shot.

Today, another genocide is unfolding. It doesn’t involve guns and burning villages, but instead forced sterilisations, forced abortions, forced organ harvesting, slave labour, mass surveillance, separation of millions of children from their families and the internment of at least a million people. It entails the suppression of language, religion and cultural identity. It is the genocide of the Uyghurs in China.

Earlier this year the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission held an inquiry on human rights in China. Our report will be released in the new year. One Uyghur witness told us in our first hearing that the Chinese Communist Party regime aims to “wipe out” three categories of Uyghur: “intellectual Uyghurs, rich Uyghurs and religious Uyghurs”. Fifteen members of her entire family were in the concentration camps in Xinjiang – or East Turkestan as Uyghurs prefer to call it.

China’s state media has said that the goal in regard to the Uyghurs is to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections and break their origins.” As the The Washington Post put it, “It’s hard to read that as anything other than a declaration of genocidal intent.” Leaked high-level Chinese government documents speak of “absolutely no mercy”.

For the Jewish community in particular, comparisons with the Holocaust are rare and sensitive. So it is significant that Marie van der Zyl, the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, wrote to the Chinese ambassador in London Liu Xiaoming saying: “Nobody could … fail to notice the similarities between what is alleged to be happening in the People’s Republic of China today and what happened in Nazi Germany 75 years ago: People being forcibly loaded onto trains; beards of religious men being trimmed; women being sterilised; and the grim spectre of concentration camps.” The late Lord Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi, Tweeted in a similar vain, and The Jewish News has twice run the Uyghur story on its frontpage – the only British newspaper to do so.

And yet the international community has so far proven impotent in the face of these atrocities. No one has been brought to justice for these crimes, which continue with impunity. The words “never again” have been uttered after every genocide in recent decades, but have proven all too hollow.

Today, the House of Lords has a chance to take a step towards rectifying that. An amendment to the Government’s Trade Bill by a cross-party group of peers offers a simple proposition: Britain should not trade with genocidal regimes.

But who determines a genocide? The British government’s response has always been that the recognition of genocide is a matter for “judicial decision”, not for politicians. Fine. The problem, however, is that the international judicial system does not work – particularly where China is concerned. Despite the mounting evidence of atrocity crimes against the Uyghurs, and a growing number of international experts acknowledging that it points to genocide, China would never allow a referral to the International Criminal Court at the UN Security Council. The system is hamstrung.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, the former Conservative Cabinet minister, Lord Hope of Craighead, former Supreme Court Justice, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, Director of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, Lord Alton of Liverpool and Baroness Falkner of Margavine, both crossbenchers, and others have come up with a solution. The amendment before the House of Lords would allow for the High Court of England and Wales to make a “preliminary determination” on genocide. This ingenious solution breaks the logjam while remaining consistent with the government’s view that it is for judges to decide.

The consequence of a preliminary determination of genocide by Britain’s courts, under this amendment, would be that bilateral trade deals with genocidal states would be revoked or prohibited. As Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, who led the prosecution of Slobodan Milosevic, argues, “this is manifestly proportionate. No well-ordered state would want to be trading with a genocidal state.”

How does this affect past genocides? It doesn’t. The amendment applies only to genocides occurring after this bill comes into force, and only to those considered by the High Court to be “ongoing at the time of its coming into force”.

Does it violate our multilateral trade commitments? No, because it only applies to bilateral agreements.

Does it prevent further action by the United Nations? Not at all – indeed, precisely because it requires a “preliminary determination” by our courts, it strengthens the case for a full determination through the international system – potentially resulting in a prosecution.

As Nice says, “it would also discourage, and probably significantly reduce, casual and often instrumental assertions that genocide is being committed.”

The amendment now has the support of the Labour Party frontbench, the Liberal Democrats’ defence spokesperson Baroness Smith of Newnham and many Conservative peers. The Bishop of St Albans officially supports it too, and the rest of the bishops’ bench is expected to pile in on it.

The Government now has a choice. It can resist it but face defeat in the House of Lords, and a significant rebellion when it goes to the House of Commons. Or it can show moral courage and leadership and back – or at least accept – the amendment now, and send the world a clear message that Britain won’t be complicit with the “crime of crimes”.

If Britain leads on this, others will follow and we have a chance at long last to make the 1948 Genocide Convention mean something more than words. For as Labour’s spokesman Lord Stevenson of Balmacara put it, “if we care about our moral values as a nation, we should have no grounds not to support the amendment.” I hope every Conservative Peer – and every MP when it reaches the House of Commons – will back it.

Salim Chowdhury: Integration not division offers the best future for British Bangladeshis

29 Jul

Salim Chowdhury is the Founder and President of the British Bangladeshi Caterers Association. He is a former Police officer and a former Conservative Councillor.

Public Health England’s  COVID-19 report showed that Bangladeshi’s had the highest risk of death, a risk twice as high as those from White backgrounds. The challenged plight of the community was echoed in the Race Disparity Audit too, which has British Bangladeshis at the low end of almost all measures of performance in society – from the lowest average wage to the lowest school grades.

