Bhutan: Persecution in Paradise

Bhutanese Landscape
Bhutanese Landscape. Source: Pxfuel

 Real Life Shangri-La

Bhutan is often referred to as an idyllic Himalayan nation, a land of peace and prosperity, happiness, and beauty. After visiting Bhutan in 2017, I was even more fascinated, and truly began to understand why the small, neutral country has been dubbed a “real-life Shangri-La”. It is the only nation in the world to measure annual success by Gross National Happiness, rather than Gross Domestic Product. It is also the only country to have a carbon-negative footprint, with extraordinary levels of hydropower and renewable energy production and a zero-tolerance policy for industrial development. Bhutan is rapidly decreasing poverty rates and increasing the middle-class population. Government programs have made education and trade school accessible to most citizens who desire it. Bhutan has managed to remain neutral for hundreds of years with a minimal military presence despite being nestled between two conflicting superpowers, India and China. Citizens of Bhutan enjoy the state’s extensive social welfare programs and are enamored with the royal family that abdicated power to allow a peaceful transition to a democratic system.

In short, the nation seems like a true paradise, where culture and tradition are preserved with love and care, where nature is respected and upheld, and where one can pursue life to the fullest in a land of prosperity and opportunity. When I had the opportunity to travel through Bhutan, I was stunned by the gorgeous landscape, nation, and culture. I was welcomed with clearer air than I thought possible, a colorful landscape filled with trees and prayer flags, and adorable buildings constructed in traditional Bhutanese fashion. The people were so happy, and talked passionately about their country, royal family, and culture. There is a strong sense of nationalistic pride, and from everything Bhutan boasts, it seemed to be entirely deserved. Our guide taught us about local customs, Bhutanese Buddhism, traditional dress and building style, and masterfully escorted us through the most beautiful aspects of Bhutan and its culture. 

It was only after leaving that I learned of human rights abuses Bhutan so carefully hides from tourists. Our state-sanctioned tour guide was an instrument in how this flawless reputation has been skillfully crafted, and the execution was so perfect that nothing felt staged while I was there. I enjoyed the country within an intricate veil of ignorance, unaware of the atrocities that no one is allowed to see.

Bhutanese children in traditional attire, leaning over a balcony
Bhutanese children. Source: World Bank Photo Collection

Violations Exposed

Bhutan may appear to be a nation without error, but the country has perpetrated major human rights violations since the 1980s. For four decades, the United Nations, Freedom House and Human Rights Watch have consistently criticized and exposed Bhutan’s human rights violations. The nation is limited by strict libel laws and a culture that is unwilling to speak negatively on the king or his policies. While free speech is protected under Bhutan’s constitution, it is rarely practiced and this self-censorship is coupled with a flawed judicial system that harshly punishes those found to be committing the dangerously broad charge of libel. In 2016, a Bhutanese reporter faced libel fines of up to 10 years salary for critiquing a prominent businessman on Facebook. With penalties like this, it is no wonder that citizens of Bhutan do not dare criticize the crown, even though free speech is allegedly protected. Bhutan has been on a Human Rights Watch list since the 80s due to prolific persecution of ethnic minorities. While Bhutan has received credit for its positive changes since transitioning into a democracy in 2008, they still have a long way to go before they can be considered a free nation.

Bhutanese refugees sitting outside
Bhutanese refugees. Source: Creative Commons

Ethnic Cleansing Pre-Democracy

The horrific treatment of the Lhotshampa people in Bhutan is the most atrocious human rights violation known to be committed by the Bhutanese government. The Lhotshampa people are Bhutanese residents with Nepali ethnic backgrounds, who have lived in Bhutan for generations but still speak a separate dialect and have a differing culture from the majority in Bhutan. In order to understand the current plight of Nepali migrants in Bhutan, we must understand a little bit of the once-neighboring nation, Sikkim. Sikkim was once an established monarchical state with most of its population being of Mongolian/Tibetan descent as Sikkimese, just like the ethnic Bhutanese. However, Sikkim faced a mass migration of ethnic Nepalis (of Hindu and Indo-Aryan descent) that caused the people of Sikkim to become a minority in their own nation. Sikkim fell as an independent state and was annexed by India in the 1950s, and the leaders of Bhutan have used the fall of Sikkim as a fear-inspiring example ever since. It is this nationalism and fear of losing sovereignty to one of the superpower neighbor states that has created such a widely supported systemic oppression of the Lhotshampa people in Bhutan.

Bhutan faced its greatest human rights violations in the 1990s, as strong nationalism and resentment towards the Lhotshampa people came to a boiling point. The refugees crossed the border with tales of an ethnic cleansing occurring in Bhutan, stating they were given mere days to sell their homes and were marched from rural villages to Nepali refugee camps. The government’s forces accompanied the refugees across the border with loaded guns and photographers, and according to a Lhotshampa teen interviewed by the Human Rights Watch, “[They] told me to smile…He wanted to show that I was leaving my country willingly, happily, that I was not forced to leave”.  It is estimated that the total number of refugees produced in the 1990s was just above 100,000, which is absolutely astounding when we look at Bhutan’s current national population of 780,000. While Bhutan is often portrayed as a modern “Shangri-La”, the seemingly idyllic Himalayan country created more refugees per capita  than any other nation in the world in our recent history. Of those 100,000 refugees, 85% have now been rehoused in the United States.

 Bhutanese man with child
Bhutanese man with child. Source: Creative Commons

Democratic Safeguards Fail

Despite the nation peacefully transitioning towards a democratic state in 2008, the new government has continued the systematic harassment of the minority group, even increasing certain anti-Lhotshampa policies. While the Lhotshampa are no longer persecuted as openly as they were in the early 1990s, they still face significant discrimination within the nation their families have called home for generations. Out of countless treaties currently in existence to protect and defend human rights, Bhutan has only signed two. Bhutan signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1990, and many within the international community argue that Bhutan has violated the convention due to the large population of children within the persecuted Lhotshampa refugees.

Perhaps the most recent evidence proving such discrimination came with Bhutan’s new constitution in 2008, when Lhotshampa people discovered their citizenship was up for debate, and access to passports and documentation became determined by financial, marriage, or literacy status, which is very reminiscent of the second-class citizenship African Americans faced in the United States. Some of the limitations imposed upon Lhotshampas with these targeted passport systems are the inability to travel internationally, which is a blatant violation of both the right to Freedom from Discrimination and the Right to Movement established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One of the brilliantly cruel aspect of the passport stipulations is that while Lhotshampa people may freely leave the country, it is extremely unlikely that they will be allowed to return. For many, a trip to visit neighboring India or Nepal is the termination of calling Bhutan their home. Essentially, the Bhutanese government made it abundantly clear that Lhotshampas are not welcome in Bhutan. 

