LONDON: British parliamentarians have denounced Iran’s “appalling” treatment of women on International Women’s Day, and urged their government and European counterparts to take a tougher stance against Tehran.
At an online event on Monday hosted by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and attended by Arab News, politicians from the UK’s House of Commons and House of Lords — most of them members of the British Committee for Iran Freedom — said women in Iran live as second-class citizens under a system of gender apartheid.
“When I look at what the women of Iran have had to endure in terms of their rights, their health, their roles in society in general, I realize how limited their rights are and how brave they are when they object,” said Amber Rudd, an MP and former Cabinet minister.
“In Iran, women have to endure a religious regime that gives them few rights. They don’t have the freedom to choose how to live their life, to the law, or to welfare benefits to survive.”
She praised the tenacity and courage of Iranian women for the central role they have played in overtly and covertly resisting the regime.
“In Iran, it’s so much more difficult to challenge the regime — difficult, illegal and above all dangerous. But it’s fascinating to see how the women of Iran do fight back,” Rudd added.
Invoking the motto of International Women’s Day 2021, she said Iranian women “choose to challenge.”
Conservative MP Matthew Offord said he believes “women in Iran deserve support and greater international recognition as they take on and challenge the brutal theocracy.”
He added: “This is a regime that treats half of its population, the women, in such an appalling way by depriving them not only of their fundamental right to freedom, but also their dignity. It’s not a regime that can be trusted.”
The politicians had a clear message for the British government: Stand up to Tehran, and do not tolerate the human rights abuses that have been rampant since the Islamic Republic’s inception.
They highlighted various egregious examples of abuses against women committed by Tehran — but the case of Zahra Esmaili, they said, stood out for its cruelty.
Esmaili, a mother of two, was sentenced to death after pleading guilty to murdering her physically and sexually abusive husband — a senior intelligence member.
She took the blame for her daughter, who it is widely believed shot him as he was assaulting her.
Esmaili died of a heart attack in February after witnessing 16 hangings before her own. Security forces, her lawyer said, hung her body anyway.
Maryam Rajavi, head of the NCRI, said Esmaili’s case is shocking but not surprising. “The number of women executed during (President Hassan) Rouhani’s term has reached 114, making Iran the world record holder in executing women,” she added.
“The regime wants to preserve its rule through repression. However, Iranian women play critical roles in challenging the regime and pushing for its overthrow. Women are Tehran’s prime victims, and they therefore have greater motivation to end this regime.”
General: Afghan military will collapse without some US help
Head of U.S. Central Command said as U.S. pulls out all forces “my concern is the Afghans' ability to hold ground”
U.S. officials have made it clear that military commanders didn’t recommend the full, unconditional withdrawal that Biden has ordered
Updated 22 April 2021
WASHINGTON: Afghanistan’s military “will certainly collapse” without some continued American support once all US troops are withdrawn, the top US general for the Middle East told Congress Thursday.
Gen. Frank McKenzie also said he was very concerned about the Afghan government’s ability to protect the US Embassy in Kabul.
McKenzie, head of US Central Command, said that as the US pulls out all forces, “my concern is the Afghans’ ability to hold ground” and whether they will able to continue to maintain and fly their aircraft without US aid and financial support.
He said it will be paramount to protect the US Embassy and “it is a matter of great concern to me whether or not the future government of Afghanistan will be able to do that once we leave.”
McKenzie has spent the week detailing to lawmakers the steep challenges facing the US military as it moves to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, as ordered by President Joe Biden last week. Walking a careful line, the general has painted a dire picture of the road ahead, while also avoiding any pushback on Biden’s decision.
US officials have made it clear that military commanders did not recommend the full, unconditional withdrawal that Biden has ordered.
Military leaders have consistently argued for a drawdown based on security conditions in the country, saying that pulling troops out by a certain date eliminates pressure on the Taliban and weakens US leverage in the peace talks with the group.
Still, McKenzie said the Biden administration’s “deliberate and methodical” withdrawal discussion “was heartening,” implicitly drawing a contrast with former President Donald Trump’s penchant for making abrupt troop withdrawal decisions and announcing them by tweet.
In public and private sessions with lawmakers, McKenzie has been pressed about how the US will maintain pressure on the Taliban and prevent terrorist groups from taking hold in Afghanistan again once the United States and its coalition partners leave.
The US has more than 2,500 troops in the country; the NATO coalition has said it will follow the same timetable for withdrawing the more than 7,000 allied forces.
