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IOPHR - UK Parliament, London, Tuesday 6th December – An important conference entitled "Are Human Rights & Islam compatible?" was organised by the Inter Cultural Centre, a UK registered charity that focuses on cultural cohesion, in collaboration with the International organisation to preserve human rights. The conference was kindly hosted by the Rt Hon George Howarth MP.
The speakers at the conference, apart from the host, were Commander Mak Chishty, responsible for the Hate Crime Department at Metropolitan Police in London, the Rt Hon Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top, member of the EU External Affairs Sub-Committee and the European Union Committee and Dr Seyed Mostafa Azmayesh, a Juristic Scholar and Human Rights Activist. The conference was attended by a diverse audience: Members of both the Houses of Parliament of which the All Party Parliamentary Group on Religion and Education was present and members of the Islamic community, dignitaries such as the Ambassador of the UAE to the UK, and representatives from numerous European- and Middle Eastern embassies in London.
The conference began with Mr Howarth's opening remarks, in which he stated: "We live in a dangerous world where people tend to divide us rather than focus on what is common." Howarth stated that we live in the world where faith or race based extremism is growing and these movements are often based on forms of nationalism that constantly emphasise differences rather than similarities between us. It is in this backdrop that we are holding this important event.
George Howarth MP. Photo: Inter Cultural Centre
Second speaker, Baroness Armstrong, stated that wherever you are, whoever you are, we are all faced with the topic of faith, and this is something we cannot ignore, and it is a topic we all need to familiarise ourselves with. She further stated the title of the event could equally be applicable to Christianity and not just Islam, given how the rights of people, at times were violated during the long history of Christianity. She in fact added the title could be applicable to all religions at some time or another. Especially during the times where the doctrine of a religion are interpreted in such a way, that they suppress the rights of those who follow a particular religion or those who do not adhere to that religion.
Baroness Hilary Armstrong. Photo: Inter Cultural Centre
The Baroness also stated that issue of self-identity needs to be examined. As the values that gives person his or her identity are important in determining their self-worth, and people need not only to appreciate other cultures' values, but also be ready to be challenged on their own values, and not to ignore difficult belief based issues. This implies that we not only need to understand the role of faith in our own culture; but also in other cultures in an interactive way.
Commander Mak Chishty from the Metropolitan Police Service, began by speaking about how each of us while being different needs to also co-exist with each other by respecting our differences. Our diversity should not become a type of competition, or a status symbol, or a means of creating different classes in our society. Commaner Chishty stated that there is a global rise in sectarian violence as witnessed by events in Iraq and Syria. However, this sectarian based antagonistic behaviour also exists in our society, whether be it in our schools or in our broader community. The response to this sectarian behaviour has to be tolerance and integration. But the integration has to be based on improvement in quality of life for all those in the community. In order to achieve this, we need to address the identity issue as some people in response to their lack of self-identity have attempted to reach out to more extremist ideology. The tensions as result of the identity issues, need to be addressed by the community and not be exacerbated by pushing the people in the community towards assimilation.
Commander Mak Chishty. Photo: Inter Cultural Centre
The commander also mentioned that we need to address the feelings of not belonging or alienation that has become into focus since the Brexit or the recent rise of populism. As without addressing these feelings, we will only increase discord within our society, such as islamophobia or racism.
Therefore, as a community we need to stand together and reject movements that want to divide us, this is part of being a good neighbour. Community vigilance is a necessity in order to remove these threats from our society. Through such a process, early signs of terrorism or extremism can be spotted and then promptly stopped. These signs are often very subtle and only with engagement and teamwork they can be put to an end. All these actions need a commitment from all sections of our communities.
The final speaker was Dr Azmayesh, who began his remarks by addressing the clash of cultures and values that occurs as a result of the large number of migrants arriving to the West from Muslim countries. He stated that in order to improve cohesion in our society we need to integrate these newcomers into the western society. He stressed that the cultural and mind-set integration of the immigrants is more important than their physical incorporation in our society.
Dr Seyed Azmayesh. Photo: Inter Cultural Centre
As part of this integration, he stated that the migrants need to learn the values of western society which are based on respect of Human Rights, democracy and the rights of citizenship, which in turn are reliant on social contracts between equal citizens in our society. The problem of integration seen amongst certain Muslim communities arise because these groups have never studied the principles of western society, and also they have never studied their own holy book of the Quran. For, the Quran states that all human beings, as the consequence of being the children of Adam, are the representatives of God on earth. Therefore, according to God, each person has to be respected regardless of gender, race, skin colour or opinion.