In addition, while there is no clear law preventing Lhotshampas from purchasing property or moving freely within Bhutan itself, it is extremely unlikely in practice that Lhotshampas will be able to secure property or livelihoods outside of specific regions that have become socially designated for them. Bordering nations like Nepal continue to host new refugees fleeing a land many consider to be peaceful, sacred, and free of worldly troubles. Lhotshampas have continued to cross the Nepali border to refugee camps since 2008 purely out of desperation from lack of work or freedoms in Bhutan. Websites like these provide some much needed insight into the current plight of the Lhotshampas, as well as what life is like for those still awaiting rehousing inside of their temporary refugee camps. 

Refugees outside of a small hut
Refugees outside of a hut. Source: United Nations

How to Help

In order for change to be made, Bhutan needs continual pushes from the outside world. By spreading the true story of the Lhotshampa people and looking for ways to get involved, you are directly contributing to decades old efforts to ease the horrors they face. Creating action on any level is an excellent way to assist the Lhotshampa people and refugees like them. If you would like to donate or volunteer to assist Lhotshampa refugees, there are countless local and international efforts that will put anything you can give to great use. Reputable non-profits like Sewa USA use funds to provide necessities, transportation and employment help for Bhutanese refugees in the United States, and the World Food Programme uses donations to provide food and resources to Lhotshampas still displaced in refugee camps. Ultimately, resource-based aid is an excellent way to assist those who have been cruelly displaced and discriminated against, but only international pressure for domestic changes within Bhutan will be able to stop the persecution and prevent any more Lhotshampas from becoming refugees.

The ‘Kisaan’ Protest: A Turning Point for India’s Democracy

Depiction of Kisaan
A kisaan in his khet, or field. Source: Yahoo Images.

You may have heard or seen news about the ongoing farmers’ protest in India right now. This protest was sparked by three bills that were adopted by the Indian government in September 2020. These three bills primarily place the livelihood of these farmers from the state of Punjab at the mercy of corporations. The privatization of the agricultural economy will surely benefit the Indian government, but the farmers will suffer greatly since corporations will purchase their crops at a much lower rate, leading to generational debt which has already led to farmer suicide in India. To prevent the exploitation of their livelihood, the kisaans (“farmers”) have set out on a protest, the highlight of which has been their march from Punjab to Delhi, India’s capital. The Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has not reciprocated the farmers’ concerns with any form of sympathy. Rather, senior leaders of the Indian government have called the protestors “anti-nationalist” and “goons.” Such a reaction from the government is not unusual for the Sikh farmers who have been the target of persecution by the Indian government multiple times in the past.

Historical Context

In the 1970s and 1980s, Punjabi Sikhs held similar views in regards to the Indian government’s support for agriculture, an industry which has always been essential to the Indian economy and still is with 60% of the Indian population reliant upon farming for its sustenance. Unfortunately, the Indian government reacted the same way it is in 2021 – by labeling the protestors anti-nationalist. Additionally, the government launched a series of egregious human rights abuses consisting of attacks on the Punjabi population in the 1980s, attacking the Golden Temple of Amritsar in June of 1984, launching a state-sponsored pogrom in November of 1984, and extra-judicial killings in the following decade. What is worse is that the Indian government has never acknowledged nor apologized for these events, giving the people of Punjab a reason to have grievances towards the government.

But the state of Punjab is not the only population that has been the prey of India’s ongoing human rights abuses. The rise of right-wing authoritarianism in India coincides with the ascension of Narendra Modi to the role of Prime Minister; Modi himself took part in genocidal violence in 2002 while presiding over Gujrat’s anti-Muslim pogroms as chief minister of the state. Though the current protests are pogroms, the Indian government has acted in an undemocratic manner with its press censorship, journalist detention , and violent crackdowns on the non-violent protestors.

Protest
Protestors took over the Indian capital of Delhi, demanding their rights. Source: Yahoo Images.

What do the farmers want?

Farmer unions and their representatives have asked that the three farm acts passed by Parliament be repealed; they will not settle for anything less. The government proposed an 18 month delay of the laws to give the farmers time to adjust, which was also rejected. Between October 14, 2020 and January 22, 2021, eleven inconclusive rounds of talks have taken place between the government and union representatives. The farmers even suggested overthrowing the government on February 3, 2021 if the laws are not repealed.

The reasoning for the farmers’ escalating anger is two-fold: one, the human rights abuses the Indian government is inflicting on the non-violent protestors, including tear gas; and two, the failure of the Indian government and leaders to cooperate with the unions. To peacefully protest a set of acts is well within the rights of a people belonging to a democratic nation, but it is not the right of the government to respond to peace with violence and neglect the concerns being voiced by its people. That is not what a democracy is.

Coup d’état in Myanmar: a precarious situation for human rights

On the first of February, the military of Myanmar, also known as Burma, staged a coup to overthrow the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. The armed forces had backed opposition candidates in the recent election, which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won in a landslide. Since the coup, Suu Kyi has been arbitrarily detained, supposedly for possessing illegal walkie-talkies and violating a Natural Disaster law. Suu Kyi was previously detained for almost fifteen years between 1989 and 2010, although she continued to organize pro-democracy rallies while under house arrest. The military has stated that they are acting on the will of the people to form a “true and disciplined democracy” and that they will soon hold a “free and fair” election, after a one-year state of emergency.

The military leader, Min Aung Hlaing, is currently in control of the country. Hlaing has been an influential presence in Myanmar politics since before the country transitioned to democracy and has long garnered international criticism for his alleged role in military attacks on ethnic minorities. There is significant cause for concern that a government under Hlaing will impose repressive anti-democratic laws, and more Islamophobic and ultra-nationalist policies.

Min Aung Hlaing in military uniform
Min Aung Hlaing / Getty / Fair use.

Since the 1970s, Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar have suffered from large-scale and orchestrated persecution. Myanmar’s official position, including under the Suu Kyi administration, has been that Rohingyas are illegal immigrants and thus are denied citizenship. In 2016, the military, along with police in the Rakhine State in northwest Myanmar, violently cracked down on Rohingyas living in the region. For these actions, the Burmese military has been accused of ethnic cleansing and genocide by United Nations agencies, the International Criminal Court, and others. The United Nations has presented evidence of major human rights violations and crimes against humanity, including extrajudicial killings and summary executions; mass rape; deportations; the burning of Rohingya villages, businesses, and schools; and infanticide. A study in 2018 estimated that between twenty-four and thirty-six thousand Rohingyas were killed, eighteen-thousand women and girls were sexually assaulted, and over one-hundred-sixteen thousand were injured (Habib, Jubb, Salahuddin,Rahman, & Pallard, 2018). The violence and deportations  caused an international refugee crisis which was the largest in Asia since the Vietnam War. The majority of refugees fled to neighboring Bangladesh, where the Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia became the largest of its kind.