He told the Senate Armed Service Committee on Thursday that once troops leave the country, it will take “considerably longer” than four hours to move armed drones or other aircraft in and out of Afghanistan to provide overhead surveillance or counterterrorism strikes. He said it will require far more aircraft than he is using now.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, speaking at NATO earlier this month, said the US will continue to support the Afghans after the withdrawal. He said “we will look to continue funding key capabilities such as the Afghan Air Force and Special Mission Wing, and we will seek to continue paying salaries for Afghan Security Forces.”
Austin and others have said the US will maintain the ability to counter terrorists in Afghanistan, but there are few details, and officials say they have not yet gotten any diplomatic agreements for basing with any of the surrounding nations.
McKenzie has declined to provide details during the public sessions.
He said there are no decisions yet on what size of diplomatic contingent will be left at the US Embassy in the Afghan capital, and whether it will include a security cooperation office. Those decisions, he said, could reflect how the US ensures the defense of the embassy. Marines often provide security at other embassies around the world.
Senators voiced divided views on the withdrawal, with comments crossing party lines. Several lawmakers questioned whether the US will be able to prevent the Taliban from allowing a resurgence of terrorist groups in Afghanistan who are seeking to attack America. Others asked if the US will be able to adequately account for how the Afghan government spends any American money.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. said there are concerns that a US withdrawal will create a vacuum in the country that China, Russian or Iran will fill. But Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., argued that the US presence in Afghanistan over the past 10 years has not led to much improvement. She said the government is still corrupt and the Taliban control a larger portion of the country than it did before.
The Pentagon has said it’s not clear yet whether any US contractors will remain in the country. The Defense Department says the number of contractors in Afghanistan started to decline over the past year or so. According to the latest numbers, there are close to 17,000 Defense Department-funded contractors in Afghanistan and less than one-third of those were Americans.
The total included more than 2,800 armed and unarmed private security contractors, of which more than 1,500 are armed. Of those 1,500, about 600 are Americans.
A picture taken on November 12, 2018, shows Maareb (3rd-L) sitting with her family in their tent at a (UNHCR) camp for displaced people in Hammam al-Alil, south of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. (AFP/File Photo)
How Islamic charitable giving during Ramadan provides a vital social safety net
Zakat schemes help ease suffering in Muslim-majority countries as the COVID-19 crisis deepens economic hardship
Donor agencies, including UNHCR, are tapping into Islamic charitable giving to help fund their response in conflict zones
Updated 23 April 2021
BERNE, Switzerland: Charitable giving is part and parcel of the holy month of Ramadan for any Muslim who can afford it. Zakat, which is one of the five pillars of Islam, is levied on the property of those who meet minimum wealth standards (nisab).
In most Muslim-majority countries, zakat is voluntary, but in six (Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Sudan Libya and Yemen) it is collected by the state.
When the state is well organized and zakat is applied systematically, it has the potential to become a fiscal policy instrument at the macroeconomic level, enhancing institutional capability in the social and welfare sectors. At the microeconomic level, its allocation to the needy serves income (re)distribution, reducing overall indebtedness alongside it.
However, in many countries the state lacks the institutional capability to perform this function, and in others zakat duties are performed on a voluntary basis.
Dr. Sami Al-Suwailem, chief economist of the Islamic Development Bank’s (IsDB) Islamic Research and Training Institute, says where the prevalent zakat channels are well organized and enjoy public trust, they can work well to alleviate poverty. Where this is not the case, informal philanthropic schemes automatically take precedence.
An IsDB study on charitable Islamic finance in North Africa found that “worsening social inequality and the governments’ need for additional financial resources in the region have created great opportunities for the zakah and waqf institutions” — a trend which is supported by civil society advocacy.
Well-developed laws pertaining to zakah and charitable giving are furthermore seen as an enabling factor for the sector and its ecosystem. These observations are general in nature and apply well beyond North Africa, going hand in hand with the greater need for charitable donations as poverty levels increase.
Some observers fear that zakat schemes can be opaque, lacking transparency. Al-Suwailem puts great store in blockchain and fintech applications to bring more transparency to the sector, enable more straightforward administration of charitable donations, and render the money transfer to recipients more efficient. These technologies are also helpful in raising additional finance.
The average wealth or income level in a country matters a great deal, because it will determine how much charitable giving comes from within and what comes from abroad. In a country such as Bangladesh, it would be impossible to raise sufficient funds, because the socioeconomic segment that meets nisab standards is too small to meet the huge requirements for social spending. This is where internationally active charities come in.