Bengalis came to the UK as early as the 17th Century as lascar seamen. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the bulk of the community arrived. I was one of these people, coming from Syhlet like most of the diaspora. This economic migration saw all Bengalis get to work, or at least try to. Many initially found progress in the restaurant industry, creating a British staple in communities in the curry house.

Integration was everything. It was what led me to join the police and serve as a councillor, despite almost nobody from my background following these paths at the time. It is one of the reasons why any Minister engaging with the diaspora goes viral in Bangladesh – because the nation is impressed that its sons and daughters have made the journey to the UK, and in effect, made it. So for all the difficult readings of the RDA, there is actually a huge amount of pride in the community – and we need to tap into that in this recovery.

As the Founder and President of the British Bangladeshi Caterers Association representing thousands of members across the country, I requested that all members running restaurants prioritised free meals for the elderly, vulnerable, NHS staff and care workers. This started on March 18th with the Food for the Most Vulnerable campaign. This has involved all restaurants providing over 9,000 free meals to these groups including special delivery options. Meals were provided to NHS staff across four different hospitals. This included Northwick Park Hospital which was one of the first to be hit hard and is home to a disproportionately high number of ethnic minority patients and staff in servicing Brent and Harrow.

We have seen Britons from all backgrounds come together. We have learned from each other. Tom Moore was the reason for Bangladeshi, Dabirul Choudhury, to also walk for charity – receiving huge coverage across major broadcasters in the UK and Bangladesh. Charity has reflected the best of us. The British Asian Trust’s ‘Big Curry Night In’ was an idea which worked and helped me to sign up 101 restaurants to raise money for those most in need of food and essentials throughout the crisis – and now there are British Bangladeshis participating in and with charities that they might not have done otherwise.

For all the pain caused by the crisis, British Bangladeshis are emerging with pride intact and with immense hope for the future of this country, our home. We are British first. It is up to all of us to deliver a social and economic recovery so that no ethnicity must look at statistics and see large gaps between them and another group, in turn confirming their notion of difference. All lives lost are tragic and won’t be forgotten, but we must look at all the positives, or else we’ll never have a chance to come out of the dangers to public health and the economy.

Our communities are one more than ever. It is an economic recovery, from levelling up to industries like my own in curry houses, that will deliver for our families and in turn provide them with conditions and choice which will not make them so vulnerable to other winds and storms in their lives. We must remember who and what we have got as well as who and what we have lost. My ancestors once navigated rough seas in a more challenging age. If they could, we can.

Raghib Ali: Systemic classism, not racism. Why the main factor in health and educational inequalities is deprivation, not race.

21 Jul

Dr Raghib Ali is an Honorary Consultant in Acute Medicine at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, and a Visiting Research Fellow of the Department of Population Health, University of Oxford.

Last month, it was widely reported that Public Health England’s report,Beyond the Data: Understanding the Impact of COVID-19 on BAME Communities, proved that systemic racism had contributed to their increased COVID-19 death rate.

This report, coming out as it did during the fallout from the horrific murder of a black man by a white police officer in the US, was used by some as evidence that ‘Britain is a racist country.’

The report itself was more nuanced, saying: “racism, discrimination and social inequalities…may have contributed to the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.”

While it is true that the death rate for Covid-19 is higher in non-whites, the analyses presented did not account for the effect of occupation or comorbidities. The current evidence is inconclusive and most of the increased risk can be accounted for by known risk factors, including co-morbidities, deprivation, higher risk occupations, living in densely-populated urban centers, air pollution and multi-generational households.

In fact, the claims about racism were based on the subjective views of 4000 ‘stakeholders’ – not on objective evidence – as the report itself acknowledged. Although it is possible that racism  contributed to some of the risk factors, this certainly does not prove that racism caused Covid-19 deaths, and such inflammatory claims should not be made without solid evidence.

Also, if it were true that non-whites suffer from systemic racism throughout their lives – adversely affecting their health, education, income, housing, employment (the key determinants of health) – this would be reflected in life expectancy/overall mortality figures which are the best measures of overall health.

However, (in contrast to the situation in the US, where Blacks do have lower life expectancy) non-whites in the UK actually have higher life expectancy / lower overall mortality than Whites. In Scotland life expectancy (LE) is higher in Indians, Pakistanis and Chinese than Whites, and in England and Wales, both Blacks and Asians have slightly lower death rates than Whites, with those born in Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia all having lower overall and premature mortality than those born in the UK.

This finding is surprising as some ethnic minorities are much poorer than Whites – with over 30% of Pakistanis & Bangladeshis and 20 per cent of Blacks living in the most deprived 10 per cent of areas (versus 10 per cent for Whites & Indians)  and deprivation is the main factor associated with lower LE. Those who live in the most deprived areas of England (predominantly in the North) live on average 10 years less compared to the least deprived (25 years between Blackpool and Westminster) – the gap is even worse for healthy life expectancy where the difference is 20 years on average (33 years between Blackpool and Westminster) and this gap or social gradient in health is seen within all major ethnic groups.