Aung San Suu Kyi has not been immune to criticism for her inaction during the genocide, with many questioning her silence while the military carried out gruesome crimes. Suu Kyi also appeared before the International Criminal Court of Justice in 2019 to defend the Myanmar military against charges of genocide. Regardless, she is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who enjoys broad support from the people of Myanmar, and there seems to be very little legitimate justification for her removal from power. Protests in response to the coup have grown rapidly since early February, with the BBC calling them the largest in Myanmar since the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

The United Nations Human Rights Council met in special session in mid-February to discuss the coup, recommending targeted sanctions against the leaders. Deputy UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada al-Nashif and Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews argued that action taken against the coup’s orchestrators would not hurt Myanmar’s already vulnerable population. They urged the United Nations to take action to replace Min Aung Hlaing and the rest of the military leadership in a broad restructuring that

Protestors in Yangon
Protestors in Yangon / Hkun Lat / Getty / Fair use.

would put the military under civilian control. There is an increasing sense of urgency from human rights bodies due to troubling information getting out of the country, despite repression of the media by the military junta. Reports have started to come to light of live ammunition and lethal force being used against protestors and several protestors have been killed.  In addition, over two-hundred government officials from Suu Kyi’s administration have been detained, with many being “disappeared” by plain-clothes police in the middle of the night. The UN has long been critical of the Myanmar military, with Deputy UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada al-Nashif recalling the Human Rights Council’s 2018 report which stated that the “[military] is the greatest impediment to Myanmar’s development as a modern democratic nation.” The Burmese military has functioned for over twenty years with impunity, benefiting from virtually non-existent civilian oversight and disproportionate influence over the nation’s political and economic institutions.

On February 27, the military removed the nation’s UN Ambassador from his position.

Kyaw Moe Tun
Kyaw Moe Tun / Twitter.

Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun had on the 26th denounced the coup as “not acceptable in this modern world” and asked for international intervention by “any means necessary” to end military control. Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Tom Andrews called Moe Tun’s speech a “remarkable act of courage”. Ambassador Moe Tun’s unexpected speech reinvigorated the protestors on the ground, who have faced steadily more intense crackdowns from the government forces. “When we heard this, everyone was very happy, everyone saying that tonight we are going to sleep very happily and encouraged,” Kyaw Win, executive director of Burma Human Rights Network said, “These are peaceful protesters, civilians. And they are standing up against a ruthless, brutal army. So you can see that without any international intervention or protection, this uprising is going to end very badly.”

International response to the coup has been varied. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called it a “serious blow to democratic reforms”, while the United States and United Kingdom have sanctioned military officials. US Secretary of State Blinken issued a statement saying “the United States will continue to take firm action against those who perpetrate violence against the people of Burma as they demand the restoration of their democratically elected government.” On the other hand, China blocked a UN Security Council memorandum criticizing the coup, and asked that the parties involved “resolve [their] differences”, while Myanmar’s neighbors Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines have characterized the coup as an “internal matter”.

Additional References:

Habib, Mohshin; Jubb, Christine; Ahmad, Salahuddin; Rahman, Masudur; Pallard, Henri. 2018. Forced migration of Rohingya: the untold experience. Ontario International Development Agency, Canada. ISBN 9780986681516.

 

Biden’s Human Rights Agenda – An Event Recap

Joe Biden
Source: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons.

On Tuesday, February 2, the Institute for Human Rights at UAB welcomed Dr. Robert Blanton, Professor and Chair of the Political Science and Public Administration Department at UAB, to our second Social Justice Café of the semester. Dr. Blanton facilitated a discussion entitled “Biden’s Human Rights Agenda.”

Dr. Blanton initiated the conversation by stating that the 2020 election of Joe Biden is a “welcomed return to hypocrisy [as it pertains to human rights in the United States].” The return to hypocrisy represents the reality of political figures making promises, and then failing to turn those promises into human rights policy. The very notion that President Biden has presented a Human Rights Agenda is a staunch contrast when compared to his predecessor’s lack of clear and defined Human Rights protective goals. Dr. Blanton suggested that President Donald Trump was not a hypocrite in regard to his approach to Human Rights. President Trump simply didn’t make attempts to address Human Rights violations domestically or internationally.

In an interview with the New York Times, then former Vice-President Joe Biden stated, “When I am president human rights will at the core of US foreign policy”. Dr. Blanton finds the President’s continued foreign policy rhetoric surrounding international and domestic issues to be interesting, and he cautioned participants to pay close attention to how human rights violations will be addressed within President Biden’s first one hundred days in office. Following this statement participants began discussing specific Executive Orders signed by President Biden that are innately Human Rights focused. Participants discussed the outcome of the Bostock Case and how President Biden’s decision to reinforce this Supreme Court decision with an Executive Order is a promising sign of the President’s commitment to preserving Human and Civil Rights. The Bostock Case prohibited employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sexual orientation. Participants then suggested other topics they felt needed further attention from the Biden Administration, such as systemic racism, xenophobia, and COVID-19 response.

Moving forward, one participant was curious if “legislation would be passed in relation to women’s rights to reproductive health?” This discussion centered around how we classify issues within the United States and how this classification affects the seriousness and legitimacy of an issue. The participants came to the conclusion that women’s reproductive rights could potentially receive more congressional and national support if it is framed as a domestic and international health issue rather than a human rights issue. Dr. Blanton was adamant that the manner in which we categorize issues is a major factor in whether or not those issues receive solutions.

When further discussing how policy is enacted within the United States, one participant noted that “local cities and NGO’s often make larger impacts in the fight for social justice. How important is it that we [American citizens] have a Presidential administration?” A large majority of participants appreciated this question; however, they agreed that within the confines of the United States Constitution the continued election of an executive president is necessary to the maintenance of the country as a whole. Some felt the issue of private prison regulation would be best handled by the executive office. In response Dr. Blanton stated, “Private prisons exhibit overt violations of human rights” and that he did not disagree that private prison regulation should have a place within President Biden’s Human Rights Agenda.

In his final remarks, Dr. Blanton offered this quote: “Presidents are victims of events.” His point was that Joe Biden’s presidency will be governed according to the trials and complications his administration will unquestionably face within the next four years. President Biden’s administration will have to make a conscious effort to not allow the events of the world to overshadow their Human Rights Agenda.

Thank you, Dr. Blanton, and thank you everyone who participated in this stimulating discussion.

To see more upcoming events hosted by the Institute for Human Rights at UAB, please visit our events page here.

 

Farm to Table: The World’s Largest Protest in India

Farmers Protests

In November 2020, India saw the largest protest in world history with tens of thousands of farmers and more than 250 million people standing in solidarity. For the past six months, India’s farmers have been protesting and striking against three agricultural bills that were passed last September. Until recently, the government has refused to listen to the demands of farmers and agricultural unions, and instead met them with force and police brutality. On January 26, India’s Republic Day, tensions between the government and the protestors heightened. This led to peaceful protests turning violent when the farmers that were hosting a rally in India’s capital, Delhi, stormed the city’s Red Fort. Here they were met with police that were armed with tear gas, batons, and assault rifles; as a result of this violence approximately 300 police officers were injured, one protestor died, more than 200 protestors and eight journalists were detained. Violence on this day, subsequent suppression of the press by the government, and internet cuts and shutdowns in areas surrounding protests led to activists like Rihanna, Greta Thunberg, and Meena Harris using their platforms to call global attention and aid to the situation.