Multilateral organizations such as the UNHCR, UNICEF, UNDP and IFRC (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies) have recently started to tap into the generosity of Islamic charitable giving in an organized fashion. Indeed, these organizations play a vital role in many countries where the state has ceased to function due to conflict.
In those countries, charitable giving is one of the very few ways of distributing food, health care, shelter and income to the destitute.
The UNHCR has been able to instrumentalize zakat giving for its purposes. The numbers of zakat beneficiaries rose from 34,440 in the period 2016-2018 to 1.03 million in 2020, which represents a multiple of nearly 30 times within just four years.
The purpose of zakat is to support the truly needy. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased inequalities between rich and poor within countries and also between countries. Nowhere is that more evident than in the poorest segments of the population and in the poorest and most conflict-ridden countries, which lack institutional capabilities, be it in the health care, finance or any other sector.
In its report “COVID-19 and Islamic Finance” the IsDB has recommended that zakat, waqf and other methods of Islamic social finance should be coordinated with the fiscal efforts of governments to provide a social safety net. They had the potential to play an increasing role when governments started to unwind their COVID-19-related spending programs.
ZAKAT: THE NUMBERS
* 25% OIC member states’ share of the global population.
* 54% Share of displaced people hosted by OIC member states.
These countries are where institutions that are able to deliver zakat to the end user, be it in-country or at the international level, become very important. In order to understand the needs, we should look at the suffering and how populations in Muslim-majority countries are affected.
Refugees and displaced people rank very high on that agenda. They make up roughly 1 percent of the world’s population. According to the UNHCR, OIC member states are host to 43 million, or 54 percent, of the world’s displaced people. This stands against their share in the global population of 25 percent.
The league table for “people of concern” (refugees and internally displaced people) is led by Syria, followed by Turkey and Yemen. Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia are in places 5, 6 and 7 while Iraq and Bangladesh rank number 9 and 10.
We can see similar trends looking at food security: Zero Hunger is after all the UN SDG (Sustainable Development Goal) number 2. Yemen tops that list with 15.9 million people facing food insecurity or outright hunger. All in all, five of the top 10 countries are OIC member states.
The UNHCR report highlighted the adverse effect of COVID-19 on food security in countries affected by the crisis of refugees and internally displaced people. In Syria the number of people struggling for survival increased by 1.4 million, bringing the total to 9.3 million.
In Pakistan, those suffering from food insecurity rose by 2.45 million people to 42.5 million. In Yemen, 9.6 million people potentially face starvation and 11.2 percent of all children in Bangladesh are severely malnourished. These numbers are shocking.
The countries listed above have neither the institutional capability nor sufficient ability to generate tax revenues or charitable donations in-country. They will rely on multilateral aid from organizations such as UN agencies and multilateral development institutions to finance part of the social expenditure required. However, given the enormous hardship and need, charitable donations become pivotal to lessen the suffering.
The uses and sources of zakat funds at the UNHCR are telling: Yemen receives 55 percent of the organization’s zakat money, followed by Bangladesh and Lebanon — all countries where there is a huge need for funds from whatever source.
The UNHCR receives 97 percent of its zakat funds from the MENA region and 3 percent from elsewhere. This makes sense given the religious composition in the Middle East, which is predominantly Muslim, as well as its culture. MENA countries also have the ecosystems of charities that raise funds via zakat and other avenues of social Islamic finance.
Eighty seven percent of funds are received from institutional partners and philanthropists, and 13 percent are raised through digital channels. We can expect digital giving to become more prominent in the future.
The above information leaves us with four key takeaways:
* The needs for charitable funds are high in many Muslim-majority countries, particularly among less developed ones, for example, Bangladesh, and regions in conflict such as Yemen or Syria.
* The global refugee crisis is a case in point as OIC countries are disproportionately affected.
* Charitable Islamic finance is an important sector providing funds to development and potentially the redistribution of income on a regional basis.
* With the COVID-19 pandemic worsening inequalities both between countries and within them, the need for charitable funding has increased, necessitating the cooperation between state, multilateral and charitable actors.
Several donor agencies, including the UNHCR, have started to tap into the zakat system to widen their access to funding, which is a growing trend.
The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the pressing need to fund the poorest in the weakest countries. Indeed, the needs are so great, we should all give generously.