However, those who have no appreciation of the above Quranic principles, often have a different world vision. This group's vision is mostly based on what they have been told by their preachers, who teach them that they are the best people in the world, simply because they follow the best religion, which according to them is Islam. As a result of these teachings, they close themselves from society or other sources of knowledge, as they consider them inferior from what they have been taught. Therefore, these groups come to believe in a type of religious apartheid, without realising that the goal of all the prophets was not to create a religious state; but to instead create a virtuous society based on social contracts and freewill of people who are all considered to be equal. All these principles are clearly stated in the verses that represent the soul of the Quran.
Conversely, the clergies, often instead of using the Quran, rely on invented sayings attributed to Prophet Mohammad, for their teachings or interpret the Quran based on these fabricated sayings, which directly oppose the verses of the Quran. Furthermore, the religious law or Sharia law created by the clergy, which are also usually based on invented sayings attributed to Prophet Mohammad, are nothing more than dogma, which often directly oppose to the teachings of the Quran. Dr Azmayesh went on to state that punishments like stoning, or misogynist behaviour have nothing to do with Islam or the Quran, for the Quran establishes equality of gender and race, which are all completely compatible with the charter of Human Rights and citizenship in the modern society.
He also stated that one of the most important principles of the Quran is the principle of abrogation. This principle makes the Quran a dynamic book that guides people towards the evolution of humanity, in the direction of modernity and perfection. Moreover, the migrants must also be made aware of the two versions of Islam that is mentioned in the Quran. One version is known as Islam-ol-madani, the Islam of civilisation, and the other Islam-ol-badavi, the Islam of the Bedouins who only converted verbally to the religion of prophet Mohammad, but remained attached to their own tribal traditions and then went on to interpret the Quran according to their own tribal traditions.
Dr Azmayesh also stated that according to the Quran, Islam is a process where a person can cure his sick heart (egoist heart) towards a healthy peaceful heart. In fact the Quran guides the people towards the building of civilised societies based on justice, equality, fraternity, tolerance, chivalry, education, and respect for citizenship. The Quran introduces the kingdom of David and Solomon, as examples of a spiritual culture and social society.
Dr Azmayesh concluded his remarks by stating that the values of Islam are explicitly declared in the Surah Ensan (Human being) in the Quran, which represents a resumé of the teachings of the Quran. These values are based on spiritual chivalry, love and service to all humanity. As to truly love to God, one must also love all his creations.
After the speakers opening remarks the conference was opened for questions from the audience.
One of the questions was from the chairman of the London Muslim Forum, who asked about countering the groups who promote versions of Islam that are incompatible with Human Rights, for example, the sentence of execution for those who change religion from Islam.
Baroness Armstrong, responded that this is obviously a challenge which we all need to face. She stated that the hard line ideology does not come from faith, but instead originates from those who use faith as a tool to disguise their intolerance ideas. This is the issue not just for Islam but for our society, and we all have to address it as a community by challenging hard-line interpretations of sacred texts.
Commander said, that every time Islam is distorted by hard line preachers, it is violation for all Muslims, which we need to confront with positive ideas. However, unfortunately in his experience, there are not enough expert voices who are willing to stand up to the hard-line ideology, which is used to distort Islam, especially when they are used to abuse women's rights.
Dr Azmayesh, stated, firstly we should not try to address the issue by differentiating the various versions of Islam, for example Sunnism or Shi'ism as these versions all appeared after the death of Prophet Mohammad. Instead, we need to focus on the Quran. When we do so, we realise that these two antagonistic versions of Islam, mentioned before by him existed at the time of the prophet. In fact the Quran calls those who were attached to tribal traditions and used those traditions to interpret the Quran as 'al-monfagnoun', or hypocrites. The version of the hypocrites is an Islam that opposed the Islam of love and peace.
For example, if we look at the case of heresy, which says a Muslim cannot convert from Islam to another religion, and anyone who does so faces execution. We can clearly see this is a judgment invented by the clergies, who follow the ideology of hypocrites mentioned in the Quran. However, by studying the Quran, we see that such a punishment or charge has no foundation in the Quran and we see that religious violence does not exist. However, those who wish to propagate violence often hide their act under the name of Islam in order to legitimise their actions, and as result divide our society.