Source: Rihanna (Twitter)

What led us here?

In September, India’s Parliament passed three agricultural bills that loosened the rules around the sale, pricing, and storage of farm produce with the support of Prime Minister Modi. Modi and the government claim that these pieces of legislation will benefit the farmers as they will have more control and freedom of trade over their produce; these laws allow online and interstate trading, enable farmers and buyers to enter exclusive contracts, and finally limit the government’s ability to regulate these products. The farmers, however, disagree. They argue that this deregulation will allow corporate buyers and private companies to drive down the prices and exploit the sellers due to increased competition in supply. This, compounded with the bill that involves the removal of government imposed minimum prices, is detrimental to the health and livelihood of the farmers and their families. India already suffers from record numbers of farmers suicides, and there is increased fear that these new bills further drive this suicide epidemic. The number of these deaths are thought to increase even more after these bills are passes and reach an all-time high.

Indian farmers protest in December 2020. Image via Wikimedia Commons by Randeep Maddoke.
Source: Randeep Maddoke (globalvoices.org)

What do the farmers want?

The farmers are demanding a complete repeal of the three bills that were passed in fear of corporate exploitation. They say they were already struggling to make ends meets under the protection of the government, but now with an open market with minimal regulatory support, the farmers are afraid that they won’t be able to survive and will be in poverty (if they weren’t already). In turn, the government has failed to address these demands until recently, but now allude to possible compromises, albeit unsatisfactory attempts in the eyes of the farmers.

More recently, however, India’s Supreme Court has suspended these bills in early January, and has ordered a committee to look into the grievances of the farmers and the lack of negotiations on behalf of both the protestors and the government. Chief Justice Bobde released a statement saying, “These are matters of life and death. We are concerned with laws. We are concerned with lives and property of people affected by the agitation. We are trying to solve the problem in the best way. One of the powers we have is to suspend the legislation.”

Farmer unions addressed that they would not participate in any committee processes, as the committee members have previously shown bias to how the agricultural bills were pro-farmer (when they were not). The farmers said they continue with their protests and planned to hold a rally in Delhi on India’s Republic Day on January 26 unless the laws were repealed in the meantime. The Supreme Court’s decision is both a gift and a curse. One on hand, the Court has been widely favorable to Modi’s agenda and policies in the past so this decision is a setback to the Prime Minister, but on the other hand, this decision to suspend the law allows the government to wrestle its way out of negotiations with the farmers without appearing to do so.

Farmers joined in sit-in protests near the capital. 5 December 2020. Image via Wikimedia Commons by Randeep Maddoke. CC0 Public Domain.
Source: Randeep Maddoke (globalvoices.org)

What’s going on now

As of January 20, the government has said that they are willing to suspend the new legislation for up to 18 months to two years, but the farmers have rejected this as it does not meet their demands. The government requested the protesting farmers design a proposal regarding their objections and suggestions to the laws to bring to their next table of negotiations. What’s interesting is that the supporters of the agri-legislations claim that the farmers do not understand the laws which the farmers refute and claim that these laws do not support their labor suggesting the real issue is “over the rights and treatment of agricultural workers.”

Following the violence and brutality on Republic Day, internet shutdowns and cuts by the Ministry of Home Affairs, as well as suppression of the press, individuals and protestors as they clash with the police has been rampant in areas surrounding Delhi. These blackouts should’ve been lifted by now, but protest organizers have said that in some areas the internet was still not working leading to concerns over democracy. While the Indian government argues that this shutdown is necessary to “for public safety” and to curb “the spread of misinformation,” people’s right to expression and communication is being actively and purposefully hindered. As a human rights crisis, the economy suffers, the press struggles to get the news out, children are not receiving the best resources at education their schools have to offer, and those who need emergency services are not getting it or the aid is greatly delayed.

India is the world’s most populous democracy, but it is also a world leader in internet shutdowns. This is not the first time this has happened. The Indian government imposed a blackout in Indian controlled Kashmir after the removal of Kashmir’s autonomy in 2019 as well as another shutdown in areas of New Delhi after protests regarding a controversial and discriminatory citizenship law against Muslims. As the world’s most populous democracy, it’s incredibly concerning to see the suppression of press freedom under the guise of public safety. With no further days set to talk about negotiations in light of recent events, there seems to be no end in sight for these protests. As the new farming season begins in March, farmers may choose to hold on to their demands as a show of strength and unity instead of going back home, and it might be the final domino needed to trigger systemic change in agricultural labor.

How can you help?     

  • Donate to Khalsa Aid and Sahaita.org
  • Until recently, media in the U.S. has been quiet regarding the protests. Educate and share information about the largest protest we’ve seen, as well as on agri-workers rights and treatment.

Political Women: A Double Standard

jill biden
Dr. Jill Biden. Source: Center for American Progress. Creative Commons.

On December 11th, a Wall Street Journal article was released critiquing the future First Lady’s, Jill Biden, use of the label “Dr.” The author stated that the “Dr.” in front of Dr. Biden’s name is fraudulent because it represents her doctorate in education instead of representing Dr. Biden as a medical doctor. The author also states that the title of a PhD or EdD (Doctorate in Education) might have once held prestige due to the rigor of past post-graduate programs, but no longer could be considered prestigious. As a daughter of four proud PhD holders, two of which who have PhDs in education, I found this article incredibly ignorant and insulting. However, I was most struck by the blatant encouragement of the double standards placed on women, especially women in politics.

In 2020, only 23.6% of the United States Congress is composed of women. That is 126 women out of the total 535 Congressional members, with 105 of the women represented by the Democratic Party and 21 represented by the Republican Party. To further break this down, 25% (or 25 members) of the Senate are women and 23.2% (or 101 members) of the U.S. House of Representatives are women. The lack of women representation in United States politics is shocking, especially considering the amount of women’s health and rights legislation is debated upon in the government each year. It is evident that there is a significant lack of women in the political field and those few women who have managed to succeed in such a male dominated sphere face intense scrutiny and misogyny from insiders and outsiders alike.

Hillary Clinton at at rally
Hillary Clinton. Source: Lorie Shaull. Creative Commons.

This fact is highlighted by many women in politics, but especially the experience of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election and then Elizabeth Warren in the 2019 democratic party runoff. In 2016, Clinton made history by becoming the first woman to win a major party’s nomination. The reactions to her nomination were blatantly sexist. While there were many objections to the policies proposed by Clinton, a primary objection to her presidential bid was her “lack of likeability.” Her supporters were described as “disconnected” and “unlikable.” She was often compared to Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, a woman who, in 2016, was considered a much more likeable alternative to Clinton. Two years later, during Warren’s presidential bid, many of the characteristics applied to Clinton in 2016 were applied to Warren.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama was the subject of media and political scrutiny during and after her husband’s presidential terms. While Obama headed many interesting initiatives during her time as first lady, much of the criticism was focused on her looks and likeability. Even worse, the criticism appeared to be levied towards her identity as a woman of color. Obama has been called by prominent politicians and media outlets alike an “ape in heels,” a “gorilla face,” and a “poor gorilla.” She was said to not have the “look” of a first lady and thought to weigh too much to care about the health of the country, in direct response to her campaign to help the United States exercise more and eat healthier. In a similar fashion, she was criticized for eating too much and not supporting dessert. One person even stated that she had no business, as First Lady, being involved in such things as the health of Americans.

