The trial that currently confronts the ummah of Muhammad (may Allah’s peace and blessings be on him) today is not quite like any other before it, in scale or complexity. Once the Muslims formed a body: united and steadfast, yet few in number. Now we find ourselves scattered and disorientated across the globe, yet constituting one sixth of all human life on the planet. Within the prevailing order of nation-States, we have come to exist as either Muslim-majority States divided along ethnic and territorial lines or as minorities, isolated and disconnected, residing in non-Muslim countries. Even with power, as majorities, we remain divided as independent sovereign entities with separate agendas and self-interests.[1] Muslim minorities in the West are unique in that most result from post-1945 mass immigration amidst a process of rapid decolonisation. Thus we, and others like us, are not just distinct religiously but also in many others ways, amongst them, linguistically, ethnically and culturally.
The term ‘minority’ is used subjectively in a range of situations to mean different things, but what remains constant is its highly politicised nature. Some groups use it to highlight their status as victims, while others reject it outright, not wanting to jeopardise their struggle for independent Statehood. For some time, political scientists, anthropologists, and more recently, international lawyers have attempted to define the content and scope of the term. However, to this day, due to its emotionally charged nature, there is no internationally agreed definition for who can call themselves a minority.

Islamic scholars too have struggled with difficult questions of how Muslims should deal with their non-Muslim environments and the increasing demand to ‘co-exist’ and ‘integrate’ especially in the post-9/11 era. Just as the correct understanding and application of the shari’ah (Islamic law) to this context is vital, likewise we must not overlook how national and international laws can and should be used as tools to improve our condition by increasing space for religious expression and having more say in matters that concern us. This will allow us to practice and implement Islam to the best of our ability and ultimately to better please God the Most High. After all, our versatility and resilience in being able to understand our environment and to use it to our advantage is essential if we are to practice Islam as faithfully and comprehensively as possible. To this end, I will contribute a series of articles (God willing) on minority rights under international law as they relate to Muslims in the West, with special attention to the UK. This, the first in that series, will seek to present the rationale behind such an endeavour.

Any criticism levelled against Muslims is generally countered by apologists asserting that the Muslim community is diverse and consists of a spectrum of beliefs and we should not refer to them as one entity. However this is the logical implication of self-identifying as Muslims. In doing so, we go beyond a personal statement of faith or merely an expression of a private relationship with our Creator. Instead, we implicate ourselves as not just worshippers of one God, but also as part of a common or collective group identity. To proclaim adherence to a certain faith is to manifest a way of life[2] divine in its source. The interaction between those who adhere to it forms an integral part of any religion. Furthermore, Islam compounds this collective aspect of its adherents’ identity by emphasising the concept of the ummah (perceiving the global community of Muslims as a single body).[3] Thus, religiously speaking, allegiance and devotion to the ummah is of vital significance for followers as it directly impacts on a Muslim’s faithfulness.[4] Therefore, the Muslim is obliged to not only work on his relationship with God (the Most High) but is also duty-bound to his fellow Muslims, hence serving as a critical means by which to gain nearness to God.[5]

However, the reality of the world we live in today is that the ummah has not been politically expressed since the Treaty of Sèvres signalled the effective demise of the Ottoman caliphate in 1920. Following the resultant seismic shift in the world’s political ordering and in the wake of the two World Wars, the prevalent system became and remains that of independent nation-States. The body of Muslims today is dismembered, residing either in Muslim-majority States or as minorities in non-Muslim States. These minorities are subject to varying public law regimes, which can impact on religious practice. The condition of these Muslims can range from having their family laws recognised and granted freedom to practice their religion to militant secular systems which penalise the mere expression of religious identity.

We in the UK represent one shard from this fragmented mosaic. We largely remain in the dark about how to take advantage of the UK’s highly inclusive legal and political system (relative to other Western States) or the international laws it is subject to, in order to improve our condition and increase our collective influence. This is even more surprising considering that many of us are second or third generation Muslims. There are a number of potential reasons for this, the most significant of which appears to be a latent inferiority complex among the ageing first generation. An attitude, which can be easily understood, given the hardships they first faced when immigrating to the UK, among them, racism, persecution and dire socio-economic conditions. Their initial struggle has given rise to a mentality, in some cases inherited by their children, where the status quo is accepted easily and compromise reached too readily. Secondly, amongst some sections of Muslims in Britain, there exists a tendency to be overly insular leading to ghettoisation. They are victims of an identity crisis and do not feel or wish to be associated with their host country in any way whatsoever. This in turn leads to an outright and predetermined rejection of everything British.

The final and more recent mindset, which exasperates the situation, is of groups that by virtue of declaring the system kufr (disbelief) do not believe in engaging with it. The paradox should be apparent to us all of a group like Hizb-ut-Tahrir campaigning for Muslims not to participate in a process (elections) by which they could have prevented the Conservatives coming to power, who had explicitly promised to ban Hizb-ut-Tahrir in their manifesto. A similar illogic was evident when Anjem Choudary, a solicitor by training, announced on prime time news that he would not be challenging the knee-jerk decision of the Government to ban Islam4UK on flimsy legal grounds because he did not believe in man-made laws.[6] Furthermore our lack of pro-activity, as a community, came into yet sharper focus, when the European Court of Human Rights declared the UK’s stop and search powers illegal due to their arbitrary use against Muslims owing to a case filed by non-Muslim activists.