* Cornelia Meyer is a Ph.D.-level economist with 30 years of experience in investment banking and industry. She is chairperson and CEO of business consultancy Meyer Resources. Twitter: @MeyerResources
Community spirit returns to UK’s mosques as Muslims enjoy easing of lockdown for Ramadan
Gloom lifted after last year’s holy month fell during strict anti-coronavirus measures
Faithful revel in return to communal worship as restrictions eased across Britain
Updated 22 April 2021
LONDON: British Muslims have expressed their joy and relief at being able to worship communally in mosques after lockdown restrictions eased in time for Ramadan.
Last year, the holy month came as the UK and many parts of the world shut down amid the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
Muslims were forced to stay at home during Ramadan, a month usually characterized by worshipping with others and community gatherings. Many felt isolated and disconnected from their communities and routines as thousands of people died from the virus around them.
Striking images of the Grand Mosque in Makkah bereft of pilgrims and worshippers during Ramadan 2020 sent shockwaves through Muslim communities across the world.
“The most prominent image that I can think of (during the pandemic) is seeing the completely empty Grand Mosque in Makkah, an image that resonated with Muslims around the whole world,” the CEO of the Council of British Hajjis, Rashid Mogradia, said. “I never imagined that would happen during my lifetime or ever for that matter. It was quite upsetting.
“We took life and simple things like going to the mosque for granted.”
Although the pandemic is not over and the UK has lost 127,000 people to COVID-19 since it started, Ramadan 2021 is very different to last year.
Several vaccines against the virus have been developed in record time and more than ten million people have been inoculated in the UK so far, providing some protection and reassurance to society’s most vulnerable.
Lockdown restrictions in the UK eased on March 29, two weeks before the start of Ramadan. Unlike last year, communal prayer in mosques is allowed as places of worship were not required to close during the lockdown announced in January. However, strict precautionary measures have been in place to curb the spread of the virus.
Social distancing is being enforced, face masks must be worn, individual prayer mats and shoe bags used, and people are encouraged to perform ablution at home.
Only dates and bottled water are provided for iftar instead of full meals, and the length of the taraweeh prayer has been shortened.
“Ramadan 2021 is massively different to Ramadan 2020. There is an appreciation of the fact that you can enter mosques, break your fast and pray taraweeh,” Mogradia said.
“The mosques seem to look fuller than usual. That’s probably down to the fact that everyone is bringing their prayer mats and the social distancing. I am also seeing a lot more new faces at my local mosque. Those who didn’t come to the mosque as often are now attending, and that might stem from an appreciation for being able to perform prayers in the mosque. That’s really nice,” he said.
People in the UK are still not able to mix indoors with people they do not live with or who are not in their support bubble. This means that extended family iftar gatherings, a celebrated Ramadan tradition, are off the table.
However, Muslims are able to worship as a community during Ramadan 2021 and this has returned a partial sense of normality to the holy month. It has caused a surge in optimism and people feel less isolated and lonely because they are able to pray together and break their fasts, albeit briefly, with each other in the mosque.
“This time last year we were all on lockdown and we had to worship at home. Ramadan is about communal worship: Iftars and performing prayers and taraweeh together — that is back. We are able to move around and exchange Ramadan dishes with the neighbors,” Mogradia said.
“That whole community spirit is coming back and we actually feel as though Ramadan is here. Last year, we were confined to our houses. We are grateful that we have been given this opportunity. It also makes you reflect on how many people have passed away. It’s a great blessing to be able to partake in Ramadan again,” he added.
The secretary of Waltham Forest Council of Mosques (WFCOM), Said Looch, said that mosques have been working tirelessly to ensure the safety of their congregations and that COVID-19 precautionary measures are in place.
“From the mosques’ perspective, there has been a lot more preparation compared to previous Ramadans because of the precautionary measures that need to be put in place to ensure that worshippers are safe and following guidelines and protocol set by the government. Mosques have been working really hard to accommodate their local communities and we still want people to enjoy coming to their local places of worship,” Looch said.
He said that although communal prayer is back this Ramadan, sharing big iftar meals in the traditional sense is what a lot of people are still missing.
“Normally for iftar, huge mats are laid out and people bring lots of food to the mosque and everyone sits together. Sometimes you sit with your friends and at other times you share a meal with a complete stranger and become friends,” Looch said.
He said that keeping a one-meter gap between worshippers has reduced capacity by 60-70 percent in some mosques this Ramadan, and this has led to a change in ambience.
“Normally, when we pray in congregation, there is a real sense of brotherhood because you stand shoulder to shoulder with the next person. Now, there is a lot of space between people and so there is a different atmosphere,” Looch explained.
“The mosques are open but they are not fully functioning,” he added.
Looch said that despite all the restrictions to protect worshippers, mosques are trying to make people feel comfortable.