Michelle Obama at a rally
First Lady Michelle Obama. Source: Tim Pierce. Creative Commons.

The criticism of women in politics is not just levied toward Democratic politicians. In October 2020, tapes of a secret 2018 recording of Melania Trump were released. In these tapes, Trump expressed frustration in the double standard placed on women in the White House. At the time the recordings were made, Trump was expected to work on the White House Christmas decorations, decorations that were later mercilessly mocked on social media platforms and media outlets. However, she was also being criticized for President Trump’s policy regarding the separation of families. Trump’s frustration is over the expectation placed on her, and other First Ladies, to prepare and organize the Christmas decorations for the White House, an arguably trivial thing to the general public.

Kamala Harris at a rally
Vice President Kamala Harris. Source: Gage Skidmore. Creative Commons.

The political field has proven to provide some of the most difficult boundaries for women. As of 2020, the United States has continued to fail in electing a woman president. The media has continued to be more interested in the fashion habits and likeability factor of prominent female politicians instead of their support or lack thereof of pieces of legislation. There have been great strides for women despite the many challenges. Yesterday, Kamala Harris became the first woman vice president in United States history. She is also the first person of color in the position as well. Today, we celebrate VP Harris and the women on whose shoulders she stands. While we recognize these achievements, we continue to call out the sexist tendencies that persist in media and in the political sphere, and we continue to work towards the day when women are represented equally in these spaces.

Poland’s Rise in Populism

In 2015, the Law and Justice Party (PiS) became the majority in the Polish Parliament alongside the presidency for the first time since 2007. The Law and Justice Party is a right-winged populist party that has faced ongoing controversy and scandals since its formation in 2001. The Law and Justice Party began as a center-right party with an emphasis on Christianity.  The party began forming coalitions with far-right parties in 2007, which positioned its ideology closer towards nationalism and populism. During the last few years support dwindled for the PiS; however, their messages calling for family unity and Christian values have appealed to deeply religious sectors of the country. A country that is trending towards nationalism and populism risks violating the rights of those that the nation deems as “other”. By establishing a national identity, particularly around religion, they are also establishing those that do not belong to the national identity. This carries the risk of isolating and ostracizing individuals.

Protestors march for LGBTQ rights in Warsaw (Source: Creative Commons)

The Close Relationship Between Religion and Government

The Polish identity is tied very closely to Catholic beliefs and practices. Around 87% of Polish people  identify as Roman Catholic. In Poland Catholic values are taught in public schools, over ⅓ of Polish citizens attend church regularly, and the Polish government has an intense working relationship with the Catholic Church. Public ceremonies are often held with the blessings of priests, and church officials often act as a lobby group having access to large amounts of public funding. Priests in the countryside of Poland often campaign for members of the more conservative party who support legislation that aligns with the ideals of the Catholic Church. This close relationship is criticized because of the archaic and often divisive legislation that the Church tends to support. The Catholic Church’s alignment with the government will inevitably ostracize those who are not Catholic as well as those who live their life in a way that the Catholic Church condemns. The issue is at a governmental level, this allows for discriminatory policy to be passed.

 President Duda and the 2020 Elections

The support of the Catholic Church was paramount in the Law and Justice Party candidate winning the 2020 Presidential election. President Duda, the PiS candidate, narrowly won re-election after a very divisive campaign against the progressive Mayor of Warsaw.  President Duda exploited negative rhetoric citing LGBT ideology as being more destructive than Communism. Poland’s history of Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) occupation accompanied with this rhetoric led to the success of President Duda in the 2020 Presidential election. PiS members and Catholic Clergymen asserted LGBT values as being in opposition to family values and sought to associate the LGBT community with pedophilia. President Duda’s narrow win ignited mass unrest spreading throughout Polish cities as progressives viewed his win as a step back for LGBT rights in Eastern Europe.

President Duda of Poland meets with President Trump of the United States (Source: Creative Commons)

LGBTQ Free Zones

Anti-LGBTQ rhetoric did not begin in the 2020 Polish elections. Over 100 towns and regions around Poland have declared themselves LGBTQ Free Zones since 2018. These declarations are largely symbolic; however, they have further divided the country and suppressed the LGBT community. LGBTQ free resolutions have been pushed by the Catholic Church and politicians across Poland. Protests against these zones have resulted in mass countermarches of right-wing Poles that have ended in violence. The LGBTQ community has continued to face oppression from their government and these zones just serve as a way to further disenfranchise them.

“Stop Financing LGBT+” Sign hanging outside a building in Warsaw (Source: Creative Commons)

Access to Abortion

Along with the anti-LGBT legislation, Poland’s Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of strict regulation of abortion. Poland previously had regulations only allowing abortion access to victims of rape, incest, preservation of the mother’s life, and if the baby has fetal defects. Legal battles erupted in 2019 by the Law and Justice Party to ban abortions in the event of fetal defect. Judges nominated by PiS members ruled in favor of a ban of all abortions due to fetal defects, which account for approximately 98% of all Polish abortions. The decision led to outcry across Poland inspiring protests in almost every major city.

 What is the future of Poland?

The future of Poland is unknown, and it is clear the Polish government has become increasingly populist and nationalistic. Public figures are using rhetoric that divides the general population from “western elites” and activists within their country that seek to strive towards more encompassing human rights. Polish activists are fearful of future legislation that will further violate human rights. International human rights activists, the United Nations (UN) and European Union (EU) have all attempted to pressure Parliament to pass legislation showing outward support of the LGBTQ community. Polish officials responded claiming LGBTQ people have equal rights in the country and organizations should instead focus energy on Christian discrimination taking place internationally. As part of the international community, we can demonstrate our support for the people of Poland by staying up to date on what is happening there. It is also important to create dialogue around the issues in Poland which can include everything from social media posts to organizing events that bring awareness to the situation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is Internet Access a Human Right?

Introduction

My sister is in middle school.

She is in VIRTUAL middle school, spending almost all her time in her room physically and mentally connected to her computer for more than five hours a day, Monday to Friday.

Two weeks ago, our family received a voucher in the mail giving us the chance to receive internet service for free until December 30th, 2020. The vouchers come from a program known as the Alabama Broadband Connectivity (ABC) for Students. The goal for this program is to provide “Broadband for Every K-12 Student.” ABC uses money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act directed to Alabama ($100 million) in order to cover the costs of “installation, equipment, and monthly service” to all students “who receive free or reduced-price lunches at school.” Families who earn less than 185% of the federal poverty level ($48,470) are those considered eligible for the vouchers, including 450,000 children enrolled in the National School Lunch Program.