This gradient was also seen for Covid-19 where, amongst non-whites, the most deprived were four times more likely than the least deprived to require intensive care, again illustrating the need to focus on deprivation.

We see a similar picture when it comes to education – which is both a key determinant of health and hugely affected by deprivation. The Race disparity Audit showed that, when looking at outcomes by ethnic group alone, Indians & Chinese outperform other ethnic groups, including Whites, at every level of education while Black Caribbean children perform worst – and significantly worse than Black Africans – except for university entry where Whites have the lowest rate (although they then do go on to have the best degree and employment outcomes.) 

Once deprivation is taken into account – by comparing only those on Free School Meals (FSM) – White and Black Caribbean children have the worst outcomes on almost every measure and especially university entry. (Although there are again huge regional variations – 48 per cent of inner London FSM children v 18 per cent in the South West.)

Children from ethnic minorities are now also more likely than Whites to attend grammar schools whereas just 2.6 per cent of their students are on FSM (compared to 14 per cent of the population.) Even for Oxbridge entry, non-white students are now as likely as Whites to gain entry whereas those on free school meals have almost zero chance.

This was also my experience as a student at Cambridge where it was not my ethnicity which made me stand out as much as the fact I had been on FSMs. There were many non-White students – but invariably from middle-class, private or grammar school backgrounds – whereas there were barely any  deprived students of any colour.

Deprivation, therefore, is the key factor driving educational inequalities with children of all ethnicities on FSMs doing much worse than those who are not.. But again, we see that some groups (Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Black Africans) – despite being more deprived than Whites and Black Caribbeans – have better educational outcomes.

Based on this data, I draw three broad conclusions.

Firstly, the primary factor in health and educational inequalities is deprivation, not race.

Secondly, there is now no overall ‘White privilege’ in health or education (and especially not for deprived Whites) – or overall ‘BAME disadvantage’ – and these categories are now outdated and unhelpful. There are large differences in both health and educational outcomes between & within ‘Blacks’ and ‘Asians’ – with the biggest differences seen within Whites. Deprived Whites actually have more in common with deprived non-whites in terms of the challenges they face in education, employment, housing and health.

Thirdly, where ethnic disparities do exist (e.g. employment, promotion, criminal justice, etc.) we must take deprivation into account (i.e. compare deprived minorities to deprived Whites) – otherwise it is easy for some to blame racism when poverty may be the main factor. This also applies to those who, while rightly highlighting the plight of the white working class, blame ‘positive action’ towards ethnic minorities without presenting any evidence.

While I fully support the objective (if not always the means) of the young people demonstrating to eradicate racism, I have found that many of them are neither aware of these facts nor of the massive progress that has been made. Growing up in a white working class neighbourhood in the early 80s, we suffered racist abuse and attacks – with one of my earliest memories being of a brick being thrown through our front window. (But I knew they only represented a small minority and all my friends were also white).

My father had also faced open racial discrimination from the time he arrived in the early 1960s, but my parents never encouraged us to view ourselves as victims and stressed that education and hard work were the keys to a better future, with my mother – who enrolled in evening classes to gain additional qualifications while working full-time – as our inspiration.

Racism still blights too many lives today and we must we must continue to work towards a colour-blind society but Britain is not a racist country and what has been achieved in my lifetime is remarkable with my children growing up in a country transformed. Enoch Powell has been proven wrong – the UK is one of the most successful, multi-ethnic nations in the world, with huge, positive changes in social attitudes. Ethnic minorities are now well-represented – and successful – in almost every walk of life including medicine, business, sport, culture and politics. And this has been achieved without positive discrimination or quotas which ignore root causes and can be counter-productive – patronizing minorities and leading to resentment.

Unfortunately, there has been far less progress for the poorest in society – of all ethnicities – with evidence that gaps in life expectancy are worsening and social mobility is actually going backwards.

I therefore welcome the government’s ‘Levelling-up’ agenda to address the huge geographical variations in deprivation, health and education. These inequalities are longstanding and will require long-term solutions with better educational opportunities – particularly in the early years – being the key to breaking the cycle of deprivation and ensuring that everyone has the best possible start in life.

We can learn from those inner-city schools in London, which despite serving highly deprived (mostly non-white) populations, are producing outstanding results. And we should investigate why these deprived groups are doing better than others – including exploring the difficult terrain of whether cultural values, higher marriage rates and more stable homes are contributing to better outcomes.

In conclusion, we need geographically-targeted policies and interventions based on need, not ethnicity (but which will actually help those ethnic groups who have the highest levels of poverty the most – including deprived Whites.) Because the greatest determinant of your life chances today is not the colour of your skin but the circumstances into which you are born – and we must tackle this enduring injustice of ‘systemic classism’ to create a fairer Britain for all.

This piece originally appeared on ConservativeHome on July 21 2020, but we re-run it as a contribution to this week’s series on the politics of race and ethnicity in Britain today.