“We hope worshippers will get a spiritual upliftment from the mosque and that they feel like they have benefitted and want to come back again.
He added that a few Muslims had told him they had been more productive spiritually during Ramadan 2020 because they could worship at their own pace.
The media and communications manager for East London Mosque & London Muslim Center, Khizar Mohammad, said that although London’s busiest mosque is open this Ramadan, taraweeh prayers will be markedly different.
“The prayer will be shorter in duration, and people will be allowed to enter the mosque 20 minutes before and will be required to leave as soon as it is over. Volunteers encourage people not to socialize outside the mosque as they usually would,” he said.
Mohammad said that the popular mosque, which sees some 7,000 worshippers descend on it from around London on the first night of Ramadan for taraweeh prayers, will only be able to accommodate about 1,600 people due to social distancing measures this year.
Prison chaplain ‘conned’ by ‘remorseful’ London Bridge attacker
Usman Khan expressed shame over impact of his actions on UK’s Muslim community, before killing 2 in London attack
2019 attack prompted review of Britain’s approach to detention, rehabilitation of convicted terrorists
Updated 22 April 2021
LONDON: A prison chaplain who worked closely with a terrorist who attacked London Bridge has said he was “conned” by the man, who had shown remorse for his crimes and professed a desire to make a fresh start after his early release from prison.
Usman Khan was freed in December 2018 after serving time for plotting to bomb the London Stock Exchange.
Within a year of his release, he had killed two young Britons in a knife attack in central London.
Rev. Paul Foster, a prison chaplain who worked with convicts of all faiths, said while jailed, Khan had engaged positively with prison rehabilitation programs.
Giving evidence at an inquest into the deaths of Sakia Jones, 23, and Jack Merritt, 25, Foster said Khan “had conversations with me about wanting to change and make a fresh start — to pay more attention to the ripple effect of his actions.”
Foster told the court that it would have surprised him to learn that while Khan was engaging with victim awareness courses, he was also attempting to radicalize other prisoners.
The chaplain was told by lawyers that at the time of his release, there was intelligence that Khan might commit an attack.
“That would be a surprise,” Foster answered. “If that intelligence is correct, he was obviously presenting himself in a way that was likely to deceive the likes of myself and others. I’m open to say I’m wrong, and it’s possible I’ve been conned.”
Foster said Khan had spoken “openly and emotionally” during a discussion with the victim of a crime.
During one session, Khan expressed “some shame” over the impact of his actions on the UK’s Muslim community, Foster added.
“We were being presented with a lot of positive things about his behavior — even some of the prisoners were telling me,” Foster said.
“In one instance a chap lost his son to a murder, and Usman was the person at his door offering his condolences and asking if he could help. He appeared to show remorse for what he’d done.”
The 2018 London Bridge attack prompted discussion in the UK over the efficacy of prisoner rehabilitation programs, as well as the policy of releasing certain prisoners early.
Since then, the government has announced measures that will enforce stricter sentences on people convicted of terror offenses, as well as wider monitoring of those convicted and released.
UK parliament declares genocide in China’s Xinjiang, raises pressure on Johnson
So far the government has imposed sanctions on some Chinese officials and introduced rules to try to prevent goods linked to the region entering the supply chain
Ministers say any decision on declaring a genocide is up to the courts
Updated 22 April 2021
LONDON: Britain’s parliament called on Wednesday for the government to take action to end what lawmakers described as genocide in China’s Xinjiang region, stepping up pressure on ministers to go further in their criticism of Beijing.
But Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government again steered clear of declaring genocide over what it says are “industrial-scale” human rights abuses against the mainly Muslim Uighur community in Xinjiang. Ministers say any decision on declaring a genocide is up to the courts.
So far the government has imposed sanctions on some Chinese officials and introduced rules to try to prevent goods linked to the region entering the supply chain, but a majority of lawmakers want ministers to go further.
Beijing denies accusations of rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Lawmakers backed a motion brought by Conservative lawmaker Nusrat Ghani stating Uighurs in Xinjiang were suffering crimes against humanity and genocide, and calling on government to use international law to bring it to an end.
The support for the motion is non-binding, meaning it is up to the government to decide what action, if any, to take next.
Britain’s minister for Asia, Nigel Adams, again set out to parliament the government’s position that any decision on describing the human rights abuses in Xinjiang as genocide would have to be taken by “competent” courts.
Some lawmakers fear Britain risks falling out of step with allies over China after the Biden administration endorsed a determination by its predecessor that China had committed genocide in Xinjiang.