Which brings me to the topic of this blog post: Internet Access, and why it is so important given this day and age.

Now, I know what you might be thinking, “Yes, the coronavirus is still a major issue among governments today, and since people cannot really gather outside in large groups, the internet is the next best option. That’s why it is so important to have access to it.” Great, at least you understood that part, but what if I told you that there are governments around the world shutting down the internet, from India to Russia and even countries like Indonesia, in the attempt to resolve their problems?

Shocking right? I would personally think so.

But before we talk about Internet Access as a potential human right, let us talk about some of the things that we take for granted when we have internet access.

An image of a world map in blue showing lines representing connectivity across countries.
2015 Global Connectivity Index. Source: geobrava.wordpress.com. Creative Commons

How do we benefit from being online?

Instant Communication

    • We often tend to talk to others by text, rather than face-to-face. Texting allows people to communicate in speeds never thought possible in the past, which leads to an eventual disconnect in establishing a fully personal connection that people would have if they interacted in person.

Homework

    • Especially during these times, we need the internet in order to complete our homework, and not having that access most definitely leads to an inability to do work as efficiently as if we had access to the World Wide Web.

Yes, even the Weather

    • How many people check the weather before leaving their homes? Checking the weather resides among the most popular search terms, which makes sense, as people need it to avoid downpours and be prepared to any eventual changes in plans.

Opinions against Internet Access being a Human Rights

Reflecting on the above benefits really does help broaden one’s vision in understanding how connecting to google.com or other web sites is essential to the daily happenings of our lives. It makes sense to simply call access to the internet a human right because of the way most of us use the internet to live our lives more efficiently.

Well, before we explore the arguments why Internet Access should be a human right, let us look at two perspectives to the contrary, an NYT op-ed by Vinton Cerf, an “Internet pioneer and [who] is recognized as one of ‘the fathers of the Internet,'” and a statement by Commissioner Michael O’Rielly of the Federal Communications Commission.

According to Cerf, for something to be considered a human right, it “must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives,” In that end, he argues that access to the Internet should be an enabler of rights, but not a right itself.

“It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category (of human rights), since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things.” — Vinton Cerf

He then attempts to clarify the lines at which human rights and civil rights should be drawn, concluding his op-ed with an understanding that access is simply a means “to improve the human condition.” Granting and ensuring human rights should utilize the internet, not make access the human right itself.

While Cerf seems to believe that the internet is a necessity for people but not a human right, O’Rielly believes otherwise, making it neither a necessity nor a human right.

In a speech before the Internet Innovation Alliance in 2015, Michael O’Rielly introduces his guiding principles with a personal anecdote about his life, emphasizing the impact that technology has given him, even going so far as to claim it as “one of the greatest loves of [his] life, besides [his] wife.” Despite this personal love for technology, one of his governing principles is to clarify what he believes the term ‘necessity’ truly means. He claims that it is unreasonable to even consider access to the internet as a human right or a necessity, as people can live and function without the presence of technology.

“Instead, the term ‘necessity’ should be reserved to those items that humans cannot live without, such as food, shelter, and water.” — Michael O’Rielly

O’Rielly attempts to make the distinction between the true sense of the word ‘necessity’ and ‘human rights,’ trying to defend against “rhetorical traps” created by movements towards making Internet Access a human right. These definitions are the basis of his governing principles and how he attempts to create Internet policies with the government and ISPs (Internet Service Providers).

Opinions for Internet Access being a Human Right

One of the interesting things to note above is the distinction made between one’s need for Internet Access and its categorization into a human right. Today, many if not all businesses require the usage of the Internet, going so far as to purely rely on its presence for regular business transactions and practices to occur. This understanding of the importance of the internet is prevalent now more than ever. The onset of COVID-19 has forced businesses to shut their physical door, allowed for increased traffic of online e-commerce sites like Amazon, and pushed kids towards utilizing platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet as substitutes for attending school. As such, these next few paragraphs will discuss why Internet Access is, in fact, a human right.

Violations to internet access are prevalent around the world, ranging from countries like India and Sri Lanka to others like Iran and Russia, aiming to either curb resistance or reduce potential sparks of violence. In India, for example, the government had shut down access to the Internet for Indian-administered Kashmir, an action that brought the condemnation of UN special rapporteurs, where the regions of Jammu and Kashmir experienced a “near total communications blackout, with internet access, mobile phone networks, and cable cut off.” In Sri Lanka, only specific applications are blocked by the authorities, while Iran works to slow “internet speeds to a crawl.” The internet system in Russia allows for it to seem like it functions while no data is sent to servers. These systems aim to restrict journalists from spreading news about violations of human rights while also limiting people’s ability to freely express themselves.

The Wi-Fi symbol, with a cross through it.
Offline Logo. Source: Wikmedia Commons. Creative Commons.

This attempt to curb the spread of information also violates Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which India and Iran voted in favor, the Soviet Union abstained, and Sri Lanka was nonexistent during its passage (accepted by the General Assembly in 1948).

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.” — Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Conclusion

There seems to be a fundamental agreement from many experts ranging from the United Nations to organizations like Internet.org that aim to connect people with others around the world, that Internet Access should become, or already is, a basic human right. Although arguments are made that the internet allows for freedom of speech and enable other rights to exist, accessibility to that medium of communication and connection should be guaranteed as food or water. Although the internet is not needed for physical survival, the internet is a requirement for advancement and productivity in life.

Which brings me back to the first point made. I am thankful to have a family and live in a home where I can access information and write blog posts about human rights all around the world. What about those living within my city, my state, the United States, or even Planet Earth who do not have that access to the Internet? What about people that cannot connect with people miles away from them, or people who cannot receive an education due to the environmental factors that affect us now.

Access to the internet is a critically important task that governments, local, state, and federal, all need to act upon in order for a successful and growing economy, not just for current businesses and enterprises, but for the future leaders of our country. It is during these trying times that disparities and inequities are revealed, and those in power must be held accountable for a connected and thriving population to exist.

An image of a man in a blue suit holding a tablet with a hologram of the world map shining above.
Source: PickPik. Creative Commons.

If you would like to learn more about Internet Equality and the case for Net Neutrality, I encourage you to read my previous blog post “Internet Equality: A Human Rights Issue?”

Oil: The World’s Black Gold?

Known as black gold, petroleum has long been, a valuable resource that many of us benefit from during our daily lives. The petroleum industry’s products range from transportation to even the feedstocks that make the “plastics and synthetic materials that are in nearly everything we use.” Shockingly, the United States has consumed almost 7.5 billion barrels of oil per year, with about 46% of it used as motor gasoline. However, “there is an alarming record of human rights abuses by governments and corporations associated with fossil fuel operations,” ranging from relocation to even suppression of critics.

What is Petroleum?

An image of a pipe pouring some type of green substance, oil in particular, into a barrel.
Recirculated petroleum is pumped from the well by a replica steam engine. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons.