This lack of knowledge, experience and/or willingness to engage with the system overlooks the necessity and utility of using all available means and tools at our disposal, including the legal and political system, to benefit, help and improve the condition of fellow Muslims in the UK as well as globally. National laws which we are subject to are by no means fixed and in fact are designed precisely to reflect the interests of the society they govern. We should acknowledge that if our sentiments and preferences are not reflected - at the very least – in proportion with the size of our population, then we are largely to blame for not understanding the system and maximising our use of it. Why is it that the Jewish minority can have so much influence on the UK’s foreign policy when we constitute a number almost 6 times theirs, yet have such little say? The Tamils too, in the UK and other Western States, are able to pressure their local MPs as a collective to criticise the Sri Lankan Government in Parliament. What excuse do we then have for not attempting to change the legal and political systems if we disagree with them?[7]

We find that even in cases where we are awake to the fluid nature of national laws that govern us, we often do not view ourselves as potential agents for that change. We have neither been aware nor knowledgeable about what these national laws are, how to access and influence them, and more crucially, the nature and value of international law. I will briefly touch on some of issues relating to national law, international law and minority rights that will be discussed in greater depth in forthcoming articles.

With the exception of the fast growing convert population, the vast majority of Muslims belong to various ethnic groups who have resulted from immigration from Commonwealth countries. We may have grown accustomed to the absence of racial discrimination due to it being abhorred to such an extent that the slightest allusion to it in public, even as a joke, remains absolutely taboo. We would then do well to keep in mind that the current public mindset is largely down to the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry and subsequent Racial Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, which lowered the threshold for racial discrimination to such an extent that organisations had to prove that that their processes and methods of selection gave proper consideration to race equality. What this practically meant was positive discrimination in favour of black, minority and ethnic applicants, some of whom, no doubt were Muslim. Similarly owing to international pressure and European human rights standards, religious minorities have benefitted from recent reforms, which have led to the extension of protection from religious discrimination in some fields. Furthermore, for the first time, the 2001 Census recorded religion confirming Muslims as the largest religious minority group in the UK accounting for 2.7% of the population.

Nonetheless, protection from religious discrimination is yet to attain the same level as racial discrimination. The effect of this disparity is clear in the often unabated Islamophobia peddled by such right-wing groups as the EDL, BNP and UKIP as well as sections of the media. Any similar campaign aimed at a racial group would garner no public support nor would it persist long before the law was used to muzzle such expression. Furthermore, the collective elements of Muslim religious life are not accommodated under the law such as the right to have places of worship and schools funded. At the same time, the UK’s international obligations, when it comes to rights of religious minorities, can be interpreted favourably to grant such rights. The means by which such obligations are monitored, adjudicated and implemented varies greatly, though. We must know not only how UK law relates to us as Muslims but also how international law affects UK law. Consequently we may use it as a means of challenging national law and holding people and institutions to account.

There are numerous developments in the last twenty years of regional and international significance as well as the beginnings of more advanced laws in this field, which we will discuss in later articles. For now it would suffice to take note of two fundamental aspects that will inform all that follows. Firstly according to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) only three kinds of minorities are conventionally recognised under international law: ethnic, linguistic and religious. Secondly the essence of minority rights can be condensed simply as ‘the right to an identity’ with two subsidiary elements: the right to self-identify and the right to enjoy that culture/religion as a collective. The latter is a source of much disdain for States, not least the UK, as by implication it involves allocating state funds to sustain and promote an identity other than the national one. Minority rights advance a cutting-edge concept at the forefront of legal thought; that in order to attain a peaceful society in which different groups co-exist, a more subjective model of equality is needed. In other words, it becomes necessary to let those groups enjoy rights that correspond with their culture/religion resulting in genuine equality but not sameness.

The next article will detail the history of minority rights. Terms like integration, assimilation, minority rights, identity, and culture will be also legally defined in subsequent articles, God willing.




Notes:

Source: www.islam21c.com


[1] Al Qur’an 3:103: “And hold fast, all of you together to the rope of Allah, and do not separate.”

[2] Al Qur’an 5:3: “...This day have I perfected your religion for you, completed My favour upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your deen.”

[3] “You will see the believers in their mutual kindness, love and sympathy just like one body. When a limb complains, the whole body responds to it with wakefulness and fever” (Muslim and Bukhari).

[4] From Abu Hamzah Ana ibn Malik, may Allah be pleased with him, the servant of the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, that he said, “None of you believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself” (Bukhari and Muslim).

[5] See numerous Ahâdith on visiting the sick especially Hâdith Qudsi: Allah will say on the Day of Judgment “O son of Adam I was sick and you did not visit Me. He will say: O Lord how can I visit You. You are the Lord of the worlds? He says: Did you not know that My servant so and so was sick yet you did not visit him? Did you not know that if you had visited him you would have found Me with him?” (Muslim)

[6] The ban was approved in the aftermath of Islam4UK’s threat to take a procession of 500 mock Afghan coffins through Wootten Bassett in protest of the war.

[7] Abu Sa’id al-Khudri, may Allah be pleased with him, said, “I heard the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, saying, ‘Whoever of you sees something objectionable then let him change it with his hand, and if is not able then with his tongue, and if he is not able then with his heart, and that is the weakest imān’,” (Muslim).


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