Known officially as crude oil, petroleum is a fossil fuel that can be found underneath the Earth’s surface in areas known as reservoirs. Petroleum is mainly used for gasoline that fuels most cars in the world. Petroleum is also used as diesel, jet fuel, heating oil, propane, and others.

However, petroleum is not just a fuel source. Many factories and production sites use petroleum in order to make “crayons, dishwashing liquids, deodorant, eyeglasses, tires, and ammonia.”

Beginnings of the Petroleum Industry

An image of an oil well, colored black, in the process of digging for oil. Located in Lufkin, Texas.
Pumpjack, Spindletop oil field. Source: Flickr, Creative Commons

Through the growing and prosperous iron and steel industry, the 20th century became a period of “great change and rapid industrialization.” However, the birth of the railroad and new construction materials gave way to the petroleum industry offering an alternative source of fuel needed in everyday life.

In Texas, the discovery of the Spindletop oil reserve allowed for the creation of hundreds of oil companies, especially Texaco and Golf, and for the massive decrease in oil prices, from “$2 a barrel to 3 cents.” In 1901, the Hamill brothers, contracted to drill into the ground using a steam engine, came into contact with 160-million-year-old crude oil, shooting up in a geyser meters high. They had anticipated 50 barrels of oil being produced in a day, but more than 80,000 barrels were being produced each day, enriching the backers of the oil rig exponentially.

When talking about the history of oil, one must never forget one of the key figures in the industry, John D. Rockefeller. Through his experience in entrepreneurship and organization, he became a leading figure in the oil industry by creating the Standard Oil company, one of the “world’s greatest corporations.” Through a monopoly, his company integrated itself both horizontally and vertically by eliminating competition and making products cheaper and production more efficient.

The discovery of the Spindletop oil reserve allowed for competition against Standard Oil, through the rise of the Texas Company and the American Gasoline Company (Shell Company of California during the mid-1910s). However, because of Standard Oil’s attempts to “monopolize and restrain trade,” the Supreme Court decided to split up the company into 34 smaller companies.

Oil in the World

Reserves can be found all over the world, but there are countries that produce more oil simply due to the vast reserves found underneath the Earth’s surface. In the United States, the five largest oil producing states are Texas, Alaska, California, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. In the world, the top oil producing countries are Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United States, Iran, and China. The need for oil in the United States surpasses the amount it can produce, generating the need to import oil from Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela, and Nigeria.

Looking closely at the top producers of oil in the world, you may notice that two countries in the top five are countries in the Middle East, each with their own host of problems regarding human rights. They range from Saudi Arabia’s supposed killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and the killing of more than 6,500 Yemeni civilians as a result of numerous airstrikes against the Houthi rebels to Iran’s crackdown on peaceful protestors and the presence of Iran’s death penalty for most extreme offenses. Allegations of human rights abuses also extend to China as well, where Xi Jingping has removed term limits for the president and enabled the mistreatment of Muslims living in northwestern China. Many consider these human rights issues are due to something called the “Resource Curse,” where the abundance of natural resources in developing countries, like oil, usually lead to “economic instability, social conflict, and lasting environmental damage.”

Oil and Human Rights in the United States

If you read the news as much as I had a couple of years back, then you might recall a certain conflict occurring in North Dakota regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline. The Dakota Access Pipeline, built by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, is designed to transport more than 500,000 barrels of crude oil everyday from North Dakota to Illinois. Proposed by Energy Transfer Partners in 2014 and completed in 2017, many interest groups protested the pipeline, ranging from environmental activists to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

An image of protesters holding up a banner with the words "STOP DAKOTA ACCESS PIPELINE" across it.
Dakota Access Pipeline protesters against Donald Trump

The pipeline currently travels under the Missouri River, a source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe as well as a source of biodiversity in the environment. Part of the reason for the protests include the damage to the water supply that said pipeline could inflict if leaking occurs which is justifiable due to the more than 3,300 occurrences of leaks since 2010 at many pipelines in the United States.

An image of the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline, with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe tribal location highlighted as well, showing where the pipeline would threaten those tribal areas.
Le Dakota Access Pipeline avec la réserve indienne de Standing Rock en orange. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons.

Reactions towards the protestors have also been extreme, as Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur, has reported. The North Dakota National Guard, law enforcement officials, and private security organizations have used extreme force, shown through the use of “rubber bullets, tear gas, mace, compression grenades, and bean-bag rounds.” These reactions have been in violation of the U.S. Constitution, specifically the First Amendment. Although some protests have become violent, Kiai suggests that “the response should remain strictly proportionate and should not impact those who protest peacefully.”

“The right to freedom of peaceful assembly is an individual right and it cannot be taken away indiscriminately or en masse due to the violent actions of a few.” — Maina Kiai

By also having part of their cultural homeland destroyed during the construction process, the company contracted for this project is violating the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, where Article 8 of the Declaration clearly states that “Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.” However, it is clear to note that U.S. support does not consider the Declaration as a “legally binding or a statement of current international law,” but instead a political or moral force.

Economic trends and forces have commanded the way in which our country has treated those who have been disenfranchised and harmed culturally. The creation of the Dakota Access Pipeline is merely an example of the effect that these economic interests can have on native populations, the environment, and the treatment of those peacefully protesting. Although the pipeline’s main intent is to provide a source of energy for the United States, the threat to harm a cultural tribal site can lead to the destruction of homes for many residents.

Coronavirus and Religion

Source: M. Rehan, Creative Commons

As the Covid-19 pandemic is taking the whole world by a storm of chaos and confusion, it is directly affecting various aspects of people’s lives. People around the world are trying to get used to this new normal and cope up with the challenges and changes in daily life caused by this global crisis. Since we are facing an outbreak like none other, it has directly affected and changed how we live, work, communicate, and carry out our daily lives. Religion is a very important part of most people’s lives and affects their everyday routine as well as physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual beings. The freedom to have, follow, and practice a religion is a fundamental human right, and I will explore how the novel coronavirus crisis is impacting and interfering with the religious rights of people.

Since the pandemic has affected most places in the world, religious institutions and houses of worship are no exception. Churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples have been closed for all kinds of gatherings due to the social distancing protocols set through by the CDC as a response to Covid-19. In these unprecedented times, billions of people are resorting to religion as a first resort for comfort and solace. When all else looks unsettling, people of faith are turning closer to religion and spiritual observance throughout the world. But the pandemic has also interfered with traditional ways of practicing religion through the closure of the places of worship and withdrawal of gatherings of this sort. As a Muslim myself, I would like to share my observation and experience of the influence of this pandemic on the religious experiences of Muslims around the world.

Islam is the second largest and fastest growing religion in the world with more than 1.9 billion followers, thus a significant population of the world is facing challenges in exercising their religious rights and rituals. During the initial phase of the outbreak, the first immediate effect on Muslims was the cancellation of the Friday communal prayer. People were ordered to pray in their homes in order to avoid close contact with each other. This congregational prayer is of great significance to Muslims as they come together in mosques to listen to the weekly sermon, pray together, and fulfill this obligatory ritual. Therefore, its dismissal was a big deal for the Muslim communities worldwide and also led to conflicts in some areas. For example, worshippers in Pakistan clashed with police personnel trying to enforce the lockdown at the time of the prayer. Similarly, some mosques in Bangladesh continued to operate despite government restrictions and a massive prayer gathering with tens of thousands of devotees was held without permission from the authorities. The pictures of the event were shared on social media, where it was greatly criticized and sparked an outcry from people in favor of the lockdown. People in Indonesia were divided over Friday prayers and coronavirus fears, resulting in some praying at home and others gathered in mosques. Religious leaders in the U.S. also faced a dilemma in making the best decision for their followers, facing disagreements on whether or not to cancel Friday prayers. In the second week of March, Muslim organizations including the Islamic Medical Association of North America and the Islamic Society of North America gave a joint statement suspending Friday prayers and recommending necessary precautions to the Muslim community.

Protecting human life is one of the fundamental objectives of Islamic Shari’ah. This concept takes precedence over all other objectives of Islamic faith as life represents the foundation of our existence. Therefore, at times, preservation of human life and human rights is far more significant than the continuity of even essential practices of devotion.

People are finding alternate ways to keep practicing religion while also practicing social distancing. Online platforms are being widely used to share information, resources, and ways to get closer to religion as well as interact with other people of faith for support. To lift up the spirits of the Muslim community amid this pandemic, the call to prayer, Adhan, was chanted from loudspeakers in the heart of Europe in early April. Nearly 100 mosques in Germany and the Netherlands rang out with the sound of Adhan as a gesture of support for Muslims. A lot of mosques in Muslims countries have added a line at the end of every call to prayer, asking people to pray at home.

Adhan recited from mosques to fight against COVID-19 in Germany. Source: Yeni Safak, Creative Commons

Islam’s holiest site in Mecca, known as the Kaaba, which is always packed with tens of thousands of pilgrims year-round, was emptied due to Covid-19 concerns earlier this March. Muslims around the world were shocked, shuddered, and deeply saddened to see the holy place deserted for the first time in millennia. The images of the empty Kaaba inside Mecca’s Grand Mosque were extensively spread over social media as Muslims showed their concern and disappointment on this unprecedented yet imperative move. Every year, nearly 2.5 million pilgrims visit the holy sites of Mecca and Medina for a week-long ritual known as Hajj; one of the five pillars of Islam and obligatory for every able-bodied Muslim once in their lifetime. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia stopped Umrah, a non-mandatory pilgrimage, in late February due to the pandemic. As the unfavorable situation still persists, the cancellation of Hajj, which starts in late July, is also being considered. This is one of the largest human gatherings in the world, and its potential cancellation will affect millions of people and businesses around the world.

The holy Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Before and after Covid-19. Source: Creative Commons

The Islamic month of Ramadan started a few days ago and it is one of the most important, sacred, and celebrated time of the year for Muslims. It is marked by fasting from sunrise to sunset, charitable giving to the less fortunate, spiritual renewal, praying and reading the Quran, abstaining from worldly pleasures to reconnect with the self and with God, and coming together as a community to celebrate. Muslims around the world are having a Ramadan like no other this year. The mosques are empty, the daily nightly prayer Tarawih is canceled, people are observing the holy month by praying in their homes and sharing meals with immediate families instead of large community feasts. People are trying to find alternate ways to have the Ramadan experience by holding virtual Iftar meetups, online sermons and halaqa sessions, and donating through online platforms amidst these social-distancing times. On one hand, lockdown in Ramadan has also allowed people to spiritually indulge themselves without worldly distractions like work and school and to modify their daily schedules accordingly. It has given some relief to those who are fasting to catch up on lost sleep from late night prayers and waking up in the middle of the night for the pre-fast meal suhoor. On the other hand, the cancellation of open Iftars organized by mosques and charitable organizations that allowed sharing a meal for everybody has taken a toll on the less fortunate who rely on these meals during Ramadan. Since the world is already facing an economic crisis and a lot of people are in an uncertain situation financially, this time of festive observance is becoming harder for those who are unable to provide for their families and take part in all the celebrations. Since the month of Ramadan teaches empathy and encourages acts of compassion and generosity, Muslims around the world are stepping up to help their brothers and sisters in this time of need. The act of fasting teaches patience, self-discipline, sacrifice, and empathy and these virtues are more important than ever for all of us to practice in these difficult times.

The end of Ramadan is commemorated with a celebration called Eid, which is also referred to as a gift for those who fasted the whole month. For us, the day of Eid is marked by wearing new clothes, going to the communal Eid prayer in the morning, celebrating with the community, and sharing meals and presents with family and friends afterwards. This year, it is expected to have a similar fate as Ramadan if the state of emergency continues, resulting in all the festivities being called off.

Muslims praying in a mosque. Source: Shaeekh Shuvro, Creative Commons

Coronavirus has also changed how funeral services and burials are carried out across the world. Islam has specific guidelines and rituals to perform for the deceased including washing/bathing the dead body, putting it into a coffin, and offering the collective prayer before a procession of friends and family takes the body for burial. According to the CDC guidelines, gatherings are not supposed to exceed 10 people and the body of the infected person should not be touched. Muslim scholars in the US have proposed alternative ways to carry out these procedures such as limiting the handling of the body to the specific staff of the graveyard or funeral home with the use of proper personal protective equipment (PPE). They have also suggested doing tayammum instead of bathing the dead body, which is characterized by wiping the face and hands of the deceased after touching a sandy surface. Additionally, family and friends are not allowed to be physically present during the burial or the prayer. Attendance at funerals is considered a collective obligation that must be carried out by a sufficient number of people, but changes are being made to ensure the safety of everyone. My mother’s uncle passed away from coronavirus last week in Boston, Massachusetts and his family was not allowed to see him at all. Instead, the funeral was live streamed and the prayer was held in the presence of only four people, one of them being the imam who led the prayer.

It is important to note that not only is this Covid-19 situation affecting religious experiences, but some of these rituals have also contributed to the spread of the virus. For example, a gathering of 16,000 worshippers at a Malaysian mosque became the largest known viral vector of the pandemic in Southeast Asia, spreading the coronavirus to half a dozen countries. Similarly, the pilgrimage of Shia sect Muslims to the holy cities of Iran led to the spread of the virus through Central and South Asia. The pilgrims reportedly caught the virus in the holy city of Qom, which was the epicenter of covid-19 in Iran and caused it to spread in their home countries upon return. Even though Pakistan shares its border with China, the novel coronavirus was introduced into the country through pilgrims returning from Iran. Similar cases have been seen around the world where coronavirus infections have been linked to religious gatherings, such as church services in South Korea and North Carolina, Jewish Purim celebrations, and Muslim prayer gatherings.

To conclude, religion is both a source of solace as well as a possibility of risk during a pandemic. People of faith around the world are struggling to keep a balance between religious practices and safety precautions. It is in the best interest of everyone to follow the social distancing guidelines whenever possible and find peace in their own beliefs, whatever they may be.